Exploring a Stough Family Heirloom

Terry Stough chooses to preserve his family’s land legacy in a way that will benefit us all

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Terry Stough and his dog Red visit the Land Trust property, an heirloom of the Stough family. Photo by Sam Wolfe
Terry Stough and his dog Red visit the Land Trust property, an heirloom of the Stough family. Photo by Sam Wolfe

You might feel as though you’ve stepped back in time, into Florida’s frontier past. A barbed wire gate opens onto a narrow pathway through a cattle pasture. It leads to another gate and an even narrower path, this time through dusty green scrubland. Wildflowers blossom amidst the long grass, attracting varied butterflies: gulf fritillaries with glistening silver iridescence; monarchs, renowned for their continental migrations yet seemingly at home here; even a queen butterfly, far from an everyday sight, with its amber wings marked by white spots as if from an artist’s paintbrush. As you walk a little farther, the trees take over—majestic live oaks and ancient, elegant cypresses. Now under their welcoming canopy, you have stepped from the blazing sun into the quiet and restful lighting that exists only in a forest. A blackwater creek meanders its way through the lush vegetation.  

You feel as if you are far away from the busy, noisy, and troubled world of the 21st century. And this place is going to stay that way. It is, in a sense, a gift.

Terry’s grandfather, Roy Stough Sr.; father, Roy Jr.; mother, Marian; grandmother, Nellie; uncle, James Stough; and a young Terry with sister Barbara Ann
Terry’s grandfather, Roy Stough Sr.; father, Roy Jr.; mother, Marian; grandmother, Nellie; uncle, James Stough; and a young Terry with sister Barbara Ann.

The 36-acre property is just south and west of the Sebastian city limits. For its previous owner, Terry Stough, it is a living heirloom, as it had been in his family since the 1940s. Now, Stough has refused lavish offers from developers who wanted to buy the property; instead, he has chosen to sell it to the Indian River Land Trust. Since the price he will get from the Land Trust is only a fraction of what the developers were offering, this is indeed a gift as much as it is a sale. He is making the choice so that the site will be preserved in all its natural beauty.

Standing under the cypress trees and listening to the soft murmuring of the creek, Stough recalls how the history of the property and his family history go together. His grandparents moved here more than a century ago, in 1918. His grandfather’s family was from Alabama and his grandmother’s from North Carolina. They built a homestead on a property nearby, where his grandmother would wash clothes in the creek. She spoke of seeing Seminoles washing their clothes nearby and said they would just look at each other and continue their work. Stough’s wife, Maribeth, says of his grandmother, “She lived to be 96, and she had so many stories.” Stough himself smiles sharing the Seminole story and says, “Believe it if you want!”

With the next generation came citrus. “My dad planted a grove here in 1949,” Stough says. There were red grapefruits, white grapefruits, navel oranges, and Valencia oranges, along with about a dozen tangerine trees.

The property also hosted festive occasions over the years. “When I was 12 years old, we had a big family reunion—all my kinfolk from Alabama and North Carolina—and we came here,” Stough recalls. The creek had a one-plank bridge back then. “You’d walk across, one person at a time, and it would wobble.” 

Old Florida scrub, including oaks and cypress trees, cover part of the landscape of the Stough property donated to the Indian River Land Trust. Photo by Sam Wolfe
Old Florida scrub, including oaks and cypress trees, cover part of the landscape of the Stough property donated to the Indian River Land Trust. Photo by Sam Wolfe

The family fished frequently in the creek, and one of Stough’s uncles once caught an eel. “He told us it was an electric eel, and he chased my sister and me across the field with it.” Stough laughs at the memory.

When greening became a widespread plague on the citrus industry, the orchard was lost, and the land was leased to a family friend who pastured Florida longhorn cattle there. The scale of the horns could be quite impressive. “You wonder how they can hold their heads up,” Stough marvels. “One had horns longer than I can stretch my arms—and it was a female!”

Old Florida scrub, including oaks and cypress trees, cover part of the landscape of the Stough property donated to the Indian River Land Trust 1. Photo by Sam Wolfe
Old Florida scrub, including oaks and cypress trees, cover part of the landscape of the Stough property donated to the Indian River Land Trust. Photo by Sam Wolfe

The area near the creek is rich in wildlife, and the family has always been appreciative of that. They have often seen deer here, and, Maribeth notes, “There are lots of owls.” 

As befits his interest in the preservation of nature, Terry Stough served as a park ranger for years at Fort Pierce Inlet State Park. So when the developers came calling for the family property, he was definitely not interested. “All the development around here just breaks my heart,” he laments. “You wonder where all the animals are going. Gopher tortoises, foxes, maybe even some of those scrub jays—where are they going?” From this heartfelt concern and empathy, his arrangement with the Land Trust was born. 

Terry Stough and Ken Grudens peruse the property. Photo by Sam Wolfe
Terry Stough and Ken Grudens peruse the property. Photo by Sam Wolfe

And it was certainly a welcome one. “This was a transaction that made everybody feel good,” says Ken Grudens, executive director of the Land Trust. The creek on the property flows into the St. Sebastian River, which, Grudens notes, is “a unique river. It has species of globally rare fish,” as well as manatees, alligators, heron rookeries, and the gar—a spear-shaped fish that is considered a living fossil. Furthermore, the St. Sebastian River is a major tributary of the Indian River Lagoon.  

Protecting the Stough property, with its creek and forests, helps to protect the St. Sebastian River, complementing other trails and conservation areas nearby and forming an area called the St. Sebastian River Greenway. Grudens adds: “It also fits in with our new strategic plan of looking at a wider variety of properties and areas. And of course, with anything that drains into the lagoon, we’re protecting the lagoon.”

An elusive queen butterfly finds nourishment in the property’s rich plant life. Photo by Sam Wolfe
An elusive queen butterfly finds nourishment in the property’s rich plant life. Photo by Sam Wolfe

Plans for the Stough property include its eventual opening for public access, with trails, boardwalks, observation decks, and interpretive signage. Partners with the Land Trust on this undertaking are the Friends of the St. Sebastian River, the City of Sebastian, and Indian River County.

The St. Sebastian River is classified as a blackwater stream; its color is caused by tannins leaching from leaves along its forested shores. This color is also apparent in the creek on the Stough property, as it flows beneath cypresses that have stood since before Europeans settled in this part of North America.

Terry and Maribeth Stough were told many stories by Terry’s grandmother about life in Indian River County many years ago. Photo by Sam Wolfe
Terry and Maribeth Stough were told many stories by Terry’s grandmother about life in Indian River County many years ago. Photo by Sam Wolfe

No wonder Terry Stough looks at the property with an expression of peace on his face. “A few dollars here and there don’t much compare to this. Every time I think about my decision, I get happier. I know my dad would appreciate it. He loved nature, and I reckon it’s a family tradition.” 

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