Wednesday, June 2, 2021

1953-1984 - Campbell's Bait Farm

1948 - Robert Campbell Comes to Groveland

   Robert A. Campbell and his family came to Groveland from McClenny, Florida in 1948. They lived on the east side of HWY 19, about a mile north of Groveland. Upon arriving, he took the position of Vocational Agriculture teacher at Groveland High School. At that time he never would have thought about raising and selling worms.

1953 - The Start of the Bait Farm

   Robert's father, mother, and brother would come down twice a year from Georgia to visit. They were all avid fishermen and spent much of their time fishing while in Groveland. They would always bring their poles, rods, bait, and tackle along.

   Around 1953, on one such visit, Robert's father-in-law left some of the worms that he always brought down with him. He told Mr. Campbell to put them in some rich soil behind the house, so they would grow and multiply, therefore, being available the next time he came down for a visit and go fishing.

   Apparently, the worms did very well in the rich soil. Mr. Campbell, being the Agriculture teacher in a small town, was very well known. No doubt he told his students and others about all of the worms he was growing in his backyard and offered them up for fishing.

   Well, it wasn't long before Robert put up a self service box under an oak tree in his driveway with cups of worms and a mason jar to hold the money. The year was about 1956. Some still remember the weathered old citrus crate turned sideways with legs on it that kept the worms and the money somewhat dry and out of the sun. Cups of worms were added when they ran out and money removed from the jar, except for a few coins to make change. It was all on the honor system. I think the price was 35 cents for about 70 worms. So began the Campbell's Bait Farm.

   Around 1956, he put up a building to grow the worms. He built raised beds filled with rich fluffy peat. The beds were kept slightly moist and the worms were fed with chicken feed. The feed was thrown lightly over the bed. A few years later, the feed store started selling a specialty worm feed. The worms were fed and watered every day, except Sunday. The worms thrived. A couple of years later, Robert put up another building and around that time was selling wholesale in parts of the southeast, shipping through the US Mail.

   Sometime about 1959, he built a shed for selling minnows, shiners, tackle, fishing poles, etc. He even sold crickets and eels for a time. When someone needed bait from the shed, they rang the doorbell and Mrs. Campbell would come out to get what they needed.

   As time went on, Robert put up two more worm buildings. In 1969, he bought a property east of town and put up two more buildings there. Eventually, another building was added. The six buildings were each 500 to 1,500 square feet, with a combined total of 6,000 square feet. There were also another 2,000 square feet of outside beds under shade. During the cold nights of winter, the buildings were enclosed with plastic sheeting and heated with kerosene heaters to about 55 degrees.

   Campbell advertised in Field and Stream magazine. The biggest part of the bait season was during spring and summer. Worms were shipped throughout the year, except during the winter. There were days when two or three women would dig and count worms for 5-6 hours. High school boys were employed to feed and water the worm beds on a daily basis, as well as pack the worms in the old-style paper ice cream bags and place them in new wooden vegetable crates for shipment. Also, Mr. Campbell's wife and children spent a lot of time working on the farm. Besides the worms grown on the farm, worms were purchased from local growers ready to pack and ship the same day. Some days, the back of the pickup truck would be full of crates headed to the post office. Some were even sent by Greyhound bus. There were 5,000 worms per crate and perhaps as many as 12 crates going out on a good day. That was 60,000 worms. The worms were shipped mostly through the southeast, because they were highly perishable, although some were shipped to Texas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and even New Jersey.

   Campbell's Bait Farm was the largest grower and shipper of worms in Florida and possibly in the southeast. One of the farm's surviving records from 1972 showed 8 million worms were shipped for that year alone.

   Mr. Campbell retired from teaching in 1975. He continued to run the worm farm for a few more years, until about 1984, when a parasite, known as Planaria, had begun killing the worms a few years earier. Thus, making the business unprofitable.

   The bait farm was in operation for about 34 years and provided part time employment for many area residents. Mr. Campbell was heard to have said that the farm did not make a lot of money, but it did help buy a new or used vehicle, when he wore out the old one, and it also helped a little with his kids' college expenses.

[Contributors: Walter Campbell]

Next Article: 1958-2020 - Fire Chief Willie Morgan