After Georgia-Pacific closed in 2011, new businesses and community spirit are giving Hawthorne a boost.
With its rustic chic decor, the Wrap Shack in Hawthorne stands out as one of the most modern buildings in the small city’s downtown area. Popular country music fills the bright dining room, where a small crowd, including Mayor Matt Surrency, gathers for a Monday lunch.
The railroad tracks just outside the restaurant hint at Hawthorne’s beginnings.
The town was formally founded in 1879 with the completion of the Peninsular Railroad connecting Waldo and Ocala.
Before the railroad’s arrival, the area’s first modern settlers came to Morrison’s Mill near Little Orange Creek, where they ground corn into grits, said Bonita Dewiliby Moore, who manages the historical Hawthorne Apartments, originally built in 1883.
The village, first called Jamestown, changed its name to Hawthorn (with no "e" on the end) in 1880. Both names come from James M. Hawthorn, a local landowner. The "e" was added to Hawthorne in 1950.
Another railway, the Florida Southern Railway, connected Palatka to Gainesville by 1881.
In 1883, a stone quarry in Hawthorne became the site of Florida’s first phosphate mill. Agriculture, including oranges, lima beans and celery, and forestry from turpentine, served to spur area growth.
“They sometimes called Hawthorne the lima bean capital of the world,” Dewiliby Moore said.
The city’s history includes more than agriculture, of course.
Present-day Chester Shell Elementary School was founded by its namesake, a Hawthorne resident, to educate black students, Dewiliby Moore said.
Shell, an African American born in 1892 in Orange Springs, worked as both a porter for the railroad and a fishing and hunting guide in Hawthorne.
In the early 20th century, Hawthorne’s black children only attended school two to three months a year. Because they had no formal school building, they had classes in their homes, churches and a black-owned Masonic hall in town.
Shell approached the Alachua County School Board in 1926, requesting that a school be provided, Dewiliby Moore said.
He raised money through his hunting contacts, and black residents solicited funds and sold dinners to meet the $10,000 goal.
“He was very influential,” Dewiliby Moore said. “It was an amazing feat that he was able to do that.”
Shell High School was completed in 1955, and black students finally had a place to study in town rather than being bused to Lincoln High School in Gainesville.
The school eventually became an elementary school, and integrated in 1970.
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In present-day Hawthorne, a mural depicting the city’s history is painted on the side of the new City Hall building, which opened just last year in a former bank space.
Central in the mural is a calm and blue Lake Johnson, surrounded by a late 19th century building reminiscent of ones still standing today and a Ford Model T. To the right of the lake are two deer and a train car.
Inside City Hall, a train passes by as Mayor Surrency recounts his family’s history in Hawthorne.
The turpentine industry brought the Surrencys to North Florida from Georgia, he said. His grandmother served as a city commissioner, and his mother, Sharon Surrency, was the city’s first mayor-commissioner.
He watched his family’s deep involvement with his hometown from the baseball field, where he played through high school. He returned to the field as a coach after graduating.
“I never wanted to get involved in politics,” he said.
But he did, and in 2009, he was elected to the City Commission. He became mayor in 2011.
Surrency’s first few months as mayor brought with it hardship, as one of the city’s major employers, the Georgia-Pacific plywood mill, shut down. Some 400 people lost their jobs in a city of about 1,800.
“For a lot of families, that was the only income they had,” Surrency said.
People who worked at the plant for decades had no experience filling out online job applications or writing a resume, he said, so the city tried to help job hunters.
The city tried to keep the plant from closing, but Georgia-Pacific said economic reasons left it no choice, Surrency said. Still, a majority of families stayed put.
He said the rallying of the community has helped it bounce back, and he applies the same tools he used in coaching to running the city.
“Everybody has something to bring to the table,” he said. “When you have that many ideas, it can be hard to coordinate. But we’ve managed so far.”
More recently, the uncertain fate of Hawthorne Middle/High School kept the future of about 300 students hanging in the balance.
The school received failing D and F grades for six straight years from 2011 to 2017 before finally raising its score to a passing C in 2017-18.
The school was at risk of closing for its poor performance, but the community came together to support the school and help keep the doors open.
About 500 residents showed up for a fall 2017 town hall meeting, the city held a successful school supply drive, an estimated 110 volunteers contributed 2,750 volunteer hours during the year and about 50 businesses pitched in to help.
Hawthorne Middle/High’s grade for the 2018-19 school year is incomplete and requires further investigation by the state before a grade is given, Alachua County Public Schools spokeswoman Jackie Johnson said.
The school’s National FFA Organization, formerly the Future Farmers of America program, is key not just to the school, but to Hawthorne as a whole.
The FFA program teaches students animal science and nutrition, landscaping and introduces them to the business side of agriculture.
Heather Carroll, a database clerk at the school, has a deep history both in Hawthorne and FFA.
Her parents attended Hawthorne Middle/High, she and her husband both attended the school and participated in FFA and her two children are in the program.
“We’re just a tight-knight community and the school and its programs keep us going,” she said. “This is my heart.”
Her son Sam, 12, and daughter Holly, 11, tend to their pigs more than five hours a week and help out at the family’s farm supply store.
“They love knowing how to take care of the animals, the responsibility of it,” she said.
Carroll said participating in FFA makes her children better prepared for the future because they have a lot of experiences other children do not.
“No one else is going to take care of the animals,” she reminds her children. “The time you put in is what you get out.”
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The community has supported each other outside the school as well.
Members of the First United Methodist Church of Hawthorne and the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion joined to create the Hawthorne Area Resource Center, at 21923 SE 67th Place.
It started as a food pantry, but soon expanded to include several community outreach programs, said Sharon Surrency, who works as a nurse but volunteers at the center. She is also the mayor’s mother.
“We feel like people just don’t have the funds to stretch to the end of the month,” she said.
Pantry coordinator Wallace Russell said the center served more than 200 households with food in June, which defied his expectations.
“I’m just flabbergasted,” he said. “I can’t comprehend how we’ve been so successful.”
Sharon Surrency has added community outreach to the center’s services.
Older residents can become lonely and need companionship. People often come by the center’s offices just to talk, she said, but Hawthorne needs better access to mental health support from organizations like Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, whose only Alachua County offices are in Gainesville.
“We could do so much more if we had the resources and personnel,” Surrency said. “Even though the services are in Gainesville, they may as well be 100 miles away.”
Alan Paulin, senior vice president of clinical and community services at Meridian, said mental health faces a lack of funding from the state, but Meridian does the best it can to meet all the needs.
Some of the services available in Hawthorne include a mental health counselor at the public schools, who can go to people's homes when transportation is an issue.
Meridian has helped train city employees in best mental health practices, Paulin said.
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Business is experiencing a boom in Hawthorne. The new City Hall, the June opening of the Wrap Shack, plans for a new coffee shop and the recent opening of other mom-and-pop shops have encouraged local entrepreneurs to serve local customers.
Dewiliby Moore said the revival, which includes businesses such as the Love's truck stop, a McDonald's and a CVS Pharmacy, are welcome after 2011’s plant closure.
“They are investing in Hawthorne,” she said. “Most of these businesses are entrepreneurs in town opening up small businesses.”
Wrap Shack owner Tracy Cantley said the community has responded well to the new restaurant, which employs a number of local high school students working their first jobs. It’s a way to keep younger people excited about the city's future, he said.
“A lot of people are fearful to start a business in Hawthorne,” Cantley said. “I jump out there and do it.”
He's bought another building downtown, and will soon shift his focus to opening a furniture store.
“They ought to have a sign when you drive through that says ‘Open For Business,’ ” Cantley said.