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Strawberry Life is Worth Savoring

A farm family moved from rural Pennsylvania a half-century ago, and found life sweet with an unfamiliar crop.
Published March 10, 2006

[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]

Roy and Helen Parke love strawberries so much they have strawberry wallpaper, a strawberry-red Cadillac, and a strawberry-shaped swimmng pool, below.



DOVER - If it's possible to still find a patch of heaven somewhere in Hillsborough County, it might be in a strawberry field.

In fact, the state's most famous strawberry farmer himself, Roy Parke, once declared: "God must have really loved strawberries because he shaped them like hearts."

Every last one of them.

Sweet, luscious, little red hearts snuggled by the thousands into cardboard flats in the Parke family's packinghouse off a sleepy country road not far from Plant City.

This week, as the 75th annual Florida Strawberry Festival celebrates the area's historic agricultural bounty, the humble berry still reigns king inside Parke's Dover home.

The three-bedroom, two-bath house that Parke, 85, shares with his wife, Helen, 80, sports a strawberry-shaped pool replete with a large strawberry mosaic and red trim; plush, strawberry-red carpeting; a strawberry milkshake-colored tub (where the National Enquirer once photographed Roy soaking in a bath full of berries); and strawberry-festooned china, wallpaper, teapots, cookie jars, artwork and crystal.

"Roy always told me, buy what you want - just make sure it's red," Helen says with a laugh.

Indeed, the family's good-natured love of red knows no inhibition: They own a strawberry-red Cadillac, built their kids a strawberry-red tennis court and painted their patio deck as close to the color of a strawberry as they could possibly get.

"For years, friends have always brought us things with strawberries on them," Helen explains.

On any given day during harvest season, the Parkes - founders of what is believed to be the largest family-owned strawberry growing operation in Florida - can step outside the back door of their 1950s ranch house and soak it all in.

Deep green fields sprawl acre after acre beneath a big sky, broken only by stands of pines and citrus groves and an occasional house in the distance. In fact, things don't look a whole lot different from when the couple moved here from rural Pennsylvania in 1957.

Irish immigrants and truck farmers who made their way to America in 1926, the Parke family owned a farm and roadside market near Pittsburgh where they sold cantaloupes, peaches, other fruits and vegetables.

Roy, who attended a one-room school and ended his formal education after the eighth grade, was a sergeant in the 63rd Infantry during World War II.

The couple met in the 1940s while Roy was stationed at an Army base in St. Louis. One day Roy wandered into Neisner's Five and Dime on Cherokee Street to buy a pen and writing paper. Helen, then 17, was a salesgirl behind the counter.

Impressed by her wavy brown hair and pretty smile, he asked her on a date. Helen, in turn, invited Roy to church and her mother's Sunday supper of chicken and dumplings.

The rest, as they say, is Parke family history.

The couple married three months later. After the war, they landed back in Pennsylvania, where Roy went to work as a farmer, raising his children to do the same.

"I was 8 when I started waiting on customers at the farm stand, tallying orders on paper bags," recalls the Parkes' daughter, Cheryl Meeks, who, along with her husband, Jim, owns the nearby Parkesdale Farm Market, a family business on U.S. 92 in Plant City.

In fact, the Parkes may be better known for their wildly popular strawberry and citrus market than farming. With its red and white striped awnings, banners of red tinsel and red and green picnic tables, the stand is revered for its strawberry milkshakes and strawberry shortcake. Cheryl, who aimed to please a range of diverse regional palates, developed their legendary shortcake recipe.

"Southerners like a more traditional biscuit while Northerners like their shortcake to taste like cake," she explains as a line of customers snakes out through the parking lot one fine winter afternoon.

The market, among other things, offers a cornucopia of cheap, locally grown produce and specialty food items, including strawberry bread, Florida marmalade, fresh-squeezed orange juice. There's a souvenir shop loaded with Florida trinkets not seen since the state's pre-Disney days.

But the piece de resistance is a giant papier-mache strawberry throne, where snowbirds of a certain age take turns donning a crown, scepter and fake roses and having their pictures taken to peels of raucous laughter.

It was Roy's parents who discovered Plant City on a trip to Florida and persuaded their son and daughter-in-law to come down and take a look.

They did and never looked back.

"It was so beautiful down here, the sunshine and warm weather," Helen remembers. "But we had to forget everything we already knew about farming and start over.The soil was different, the equipment was different, the plants were different, even the fertilizer was different."

The Parkes' children and their families all live close by the Parke strawberry farm - now hundreds of acres. Workers pick 7,000 flats of berries a day, which are shipped to markets primarily east of the Mississippi River.

A half-century after the family first set foot in Dover, planted their berries and built their house, Helen still can still show a visitor just the right way to pick a strawberry:
"With a flick of the wrist and then just flip it - never pull," she explains.

And, she adds, all these years later, farm life remains as sweet and humble as the strawberries they grow. 

On Tuesday nights, a flock of grandkids still pop pizza rolls and spicy mozzarella sticks in the oven at Roy and Helen's house where they gather on the strawberry-red carpet to watch Gilmore Girls.

Sometimes they don't pay much attention to the show because they all get to talking and are just happy to be together.

"This house has really served us - it was meant to be lived in," Helen says, "and we've lived in it well."