Florida Turnout: It’s rural voters’ revenge

Angie and Jim Ahrem, of the Village Santo Domingo, sit in their decorated vehicle awaiting the start of a Republican golf cart parade Oct. 19 at Lake Sumter Landing.

As the tallies trickle in across Florida on election night, Sumter County officials will closely watch for the outcome of a race that’s never on the ballot: the contest for best voter turnout.  There’s no prize other than bragging rights. But in Sumter, that’s plenty. Citizens here take pride in leading the state in political enthusiasm, powered by residents of The Villages, who put their golf carts in overdrive to exercise the cherished civic duty. In a community where one out of every five residents is a veteran, voting isn’t taken lightly.  Sumter has ranked in the top 10 of Florida’s 67 counties in every general election since 2000 and claimed the No. 1 spot in 2010. It’s been No. 3 for the past three.

As the last voting machines powered down in the Aug. 28 primary election, Sumter learned it had again posted a strong showing. But its 39 percent turnout — although double that of the last midterm primary — was still bested by five other counties.

A quick look at the data shows disparities in voter makeup that are typical of this swing state. But a 14-day 2,543-mile road trip into the heart of these voting powerhouses reveals that they have more in common than their demographic fault lines indicate.

Four of the six are registered heavily Democrat, while two are heavily Republican. Four hover near Florida’s median age of 43, while one is dramatically younger and another is dramatically older. Four are at least 74 percent white, one is only 61 percent white and another is the state’s only black-majority county. Five of the six have median household incomes at least $10,000 below the state level, while one is in the state’s top 15 percent.  

But what they all share is a passion for small-town, slow-lane living far from city centers. And they still know and care about their neighbors.

“In a smaller, rural county, there’s sometimes a sense that people know each other,” said Aubrey Jewett, associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. “They’re more likely to participate in their community, sort of civic activism. And voting is part of that.”

It’s part of Sumter County’s DNA, where even though roots don’t run as deep with a migrant retiree population, The Villages is designed as “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.”

“The Villages, much more so than a lot of places in Florida, really does a good job of establishing a community and getting people to feel like they’re part of the community,” Jewett said.

The revenge of the rural voter that swept Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 is blazing bright in the Sunshine State, the Daily Sun’s journey through this Voter Nation found.

Five of Florida’s six top turnout counties — including those registered heavily Democrat — were among the 1,400 other U.S. rural counties that fueled Trump’s victory. Today, their numbers may make the difference in Florida’s too-close-to-call gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races.

SUMTER COUNTY

POPULATION 125,165

47 DAYS UNTIL ELECTION

The air was thick at South Sumter High School on its hot, muggy, rainy homecoming night. People were staying put as halftime approached.

The SSHS Raiders were down a miserable 7-21 in front of a packed crowd. But these fans had come for more than the game.

Nestled among a handful of farms that have been in the same families for more than 100 years, the aluminum stands were filled with people slurping $1.50 snow cones while Homecoming Queen Larkyn Coleman took the field to crown her successor.

These are big events for small towns in this county, named for Revolutionary War General Thomas Sumter.

Located an hour east of Tampa and an hour north of Orlando, Bushnell is home to about 3,100 people and the nation’s second-busiest national cemetery. Dade Battlefield Historic State Park is just down the road, where actors are practicing for the January re-enactment of the 1835 ambush that started the Second Seminole War.

Sumter County, which promotes itself as “a small community with big dreams,” houses the nation’s largest federal prison, employs 800 Publix workers and hosts the Webster Cattle market that generates $63 million each year. Crevalle Boats in Wildwood was named the 2017 Small Manufacturer of the Year by the Manufacturers Association of Florida.

But it’s The Villages retirement community that fuels the county’s engine. Its 100,000-plus retirees push the median household income to $56,600 and its median age of 66 to the oldest in the nation.

A bastion of conservative values, Sumter County has the nation’s highest rate of married couples, America’s largest summer camp for grandchildren and the biggest American Legion Post in the world.

While not racially diverse — the county is 89 percent white — it claims a population that’s geographically diverse since almost everyone here has retired from somewhere else.

The county is registered heavily Republican— 54 percent of its 96,497 voters compared to 25 percent Democrats — and votes like it. It went 68 percent for Donald Trump in 2016; 67 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012; 63 percent for John McCain in 2008; 62 percent for George W. Bush in 2004; and 55 percent for Bush in 2000.

“They’re interested, they’re involved and they’re informed,” said John Calandro, chairman of the Republican Executive Committee. “When you put those together, you get people who turn out to vote.”

Some organizations, such as The Villages Homeowners Association, took it a step further this year by staffing precincts and donating their $21,500 in earnings to charity.

Only 11 precincts are staffed this way but, by 2020, Supervisor of Elections Bill Keen hopes it will be all of them.

“They love to turn out to vote, they love the ‘I Voted’ sticker,” said Keen, adding that people will come back for a sticker if they forget to grab one after voting. “Let me tell you, don’t run out of those.”

Keen has been promoting vote-by-mail as a turnout driver and is giving new tech a trial run in five precincts this year. The system scans a voter’s driver’s license and prints out the proper ballot on the spot, eliminating the need for a poll worker to sort through pre-printed ballots to find the correct one.

“We try to make it as easy as possible while watching out for the taxpayers at the same time,” he said.

Political clubs of The Villages have journeyed to places as far as Tallahassee and Tampa this election season, sometimes chartering full buses. Club meetings featuring candidates have drawn up to 400 people.

Every candidate for a top-ticket race has stopped here for a public rally and/or private fundraiser at least once this election cycle.

On the same day as the SSHS homecoming game, Sen. Bill Nelson stopped by the Sumter County Democratic Party’s headquarters.

For DeAnna Dean, who chairs the county party, it was a proud moment.

“I think The Villages truly has an educated electorate, and I think that an educated electorate votes, period, Republican or Democrat,” she said.

The headquarters is in a small plaza in Wildwood, a longtime railroad hub with 7,000 residents that borders The Villages. Folks have been able to grab a bite at The Ole Coffee House for more than 70 years.

“This is the hometown place to come,” said owner Carolyn Orr. “This is where they come in and tell their hunting and fishing stories.”

Across the street, Miz Kathi’s Cotillion Southern Cafe offers Creole Jambalaya for $17.50 and Governor’s Mansion Peach Tea at $12 per gallon. Everything is vintage, even the silverware.

Hundreds of agriculture students still raise animals for county fairs in Sumter County, and it’s not uncommon to find seven-generation families here. Homecoming Queen Coleman ultimately bobby-pinned the 2018 crown on a girl she’d played softball with as a child.

 “It was overwhelming, and I knew I was making memories I would remember for the rest of my life,” said new queen Leah Zachary.

And only a few weeks after homecoming, Sumter County was quietly making history, dwarfing all other counties in early voting. Two days before the election, it sat in the top spot with 62.29 percent.

HOLMES COUNTY

POPULATION 19,558

34 DAYS UNTIL ELECTION

On a Wednesday morning near the Washington County line, automobile traffic slowed to a crawl to make way for a covered wagon train clopping along U.S. Highway 90.

The Highway 90 Bonifay Ride had arrived, carrying people like Wayne Strength, from Frisco City in Alabama.

It’s a long, 90-mile trip that begins in Munson, Florida, but it’s not without perks. Strength met his wife, Jennifer, on the trek that winds its way to the Northwest Florida Championship Rodeo in Bonifay.

The rodeo has been going for 74 years now as a fundraiser for the Bonifay Kiwanis Club. On average, it brings in $20,000 to $30,000, but it has been known to bring in $60,000, said Catrina Carroll, club president for the rodeo.

It’s also a massive community event for this county seat of about 3,000 people located 90 minutes west of the state capital in Tallahassee.

This week, shop windows are alive with paintings of cowboys, signs welcome out-of-towners, and children are dressing up at school.

“It’s a very proud tradition,” said Sarah Plymell, who lives in nearby Graceville. “It’s almost a holiday here.” 

Even the supervisor of elections, Debbie Wilcox Morris, understands its rallying power and features rodeo photos on her website.

Morris took office in 1997, seeing the county through the turbulent days of the 2000 presidential election.

Her own county had a contested election that year, the sheriff’s race was decided by five votes. But a few dozen other votes weren’t counted because signatures didn’t match.

The ensuing lawsuit lasted six years.

That’s all in the past now, Morris said, and she considers the candidate who sued a friend.

Most of the time — there’s always an exception — candidates are “real friendly toward each other,” she said.

 “It’s just something that people are taught, how important it is, just like eating and sleeping and those things,” Morris said of the county’s 41 percent turnout.

Bonifay, named for a railroad baron, is home to a one-runway airport with 16 parking spots used mostly by pilots in training. Vortex Spring, a swimming and camping area is 20 minutes west. “Little House on the Prairie” author Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in nearby Westville for a short time.    

Holmes’ median household income of $41,100 is the lowest of the six top-turnout counties, a place where almost half of high school graduates won’t go on to college. At 89 percent white, it’s also the most racially homogenous of the six counties.

Republicans outnumber Democrats almost 2-1 here, and its 88 percent vote for Donald Trump was the highest of any Florida county. It voted 84 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, 81 percent for John McCain in 2008; 77 percent for George W. Bush in 2004 and 67 percent for Bush in 2000.

“The people make it what it is,” said Steve Boroughs, who owns the Bonifay Feed, Seed & Nursery with his wife. “Most of them are strong in their faith. They’re good people.”

Boroughs, who was never “a city-type person,” came to the area when he was 10.

Other, like Plymell, have only been residents for a few years. She works at the M&W Smokehouse Barbecue, serving as manager when the owners aren’t there.

Come lunch time, it seems like everyone is at the Smokehouse. People lean against walls decorated with skillets, old-fashioned tin signs and a handsaw that says “Free Tattoo Removal.” A memorial to the owner’s father, a local coach and basketball player, has a special spot.

Kids eat free on Tuesdays and a children’s table sits near a fridge full of soda, along with some books and crayons.

The pulled pork here could make a vegetarian weep, and Plymell promises that “you’ll never be able to eat pork rinds from the bag again.” 

Everyone seems to be a regular, and everyone knows each other. Harry Bell and Bryan Bell — no relation — are both elected officials. Bryan is the property appraiser and Harry is the tax collector. Both also are members of the Kiwanis Club and need to head to the rodeo soon.

Catrina Carroll, 50, remembers the rodeo of her childhood and the memory of a monkey in a cowboy hat who rode a dog in a saddle. It was a collie, she thinks. The weather was colder then, and you always had to bring blankets and jackets.

Now, on Oct. 4, the weather was great for kids’ night, a week before catastrophic Hurricane Michael would demolish the region.

Harry Bell, who’s held office since 2004, thinks it’s interesting to see how the county’s politics have changed. Holmes has more Democrats than Republicans, but they lean conservative. Barack Obama earned only 15 percent of the vote in 2012, and Hillary Clinton earned a mere 10 percent in 2016. 

“Everybody used to be Democrats, but I think they’re getting away from that now,” said county native Josh Smith. “Definitely more conservative than liberal.”

Smith came to the rodeo early, camping out nearby to boil peanuts before riders galloped into the grand entry to the theme from “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Then came the rough stuff.

Riders were yanked, tossed and mercilessly thrown from bucking horses.

One was pummeled to the ground almost immediately, eliciting a pained “Ooooh” from the crowd. Asked to show some Bonifay hospitality, the crowd turned that groan into sympathetic applause.

FRANKLIN COUNTY

POPULATION 11,727

33 DAYS UNTIL ELECTION

The Gulf-facing county seat of Apalachicola is known for three main exports: seafood, art and beer.

Located 75 miles from Tallahasssee where the Apalachicola River meets the Apalachicola Bay, the water is the main pull in more ways than one.

On this warm Oct. 6 Saturday, the community is attempting to set a new Guinness Book World Record for the largest floating gathering of kayaks.

They’re way off from the 3,150 needed, but that’s OK because food, games, vendors and a puppet show are waiting for them at the shore of the Forgotten Coast Paddle Jam.

There’s Christian music and no alcohol at the event founded by the Rev. Themistocles Patriotis, a Methodist minister who also is president of the Forgotten Coast Paddle Club.

The Apalachicola Chocolate & Coffee Company is selling coffee, fresh cinnamon rolls and croissant breakfast sandwiches today. On a more typical day, owners Faith and Kirk Lynch, would be making bread, melting chocolate and churning ice cream.

Their cafe, which smells of roasted sugar, hasn’t been untouched by politics.

Kirk Lynch said there’s been more people, volunteers and candidates than he’d ever seen going door-to-door.

Political work doesn’t stop for the weekend, or even for Paddle Jam. Tax collector candidate Teresa Ann Martin was there with supporters, passing out water bottles with her name on the label.

“I love knocking on their doors,” Martin said. “For the most part, people have been very pleasant. They offer you a glass of water or tea or to get out of the sun.”

The county really gets out votes, leading Florida in turnout for the primary with 57 percent. Franklin is more racially mixed than some Panhandle counties: 82 percent white, 14 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic.

Franklin is registered heavily Democratic but votes otherwise. It went 68 percent for Donald Trump in 2016, 65 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, 63 percent for John McCain in 2008, 59 percent for George W. Bush in 2004 and 53 percent for Bush in 2000.

No one’s getting rich in this county named for Benjamin Franklin. Many people work at service jobs, including timber or fishing, and households make a median income $1,000 less per month than the Florida average.

During World War II, most of the county was used to train U.S. military for D-Day’s amphibious operations. When the war ended, the officer’s quarters 25 miles east of Apalachicola became Lanark Village.

Tourists are drawn to its boutique galleries, local cuisine and down-home hospitality.

But campaigning is on display at almost every turn.

“We see our elected officials in the grocery store, their children go to school with our children,” said Supervisor of Elections Heather Riley. “It’s exciting to see what you work for, just getting people to vote. To actually see the turnout happen, it’s just a great feeling.”

The town has its share of drama — last year the tax collector resigned amid a sex scandal. But the news only ratcheted up the election conversation. Anyone spending more than a few hours in Apalachicola can learn the names of this year’s candidates, take a quiz, and probably pass.

“It’s just a very great community aspect to the town,” said Carrie Jones, who sometimes helps out at The Oyster City Brewing Company. “Everybody helps each other.”

This week, Paddle Jam collided with Oktoberfest, and the brewery released special lagers to accompany some of its award-winning brews, such as Tate’s Helles Lager, named for the nearby Tate’s Hell State Forest.

Nearby Dolores’ Sweet Shoppe reminds customers that “stressed” spelled backward is “desserts.” The owner, Dolores Roux, was born and raised here, and it was the greatest place in the world to grow up, she said.

“Everybody looked out for everybody’s children, and you’d better not do something wrong or someone would call your mom,” she said.

The city’s changed a lot since she was a child, though. More people are moving in, the restaurant scene grew, and tourists make it difficult to find parking.

About 600 more visitors are coming each month over just last year, according to the Franklin County Visitor Development Council.

Roux doesn’t mind. It’s good for the economy, and people don’t have to leave to find a job elsewhere.

“It’s grown,” Roux said, “but it’s grown in a good way.”

Time brought other difficulties. The city’s most famous export, oysters, aren’t as plentiful as they used to be.

Daniel B. Davis, owner and manager of Hole in the Wall, a seafood restaurant, said he has to buy oysters from Cedar Key to guarantee his supply.

The shrimping industry has become tougher, too, according to Shayne Gilbert, who has gone shrimping with his parents since he was 11.

“You’ve got to be more efficient,” Gilbert said. “You can still make a good living, but you have to know what you’re doing.”

Getting the kayakers to float together at this year’s Paddle Jam wasn’t easy either. The wind was high and the water was rough. Bill Campbell’s motorized boat bobbed, spraying passengers with water.

Campbell dropped anchor and threw a rope out. A woman grabbed hold, and, slowly, other paddlers made their way to her.

Eventually, they grouped together and raised their paddles for a photo. Then they let go and dispersed, still fighting the water, and the wind.

JEFFERSON COUNTY

POPULATION 14,144

26 DAYS UNTIL ELECTION

Everyone held their breath in the icy silence of the Monticello-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 12 as Linda “Schuyler” Ford’s face glowed in the harsh light.

Ford spoke of a woman trying to get home, a murderer on the loose, the sound of footsteps and a hurriedly shut door. ...

It was the story that freaked out Heather Whitaker the most. October is her favorite month, and she’d come the 30 miles east from Tallahassee for “Haunted Tales and Ghostly Trails.” Tomorrow night, she plans to come back to Monticello for the ghost tour.

The county seat is the only community in Jefferson, named for the third U.S. president. It bills itself as “the most haunted small town in Florida,” claiming a ghost in pretty much every building.

The man who built the Monticello Opera House can be seen in one of the boxes, a murdered sheriff haunts the Old Jail and the 1872 John Denham House Bed & Breakfast Inn is twice haunted, locals say.

In the light of day, Monticello isn’t scary. It’s cheaper to live here than in Tallahassee, so it’s become a bit of a bedroom community. The Opera House hosts shows and weddings. The Aucilla Research Institute is working to find more archaeological treasures here in addition to its 14,000-year-old mastadon fossil.

The only true horror is for those who love traffic lights. You won’t find any in Jefferson County, the first in Florida to build a roundabout instead.

The 110-year-old courthouse is reminiscent of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with a jury room straight out of “12 Angry Men.” Florida State University film students often use it as a setting, said Tyler McNeill, chief deputy clerk.

Lunch can be ordered at Tupelo’s Bakery & Cafe, which serves organic soda. A sign tells diners to “Go Old School. Live Organically.”

Jefferson County is one of the area’s most diverse, with 61 percent white, 36 percent black and 4 percent Hispanic. Its median household income of $43,500 sits in the middle of Florida’s range. But in 2009, the Florida Department of Education had to take over financial oversight of its school district for two years due to budget deficits.

Jefferson is 55 percent registered Democratic and 33 percent Republican. It’s one of only a handful of Panhandle counties that usually leans left, but in 2016, it flipped for Donald Trump with 51 percent. It voted 50 percent for Barack Obama in 2012, 51 percent for Obama in 2008, 55 percent for John Kerry in 2004 and 54 percent for Al Gore in 2000.

Elections are hot topics here, where primary turnout was 49 percent.

Mike Willis, who owns Vintage Treasures, is a conservative Republican whose sister is a liberal Democrat.

“I love her to death,” he said. “We don’t talk politics.”

Those who do talk politics don’t have to be nasty, according to Sheriff Mac McNeill, the only Republican running in the three local partisan races. Everyone was very cordial at the last forum, he said, almost jovial.

“That’s the way these should be,” McNeill said. “You’re running for a job, not running against someone personally.”

On election night, residents file down to the supervisor of elections office on West Dogwood Street. People even camp out in the big grassy field in front of the building, eating boiled peanuts in a political tailgate as they wait for the results.

When the winners are announced, the hollering starts.

Marty Bishop, the supervisor of elections, shares his building with the Old Jail. There’s been talk of moving him, but he isn’t concerned about the crowds.

“I guarantee you, wherever I’m at, it’ll be jam-packed with people waiting for results,” he said.

The city was jam-packed on Oct. 11, the day after Hurricane Michael swept through, sparing the city from most of the power outages and damage that hit neighboring areas.

The Piggly Wiggly and Jefferson County Farmers Market were both open. Katherine McKown, whose aunt and uncle own the store, brought her children there to pick up pumpkins.

“Everyone knows everybody,” she said. “You always see someone you know when you go to the store.”

As residents fled hard-hit areas nearby, Pat Inmon, the John Denham House innkeeper, fielded phone calls left and right. She’d lost power at one point, but it was restored in time to receive new guests. 

To get a view of the city, all they had to do is ascend the staircase to the third-floor cupola.

Unless they believe in ghosts. Then maybe not.

Inmon didn’t know when she bought the building that it was haunted by Denham and an unmarried woman who soothes babies at night.

She found out when she went to introduce herself to the Chamber of Commerce, the starting point for “Haunted Trails and Ghostly Tales.”

“As a storyteller and as a lover of history, I just believe when you tell the true story in the right setting, and it’s after dark, then the truth, combined with somebody’s imagination, is going to go where it’s going to go,” said Ford, who is from Sleepy Hollow, New York.

“And that can be someplace really creepy, deliciously scary.”

On Oct. 13, the first night of the tour, fellow storyteller Margaret Kaler accompanied Ford. The two women, dressed in white, held lanterns aloft as they set out for the Old Jail. Some guests were using ghost-hunting apps on their phones and searching for hot and cold spots when they spotted the specter of a little girl at the Denham house.

Apparently, she’d followed them around town.

GADSDEN COUNTY

POPULATION 46,071

24 DAYS UNTIL ELECTION

The sign that greets visitors to Gadsden County, 30 miles north of Tallahassee, reads “Unspoiled. Unexpected.”

This week, in the wake of Hurricane Michael, the sign at Salem United Methodist Church in Havana had a different message:  “Power Or Not, Church Sunday.”

Here, in the state’s only black-majority county, 45 percent of the population were church-goers in 2010, according to the latest data available from the Association of Religion Data Archives. In Sumter County, that number was 24 percent.

“I think this is the time where Christians need each other, and we need each other’s support,” said Rev. Curtiss Cain.

Worship leader Gene Loy agreed.

“If we’re going to be the church, we need to be the church,” he added. “And if people are feeling pretty down about this, we need to be there.”

The churches are there for elections, too, helping drive the 42 percent primary turnout. United Gadsden Inc., a social action organization that mostly consists of churches, helps register, educate and mobilize voters.

The group hosts Souls to the Polls with speakers, food and music. It has one planned for today near the supervisor of elections office, in the county seat of Quincy. But as of mid-October, the pathway was still marred by Hurricane Michael.

The Category 4 storm killed two people here, clogged roadways with debris and littered the sidewalks with shattered glass. Thousands were left without power for days.

On North Love Street, Kimberly Nelson raked debris out of the Abella Women’s Center on Oct. 13. Early voting was just two weeks away, but politics weren’t really on her mind. The center helps women facing unplanned pregnancies, and she was thinking about the diapers and formula her clients need.

Gadsen joined Franklin and Jackson counties in delaying and extending early voting after some polling places were destroyed or converted into distribution sites for relief supplies.

“Turnout lets you know that people are interested in what’s going on in this county, interested in what’s going on at the state level and national level,” said Supervisor of Elections Shirley Green Knight before the storm hit. “And that’s what we want.”

Knight saw 42 percent turnout in the primary from a county that leans reliably left. It’s 74 percent registered Democrat to 16 percent Republican. It’s the only one of the six top-turnout counties to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 with 68 percent. It voted 51 percent for Obama in 2012, 51 percent for John McCain in 2008, 70 percent for John Kerry in 2004 and 66 percent for Al Gore in 2000.

Gadsen County, named for James Gadsen, who was General Andrew Jackson’s aide-de-camp in the Florida campaign of 1818, is 56 percent black, 41 percent white and 10 percent Hispanic. Its median household income of $40,900 is fueled by jobs at the hospital and University of Florida.

Havana, 12 miles east of Quincy, has been trying to rebuild itself after the collapse of the local shade tobacco industry in the 1970s. A consignment thrift store called Bloomingdeals of Havana beckons to residents on their lunch hours, and the area is trying to become a bicyclists’ paradise.

“Nobody else in Florida has hills and valleys like we do,” said Tony Lombardo, executive director of Havana Main Street.

Grants have helped beautify the area, Lombardo said, with different murals cropping up celebrating Havana’s past. In the past 18 months, 13 new businesses have opened.

“Thirteen businesses in Fort Lauderdale or Miami is miniscule, but in our community, that’s tremendous growth,” he said.

The annual Pumpkin Festival, in its 19th year, raises money for the Havana Merchants Association, and even Hurricane Michael could only delay it this year.

About 7,000 people typically come, said Jim Kellum, the festival chair. There are rides, a petting zoo, and a costume contest for humans and dogs.

On the festival’s original date, children instead passed out ice in front of the Havana Police Department.

Many of the volunteers were young, 13 and 14, joking and laughing.

A lot of them, including a local football team, were recruited by Councilwoman Cathy Johnson, who wanted to get the children out so they could understand how important it is to help the community.

As she worked, Johnson encouraged another form of civic interaction, wearing a white T-shirt telling people to vote.

“We need to understand that that’s the most important thing you can do,” she said.

Salem United Methodist Church didn’t rearrange much for its 8:45 a.m. service. The congregation was told to use flashlights if they had to leave the sunlit room.

Worshipers Tom and Marcia Payne brought doughnuts from a Tallahassee shop that still had power.

Beverly Crawford came from Lake Tallavana, a Havana community where she said there was much destruction.

“This is where we come every Sunday, and I don’t know where we would be if we weren’t here,” Crawford said.

Fewer people attended than usual, Crawford said, but more than she expected.

Everyone grabbed a cup of coffee or a doughnut. During announcements, someone said it was the best breakfast they’d had in a long time.

Then, four days after the strongest storm on record to hit the Panhandle, worshipers opened hymnals to “Amazing Grace” and sang.

LIBERTY COUNTY

POPULATION 8,242

14 DAYS UNTIL ELECTION

By 11 a.m. Oct. 24, cars had begun arriving at the Veterans Memorial Civic Center in Bristol, now converted to a FEMA-State Disaster Recovery Center. Hurricane-ravaged residents were desperate for food, diapers, water and tarps.

“We’re nowhere near back to normal, but we’re functional,” said Donnie Read, CEO of Twin Oaks Juvenile Development, the county’s biggest private sector employer. He’s also chairman of the county’s Republican Party. After Hurricane Michael, the emergency management director asked him to take over logistics for human needs.

She saw how great the need would be, he said.

 “We’ve been dealt a blow here, no doubt,” Read said. “But this community has pulled together unlike anything I’ve ever seen. That human spirit here is shining through brighter than I’ve ever witnessed.”

Logging is big industry here, home to the Apalachicola State Forest. Timberlands cover 95 percent of the area, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, so many residents own their own chain saws.

There’s only one city, the county seat of Bristol, which Hurricane Michael walloped. One person died as the winds and rain ripped across Liberty.

Gordon Durham’s house was badly damaged by a big oak. He was trying to save the structure, but wasn’t sure he could. Either way, he was determined to stay and rebuild.

“That’s my home,” he said. “My family has lived there for 130 years or so.”

Roots run deep in Liberty, Florida’s least-populated county.

Pam McDaniel, the assistant branch manager at the Jimmy Weaver Memorial Library in Hosford, lives in Bristol. Her family has been in the area around 80 years, while her husband’s roots reach back more than 100.

“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” she said.

Rebecca Foran manages the 43-year-old Myrlene’s Beauty Shop with her mother. Her customers are people who used to drive her to school.

“We don’t have to agree on politics, and we can be fussing, but if someone’s down and out, they will come to you with food, gas, money,” she said.

It was emotional seeing everyone after the Category 4 storm.

People care about the county, Foran said, and have a say-so. If they don’t vote, they forfeit their say-so.

It’s a common sentiment: Vote, or don’t complain. Despite the county’s small population, almost half are registered to vote and 55 percent turned out for the primary.

Liberty is mostly white — 77 percent, compared to 18 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. And it’s one of the state’s poorest counties with a median household income of $38,900.

It’s another conservative county, with 69 percent of voters registered as Democrats and 22 percent as Republicans, but the GOP wins big here. It voted 77 percent for Donald Trump in 2016, 70 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, 71 percent for John McCain in 2008, 64 percent for George W. Bush in 2004 and 55 percent for Bush in 2000.

On election night, people head to the supervisor’s office and listen for the results.

“They want what’s best for their local government, state government and country, so they don’t get complacent,” said Read, the GOP chairman. “They get out and vote.”

Before the hurricane hit, the party had signs out for all the major Republican candidates, including Gov. Rick Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. Read has seen a few of the signs since, run over by electric trucks or crushed by trees.

But Scott and Patronis both have personally visited Liberty County post-Michael.

Other visitors have included Madison, Leon, and Hardee supervisors of elections, some of whom brought gas for the generator powering the courthouse.

Florida’s secretary of state Ken Detzner came to visit Gina McDowell, Liberty’s supervisor of elections.

After the storm, trees filled her driveway and she had to cut her way out of her house.

“It was nice to come back to work, to open up, to get some sort of normalcy in my life,” McDowell said. “It’s really helped.”

But voting locations were damaged, and the first day after her office reopened, she had 40 requests for absentee ballots. Other residents still trickled in Oct. 25 for early voting.

Hurricane Michael ruined the Veterans Memorial Railroad’s Ghost Train, an event in Bristol featuring a working one-third-sized steam engine that starred in the 1939 film “Union Pacific.”

It may take a year or longer to rebuild the tracks.

The destruction made Gordon Durham, an engineer at the volunteer-run organization, want to throw up. His wife, Melissa, designs sets for Halloween and a Christmas Polar Bear Express.

The damage made Gloria Keenan, a board member at the railroad, want to cry. Her husband Tom, for whom the depot is named, died in 2015, and this was his vision.

They’ll have to do fundraisers and things, Keenan said, but she’s hopeful that next year they might celebrate the reopening with the holidays. 

On the whole, Liberty County is moving toward normalcy. The sign at The Fusion Church in Bristol proclaimed “Liberty Strong!” —  a message echoed at the Piggly Wiggly.

Stores are opening back up, like Angel’s Seafood By the Dam in Hosford, located near the Ochlockonee River.

Angel Boutwell, the owner, has worked at the restaurant since she was 14. Now she owns it.

Diners looking at the back door can see a yellow, diamond-shaped sign with two hands shaking that reads “Old Friends Xing.”

“Everyone who comes in here is my family,” Boutwell said. “I’m looking at third generations of people who come here.”

After the hurricane, the restaurant closed. On Oct. 19, she asked via Facebook if people would accept a limited menu while the restaurant got back on its feet.

The responses ranged from “YES” to “100%.”

At 4 p.m. on Oct. 25, the doors opened. Diners could only order carry-out, but there was still a lot to be done.

Potatoes, catfish and shrimp had to be fried and soda poured. Customers had to be greeted.

Everyone made adjustments. The Liberty County Sheriff’s Office advised against trick-or-treating, but invited children to two drive-thru locations.

Volunteers who normally ran the Ghost Train would decorate and hand out candy, the sheriff’s office said.

The goal was to help children feel something like normal life but also keep them safe.

That goes for the election, too. Unlike other counties, McDowell decided against extending early voting.

Dates had already gone out, and she didn’t want to confuse people.

So, voting locations were repaired. A location without a roof over the bathrooms was tarped up.

“We’re going to have an election, and it’s going to be as normal as it can be,” McDowell said. “Except for using port-a-potties.”

Leah Schwarting is an associate managing editor with The Villages Daily Sun. She can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5375, or leah.schwarting@thevillagesmedia.com.