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Waverly grew out of dwelling place for citrus employees

WAVERLY – Located just to the east of Winter Haven, the community of Waverly can’t officially be classified as a city, a town or even a village. It is more like a crossroad, straddling State Road 540 between U.S. Highway 27 and State Road 17.

Locals describe their dwelling place as the working community for Waverly Growers. The late W.C. Pedersen, the primary founder of Waverly Growers, recorded a little history regarding the Waverly area in an undated article he wrote for Waverly’s 40th anniversary booklet.

“The village of Waverly and the citrus industry that surrounds it might be said to have been started by the Indians,” Pedersen recorded. “This crossing place attracted scouts, hunters, turpentiners, lumbermen, pioneer homesteaders and cattlemen.”

Pedersen logged that for the first 75 years, Waverly was known as the way to get from Florida’s west coast to the Kissimmee River and was called “Kissimmee Road.”

Pedersen recalled in his excerpts that in 1882, a gentleman by the name of Asa Gibbons settled Waverly. A F.W. Ohlinger established his home there in 1884 and used his house as the first Waverly post office in 1895. Ohlinger also was named Waverly’s first postmaster. Another Pedersen note says that Waverly was settled 16 years before the town of Lake Wales was incorporated.

W.B. Campbell is recorded by Pedersen as the third person who helped to establish the community of Waverly. The trio is said to be the party that named Iron Mountain, before Bok Tower was built on the top of it in 1926, and named Star Lake. That lake, nestled in the Waverly “cove,” is now referred to by newcomers as Lake of the Hills.

Pederson wrote that after the great Florida freeze of 1895, orange groves were planted once again, and in 1914 a small shed was built alongside the railroad tracks. This became Waverly’s first citrus packinghouse.

Pederson wrote an autobiography, titled “How I Got This Way” and published in 1962, that included a great deal about the Waverly area. Waverly residents Charles and Joyce Hall own a copy of that book, which describes early Waverly much like a town in the television Westerns, only without the saloons, because all of Polk County was dry in those days.

The Halls moved to Waverly in 1967.

“Waverly is just like you’ve always read about of isolated communities. This is one of them,” Joyce Hall said. “The whites on one side of the tracks and the blacks on the other. But now we’re all mixed.”

Waverly was a place where most everyone who lived there worked at the same place.

Margaret Sumner has been there for 66 years.

“My parents came from Alabama in 1920. My dad was a grove caretaker and we lived on Little Lake Lee,” Sumner said. “My brother, Thomas Aleck, and his family still live there.”

Sumner said it seemed that everyone who lived in Waverly lived by a lake or on a hill, and that some of the first families named their own roads. They included Charlie and Bill Kinney, who lived on Kinney Road.

Sumner said the late W.C. Pedersen, former president of Waverly Growers, made the community a fun and peaceful one, but upon his death, things started to change.

“Mr. Pedersen had ballfields and parks for the kids to play in, and Waverly Growers picked up the garbage. It was like a company town, pretty much,” Sumner said. “They had a truck and two men and they would go around and pick up everybody’s garbage. They serviced the firehouse, too.”

Shortly after Pedersen’s retirement, that kind of community living changed. The rural area in now serviced by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement, and firefighting services are provided by the Lake Wales Fire Department. Garbage collection and water service is provided by the Polk County government.

“I always thought it was neat, every year at Christmastime, the church would do a program on Sunday, and Waverly Growers would have a Christmas play on Friday night, and there would be gift bags for all the kids and Santa would come, but when Mr. Pedersen retired, all that stopped,” Sumner said.

“I miss that and I would have liked my kids to be a part of that, because as teenagers we would go down there and help put the gift bags together for the kids, and it was really neat to be a part of it,” she said.

Sumner also noted that Waverly Growers had a softball team that went all the way to state.

“They would go after work at night to play,” she said.

In its glory days, Waverly had a store called Dodd’s Grocery, a big garage that also sold gasoline and Cain’s Meat Market, formerly owned by the late Tom and May Cain, who were neighbors to Sumner.

The only drug store also housed the post office until a free-standing building was built for postal service.

In addition to the Waverly Growers packinghouse, First Baptist Church of Waverly seemed to be a typical local meeting place. The church sponsored a Boy Scout troop led by the late Grady Ward and built a Scout house on church property. Sumner led the local Brownie troop.

“Most of the community events and clubs centered around the church,” Sumner said. “From homecoming, Halloween, all that, and almost everyone that lived here, their kids got married in the Waverly Baptist church.”

Sumner also recalled another local meeting spot – the firehouse.

“At one time, we had a room at the top of the firehouse and folks could rent it and have parties or meetings,” she said.

Sumner said Waverly’s main employer provided more than a paycheck. When powerful Hurricane Donna came through in 1960, the packinghouse was used as an evacuation shelter, and during summer break from school, Pederson provided a summer recreation program for the local children.

“We even went down to Lake Annie and he (Pedersen) provided swimming lessons. He was just a fine man,” Sumner said.

Ann Aleck, a sister-in-law to Sumner, moved to Waverly in 1949.

“Dundee sits on one side of Lake Annie and Waverly sits on the other. I grew up on the Dundee side of Lake Annie and I married a Waverly boy, Paul Aleck, so I moved to the other side of the lake and he was a member of the ballclub, too, and he also worked for Waverly Growers upstairs in accounting,” Aleck said.

Aleck’s family has been in Waverly for four generations now, and all three of her children still live there today.

Ann Aleck worked at Waverly Growers for 25 years in the gift house.

“They would bring buses full of people and they would tour the packing house and watch the operations,” she said. “They had to stop that, though, because they were afraid that Waverly would get sued if someone fell on the steps.”

With any small town, there has to be a little riff raff. Aleck said the only dark side of Waverly that she can recall is the time she made an accidental discovery.

“Right next to the gas station that Waverly Growers owned, the field men used to make moonshine over there in that little building,” Aleck said. “I found out because I used to store things over there and I caught ‘em. I was sworn to secrecy, though.

“I guess it’s OK to tell it now. They’re all dead.”

Robbie Shields said that working at Waverly Growers paid for two years of schooling for him at Polk Community College.

“I worked at Waverly Growers in 1968 when I was 14 years old after school,” Shields said. “You name it, I did it. Hoed trees, banked trees, disked the groves, fitted irrigation pipes, installed the rain birds and cleaned the barn.”

His father, Robert Shields Sr., worked for Waverly Growers all of his life as the manger of inventory accounting.

Although Waverly Growers turned over its packinghouse division to the Haines City Citrus Growers Association in 2005, the association still conducts the harvesting and grove caretaking for hundreds of acres of citrus today.

Shields said that in growing up in Waverly, one never spoke about anyone because everyone was related to each other. He, too, played on the famous Waverly ball team, which at one time was a part of the Dixie Youth Leagues comprised of Dundee, Lake Hamilton and Waverly, and was coached by Sumner and her husband.

Aleck noted that one of the Waverly ball teams even traveled as far as Canada to play.

With a population of approximately 2,300, Sumner said, “It’s a nice little town to live in. I raised my kids here and am raising my grandkids here.”

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