Title: 2006 Woman of Year: Iris Wall
Type: Woman of the Year in Agriculture Award
Iris Wall: A Cracker is like this, he will learn to get by on what he's got. And if he don't have what he needs, he'll improvise. He'll make something that will work anyhow. And he will do everything he can do get what he needs. And if he can't get it, he'll do without it. He's just that tough.
A fifth-generation Floridian, Iris Wall is a true Cracker. She’s had an amazing life and lived through changes in Florida that most could only imagine. Born in Indiantown in 1929, she spent most of her childhood on the back of a horse, cowhunting with her father and sister or just riding for the fun of it. It was then that she became lifelong friends with members of the Seminole Tribe. In 1948 she married Homer Wall, her high school sweetheart, and in 1950 they moved to an isolated camp about 30 miles from Immokalee. There they made their living cutting fenceposts, hunting gators and tending their cattle.
Iris: I helped Homer when we first started. He would cut the post and I would lay them up on the stump so we could get to them with the truck. But we lived down there…And I'd come in maybe once a month and buy groceries and -- we had no expense, no expense. But when there's only the two of you down there, you, depend upon each other for entertainment, for the very necessities of life, for nursing if you're sick. You have nobody to take care of you but just the two of you…But we were people that could be satisfied like that. And we just had a very, very, very strong marriage. And I always feel like we kind of laid the foundation while we were down there in Immokalee.
By the time they moved back to Indiantown five years later, they had two daughters and their savings.
In the late 50s Homer started working for Air Products, working his way from a janitor to a plant manager. After two years of training plant operators in numerous states out west and in Cape Canaveral, homesickness told Homer and Iris it was time to move back to Indiantown.
In 1961, the Walls got into the lumber business, partnering with friends to open W&W Lumber.
Iris: Homer sold a lot of lumber in Okeechobee. So he would take Eva, who was just a baby, and take some Cokes and he would go around where everybody was working and sell lumber. He would sell during the day and I would run the lumberyard and he'd be back in Indiantown by three o'clock, when the kids got out of school. Then I'd go home and fed the horses and took care of everything and fed the kids and cooked supper and washed our clothes and he'd run it till dark, and that's how we got started, with one old farm truck and just a lot of grit and determination.
Three years later, the Walls bought their partner’s half of the business. Today W&W Lumber has expanded to include six family-owned and operated lumberyards and Ace Hardware stores.
In the early 80s Mr. and Mrs. Wall were instrumental in funding the Family Worship Center in Indiantown.
Dickie Gilliam: You can't talk about the Wall family unless you talk about your relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ… that's probably one of the most important things that I've gotten from my relationship and the example that they set before us… being in church with them and making the Lord a very important part of our life.
Iris: As a Christian, I've always been involved in the church. And many of these woman, I teach adult women now and I'm 77 years old. And I taught many of them when they were just married, when we were 20 years old. And it's very few people have that privilege to have known them their entire life and still I'm their Sunday school teacher after all those many years.
Eva Edwards: One of my mom's greatest assets to this world would be her strong family bond. She is a very family-oriented person. She's the glue that holds our family together, always has been.
Terry Gilliam: My mother has always been a very self-sacrificing person. She's always put other people before herself. Her family came first, and my daddy – we, as children, we always knew my daddy was number one.
In 1994 Iris’ earth shook when Mr. Wall died from pancreatic cancer. Homer had been everything to her, and life would be hard without him. While her Cracker spirit had carried her through difficult times, it would be her unwavering faith that would sustain her.
Jonnie Flewelling: My mother is a woman of strength. And she doesn't draw it from here or from things she owns, but she draws it from God.
Iris: We look to the Lord. He’s taught us in His Word that if we trust in Him, that He’ll take care of us. And we just trust in him … That’s where our faith lies that He’s gonna take care of us.
Jonnie Flewelling: That's been an amazing thing to me is to watch her survive the death of someone she lived with for 49 years and come out and blossom, never stops missing him, never stops feeling the loss, but hasn't laid around and said, look at poor me. But rather, she's got up and made a difference.
Never one to give up, Mrs. Wall started looking at new ways she could do good in the world. Passionate about preserving the ag traditions of old Florida, Iris gives her time to ensure they’ll be kept alive. She a member of both the Florida and National Cattlemen's Association, on the board of the Martin County Farm Bureau and has been inducted to the Florida Cracker Hall of Fame. She is vice president of the Florida Cracker Cattle Association and the serves on the board of the Florida Cracker Horse Association. She's also active in the Florida Cracker Trail Association and, at 77, had a leadership role, sponsored, and rode in, the Great Florida Cattle Drive of ’06.
Michelle Harper, VP FL Cracker Trail Association: Iris is very giving of her knowledge, her experience, and everything that she’s she's encountered in her life. With agriculture disappearing daily and for someone like her, with her stature, to contribute everything that she does to people day to day. That's something you can't treasure any more than we do.
Iris has accomplished something her family, Florida historians and anyone who picks it up will treasure. After hearing Iris talking about her experiences as a cow hunter, a friend prompted her to write down some of her stories. “Cracker Tales” is an account of a remarkable woman, people she’s known over the years and the town she grew up in.
Her efforts to preserve the past include the purchase and restoration of the Historic Seminole Inn. Today the inn, which is listed on the National Historic Register, is run by her daughter Jonnie.
Iris: Well, I am most proud of our children, I am most proud of our children. Kids just keep on paying good dividends. I've got grandchildren, great grandchildren. And they're all -- they're all grands. And I am prouder of them than anything else in the world, because I think, really, that your children are your report card. They tell what you -- they tell the story of your life, really.
For Iris Wall, her report card looks pretty good. Each of the family’s W&W lumberyards is managed by her sons-in-law. Granddaughter Anna and husband Steve own and operate the local Western Auto. Grandson Adam works at the local Indiantown W&W. And even Iris has to make an appointment to catch up with great-granddaughter Whitney.
Her love of children and the desire to teach them the importance of agriculture makes the High Horse Ranch a perfect destination.
Iris: Well, I've always had a heart for children, always had a heart for children. And I never turned down -- if they asked me to speak at the high school, if they asked me to speak in – wherever they asked me to speak I go when it's children.
It’s here that she gives tours, showing students life in the country and how a cowhunter lived in the old days. They may catch a glimpse of a bobcat, get an anatomy lesson on a cow’s two stomachs, hear the crack of a whip, or just jump on beds at the camp’s cabin. The important thing for Iris is that the kids leave the ranch with an understanding of Florida’s rich Agricultural history.
Iris: I think a hands-on is the best teaching that there is. And I love children. I have a soft spot for them. I sponsor every one; I never turn one away from my door.
Chasey Bass, Florida State Saddle Bronc Rider Champion: Mrs. Wall has helped me quite a bit in the rodeo. She sponsors me and backs me up. Kind of helps me quite a bit, if you think about it. I have seen her at a few of my rodeos before. It kind of makes you feel good.
Terry Gilliam: When my daddy died in '94, it would have been easy for mother to have sold the cattle and, and just to have become a needy person, because she had always put my daddy first and foremost in her life. But instead the cattle became her solace. That's where she comes to get away, to see her cattle, to ride out amongst them.
The High Horse isn’t just for show. It’s a working cow-calf operation, and working the cattle gives the family an opportunity to ride together. Iris is probably more comfortable in the saddle of her Cracker horse Abraham, than anywhere else on earth.
Craig Edwards: And she's always respect the land and really kind of installed within us to really appreciate the cattle and the outdoors. And she's kind of really been a great example that way as far as just appreciating what God's put on this earth for us.
Jonnie Flewelling: My mother is the absolute hardest working person I know. My mom is tough. We'd always say, my mother is the epitome of a Cracker in that she never quits. She never gives up. Nothing is ever too hard.
Craig Edwards: If I had to describe my mother-in-law in a sentence or two -- that's kind of hard to do. But I can make it short and sweet that she is a true Florida Cracker with extra salt.
Most every day Iris rides the pastures checking the cattle but it’s not all work. The High Horse is a place that Iris goes just to relax.
Iris: And when Homer passed away in 1994, I could hardly go out there. But I just kept on going out there, and then I said, I am going to clean this place up and make something out of it. And I just got that spark in my heart.
The cabin’s porch offers comfort and sun for reading – one of her favorite pastimes.
Iris: Sometimes I think I haven't accomplished much, and then I look at the ranch and I knew what it was in the beginning and what it is now. And I have accomplished a lot out there.
Iris Wall is a woman on the go and keeps active, wearing many hats. On any given day she can be found in the offices in Indiantown or checking out the cattle at the Livestock Market in Okeechobee with her old Cracker friend and market owner, Pete Clemons.
Iris: The little ol’ Cracker cattle -- they’re a smaller cow, but they are hardy. They’ve lived in the swamps in Florida for over 500 years, ever since the Spanish began to bring them here. And these little old Crackers, those things will live on nothing. They'll just scrounge around, eat palmettos and this, that, and the other…they are just tough. The little Cracker cattle can just stick in there. And I love them. I was raised with them. It's my heritage. And that's one reason -- that's the reason that I love them like I do. I believe everybody in the world has a place they call home, and you know Indiantown is home to me.
Indiantown is Iris Wall’s life. It’s here where you’ll find all that she holds close to her heart – her Cracker horse and cattle – the High Horse Ranch. And it’s here that her family and friends are always nearby. It’s home.
Iris: Home in anybody’s mind is a place of contentment and happiness. Once in awhile, as we became a little more affluent, Homer would say, we should move over on the inland waterway, or this place or that place. And we'd go over there and look and look and look. And after awhile, I'd say, Homer, let's go home. He'd say, I agree, let's go home. So we're just woods rats, I guess. We just still love the woods.