SEBRING – Maybe it’s mango or strawberry milkshakes. Perhaps it’s grits for breakfast and a day of bluegill fishing. It could be a camouflage visor, a local business T-shirt, jeans and boots. Or at the very least, it might be an occasional “y’all” or “fixin’ to” thrown in with a “youse” and “making.”
While many of their neighbors annually head north and flee the rippling heatwaves of spring and summer dancing over asphalt, the swarms of evening mosquitoes, the humidity wafting from damp mulch or just the lightning-filled thunderstorms barking throughout the day, these former Yankees relish in the challenge of doing what it takes to become “Floridians.”
An estimated 40 percent of Highlands County’s approximately 100,000 residents are considered “seasonal” and make their ways north -- which for native Floridians generally means 20 miles past the Florida-Georgia line, said Stephen Weeks, executive director of the Highlands County Economic Development Commission. But about a limited majority of residents have permanently traded in their parkas and snow shovels for shorts and sprinklers to become “Floridian,” or at least what they think that means.
“Maybe they have to go back, but I’m happy down here year-round and even in the summer,” said Bill Blosky, 79, as he enjoyed a cigar and newspaper Monday morning at the Veterans Beach boat ramp on Lake Jackson.
The retired electrician from Valparaiso, Ind., Blosky moved permanently to Sebring in 2013 to join his wife, Patricia, who had already moved there. He said he’s lived on and off in the city for 12 years and does what he can to be a bonafide Floridian.
“I’m Floridian now so I had to change the ways I do things. It’s just the opposite down here -- I got out early in the morning, I come to the lake, watch the boats, read the paper. Then I go back in the evening. Up north, you can’t do that. It’s one or the other,” he said.”Now being from Florida, I can do that.”
In his online blog, “How to Survive Florida in Eight Easy Steps,” author James Albro outlined the main components that keep folks from leaving the state in summer as the “heat, humidity, bugs and other crawling critters and hurricanes.”
He also pointed out three components that can separate a real Floridian for a Johnny-come-lately and should never occur, seasonally or year-round: never say “That’s not the way we did it up North,” never walk barefoot after dark and “don’t put on a fake southern drawl...locals will spot it with in the first words out of your mouth. Give it a year or so and you’ll have an honest one of your own and probably won’t even realize it until you go north on vacation.”
About two miles south of Veterans Beach, Raul Reyes’ voice still chimes with the staccato-like pattern of his Bronx, N.Y., hometown.
“I still have an accent but I do everything Florida-style now,” said Raul Reyes, 66, as the transplant transplanted plants with his wife, Olga, at their Sebring home on Lambeau Avenue.
Over the spring, the couple said they’ve planted tomatoes, avocados, pomegranates and canteloupe -- real Florida fruits and vegetables.
“I’m always doing yardwork That’s mainly Floridian; that’s part of the Florida lifestyle,” said Reyes, a retired blacksmith. “What do I do that makes me Floridian? I just stay relaxed here and you don’t have to be in long pants all the time. I’ve been here five years, I’ve paid my dues.”
As for his seasonal neighbors who shipped out for cooler summer climes, Reyes said it might be “tough” living the Florida summer months, but it pays off.
“Florida is one big beach. I just stay relaxed here. You don’t have to be in long pants all the time. That’s part of what makes me a Floridian,” he added and smiled.
According to a Seasonal Resident Estimation Methodology report by the University of South Florida, 87 percent seasonal residents arrive between the months of October and January and most leave between March and May. The mean length of stay for most seasonal residents is 118.5 days and most of the seasonal residents tend to stay in mobile home parks or apartments-condominiums.
Although full-time Sebring residents Bud and Pat Ledroux live in a seasonal enclave, they’re full-timers paying their dues in the heat while enjoying the benefits of being in the 365-days-a-year club.
For Pat Ledroux, who in March 2013 moved from Laurel, Md., with her husband into Sebring’s Woodhaven Estates mobile-home park, being a Floridian means wearing “summer” clothes most of the year and “dressed-up” is putting on a pair of jeans.
As she sat in a golf cart, around her, like a post-apocalyptic scene from Planet of the Apes, most driveways and carports were empty of vehicles and the streets devoid of people or ambient noise of any sort.
“I’m a Floridian. It only took me a year, it didn’t take long,” she said, before heading to the neighborhood social hall. “In Florida, I don’t do it, but most people play golf. I just do what I like to do.”
For the full-time Highlands County residents who don’t annually load up the car for the summer, being “Floridians” means something to do with the water.
As she floated near the wall of the Highlands County YMCA pool off Hammock Road, Eldy Gall basked under a cloudless spring sky. She moved to Sebring from Elkhart, Ind., with her husband, Marty, in 2006 and said she does what she can to blend in with the natives.
To do that, Gall said she wears a lot of “flowery” clothes, which she wouldn’t wear if she were still in Indiana.
“We kind of stand out with that up north. When I was there (Indiana), a friend stopped me because I was way too colorful,” she said, smiling. “In winter, you walk around Wal-Mart and Florida people have coats on. People from the north have shorts on, their little tops and flips-flops -- you know they’re not originally from here (Florida).
As for her opinion on her friends, family and neighbors who leave the state with their proverbial transplanted tails between their legs, Gall said they’re excused.
“I don’t think they’re wimpy. I just think they have other obligations. Most people haven’t made a commitment to Florida. Even if they live here most of the year, they’re very much still tourists,” she said as sunlight from the pool’s surface jumped around her face.
According to the USF study, most seasonal residents are 55 years of age or older, with the majority, 75 percent, being 65 years or older. Only 2 percent of seasonal residents were under the age of 55.