By Charles Nelson
Spend any time with old-timers in Eastern Hillsborough County’s Turkey Creek and you are sure to hear stories of the historic “strawberry school” and its famed football teams.
Turkey Creek sits squarely in the county’s most important agricultural region.
Labor intensive strawberries have been the dominant winter crop for the last 120 years. Until well into the mid-twentieth century, farmers and their children supplied that labor. From Christmas to April, farm children were needed in the fields to pick and package the low-lying fruit. Their schooling would have to wait.
As a result, laboring farm children often found themselves behind in their school work because of their long absences. To alleviate this absentee problem, Turkey Creek School was one of the very first to adopt a “strawberry” school schedule in 1923.
Most Hillsborough County schools opened in July or August, but those in the middle of the strawberry region adjusted their school calendar to open in late Spring, ending their terms just before Christmas to ensure sufficient family labor for the winter harvest.
Following World War II, serious discussions resurfaced suggesting that “strawberry schools” should be closed for a variety of economic, educational and moral reasons. Turkey Creek parents countered that closing these schools created an existential threat to their farms, which would not survive the loss of their children’s labor. There was little middle ground.
Concurrently, while farm families and the school board battled, a brand-new football team arose to energize the high school’s supporters just as their traditions were being assailed by district educators.
Turkey Creek’s first football game was in 1944 in a losing effort at Pinecrest. For three years, the Gobblers’ gamely played mediocre football, but in 1947, fortunes turned under the leadership of Coach Herb Bonar (1947-1953) and his successor, John Bliziotes (1954-1959). These coaches understood the complex, multi-faceted lives of their boys as both students and laborers, sensing that they might be playing for something bigger.
Bliziotes said of his team, “98 percent of them have done farm work all their life…when not on the football field, they’re working on the farm field.”
Under Coach Bonar, winning seasons became the norm, and the winning did not stop. From 1950-52, Turkey Creek amassed Florida’s longest undefeated streak (to that date) of 26 games.
Bonar’s successor, John Bliziotes, was equally successful in creating another streak of 18 winning games in 1955-56. The community, battling for its school’s survival, went football crazy. Thousands of fans packed Holmes Stadium on Friday nights in support.
Despite this success and intense support from the community, the school board continued to question the viability of “strawberry schools,” presenting a long list of reasons why the schedule had outlived its usefulness.
Over strong community objections, Turkey Creek was forced to abandon the “strawberry schedule” in 1956-57 and operate on a school schedule that matched all of Hillsborough County. Many believed this might end Turkey Creek’s football success.
The fortunes of the football team during this trying period in Turkey Creek’s history bolstered the community as likely nothing else could have. The high school continued to serve Turkey Creek until 1972, though on a “normal” school schedule, and the football team continued its winning ways in the Tampa Bay Conference. The Gobblers went on to win a total of 6 championships until the Conference folded in 1972.
Today, the 1927 school building, listed on the Historic Registry of Hillsborough County, still proudly stands at 5005 S. Turkey Creek Rd.