The final curtain was lowered Sunday, Oct. 23 on the historic Palmdale Cracker Country Mall and Social Club as it smoldered into more than 15 feet of ashes and debris from a fire that began early Friday morning, Oct. 21.
As the fire peaked during the day, clouds of smoke and flames ravaged the store from 8 a.m.until 2 p.m. with firefighters, on the scene, declared “the fire contained.”
During the two day fiery rampage, flames poured out of second story windows blanketing most of Main Street in the tiny community of 590 people. The beloved gathering place of Palmdale residents and thousands of others, whose fortuitous path led them up the wooden steps of the Cracker porch and into their hearts forever, is now legend.
On Saturday, the remaining vestige of the beautiful wrap-around wooden Cracker porch remained somewhat intact after the interior was gutted, until as if released from the Gates of Hell, the fire smoldered again into flames.
“When there is low heat and humidity there can be a flare up,” said Bob Jones, director of Public Safety and Glades County Fire Department, On Sunday, the Cracker porch, a popular gathering and dining place for residents and weary travelers to relax, succumbed to its destiny.
The original Palmdale store opened in 1928 and was the only store for miles around. It was a welcome break for truckers and motors traveling the long haul over 20 long miles on U.S. 27 between Moore Haven near the bottom of Lake Okeechobee north to Venus and Lake Placid.
For residents, the store was much more. It was a favorite gathering place for the community that they called “home.”
The disastrous fire flared up early as general manager James Sprague, was preparing the Friday Fish Fry, making brownies, and setting up the kitchen.
“It smells like something is burning,” Sprague said to his assistant, Kathy that morning.
“Then I looked out the back door and saw flames soaring from the upstairs windows,” he explained later. “I grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran up the stairs. I told Kathy to get out and I started rescuing the parrot and birds off the porch, the money, Lotto tickets and everything I could grab. Larry (Taylor, the owner) arrived a few minutes later as I was beginning to get dizzy and eventually was overcome by smoke. After what seemed like a long time, the Moore Haven Fire Department arrived, he continued.
According to Bob Jones, Director of Public Safety and head of the Glades County Fire Department, they “received an emergency 911 call at 8:14 a.m. and arrived at 8:28 a.m.”
“I was present as fire trucks from around the community arrived to fight the fire with 60,000 gallons of water, enough to put out the fire,” said Mr. Jones. “We also established a water line into Fisheating Creek as we know that Palmdale does not have a good water source needed to suppress a fire but we had more than enough water.
Until about 2004, Palmdale had a volunteer fire department, but in 2016 the State of Florida instituted new training regulations, said Mr. Jones. Palmdale does not currently have any certified volunteer fire fighters or a fire department.
The official statement updating the crisis came through the Glades County Emergency Management Administrative Assistant, Marisa Shivers: “Glades County Sherriff’s Office Dispatch was notified on Oct. 21, 2016 at approximately 8 a.m. that flames could be seen from the second story window of the Palmdale Cracker Store. Moore Haven Central District was paged out and arrived on scene soon.
“It was discovered that the second floor of the building was fully engulfed. EMS Station 3, Buckhead Ridge Fire Department and Ortona Fire Department assisted. Mutual Aid was called with Clewiston Fire Department, LaBelle Fire Department, Felda Fire Department and Lake Placid Fire Department. Emergency Management was on scene to assist with responder relief and called in the American Red Cross to assist with a displaced tenant. The State Fire Marshall will be investigating how the fire started. The flames were contained by 2 p.m. The structure was a complete loss.”
In 2016, the State passed new requirements to become a volunteer fire fighter with a 206-hour Fire One Certification training course. The county provides this training free of charge, including books and use of all the heavy training equipment.
“We have people taking the course ranging from ages 62 to 18,” explained Mr. Jones. “It is preferable to live in Palmdale, but we do hire people from the local area to work in Palmdale. Most of the training is performed in Moore Haven. We need at least four to six people signed up to train in Palmdale as it might not be feasible to haul all the heavy equipment and materials to that location to teach the course with one or two people.
“We will work with those who receive certification to assist them in finding a fire truck to create a volunteer fire department,” he said. The Fire One Certification includes a 40 hour First Responder’s course, Wildland Fire Training and an Emergency Vehicle Driving course. If someone is not able to pass the physical requirements for the Fire One Certification, they can take the First Responders Course or Wildland Training portion and become part of the Brush Division where only First Aid is required should it be needed to administer to an injured person.
Those interested in becoming a Volunteer Fire Fighter in Palmdale can contact Bob Jones between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday at 863 946-0566.
Marisa Shivers of Emergency Management stated that “we have 3 certified Fire Fighter trainers in the county and offer classes often. We are presently doing a class in LaBelle. We offer these classes free and have for years. We just advertised it in the paper and have Glades County citizens enrolled in the class. The community needs to get involved and have a meeting to see if they have enough people to join and take the required training. If they are not willing to do these steps then the volunteers will have to continue to come from other communities.”
However, back in Palmdale as news of the store’s demise spread, local residents and motorists started to trickle into the remains of the burnt structure. As flames still smoldered and smoke filled the air, people stopped by to talk and remember “the good old days,”
Larry and Marisa Taylor, the store owners struggled over 16 years to re-open the store overcoming many obstacles. Then in 2015 it happened. Larry and Marisa re-opened the store, hiring James Sprague as general manager.
James Sprague and his wife, Beth, discovered Palmdale when they decided to move from the Davie area. “We began our search for a more rural area in which to live and work,” said Mr. Sprague. “Driving north on U.S. 27, I saw a ‘Cook Wanted Sign’ posted on the old Palmdale store. I contacted Larry Taylor, the owner, we met and he hired me,” said Mr. Sprague.
Mr. Taylor also owns South Dixie Truck Sales down the street and has fought many years through grandfathered zoning trials and tribulations to re-open the store.
“Over the past three years I opened and managed three Fort Lauderdale delis and served as Executive Chef. When I got this job,” said Mr. Sprague, “I moved to Palmdale with my wife and other family members to begin re-furbishing the Old Florida landmark. I was focused on re-creating the legendary old Florida atmosphere of the store and restaurant, featuring country-style cooking and specialty dishes. I hired five other employees elevating Palmdale’s population from about 300 residents to 562. The Palmdale Cracker Country Mall and Social Club was a perfect rural location to start over. But Beth and I decided we needed to come up with a new name for the restaurant that reflects more than just a fast food eatery and convenience store, thus, we came up with the new name.”
“We first expanded the old front into a large breezy wrap-around “cracker porch” with wooden benches and dining tables, adding a touch of the wild with a beautiful McCaw parrot in an outside cage,” Mr. Sprague added.
Besides the outdoor facelift, the Spragues’ added additional shelves inside and stocked them with old time favorites from the days of old Florida. Above the wooden shelves lining the inside walls were original pictures of Palmdale’s heritage “cow hunters” and their families who settled in Palmdale in the 1800s now destroyed by fire. The store had just celebrated its one year re-opening anniversary before the fire took its toll.
Long time Palmdale resident, Ray Hendry, born in Palmdale, said his mom used to work at the long gone, Palmdale Hotel. He sold homemade carved wooden benches displayed on the Cracker Porch. Fortunately, the benches did not succumb to the fire and he was able to haul them to safety on Saturday.
Alice Yates, who worked at the restaurant and is Beth Sprague’s mother, relocated to Palmdale to work at the Palmdale Cracker store. “We really loved this little store, the community, and the town of Palmdale. We plan to remain in Palmdale now as residents and hope we can all find jobs because the fire left our family with zero income.
“We have made a lot of new friends here and love them dearly. I will truly miss seeing all of their faces every day,” Mrs. Yates added.
Ray Hendry’s son, Ray Jr, recalls his own endearing memories at the store.
“In my childhood and in recent times I would sit in the store after having ice cream and a glass bottle Coke and watch my father and boys playing with the metal puzzles that were always at the store that nobody could figure out.
“I sat with my family eating dinner after work laughing and conversing. There was always a Bible on the table. Those memories will never be forgotten and my boys Allan and Tucker Hendry will never forget the times they got to spend in that store with their parents and grandparents.”
Going through some of the rubble on Saturday, a singed Bible was saved as residents gathered around to appreciate its retrieval from the ashes.