Reeves is an icon in the local art scene and has been ever since he was a young boy growing up in Winter Garden.
To step into Rod Reeves’ house is to enter the personal museum of an eclectic artist. Rooms are filled with paintings, sketches and mirrors in ornate frames; stained-glass windows and Tiffany-inspired lighting; a wide section of tapestry from an old coat of arms; intricately designed Asian divider panels; silver candlestick holders; and clocks of varying sizes and styles.
Every piece on Reeves’ walls has special meaning, from his father’s barbering scissors and leather strop to his grandfather’s carpentry saw to the metal base of his mother’s iron. Many other items were given to him as gifts.
Sitting down with Reeves and listening to him tell stories of his life is to be privy to a behind-the-scenes session with a local history buff or like having a front row seat for the 1950s television show “This is Your Life.”
Reeves jumps from one tale to another as he is reminded of the next one — and nearly all have to do with art or family.
Long before Reeves was filling his home with art, he was a teacher of the craft. He spent 32 years teaching students at Lakeview and West Orange high schools how to appreciate art and how to hone their skills to create their own artwork.
Reeves hasn’t ventured far from his house in historic Winter Garden in the last year because of the coronavirus; he has an appointment to get his second COVID-19 vaccination this week.
He said he’s watched too many mystery-show reruns on the television and he’s eager to return to his former routine of dining along downtown Plant Street with small groups of friends. He also misses meeting up with former students at their class reunions.
A LIFETIME IN WINTER GARDEN
Reeves has either lived, taught or otherwise worked in Winter Garden for all of his 80 years.
The Winter Garden native grew up on South Woodland Street in a Craftsman-style home built using timber from the old Bell Hotel; some of the interior doors still had traces of the hotel room numbers on them.
“My parents sold their car to make a down payment on the house, and they walked,” Reeves said. “Things were fairly close to walk.”
The city limits were much smaller back then, and everyone knew their neighbors.
“I don’t think you could go more than four blocks from Plant and Main (streets) without being out of town,” he said. “I lived in the second block from town. … And going west where City Hall is now was the ice plant, and that was the last business going toward Oakland.
“We used to ride our bicycles in the summer and go to the ice plant, and people would get big blocks of ice crushed,” Reeves said. “We would pick up the ice shards off that dirty wooden floor and put them in our mouth and ride around until they melted, and then we’d go back.”
Thoughts of the soda fountain at Davis Pharmacy conjure up pleasant memories.
He recalled stopping by Davis Pharmacy for a Coke every day after school from 1946 until the fountain closed while he was teaching at West Orange.
“During the summer … ladies would come in and get an ammonia Coke, not cleaning ammonia; you know how they have the little ammonia bottles taped to the walls in the dentist office in case someone passed out?” Reeves said. “Daddy used to say these good Baptist women wouldn’t touch alcohol but they’d go up there and get an ammonia Coke.”
When Reeves was growing up, there was no such thing as North Woodland Street and Tilden Street was a dirt road.
“We used to walk down Dillard (Street) to the pool, barefooted, and jump around the hot brick, and if we got off the brick we got sandspurs in our feet,” he said.
Saturdays were for movie watching at the downtown movie theater, where the westerns played on the big screen.
World War II played a role in his life, too. He recalls practicing for air raids, which he thought were real. He can still hear the sorrow in his father’s voice as he told his wife he lost another one of “his boys.”
“There was no one unaffected,” Reeves said. “If you didn’t lose a loved one, you lost a friend or your friend lost someone. You were never far from it.”
Many of these young men received their first haircut from his father.
Reeves has a great deal of admiration for his parents, Mae and Dock Reeves.
“My daddy was the son of a sharecropper and quit after third grade and loaded heavy fertilizer bags,” he said. “My mother was a straight-A student who wanted to go to college in Rome, Ga. She wanted to be a Latin teacher. She was the youngest of 11 children. Her daddy had a stroke, so when he died, even though she had 10 older siblings, even three old enough to be her parents, all the responsibility fell on her shoulders.
“She picked cotton and worked in the cotton mill in the summer, and she packed oranges in the winter,” Reeves said of his mother. “On Saturday, she and her mama would clean the house. … there was a service station nearby, and they would each get a Coca-Cola and a Mounds bar. If they didn’t have enough money for that they would share a bar, and if they didn’t have enough for that, they would share a nickel Coca-Cola. Sometimes they wouldn’t have a nickel between the two of them.”
‘I CALLED IT HUMANITIES’
Drawing has always interested Reeves. He became serious in high school after dropping out of band to take an art class, but it wasn’t until college that he really learned the basics of drawing.
“We did figure drawing and still life and water color, I think, but I determined that when I taught I was going to make sure, absolutely sure, my students got the basics. If you don’t have that, you can’t build on it.”
He earned a degree in art education with a minor in illustration in 1962 from Florida State University and finished his master’s degree in 1964.
As an instructor at Lakeview High from 1962-75, Reeves taught two art levels, advertising design, watercolor and humanities.
“I taught the first humanities class ever taught in Florida,” he said. “That was about 1964-65. I just realized the students weren’t learning anything about the history of art. I called it humanities; if I called it history, no one would take it.”
After West Orange High opened, Reeves made the transition and taught drawing classes (pastels and pen-and-ink), watercolor and lettering.
He retired from Orange County Public Schools in 1994, but his penchant for teaching didn’t end. He taught night classes at Valencia Community College before there was a west campus, and he instructed seniors at Westminster Towers and Winter Park Towers.
Through the University of Central Florida’s Artist in Residence program, he taught art to older residents at a community center in Winter Park. One of the students’ projects was to make a cookbook, “Mama Cooked ’n Said.”
“Someone had to sit down with them and translate their oral recipes,” Reeves said.
He was good at working with seniors — and that includes his own mother.
When Reeves’ mother, Mae, had a stroke in her later years, she was unable to talk much, he said, but she could draw.
“She lost everything,” he said. “She couldn’t read. She didn’t know one number from another. … I started with ABCs and then a word. I might say what color is this, and if she got the answer right, she got a quarter in the jar. … She got to where she could answer two-word answers, and then she could answer in sentences.”
‘IT’S ABOUT US’
Reeves was the founding director of the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation and spent seven years collecting local history, gathering families’ photos and stories, and organizing historical displays of all things Winter Garden. At that time, the history center was located on Plant Street in the space now occupied by the Writer’s Block Bookstore.
He said he loved that position and the opportunity to catalog and store pieces of the community’s history that many times would have otherwise disintegrated in Florida’s hot attics or been tossed after a loved one died. One of his greatest accomplishments in the position was the creation of family files.
All of these stories — whether in the form of newspaper clippings, funeral notices, report cards or a dog’s vaccination card from the 1940s — are the foundation of the Winter Garden of today.
“When they hired me, I said, ‘You have to understand, I’m as concerned about the men who hoed the orange groves as I am about the men who own the groves,” Reeves said. “It was all the same to me. People saw it was their museum, and they brought things to me.”
He recalled the time two women visited the history center to see if there was any information on their family.
“We had a clipping of their daddy in the war and a grandson in Gray-Y,” he said. “They called everyone they knew. They hugged and were excited. They called everyone and said, ‘It’s our museum, it’s about us.”
Some of the history Reeves preserved is his own. He estimates he has sketched thousands of local residents, students, diners and shoppers through the years, and a vast majority of them are in the family files at the history center.
“The historical legacy he has acquired for the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation is incredible,” said Jim Crescitelli, operations and program director for the WGHF. “Rod amassed clippings, photographs, his drawings, interviews, artifacts and so much more as director and contributor. Not a day goes by that I don't benefit from his years of research. Rod is an invaluable resource for our area's history.”
Reflecting on his life, Reeves is satisfied with his accomplishments:
“Taking care of my parents when they were sick. I think, I hope, I have been a good influence on students, and I’m sure there are times I have failed, and we all look back and perhaps I was, maybe I was not as kind as I could have been sometimes. I do think starting at the museum, that was big because (I was able to) establish files on families.”
So what’s ahead for the lifelong artist?
“I’m just hoping that we’ll see COVID end,” he said. “At my age, I don’t know how many more years I will get to witness history, but I want it to be pleasant.”
(Old photos courtesy of Winter Garden Heritage Foundation)