BRIGHTON — The corner of Reservation and Harney Pond Roads was once the hub of Tribal activity in Brighton. A convenience store owned first by Ollie and Shula Jones and then by Joe Lester and Julie John stood at the prime location and was the only store on the res.
The abandoned concrete block structure was demolished Feb. 5.
Back in the 1960s the Tribe built convenience stores in Brighton and Big Cypress to serve the communities. Big Cypress Board Representative Joe Frank remembers them being sold to Tribal members Jones in Brighton and Joe Osceola Sr. in Big Cypress.
The Johns bought the store from Jones, Joe Lester’s uncle, in the late 1970s and ran it until 1994. The family already had a smoke shop and convenience story in Hollywood called Stone Beads, so they changed the name of the Brighton store from OJ’s to Stone Beads.
“It was convenient for the community,” John said. “They could get cold drinks, the kids could get snacks and even SPD got gas there. The gas was the most convenient thing for the Tribe because they didn’t have to go into town.”
Okeechobee is about 30 miles away from the reservation and the currently running Beck’s store on SR 78 in Lakeport didn’t exist yet. Business was good during Stone Beads’ heyday. Tourists came to buy cartons of cigarettes at a discount price and neighborhood kids came to play video games and hang out.
“During weekends they’d all crowd around the machines,” John said. “We had to keep order.”
Some of those kids cherish those memories today.
“They had arcade games and kids would bring in bottles for the few cents deposit and use that cash to play the games,” said Marilyn Doney, who worked there when she was in high school in the 1980s.
“It was the only spot in town, like the Trading Post is today,” said John Madrigal. “It had all the essentials.”
The store employed a host of Tribal kids over the years.
“They were all very good workers and I’d like to thank every one of them for their service,” John said.
Diane Smith worked at the store when it was OJ’s. Lewis Gopher remembers when the John family lived in a trailer behind the store.
When the Johns bought the store, they already had the store in Hollywood, the city where their children already attended school. That meant a long commute for Johns until she found some reliable employees. By 1980, the family put a trailer on the site and moved in full time. Hurricane Jeanne took the trailer in 2004.
Joe Lester, who passed away in 2012, was a consummate businessman. In addition to the Stone Beads stores, he was a real estate agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, planted orange groves on the reservation and bought land in Lake Placid to start the Stone Beads ranch. The Hollywood store and the ranch are still operated by the family.
“The store was good for us,” John said. “It was a very profitable business. My daughters [Joletta and Jill] and son [Shawn] grew up here and had the means to keep up with their friends socially.”
When Shawn graduated high school, went to college and competed in rodeos it was difficult for Julie to run the store, so they closed it. The opening of Beck’s, and the competition it brought, may have contributed to that decision. Eventually they gave the building back to the Tribe.
The future for the site is unclear, but there could be plenty of Tribal members who would like to create their own business there. Jaryaca Baker would like to take her business management degree and put it to good use with a small grocery store and/or restaurant she would build from the ground up. She is working on a business plan to present to the Tribal Council.
“Everyone drives by there,” Baker said. “I don’t have to start with something huge, I just have to start. This is the year I do something. I have a son now and have to show him what hard work and perseverance is.”
John drove by the site and saw the pile of rubble that used to be Stone Beads just a few hours after it was demolished.
“It made me a little sad, but it brought back some wonderful memories,” she said.