PART 1: Every summer, Sam Covington would take his family on vacations to the Florida coast. It was the one time when he could leave behind the cares and responsibilities of his Alabama upbringing. Later in life, he decided to buy up a piece of that paradise, and wound up investing in River Ranch Acres – a two and a half acre plot of undeveloped land, which ultimately turned out to be a real estate scam. He never set foot on his land, and yet it was the one thing he left to his son, Dennis, when he died. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Dennis Covington about his new book, Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws, and the Demise of an American Dream, and about his quest to reclaim his father’s land.
PART 2: Dennis Covington’s story continues, as he explains the lengths he undertook to secure his inheritance. To stake his claim from a band of gun-toting members of the local Hunt Club, he set up camp on River Ranch Acres. Little did he suspect that it would take more than a revolver and born-and-bred Alabama gumption to change the ways of the Florida land.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
This week, we explore the story of a father’s legacy to his son. Two and a half acres of undeveloped land in Florida’s interior where even owners with deeds to the land are kept at a distance by a band of gun-toting squatters. It’s a story of a stubborn and unyielding culture, of a son’s determination, and, ultimately, of who will inherit the land.
Dennis Covington is the son who inherits his father’s dream, and goes to reclaim this small patch of paradise. He has written a book about his quest called “Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws, and the Demise of an American Dream.” He teaches creative writing at Texas Tech University, and joins me now. Dennis Covington, welcome.
(Photo: Jim Neel)
CURWOOD: Where exactly is the “Redneck Riviera,” and how did it get its name?
COVINGTON: That’s a ticklish question. I wanted to put a footnote to the title, because I wanted to say in the footnote, this is not a book about the Alabama Gulf Coast. In my part of the country, Redneck Riviera refers to the Alabama Gulf Coast, particularly a stretch between Fort Morgan east to a lounge called the Floribama, which sits on the Florida/Alabama line. The big event at the Floribama is an annual mullet toss on the beach.
CURWOOD: A fish, you mean.
COVINGTON: Yes, a fish toss. The term, I believe, was coined by Kenny Stabler, who was a quarterback for the University of Alabama, later the Oakland Raiders. In retrospect, though, I see that there are a number of Redneck Rivieras. I know people in Florida sometimes refer to the Florida Panhandle as the Redneck Riviera. And that’s how I use the term when I’m reminiscing about the family vacations we had on the Florida Panhandle at Laguna Beach. But I actually believe that there is a new Redneck Riviera that’s not on the coast. And it is in the very center of Florida, along the Kissimmee River in this defunct subdivision called River Ranch Acres.
CURWOOD: I want to get to the River Ranch Acres in just a minute. But first, at the center of this story -- though he’s not physically present for most of it -- is your father? Right, Sam Covington? And for years, he took you to the ocean, but you write that the generations of Covingtons before your father’s had never even seen the ocean. Why do you suppose he was driven to pile you guys into, what, a station wagon, and head down to the ocean year after year?
COVINGTON: For his generation, a Florida vacation was a step up in life, you know. But the book itself, for me, was kind of a probing into the reasons why it had such an effect on him. Because he was not interested in social status, really, at all. I think it had something to do with a sense of openness and spaciousness, and I believe that he sought that out in recognition of his own smallness in the face of the creation, which is immense.
CURWOOD: By the way, how did you travel down to Laguna Beach, where you went in the Florida Panhandle? And how did your folks handle the driving?
COVINGTON: We went down in a normal sedan, a passenger car. Dad bought them used. The first new car he bought was a 1959 Chevy Impala…
CURWOOD: With those fins?
COVINGTON: With those fins that curled down like wings.
COVINGTON: And it was bright red, fire engine red. My dad was colorblind, and for that reason Mother didn’t want him taking my older sister car shopping with him because she knew that Dad would come home with something like that. But going down to Florida– in Birmingham, the red lights were rather conventional: the red light was on the top, the green light was on the bottom. But there were towns in south Alabama where that was reversed. The green was on top and the red was on the bottom. So my dad ran stoplights all the way to Florida.
CURWOOD: Paint the picture for me when your family would pull up to the beach there. What would happen?
COVINGTON: The first thing my dad would always do was to charge down the dunes and dive headlong into the surf. This always terrified my mother. You know, she would scream from the highway “watch out for the undertow,” “you’re going to have a heart attack.” And he would emerge triumphantly and tell us to “come on in, the water was warm and fine.” Of course, it was cold and everything. And late in life, when he and my mother would come with my wife and I down, even though he had emphysema – he was in , you know, declining health – he would still race down the beach like a man possessed and dive into the Gulf of Mexico.
CURWOOD: Eventually, your father decides to look south for a piece of what you call “the American Dream.” And this all starts when he receives an invitation to a dinner and a presentation at the local Holiday Inn. Dennis, I’m just wondering if you could read from the part of your book about his drive home after that dinner?
COVINGTON: Sure, Steve.
“On this drive, I imagined that Dad was in a hopeful, satisfied mood. I have known such times myself when the world, despite the beating it has given you, relents for just a moment while you dream your exotic, defiant dream. Life won’t take all of you, by God. You will salvage something from this mess and call it your own. It will be your private garden, the place where your imagination can play.
In my father’s case, it was two and half acres of this land he had never seen except in photos, but was now tempted to buy from a salesman named Ray Chase after a dinner at a Holiday Inn. Dad had never met Mr. Chase before, but the salesman seemed to understand exactly what Dad wanted. An investment, they would call it. Inwardly, both men must have winked at the word.
It would be inappropriate for me to speculate about what Mr. Chase thought of my Dad. Surely, he had met many such men on his journeys back and forth across America. A generation of men who had come of age during the Great Depression, made their leap to the middle class, survived the second great war of the century, raised their children, moved into their final house, and now, in their early fifties, dreamed of possibilities beyond the practical demands of keeping a family afloat. Like Dad, they had played by the rules, stuck with the company, paid their taxes, bought life insurance, burial policies, savings bonds, their first new cars.
And now they stood poised at that most powerful and vulnerable time of life when the major financial obligations had been met, but the great journey toward death has not yet fully begun. And the cracks that are beginning to show beneath the feet, the rumors of ill health, the decline of sexual vigor, serve only to propel the dreamer faster and further toward the cry of the one on the far ridge who has seen that elusive and ineluctable something that has until now been missing in life.
River Ranch Acres. In retrospect, I think his buying the property at River Ranch was just a logical extension of all those red lights he had run on the way to Florida. Dad was never happier than he had been on our family vacations to Laguna Beach. Maybe he thought he could buy back that happiness for good.”
CURWOOD: River Ranch Acres. Now, this little piece of promised paradise was the brainchild of a pair of brothers, Jack and Leonard Rosen, I understand, from Baltimore, Maryland. How did they dream up this scheme?
COVINGTON: Jack and Leonard Rosen were former carnival barkers who made their fortune in the cosmetics business by advertising Formula Number Nine on television. The lanolin contained in this concoction was supposed to grow hair. But the cosmetic business was kind of souring on them and they got word that there was a lot of cheap land in southwest Florida and a lot of money to be made.
So they bought some acreage, subdivided it, and promised to build a city there, a city called Cape Coral. They made a lot of initial money on the sales and they ploughed that money back into developing home sites. But then they got the idea that the second time around they might go easier on the development, not develop it so much. They made a huge profit, but all they had were roads into the next development.
By the time they got to River Ranch Acres, they had dispensed with the notion of developments at all. They divided the land into one and one quarter acre parcels -- but they had no intention of bringing power in, or sewage, or water, and no intention of putting roads in.
In fact, they had a deal with the commissioners of Polk County that they would not bring roads in because if there were roads then the county would have to maintain them. So the county kind of looked the other way and let them sell this land to unsuspecting, mainly northerners, or people like my father.
And they reaped an enormous profit. They bought the land for around 150 dollars an acre. They sold it for 1,000 dollars an acre. And the only improvements they made were to build a showplace kind of lodge and western saloon so that when people got there they would have a sense that they were in on the beginning of something grand.
CURWOOD: Now, your father never set foot on this land, right?
COVINGTON: Not on his parcel.
CURWOOD: Didn’t have the curiosity to go out and take a look?
COVINGTON: Didn’t have the means. Didn’t know where it was. It’s a hard place to find, a little two and a half acres in the middle of essentially nowhere.
CURWOOD: So your dad never sees this, you never see it. I mean, this sounds like a lot of problems with this land. But at the end of your father’s life, despite all these problems, he goes over to the courthouse and sets it up so that you can inherit this land. Why do you think that was?
COVINGTON: That’s the great mystery of the book, and I have my guesses now, having gone through this experience. Dad was a stickler for details and also a great admirer of justice. He really believed that dishonesty among men was an aberration.
And he had bought this land, he had paid taxes on it every year, and it had been taken over -- along with the rest of the 40 thousand acre development -- by a hunt club, in what my dad thought was an illegal fashion. They posted armed guards at the only gate, they charged people to join their club and enter for the purposes of hunting. And they discouraged, and sometimes forcibly prevented, legitimate owners from entering.
I think my dad wanted me to have an adventure in his place.
CURWOOD: And you were pretty easy for the bait, I take it, huh?
COVINGTON: It had to percolate for a while, you know? And I think what happened was that I started reaching that age that Dad was when he bought the land in the first place. And I started needing that same kind of sense of infinite space and a place of one’s own, you know? What I wanted to do was build a little retreat down there: a little cabin, and have a well, a solar panel. And I’d take my family down for wilderness vacations. But in order to do that sort of thing, I had to wrestle the land away from the hunt club.
CURWOOD: We’re talking with Dennis Covington, author of “Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws, and the Demise of an American Dream.” He’s been telling us the tale of his quest to reclaim his inheritance in Florida’s wild west territory. We’ll hear more from him, and about his run-ins with the local hunt club there, in just a minute. I’m Steve Curwood. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Dave Matthews Band “#34” UNDER THE TABLE AND DREAMING (BMG Music - 1994)]
CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. We’re back with Dennis Covington, author of “Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws, and the Demise of an American Dream.” He’s also written the book “Salvation on Sand Mountain.” But we’re talking about your troubles that you encountered in the course of writing this book. At this point, you take off south to reclaim your inheritance in the middle of River Ranch Acres, which is, well, quite a far cry from the western style retreat that its brochures had promised. What did you find when you got to River Ranch?
COVINGTON: River Ranch was a mess. The land had hundreds and hundreds of shacks, trailers, some more elaborate homes, you know, very nice. But all of these structures were erected illegally, on other people’s land, on land like my father’s. When I finally did identify my father’s two and half acres, there was nobody squatting on it but on much of the other land there was.
CURWOOD: I’d like you to read for us about the point when you finally set up camp on your father’s land there on River Ranch Acres. It’s the eve of the hunting season, and you’ve rigged up a small canvas tent.
COVINGTON: “I hadn’t anticipated the terror I’d feel, sitting alone in the canvas house. While on the ridge above me a thousand hunters gathered to wait for dawn and the start of the general gun season. Campfires flickered through the trees, and there was an occasional burst of practice rounds followed by whoops of triumph or derision. I imagined I was on some Civil War battleground – Antietam, the night before the sunken road, the cornfield, the piles of corpses, the defeat.
Most of that night I sat cross-legged on the bunk with a machete in my lap, waiting for the enemy charge. But at some point I fell into a deep, mind-numbing sleep and didn’t wake until full light. I was puttering outside the cabin, warming up beany-weanies on my camp stove and, occasionally, catching the chatter on my CB radio. I wore an orange deer hunter’s cap and had tied an orange flag to the antenna of the Jeep. If they wanted to shoot me, they couldn’t claim they didn’t know I was there.
That afternoon, I sat at the writing desk I had made and took some notes. When the light began to fail I turned on my Coleman battery-operated lantern. All day there had been shots nearby but I hadn’t worried much about them until I heard some that sounded much too close for comfort.
About 20 yards from the cabin a handful of men were drinking beer and shooting into the palmetto, apparently at nothing in particular. They looked like the kind of men that hung around the Mirees’ campfire. Hog hunters in half-soled rubber boots and grimy work caps. They were chewing tobacco, and the laughter after they spit had something familiar to it, a sharp, malicious edge. They were like my people back in Alabama and maybe that’s what scared me the most.
I waited until they finally moved farther on the road; then I took my time cleaning up the place, so they wouldn’t sense my urgency in case they happened to be watching secretly from the palmetto breaks. I zipped up the door of the cabin but otherwise left it as it was, the Coleman lantern burning at my writing desk. Then I cranked up the Jeep and drove to the nearest motel, the Indian Lake, to spend the night.
I’d probably been a fool to spend the night before the opening of hunting season in a canvas cabin with a machete in my lap. I wasn’t going to be twice a fool by staying there over a Saturday night. “
CURWOOD: What happened the next day when you returned to this camp? This camp that was there to claim your inheritance, your dad’s inheritance. He had left you this land.
COVINGTON: I got there at first light. I noticed that there were two bullet holes right by the door. One of the bullets had gone through the canvas and exploded the Coleman lantern. The other bullet went through, missed the lantern, but there was a lot of debris in the cabin. I got the distinct impression that somebody was trying to kill me.
CURWOOD: So, they shoot up your camp this time. You pack up your bags and split? What do you do?
COVINGTON: Well, I did what any other self-respecting Alabama boy would have done. I bought two parcels of land for back taxes on either side of my property, so I would be sure to let them know that I had no intention of going anywhere. And then I bought a gun. I’d never owned a gun before. I didn’t know anything about them. But I’d go out there and I’d target practice.
And, you know, they stopped shouting insults at me, anyway, and threats. But in my absence it was shot up again. And somebody, whoever had perpetrated this, had left a dead armadillo in the center of the cabin. It was known among the hunt club membership that I had a particular affection for armadillos.
CURWOOD: And, at this point, you’ve had enough now.
COVINGTON: Yes, I did. I kind of went crazy. I became a kind of insurgent, I suppose. There was no entry point other than the hunt club gate. At night I would dress in black and put lampblack under my eyes, and, armed with my revolver and my shotgun, I would cut the fence and make my way into my little canvas house where I would stand guard all night, waiting for someone to appear out of the palmetto leaves and beg to be shot. I never saw anybody. But it gave me a sense, at least, of having done something to protect the property.
CURWOOD: I mean, it seems like a pretty simple and straightforward idea that if you own land you can claim it. Why was this such an impossible idea on the River Ranch Acres?
COVINGTON: One of the problems there was that the power structure within the county was intertwined with the hunt club itself. There were some members of the sheriff’s department that were members of the hunt club. And the attorney for the hunt club was the president of the Florida Bar Association, a close friend of the governor. So, in a way, you had a kind of good old boy network.
The hunt club saw the legitimate owners of land in River Ranch as being, you know, essentially suckers. And they were characterized as being from up north somewhere and they’d never come down there anyway. So, I believe that it was that protection that a subculture has for its own that prevented outsiders like me from coming in and claiming what was rightfully ours.
CURWOOD: What did it take for you to finally put this to rest?
COVINGTON: Ultimately, I stopped cutting the fence when I came upon an accident on the way to Lake Wales. Two horses had gotten out of their paddocks, and a car had hit one of them and killed the horse, and injured the driver of the car. And I realized in that instant that there’s a reason for fences, and that it’s wrong to cut them, no matter what the circumstances are.
And so I decided that, you know, maybe that’s not what Dad wanted me to do anyway. Maybe he had something different in mind. And I started thinking about his love of the west, his need for open space. So I went out to Idaho and found a parcel of land out there, and bought it. And I brought with me my dad’s workshop that he had built in his back yard 30 years before. I erected it on a hill overlooking a beautiful valley and a view of the mountains.
CURWOOD: What is it about the need to own land, do you think? Because, at this point, it seems that you’ve moved beyond just wanting to take back your father’s property.
COVINGTON: I’m not sure whether it’s a guy thing or not, but I do believe that the territorial imperative is built into us biologically. Now, having said that, this book, for me, is sort of an exploration of one of the ultimate questions of literature, western literature. And that is, who inherits the land?
Finally, I, of course, believe that it belongs to all of us and that the private ownership of land in America is kind of an anomaly, kind of a strange thing that’s happened as a result of the legal system we inherited. Nonetheless, it’s part of us, and wars over land have been with us since antiquity. So, I wanted a piece of land out in Idaho so that I could sit in the middle of the desert and listen to the coyotes.
CURWOOD: I have one final question and that has to do with a point that you bring up in “Redneck Riviera,” which is this: sometimes the good part of a story is not even in the story. Sometimes the good part is what’s been left out. So tell me, looking back on your experience and what brought you there, what is the good part of your story?
COVINGTON: The good part of the story that I’ve just told happened at a moment when I had just decided to go claim my father’s land that he had given to me. And I had bought a GPS device, a global positioning system. And I was testing it out and I happened to be in front of my home, my house, in Birmingham. And I could see one of my daughters rehearsing a scene from “Grease” that she and the neighborhood kids were going to put on. At the other window I could see my older daughter at the Internet, at the computer. And then my wife came out of the door to let the cats out and I saw only her hair, which was shining in the sunlight. And I initialed that device by calling that place home. And then I walked inside.
CURWOOD: Dennis Covington is author of “Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws, and the Demise of an American Dream.” Dennis, thanks so much for speaking with me.
COVINGTON: Thank you. Take care.
[MUSIC: Ry Cooder “Theme from Southern Comfort” MUSIC BY RY COODER (BMI/Venice Boulevard Music – 1981)]