Longtime Williston firm shuts its doors


Published: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 20, 2003 at 10:35 p.m.

Facts

AT A GLANCE: Longtime employer

  • The Dixie Lily plant near U.S. 41 and State Road 121 ended more than 50 years of employment in shutting down its 50,000-square- foot facility.

  • WILLISTON - The company that was once so tightly tied to the city that it underwrote the semi-pro baseball team there closed down Monday, ending more than a half-century of close association.
    Dixie Lily, a manufacturer and distributor of traditional southern baking products, shut down its plant and warehouse operation Monday afternoon, ending more than 50 years of employment in its 50,000-square-foot plant on 8 acres near U.S. 41 and State Road 121. Company President Dennis Dahl said the 16 employees were laid off and the work they had been doing was shifted to other places.
    "Our Williston plant was the only facility where we packed our own rice and beans," Dahl said. "We bought those commodities from around North America and brought them into Williston where they were repacked into consumer packages. That is no longer economically viable."
    Dixie Lily is now privately owned by Southern Specialties, which is headquartered in Nashville. Dahl said the company markets the Dixie Lily brand of cornmeal, grits and other baking items to 2,000 grocery stores a week in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. Southern Specialties also owns several other brands, many of which are packed and distributed through alliances with other food companies such as Archer Daniels Midland. Dahl said his firm remains the largest miller of stone-ground cornmeal and grits in the country.
    Dixie Lily received its trademark in 1937 when founder Cecil M. Webb was working in Tampa. Within a few years, he expanded his operations to Williston, where a building that had once housed a cotton gin and then a feed mill became available, according to Reggie Ross, the retired founder of Ross Hardware in Williston.
    "Dixie Lily was very important to Williston because it was a big booster to the economy of the town," Ross said. "He (Webb) came in and bought out the small operator of the feed mill, and then he hired a lot of people."
    Among the people that Ross recalled worked for Webb's company was the late County Commissioner Elmer Smith, who was a Dixie Lily semi-pro baseball player.
    "Back then it seemed like a lot of towns had a baseball team and they would travel around and play each other," Ross said. "Dixie Lily supported the Williston team."
    Jim Statham was general manager of the Williston Dixie Lily plant from 1953 until 1970
    "The Webbs converted it into a corn mill and became one of the bigger employers in the area," Statham said, recalling that at one time the plant employed 75 to 80 people, making it a major employer in a town that still has grown only to about 2,000 residents.
    "The Webbs were a great family to work for, and they made a good, viable product that I still eat today," Statham said.
    Among the charitable acts that Statham can recall is the time that founder Cecil Webb donated a herd of Hereford cattle to the University of Florida. For that contribution and many others, the livestock pavilion on campus bears Webb's name.
    Dixie Lily kept growing. The company was eventually bought by several firms, including ConAgra and Martha White.
    Meanwhile, Webb went on to serve as chairman of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, then as chairman of the State Road Board and eventually secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation. He became a major lobbyist for the National Defense Interstate Highway Systems Act, which created interstate travel without stoplights.
    Charles Allen went to work for Dixie Lily in 1954 with the understanding that he would be paid 75 cents an hour a couple of days a week as needed.
    Thirty-two years later, he retired from the plant as production manager.
    "We were more of a branch because the company was headquartered in Tampa, but the Webbs did stuff for everybody up here in Williston - they helped everybody and they were generous people," Allen said.
    Several of Webb's family members still live in the Williston area.
    Among those who will be out of work this morning is one man who asked not to be named even though he did not bear a grudge against the company.
    "I am glad for the time I could work here and not have to get up and drive to Gainesville or Ocala every day," the man said.
    "And I still plan to eat those Dixie Lily grits because they don't make them no better anywhere."
    Another employee said workers were told about 10 days ago and received severance packages based on how long they had worked for Dixie Lily
    "Some of us are going to get a lot of months of pay," said the man, who also didn't want to be identified.
    Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or voylesk@ gvillesun.com.

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