Forgotten Florida: Voters dissolve one of Florida's oldest towns

- On Tuesday night, voters decided to wipe out one of the oldest towns in Florida. They voted to dissolve the once-thriving town of Hastings, which is about three hours north of Tampa.

The story of Hastings is that of a canary in the coal mine for small-town America. It should also be a warning for politicians across the nation.

Farmers once loaded railcars and grocery stores with giant cabbage and heaping sacks of potatoes. This economy turned Hastings into the potato capital of the south.

John Barnes remembers what Hastings used to be when tourists and traveling businessmen packed the downtown shops while the town’s farmers worked the fields.

“It was typical Americana of the 50s and 60s,” Barnes explained. “There’s a sad aspect to it, but I’m not sad at all because I don’t live in yesterday.”

Many of the people who lived in and around the town performed cheap labor to keep the farms going. 

“I didn’t know I was poor until I graduated college and started work as a social worker and saw the poverty level and realized I was in it,” remembered Carol Holtz.

Then came the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA flooded supermarkets with cheap tomatoes from Mexico. In turn, tomato farms in other parts of the state switched to farming potatoes, which squeezed out many of the family farms in Hastings.

“In the early 1970s, you had hundreds of farmers here and now we have tens of farmers here,” said Hastings-area farmer and St. Johns County Commissioner Jeb Smith.

Meanwhile, some say the town was already collapsing from within -- on a fault-line of race. 

"The railroad was the divider of our town,” said Holtz. "All of us [African American residents] lived on one side of the track. All of the white people lived on the other side."

The civil rights movement took off in the 1960s, but the politicians of yesteryear had Gerrymandered the town limits along the track, so the African American neighborhoods could not vote.

Mayor Tom Ward said that goes back to long before he took office.

“When that line was drawn many years ago, it segregated part of Hastings,” said Ward. “Oh, I’m sure, through government, we could redraw the line if we felt necessary”

However, a majority of voters never felt it necessary and John Barnes said the town began to shrink when the federal government desegregated the schools. 

"It was a white flight issue,” said Barnes. "White people left Hastings. They didn’t want to go to school with black kids.”

The town later decided to dissolve the school, and students like Jeb Smith had to take a bus to St. Augustine. 

“I rode almost two and a half hours one way to get to school… and there were a lot of us like that,” Smith said. 

Meanwhile, the town had drainage problems and lost the railroad, while a fire burned down stores. Those buildings were never rebuilt. 

“We’ve been on life support for the longest,” said Minister Terrance Smith. "I think the dissolving will play a major role in the reviving… Though it's on life support, it can still have life breathed back into it."

Only 29 people voted to keep the town of Hastings; 36 voted to dissolve it. The plan passed with 82-percent support. The town government will officially shut down in March.

In the meantime, St. Johns County officials must begin to take over basic services like water, waste, and roads. 

It's still unclear whether any staff associated with those services run by the city would have the potential to work for the county.

What is clear is the mayor of Hastings and a handful of staff will be out of a job.

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