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Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws, and the Demise of an American Dream by Dennis Covington


Rating: (Recommended)


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People really did buy parcels of swampland in Florida, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Thanks to Dennis Covington’s book, Redneck Riviera, readers get to meet the sellers, the buyers, and the neighbors. Covington tells of his father’s 1965 purchase of some unimproved land in a place where his father always found happiness: Florida. Covington inherits the swampland upon his father’s death in 1988, and spends years trying to take possession of the land from the local Hunt Club, which assumed possession. Along the way, we learn about the importance of land to people, the ability to swindlers to prey on others, the power of possession, and how some things in life are more important than money. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of the chapter titled, “Crackers,” pp. 64-77:


When I later asked Alan Ingram, the incoming pres­ident, about the Hunt Club’s armed guards, he said the club didn’t have any. But on a day in the middle of the general gun season, my photographer friend Jim Neel and I walked into the gatehouse right after Bubba Fletcher, a local rancher, had called to say he’d been shot at. The Hunt Club sent two of its men to investigate. Both wore revolvers in holsters strapped to their waists, like characters in a spaghetti western.

“I’d just love to shoot somebody today!” one of the men said before he flung open the screen door and jumped into an idling truck that disappeared in a pall of exhaust.

I didn’t recognize the woman behind the counter this time. She was younger than Thelma, tougher looking. She had a moon-shaped face, wore thick glasses, and was missing a couple of bottom front teeth. I’d find out her name was Sue, that one of the armed guards was her man, Steve, and that they lived in a camp called Shiloh not far inside the Hunt Club’s gate. I’d seen the camp that morning. It had wash on the line, a blue-tick hound chained to a fence post, and a rusted Dodge up on blocks in the side yard.

“What happened to Mac and Thelma?” I asked.

“I don’t think they could handle it here.” Sue blew a smoke ring toward the ceiling. “It’s bad enough for me and Steve. We already work twelve hours a day, and last night when the relief-shift guy got here, he was so drunk, all he could do was pass out on the couch.”

My friend Jim asked what all the hubbub had been about, and Sue told us about Bubba Fletcher’s call. “During hunting season, everybody’s bound to have a story that somebody got shot at. We have one lady wrote a big long letter. Somebody supposedly fired into her trailer.”

“Anybody hurt?” I asked.

Sue shook her head. “I think they just did it to make her mad. And break-ins happen all the time,” she added. “On Friday, Saturday nights, people are bashing this person, that person. You’re just gonna get that. I’m waiting for somebody to break into my trailer.” She pat­ted the nine-millimeter pistol that she kept in plain sight on the counter.

About that time, the CB behind her squawked. It was Steve and the other guard reporting that they couldn’t find the person who had shot at Bubba Fletcher. Sue said she figured it was a hermit property owner who lived way back in the woods somewhere. “Nobody knows who he is or where he’s going or where he’s been to.”

She said he’d been spotted a couple of times in the camping area, though, and some people were starting to get nervous. “Scared the living daylights out of one cou­ple,” she said. They reported the man was wearing cam­ouflage. He had long hair and carried a high-powered ri­fle. People had started calling him “the camouflage man.”

“A rumor starts,” Sue said, “and before you know it, there’s a crazy man running around in camouflage around here.” She shook her head again and flicked cigarette ash into an empty Budweiser can. “But I can think of a couple of people this description fits. One per­son in particular comes to mind.”

I asked her who that might be. I was thinking about the man Powell told me lived in a tin shack on a ham­mock way back in the woods, the marijuana farmer of some consequence, the guy who stank.

“I’m not spreading gossip,” Sue said. “I wouldn’t want Pete to get mad at me. I just . . . I think society’s given this man a bad rap. He can’t deal with the anxiety, the panic attack the city gives him.” Then she looked di­rectly at me. “Desperate men do desperate things.”

Later that afternoon, we saw Steve skinning a wild hog, and Jim started taking photographs until Steve looked up from his bloody work and said, “I can tell you right now you’re not taking any pictures of me.”

“What if I shoot around you?” Jim said.

“I’ve been doing this since I was a kid,” Steve said, “and there ain’t no way you can get a picture of me skinning a hog without me being in it. I had enough of that in Vietnam.”

So Jim put his camera away.


Whether a real or mythic figure, the camouflage man seemed to be an emblem of divisions within the Hunt Club itself, for the club was not a classless so­ciety. There were the hog hunters, and then there were the “camo hunters,” and in between stood everybody else. The hog hunters’ greatest fear was that the person or persons most likely to destroy the club would try to do it from the inside out. Their distrust of the stealthy bird and deer hunters seemed to coalesce around the legend of the camouflage man.

The first thing Hunt Club members will tell you, by the way, is that “Hunt Club” is not the name of their organization. The official name is River Ranch Property Owners Association, Inc.—not to be confused with Powell’s group, the River Ranch Landowners Association. Members say the use of the term “Hunt Club” is “an attempt to downgrade” them. Hardly any­one, though, even among the members themselves, actu­ally refers to the organization as anything other than the Hunt Club. It’s a simple, straightforward name that ac­curately describes what most of the members say they do—hunt. But hunters are a notably diverse lot, differ­entiated by such incidental factors as age, sex, race, reli­gion, and place of origin; and by two fundamental con­siderations: animal hunted and type of weapon used.

I have never seen a black man hunt anything at River Ranch Acres, for instance. This may have something to do with the unhappy history of the counties that make up central Florida. In the 1920s, this part of the state had a higher per capita incidence of lynchings than ei­ther Alabama or Mississippi. This may come as a sur­prise to residents of Boca Raton or Key Biscayne, but it will surprise no one at the closest bar to Indian Lake Estates, where Donna LeProux pours shots of Wild Turkey, chased with tepid beer, under a photograph of Buckwheat chowing down on a wedge of watermelon.

The area that now encompasses Polk County was set­tled in the 1700s by what one observer called “an im­provident and lawless set of paupers from the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia. . . Generally gaunt, pale and leather-skinned, they appeared to know neither necessity nor desire, but only silent, joy­less, painless existence, which is perfect in its way as a tree or a stone.”

On the vast pine and palmetto prairies of central Florida, these immigrants had found a perfect spot to raise livestock, some of it their own. The Spaniards had brought cows and hogs whose descendants now wan­dered the open range. The new residents had only to hunt them down, brand them, and turn them back out into the wild. Thus was the Florida cattle industry born. Whenever a customer showed up to buy a cow, these Florida cowmen would just hunt one up. They became known as “cow hunters,” and the cows they hunted turned into a scrawny but tenacious breed that the artist Frederic Remington described as having bones that pro­truded so far “you could hang a hat on them.”

People began calling the cow hunters “crackers” be­cause of the sounds their rawhide whips made when snapped above the heads of cows. And the open range was crucial to the culture that grew up around this livelihood. Men could get killed for erecting fences, or cutting fences, either one. Even in the twentieth century, fence wars had taken the lives of prominent Polk County citizens. It is no wonder that Hunt Club mem­bers who were native to this part of the state had a volatile temper over issues of land ownership and use. These club members were more than likely hog hunters. The members from out-of-state or from the Atlantic or Gulf Coasts were more likely to be deer hunters or bird hunters. So the Hunt Club, despite being, like Polk County itself, predominantly white, was still divided along these class lines.

The deer and bird hunters sometimes referred to the hog hunters as “rednecks,” “white trash,” or just “jerks.” The hog hunters most often referred to the other hunters as “shitheads.”

I came from the same stock as the hog hunters, those poor whites from the Carolinas, but the only hunting I had ever done was to shoot at rabbits out of season from a speeding Ford convertible filled with restless teenage boys. We were supposed to be playing Ping Pong in the church basement, but our youth director had passed out .22-caliber rifles and taken us for a turn around the dirt roads near Ragland, Alabama, where I believe his grandmother lived. I think this youth director wanted to get fired. I took a number of shots and may even have spun a rabbit around. But my friend Lee Bryant insisted it was his shot that got the rabbit, and he sulked all the way back to Birmingham. I do remember putting a bullet hole through the floorboard of the con­vertible after we stopped for gas near Trussville. I was just checking to see whether the gun was loaded or not. It was.

That had been many years ago, and despite a stint in the Army, I still didn’t know much about guns. But I knew enough to understand that the guns the hog hunters carried were not just for hunting hogs.

Despite this realization, I didn’t bring a gun with me on my next trip to River Ranch. Instead, I brought a global positioning system (GPS) personal navigator. A GPS device is an extraordinary invention. Hand-held, battery-operated, and inexpensive, it can get a fix on satellites and, with the information beamed back, tell you exactly where you are on the surface of the earth. I have always needed such a device. A GPS can plot a course to a desired destination. It can point you the di­rection home when you’re lost. It can calculate your speed, your progress, your estimated time of arrival. When it’s in simulation mode, you can watch a map of the future, with you moving across it in a straight line toward your objective. It even has a “man overboard” feature. If you were in a boat in the middle of a lake, say, and happened to fall overboard, your companion with a GPS could immediately punch a button, and no matter how far the boat traveled before it stopped, he’d be able to find you by following the GPS’s instructions on the screen.

I used aerial photographs, topo maps, and the GPS to locate Dad’s land. I’d gone through dense thicket and mudholes whose water came over the hood of my Jeep. I’d seen rows of squatters’ houses, some fastidi­ously neat, and some, like the camp belonging to a family called the Mirees, junked up with wrecked school buses and house trailers and foul-smelling garbage pits. I’d even seen a suspicious circle of pink trailers with a sign out front, the cut-out figure of a woman with enormous breasts and electrified hair. But the moment I left the thickets and trailers and junk piles behind, the land opened up all around me, and a bald eagle soared overhead. The sun was coming from behind, casting a veneer of light across the field. I was about four miles from the Hunt Club’s main gate. There were no squatters’ shacks, no sign of human habitation. It was exactly as I had imagined it—a vast palmetto plain, dotted with occasional pines. Dad’s land was flat and beautiful in the way that only empty space itself is beautiful—the perfection being derived from what is not there.

Using the GPS, I found the approximate corners of his parcel. Then I set up a tent in the middle of the property and slept a long, sound sleep.

The next morning I went exploring. I was trying to find a way out of River Ranch that would avoid the Hunt Club’s gate. What I found instead was another gate, locked and guarded by a stooped and disheveled old man with sparse white hair and a shotgun. One of his eyes was set in a perpetual squint. Whoever he was, he wasn’t the camouflage man.

I wished the man a good morning, and he glared up at me with his good eye as though he already suspected I’d be trouble for him.

“I’m looking for the hawk that got one of my hens,” he said. “I know it’s illegal to shoot them, but what the hawk did was illegal, too. You with the government?”

I shook my head and told him I was from Alabama. I owned some property at River Ranch and wondered if I could cross his land to get back to Highway 60.

“The Hunt Club wouldn’t like that,” he said. “But you can come on in to my place. I got some black-eyed peas on the stove.” He unlocked the gate, and I followed him down the rutted road toward his trailer. We passed a catfish pond, two cows, a brood of bantam chickens, and four pigs.

“My people are from Alabama, too,” he ventured.

I sensed an opening and asked if I might have a key to his gate, so I wouldn’t have to go all the way to the Hunt Club’s gatehouse every time I wanted to get to or leave my property.

“Can’t do that,” he said. “I’ve given keys to the presi­dent of the Hunt Club, a couple of beekeepers who come back here, the cow man, the game warden, and the Polk County sheriff’s department.”

He leaned his shotgun against the trailer. “That’s the only ones allowed to use this gate. The rest have to pay their fifty dollars and go through the Hunt Club.”

I followed him up the steps into the trailer, which smelled of black-eyed peas and pork rind and disinfec­tant. The furnishings were sparse—an Easy Boy recliner with the stuffing of the arms coming out, a black and white TV on a pine table, two lawn chairs, a sink, a fridge, and an electric range.

“Tell you the truth, I’m a little peeved that the Hunt Club makes me pay $50 a year to go out hunting on that land, especially since it’s my road. I’m thinking about not paying them this year.”

He lifted the lid from the steaming pot of black-eyed peas and stirred the froth with a wooden spoon. “Yep,” he said. “They’ll not get their fucking fifty out of me.”

I stood and watched a little of the baseball game on TV, the Braves at Pittsburgh, it appeared, but I couldn’t be sure, since the volume was turned completely down and the picture was as grainy as the first shots from America’s landing on the moon. I think it was the bot­tom of the seventh inning when the man spooned up two bowls of black-eyed peas, and we sat down to eat.

The black-eyed peas tasted like smoke. The man had cut up some Vidalia onions and a fresh tomato. We also had leftover cornbread and glasses of buttermilk to dip

the cornbread into, but we didn’t make a production out of it. We just ate and talked mainly about Alabama. He said his people were from around Opelika and Dothan. They had lost the home place during the Great Depression and moved down to Bonifay, Florida, in the Panhandle. That’s where he’d been born.

“Tolliver,” he said. “Franklin Tolliver. That’s my name. I got an aluminum recycling business up in Haines City. I just come down here to feed the animals and check on the place.”

I asked him what else he knew about the Hunt Club, and he gave me a dismissive shrug. I guess he figured he’d told me enough already.

“What about the Doe Camp?” I asked.

Mr. Tolliver looked at me hard with his good eye. The bad one was crusted over and sunken in.

“How’d you hear about that?”

“Just rumors,” I said.

Mr. Tolliver took his time clearing the table, as though he was turning something over in his head. He deposited the bowls and spoons into the sink with a clatter, filled the sink with hot water~, and opened a window to let out the steam. It had been a cold, brisk morning, and I could see the air moving in the whorls at the back of his head.

“I could have bought all this shit for nothing when I first came down here,” he said. “I’d heard about the women who worked in the canneries. Their husbands weren’t giving them enough dick.”

He waited, as if to gauge my reaction to that hopeful bit of news.

“I could have been rich,” he continued. He added that he did, in fact, buy seventeen whorehouses and parcels of land, but he squandered almost all his money on the whores.

“Women using their pussy to pay the rent—that don’t pay taxes,” he said.

I nodded sympathetically.

“So if that’s what you’ve got in mind, getting in with the Hunt Club and all them, just remember what hap­pened to me.”

“What’s that?”

“I made a choice,” Mr. Tolliver said. “I could have ei­ther made my fortune or had a good time.” He looked more or less directly at me, but I couldn’t tell which eye to look back into, the good one or the one that was bad.

“I had a good time,” he said.


That afternoon, when I stopped at the gatehouse on the way out, another gatekeeper, a woman named Peanut, asked if that had been my tent and Jeep out there in the hunting area. She said if they were, the lead­ership of the Hunt Club wanted to talk to me.

“Anytime,” I said.

“They’re upset because you camped in the hunting area.”

I shrugged.

“It can be dangerous out there,” she said.

I reminded her that it wasn’t even hunting season.

“That’s not what I mean.” Her watery blue eyes seemed filled with something like regret. “It’s against the Hunt Club rules to camp anywhere but the camping area.”

I asked her who had decided what was the camping area and what was the hunting area.

“It’s just a gentleman’s agreement, I guess,” she said.

I told her the land I’d camped on was mine.

“That may be,” she said, “but the leaders of the Hunt Club can’t guarantee your safety if you camp on it.”

“Aw, come on, Peanut,” I said. “Nobody’s going to do anything to me out there.”

She gazed at me steadily. She reminded me of Holiness women I’d known in Alabama, with graying, uncut hair and a face etched by years of getting by on not much more than faith and general wariness. Like them, she was probably a prophetess.

“I like you, Mr. Covington,” she said. “I don’t want anything to happen to you.”


And for a long time nothing did. Mr. Read still in­tended to survey the land. Problem was, the crews he sent out kept getting lost or stuck in the mud, or maybe a little scared themselves. It was a while longer before Mr. Read called with the good news that the cor­ners had been staked. “I figured it’d surprise you,” he said. “After two years, you deserve it.”

I took the next flight down to Tampa and picked up my old Jeep from a storage place near the airport, but by the time I got to River Ranch, somebody had already pulled up a couple of the wooden survey stakes, torn up my “no trespassing” signs, and driven a swamp buggy over the pitiable dog-wire fence I’d erected around the place.

Back in Birmingham, my friend Bill Murray, an attor­ney, told me that in order to assert rightful ownership of the land, I might need to do it in what the law termed a “notorious” (or “open” and “noteworthy”) fashion. Even a legal survey might not be able to blunt a claim of adverse possession, in the remote case that someone else actually erected a structure and started squatting on my land.

So I decided to build a cabin, a dream I’d had even be­fore Dad died: a primitive retreat with a well, windmill, and kerosene heater, a place where I could write in soli­tude and where the family could take wilderness vaca­tions. It would be right in the middle of the Hunt Club’s self-proclaimed hunting area, and I figured that fact alone would meet the definition of “notorious.”

If you’ve ever been stubborn, much of what Dennis Covington writes about in Redneck Riviera will resonate for you. If you’ve ever wondered just how fabricated fictional characters set in Florida are, this true story will confirm that art does imitate life.

Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the October 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Riviera.htm


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