Baber's Park, Gainesville, Florida

Article from the Gainesville, Florida Sun
Tuesday, January 4, 2000

University & Main: Babers Park hidden right in plain sight

Sun columnist, Gainesville, Florida

My commuting route takes me through the intersection of SW 13th Street and Williston Road at least twice each work day, but when a caller asked me about Babers Park, I was totally stumped.

"Never heard of it," I told the lady. "Where is it?"

"Right there on the corner of Williston Road and SW 13th Street," she replied.

While I didn't say it at the time, I thought that surely the lady was mistaken. So when I went home that evening I gave it an extra close look -- convenience stores on two corners, a bread store on another, but there on the southeast side of the intersection was a little triangle of land and trees with a small brown and white sign facing traffic: "Babers Park" it read.

There are no picnic benches, no ball diamonds, no Frisbee throwers, joggers or soccer players. According to Alachua County property records that little triangle belongs to the State of Florida, but it turns out the Lotus Circle of the Gainesville Garden Club is responsible for the sign and keeps the place spruced up.

"It's cleaner than I thought it would be," said Lotus Circle member Catherine Mullin as she surveyed the shady corner with fellow member Betty Renshaw.

Touring the park takes about five minutes, but Renshaw and Mullins are reminded of stories as they walk. The sign brought back memories of the park dedication in the downpour of January 1992 on the circle's 60th anniversary. The crepe myrtles planted along the north edge were an attempt to bring in a little more beauty. The young holly tree is a survivor, another planted at the same time wasn't as fortunate.

Mullins said at one time the state did have picnic tables and trash cans on the property, but the tables became homes to the homeless, and vandals did their best to turn a little beauty into blight. Eventually the cans, tables and benches were removed, leaving just the patch of green on the city's south doorstep. Except for a few tailgaters during football season, the park goes unused, but the circle members do their best to keep it looking tidy.

The park is properly named. It was Henry Jennings Babers Sr. who donated the land to the state, and his wife, Annie Rutherford Babers, who was a charter member of the Lotus Circle.

Babers came to Gainesville in the 1890s and operated a feed and seed business. His 87-year-old son Henry Jennings Babers Jr., a retired surgeon, is still here, so is his daughter, Mary Gray Sandefer, while a third daughter, Dorothy Schoch, lives in Flagstaff, Ariz.

"Say, I saw a park with your name on it," Babers said is a comment he occasionally hears.

The Florida Department of Transportation measured the traffic rolling by the busy corner in 1998 -- 21,500 vehicles on the west side of the corner, 19,100 on the east, 15,700 to the north, 10,500 to south -- in a single day. Babers recalled a quieter time.

"That was a dirt road, actually, as far as I remember, there was very little traffic on it," he said.

While the family owned property there, they lived downtown in a house where the post office and federal courthouse now stand. This bit of wilderness, Babers said, was a great place to play. He remembered a friend finding a tiny snake there, picking it up, putting it in a pocketbook and taking it to the university for identification.

"It was a coral snake," he said with a laugh.

Just down the road toward town Colclough Pond was a great place to swim, as long as his folks didn't know about it. Babers remembered one swim in particular when a buddy accused him of delivering an underwater kick, which Babers denied.

"We realized an old Gator was there between our legs," he said.

When he drives through the intersection today he sees more than a spot of green that carries the family name.

"I think of old times, of my daddy when I was growing up here, warm thoughts, " he said.

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