Sondeo Report on the Alachua,
Bradford, and Union Tricounty Area:
Brooker, LaCrosse & Worthington Springs
Farming Systems Research-Extension Methods
Deirdre Williams 1
Kevin Blythe -"
Michael Dougherty /
A sondeo is a diagnostic survey methodology that produces a vast pool of data about a region in a limited
amount of time. It allows for rapid and efficient data collecting which gives valuable insight into local
peoples' perspectives, goals, and constraints. Our task, as a class, was to talk to people in Brooker,
LaCrosse and Worthington Springs about their communities and to try to verify this information with
others so that we might quickly assemble a 'picture' of these communities, rather like putting together
the pieces of ajigsaw puzzle. By using the sondeo method, we hoped to be able to garner at least 70% of
the 'pieces' in order assemble an adequate representation of these areas. Our group was assigned to the
Brooker community. During the course of our visits there, we spoke to over 25 people who offered us a
wealth of information. From these informal interviews and from the preliminary reports of the groups
that were assigned to Worthington Springs and LaCrosse, we have been able to construct what we hope
is a fairly complete composite picture of these communities.
Throughout the past century, communities in North Florida have gradually undergone a fundamental
transformation. Originally dominated by family homesteads as late as the Great War, few full time farmers
remain while many staff service positions within Gainesville and Jacksonville or staff service positions for
the incarcerated of these two towns and the rest of the Sunshine State in Lake Butler and Starke. People
continue to move southward to Florida for the sunshine and mild climate as they always have, but today
people are traveling northward to these communities from the treeless expanse of concrete of South
Florida to escape the soaring crime. Yet, in spite of the dramatic change that has occurred in occupations,
these towns have remained archetypal American small towns. According to many of the older folk, these
towns are a far cry from the heydays of a bygone period, but people in all of these communities still
appreciate the benefits that small towns in this area offer in contrast to the ever-expanding, crime laden
strip malls of Gainesville and Jacksonville.
This paper seeks to explain livelihoods and perceptions of some of the people living in the communities in
the tri-county region of Bradford, Union and Alachua counties. The towns visited during this study were
LaCrosse, Worthington Springs, and Brooker. Each of these towns is located in one of the three counties
and all date back to approximately the same period.
History plays an important role in the minds of many people living in these communities, for it not only
shaped these communities, but also is an important point of pride and lends a sense of worth to those
living in these towns. Although settlements existed before the present towns, most of the towns as they
now exist began sometime during the late 19th century. Most of the people living in this area at the time
lived on family homesteads. Farming was the major occupation of this period and has shaped the face of
these towns over the span of the 20th century as it continues to define these communities to a large extent
today. Light manufacturing of agricultural products began around the turn of the century as turpentine,
tung oil and naval stores became products of these towns after the railroad lines entered the region.
During the end of the last century and early part of this century cotton and tobacco were important cash
crops. Medicinal sulfur springs made Worthington Springs a booming turn of the century resort town for
about forty years until the Depression. These communities seemed to grow and flourish during the heady
days of Florida land speculation in the twenties until the Depression.
World War II brought a new surge of life to many of the communities along the rail lines as demand for
naval stores and market produce boomed to supply the war effort. Stories are told of how trucks and
trains rumbled through Brooker all night hauling produce to Northern ports. Packing sheds, farmers'
markets, and rail depots throughout the region that had existed for years apparently bulged under the
load. A tung oil plant in Brooker also grew during this time and employed as many as 100 people in that
small town until the early 1960s when it was finally lifted off its foundations and moved in its entirety to
Venezuela as synthetic paints and cheap South American labor pulled the industry from North Florida.
Farming, manufacturing, and small business all neatly and cohesively coexisted for a period. During this
postwar period, these prospering towns were idyllic, treelined communities that many of the older
members of the community today fondly remember.
Postwar prosperity brought sidewalks and hardsurfaced roads which changed these communities
irrevocably. Suburban aspirations bringing sidewalks, as well as widened roadways, supplanted the grand
spreading live oaks which humanely covered the country lanes. The Automobile Age brought new paved
state roads which rerouted traffic out of modestly thriving town centers. Travelers who once had to crawl
through each of these small communities stopping on the way for food and lodging were now able to
speed efficiently around these towns, stopping only occasionally for gas.
The opening of more new highways and the closing of the railroad depots during the 1960s combined to
create a major shift in the nature of these towns by the early 1970s. The transformation of the
appearances of these towns was indicative of the changing nature of occupations that was taking place.
New difficulties in produce farming in Brooker and surrounding towns was signaled by the burning of
several state farmers' markets in the early 1970s, apparently over disputes with brokers. Brooker and
Worthington Springs areas witnessed dramatic declines in vegetable farming as the comparative
advantage of the soils of areas like LaCrosse made produce less profitable for these areas.
Prisons in Lake Butler and Starke began to employ increasing numbers of people living in the tri-county
area. Increasing difficulties in farming over the years forced many families to seek off-farm employment
to sustain the family. The growth of jobs in the cities of Lake Butler, Starke, Gainesville, and Alachua
supplied this off-farm employment. The combination of economic and social shifts of the late 1960s and
1970s worked to pull people from these small towns to work in larger cities. But, the attractiveness of
living in a small town kept many within these small communities despite the fact that they now worked in
With the construction of interstate highways beginning in the 1970s, the remaining through-traffic in
many of the smallest towns almost completely disappeared. Worthington Springs however, witnessed a
major shift in occupations with the opening of SR121 to Lake Butler as greater truck traffic brought new
commercial businesses to the town. A fiberglass boat manufacturing company which began in LaCrosse
soon outgrew the little town moving the bulk of its operations to a plant in Archer. Manufacturing
businesses that once thrived in these small towns left as transportation now began to favor other areas.
As a result of the myriad changes over the years, these communities only vaguely resemble their former
selves despite the fact that they remain much the same size as they always have.
Brooker Area Timeline:
The changes in transportation, the loss of local industries, a growth of larger towns in the region, the
higher cost of farming, and the influx of new residents throughout the state of Florida have contributed to
changes in the livelihoods of residents in the tri-county area. Today, many residents are employed in
larger towns including Gainesville, Alachua, Lake Butler, Starke, and even Jacksonville. Residents in all
three towns referred to their towns as "bedroom communities." The larger towns offer greater
employment opportunities and are often within a 15-20 min. commute of Brooker, LaCrosse, and
Worthington Springs. Many residents do all of their shopping in Gainesville, Alachua, Lake Butler, or
Except for some of the larger landholders, most residents of Brooker, LaCrosse, and Worthington
Springs are in the lower to middle income classes. One man described the towns as having relatively few
professionals. He said most people are involved in service jobs, the prison system, and other "lower end"
jobs. Typical jobs include prison workers, convenience store clerks, mechanics, construction workers,
teachers, hair stylists, secretaries, and farm laborers.
The number of full-time farmers has decreased in all three towns although agriculture continues to play an
important role in the area. National trends in agriculture and the overall economy, the growth of
agriculture in southern Florida, the loss of markets for crops once important to the region, and increased
regulations have led many farmers to find new careers. Others, especially those in the Brooker area, have
switched their farming systems to primarily cattle (cow/calf, and dairy operations) and pine production.
Pine has been profitable for those who can afford to set aside a portion of their land for the necessary 18-
20 years pine trees require to reach a harvestable size. Cattle operations have been less profitable, but are
not as labor intensive as vegetable production, still common in the LaCrosse area. One farmer in his
sixties said that except when he takes the cattle to market or rounds them up for vaccinations, he can do
all the work necessary for 100 head of cattle. Both cattle and pine offer substantial tax benefits.
The decline of certain local industries and the transition away from agriculture has created changes in the
economies of Brooker, LaCrosse, and Worthington Springs. With more and more residents commuting
to work outside of these towns and doing much of their shopping in the larger towns, the towns are
unable to support businesses such as large grocery stores. Green's Grocery Store in Brooker just closed
a year ago. The other small store in Brooker, next to the Handyway gas station and convenience store,
competes with Handyway for a few basic items including beer, cigarettes, milk, and bread. However, a
certain number of small business will probably continue to exist in these towns. These will include
businesses such as the new hair salon in Brooker or the Napa Auto Parts in Worthington Springs which
provide essential services to residents in the communities.
In all three communities there were community organizations and/or commercial enterprises that brought
community members together. In Brooker, the elementary school was a focal point for community
activity. Little league baseball was very popular and was run through the school's athletic association.
Furthermore, the school itself was a source of pride for the community because of the quality of teaching
and the close-knit relationship between parents, students and teachers. In the other communities ,
schools were not so central to community life but in Worthington Springs there is evidence of a similar
pride in their local high school, especially the football team (whose coach was given a new truck with
funds rallied from the community). Churches also provided a place in all three communities for people to
gather communally. In Worthington Springs there were other organized groups such as the Civic Center
Women's group where older female members of the community gathered to produce and eventually sell
arts and crafts. All three communities also had a Volunteer Fire Department but this group was most
organized in LaCrosse where they host picnics and workshops. There were also community hall type
structures, such as the Masonic club building in Brooker and the Community Center building in
Worthington Springs, that seemed to provide a physical space for community gatherings or organizations.
However, since they were not alluded to by community members, their purpose is open to supposition.
In all three communities infrastructure plays a large role in the extent to which people come together as a
"community." The post office, for all three communities was a place where people would run into each
other and perhaps gather news about the community. In all three communities there were gas stations
and small stores where people came into contact with one another. Worthington Springs and Brooker
also had beauty salons which seemed to be operating successfully. In LaCrosse there was a packing
house which provided a locale for farmers to disseminate information. Many people we talked to
mentioned that in the past the communities had been far more thriving with a lot more infrastructure such
as grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, farmers markets and railway stations. Nowadays, the trains don't
stop in Brooker or LaCrosse and the railway line that was once in Worthington Springs has been
removed. There is, however, noteworthy commercial enterprise in all three communities such as the boat
factory and used car dealership in LaCrosse, the feed and western clothing store, midwest hauling
trucking business, automotive garage, tire store, lumber yard and NAPA (automotive and machinery
parts supplier) in Worthington Springs. Worthington Springs also has a modem community center and
community efforts to revive the springs enterprise have occurred in the recent past. The abundance of
commercial enterprise in Worthington Springs is due to the fact that a main highway traverses the center
of town, whereas in the other communities, the towns have been bypassed.
Evidence that businesses continue to start up in the area is strong. Some of them do not succeed (e.g.
the video store in Brooker), but many are still treading water which indicates that the communities are
attempting to adapt to changes and that people are not simply abandoning these towns as small scale
agriculture is dying out.
Perceptions About Community
In all three communities, there was a segment of the town's population who were satisfied with their
choice to settle in these areas because they felt that they were "safe" there. Many believed that there was
a stronger sense of "helping each other out" and "looking out for one another" in their particular
community than they could find in a city like Gainesville. However, part of the allure for many residents
related to the fact that there was a nice balance of living in the country while still being close to "the big
city." In Brooker, there were some people who were physically and socially marginalized, who lived "on
the other side of the river" who didn't seem to feel the same ties to the community that White people in
town referred to. There seemed to be a division among races and classes to some extent in this town. In
LaCrosse, ethnic groups were more integrated and this difference of perception was not as obvious.
However, there did seem to be a division between established people in the area and newcomers.
LaCrosse also had a Hare Krishna community located within its bounds that seemed to cause no friction
with members of the larger community. In Worthington Springs, community perception by ethnicity was
not a factor since almost all of the community's population was white.
Another theme in community perception was that there was something secure and familiar about these
towns that kept people coming back. It seemed that many people had moved away in their younger years
but had decided to move back to retire. Or the children of older members would settle down in one of
these communities. Another reason people cited for moving out of Alachua County was the high taxes.
People in Bradford and Union counties had much lower taxes.
As mentioned above, there seemed to be efforts in all three communities to adapt to the changes that have
been occurring throughout the decades in the region. As these towns transform into primarily bedroom
communities, local people are developing strategies that allow them to maintain their rural lifestyle and
still survive the pressures of declining agricultural activity. New enterprises and forms of industry as well
as alternative sources of livelihood seem to indicate that these communities are persisting despite the
closure of some large industries (e.g. the propane gas plant in Brooker, the sulfur spring in Worthington
Springs). Plans for a large (200+) subdivision in Monteocha, another small town north of Gainesville, is
evidence that the role of these towns as bedroom communities will continue to increase. Many people,
were relatively happy about how their communities were evolving. But there were also individuals who
seemed to be resistant to change, particularly among the more established families in town. For example,
some people in Worthington Springs were displeased with the addition of a trailer park and the division
of old family land into smaller plots for subdivisions. Furthermore, older people in all three communities
talked about the demise of their communities from their heydays 20-50 years ago. Nevertheless, these
people felt strongly that they wanted to remain there until they die.
1) Many residents of Brooker, Worthington Springs, and LaCrosse value small town qualities such as
safety, sense of community, and a slower pace lifestyle. These attributes constitute a measure of
sustainability. For this reason people will continue to search for ways to maintain this lifestyle.
2) The role of agriculture has declined in all three communities, but agriculture will continue to play a
role as long as it meets peoples' needs and helps to maintain the small town lifestyle.
3) If employment opportunities in surrounding population centers continue to expand, the role of these
towns as bedroom communities will increase.
1) Since small town qualities are important to the sustainability of these communities, policy decisions
should be aimed at maintaining the small town atmosphere.
2) Extension services should recognize the extensive role of part-time farming as an integral part of the
existing and future livelihoods of residents in the tri-county area.
3) Since it appears that surrounding employment centers are growing, efforts should be made to bolster
community organizations that would aid at reaching a consensus about the implications of these changes
and how to reconcile them with community goals.