History of the Ranch
While Florida Sand Music Ranch became part of the Will McLean Foundation in late 2022, it enjoys a long and rich history. Previously known as the Sertoma Youth Ranch, this facility is the product of nearly fifty years of tireless efforts by dedicated Central Florida Sertomans. The Foundation is deeply grateful for their selfless service and for transferring this magnificent piece of old Florida to our care and stewardship. What follows is a greatly condensed history of the origins of this wonderful facility.
The concept of what would become Sertoma Youth Ranch was born in 1973 when three Sertomans from the Hillsborough Sertoma Club in Tampa, a state policeman, an insurance agent and an auto parts store owner, met in a hotel room during the Sertoma regional conference that year. Jim Foster, Ralph Chancey and Jesse Brown hatched the idea of a youth ranch for kids to enjoy a natural, rustic, outdoor environment. Initially they called it the Sertobo Youth Ranch and envisioned a facility that could serve a variety of youth groups and organizations.
An extensive search for suitable property began. The original, heavily treed, 62.5 acre portion of the property in Hernando County was identified and negotiations to acquire it began. The owner liked the idea of using his property to develop a place where children could come and enjoy the outdoors. A loose agreement was reached for $8,000 down and deferred payments for one year while terms and financing could be worked out on the remaining $60,000. With an extraordinary leap of faith, Jim Foster and Jesse Brown made the down payment, hoping that they would recoup their money and be able to raise the rest of it with the assistance of neighboring Sertoma organizations. Sertoma Clubs throughout the Central Florida District were contacted for their help. An army of volunteers went to work with chain saws and lawn mowers, hauling them down a rugged, washed-out, dirt and gravel entry road and invested hundreds of hours clearing and improving the property to make it somewhat usable for the intended purposes.
As is common in the early stages of philanthropic projects like this, the actual terms of a transfer of title and payment arrangements were not all together clear. Disaster threatened when in the middle of this initial process of gathering the funding and making the property usable, the owner of the property died creating a great deal of uncomfortable uncertainty. Fortunately, the family was on board. Sertoma was contacted by the owner’s estate to keep the process going. Since no final payment arrangements had been made and fundraising efforts were ongoing, a generous “pay what you can as you can” plan was established.
In order to begin to generate some income, a small number of water and electric RV sites were installed. Attempts at hosting a couple of country and western concerts were made without much success. An early board member of the Sertoma Youth Ranch organization, Steve Ditman, felt there was a strong following for bluegrass music events. However, the first few attempts at hosting bluegrass concerts did not even cover the band fees. Nevertheless, the participating bands liked the youth ranch concept, could see the potential for the facility and accepted what Sertoma Youth Ranch could pay with the understanding that they would be asked to return. The use of the Ranch as an outdoor music venue as a way to generate revenue began to slowly take root.
Over the years other area Sertoma clubs joined the effort, and prominent Sertoman, Gilbert Turner, donated and installed an initial 30’ x 60’ pavilion. A stage was later added to that pavilion and more RV spots were installed as events began to draw better attendance. A mortgage burning party was held in the late 80’s to celebrate the retirement of the initial acquisition debt. The Bluegrass Café, Soggy Bottom Pavilion, Youth Pavilion, children’s playground, a small bunk house building, shower facilities and infrastructure features, were all added over the years. An additional 20 acres on the south edge of the property was acquired and put to use for primitive camping.
To provide more volunteers and to better support Ranch activities, the Ranch Hands Sertoma Club (a formal, chartered Sertoma Club) was formed in 1991. Danny Schadt was the charter president of the Ranch Hands and was a longtime member of Tampa East Sertoma Club. The Ranch Hands meet on the property and are a source of support for various functions held at the Ranch. Even after the facility was transferred and became part of the Will McLean Foundation, the Ranch Hands have remained active on site and continue to provide much appreciated support and assistance.
What Sertoma Youth Ranch, Inc. accomplished on this property over the course of nearly fifty years of purely volunteer service is nothing short of miraculous. It is tangible proof that great things can grow from the simple ideal of Service to Mankind - Ser to Ma - Sertoma! The principles of Sertoma are, and will always be, the underlying foundation upon which this magnificent facility was built. The Will McLean Foundation is eternally grateful to the dedicated men and women who served Sertoma Youth Ranch over the years and made this facility what it is today. We are honored to be able to carry it forward under our own charitable mission.
To learn more about the Will McLean Foundation, our history, our charitable mission, our programs and our efforts to Save Florida Through Music, please visit our website at https://willmclean.com/