A gulf breeze blows in Laurel, Fla., a town not so different from our own [Commentary]

Liana Martin lived in Laurel for about a year but grew up in Severn and graduated from Arundel High, just a few miles east of Laurel in the Gambrills section of Anne Arundel County.

About 12 years ago she moved to Florida — citing, of course, the warm weather as one of the reasons — and settled along the Gulf Coast.

Last year Martin, a glass artist, moved her Firebug Designs store and workshop a few miles north of Venice and just east of busy four-lane Route 41 in the community of Laurel, Fla., an unincorporated area of about 8,000 people.

Firebug Designs is one of just a few tenants at Laurel Square, a nondescript strip mall adjacent to the Laurel, Fla., post office on Laurel Road. That is where I caught up with Martin on a recent Saturday as she waited on customers.

"The owner of the beauty shop (at Laurel Square) has been here for at least 30 years. People stay here for a long time," said Martin, taking a break from the cash register on a chilly — by Florida standards —afternoon.

"There are a lot of (new) housing developments. This used to be the old grocery store," added Martin, pointing across the street to the north side of Laurel Road.

You won't find many college students on spring break in Laurel, Fla., but the ocean breeze is not far away. If you go west, Laurel Road turns into West Laurel Road and then Bayshore Drive in nearby Nokomis. After passing Bob Hope Road, you take a right on Albee, go across a draw bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway and the white-sand beaches of the Gulf Coast are practically all yours — especially on a windy 50-degree day in early March.

I was in Florida for Major League Baseball's spring training and wanted to check out the "other" Laurel, which is in the southwest tip of Sarasota County, after watching the Orioles play in Port Charlotte against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The city of Sarasota is the spring training home of the Baltimore Orioles and the southern Laurel is about the same distance — about 22 miles to the southwest — from Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota as the Laurel post office on Main Street is from Camden Yards.

Laurel Square, about halfway between Port Charlotte and Sarasota, is one of the few places in the unincorporated Florida town with Laurel in its name.

The local phone book lists the Laurel Civic Association, Laurel Park, Laurel Tire Shop and Laurel Villa Motel. The Laurel post office in Florida does not do home delivery, but residents can pick up mail at the small, well-worn brick building.

In a nod to the nearby coast, an old boat named "Obsession" sits in a yard adjacent to the post office and looks like it has not been obsessed with water since Cortes was sailing around the Americas.

The Laurel in Florida, just a few miles east of the Gulf of Mexico, does share an industrial history with the Laurel in Maryland. While the northern Laurel was known for its textile mills in the 1800s, not far from Martin's store is a historical marker that tells of the history of the Laurel area of Florida.

The marker was placed by the Sarasota County Historical Commission in 1987 and tells of the Laurel turpentine and lumbering history, which provided work after the Civil War for those who were leaving plantations. According to the marker, some laborers were also leased from state and country prisons before a public outcry in the state legislature ended that practice.

"If you go driving through there are a lot of old cracker shacks," said Martin, referring to a style of woodframe homes with large porches and central hallways.

Martin, who lives in Nokomis, said there was also an African-American community south of her store, just off Laurel Road.

When Martin is back in Maryland visiting her father she stops in at the Vitrum Studio, a warm glass resource center just off Route 1 in Beltsville.

But she is happy to be among the hordes of transplanted northerners within range of the Venice beaches.

"It is a much slower pace of life down here. We are much nicer on this coast" than the busy beaches on the Atlantic side of the state, she said, before getting back to customers and closing shop for the day in Laurel — Florida, that is.

David Driver is a former sports editor for the Laurel Leader.

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