By Patrick McCallister
For Hometown News
Look at what the cat dragged in. No, really, it's all because of a Siamese cat named Chesai.
"He loved it out here," Sue Elliot said. "He was in heaven out here. When we turned back east, he'd scream the entire way. We figured he had some good sense."
Ms. Elliot is one of two recipients of the Volusia League of Cities' Citizen of the Year Award for Contributions to Economic Enrichment and Community Development. She's the first Piersonite the league has recognized in its annual awards in recent memory.
Max and Sue Elliot moved to Pierson in piecemeal around 2004. The New Smyrna Beach natives were living in Ormond Beach with Chesai. They wanted to look for vacation homes in the Carolinas, but the cat was getting a bit old to travel that far. So, they looked around the West Volusia woods instead.
After finding a furnished home in Pierson, the couple and cat started weekending there.
"We bought the house and did weekends," Ms. Elliot said. "The weekends became three days, then became four days."
Largely because of the cat's protests over heading east back to Ormond.
The Elliots sold the Ormond home and settled into retirement in Pierson. So they thought. It didn't take long for the former biology and environmental-sciences teacher to end up substituting at Pierson Elementary School.
Then came word that a neighbor was looking at selling to a developer. The Elliots talked him into selling to them instead.
"We wanted an agricultural (property-tax) exemption," Ms. Elliot said. "We talked about cows. I said, 'No.' We talked about goats and then chickens. Then we talked about ferns, and said, 'No, everybody here grows ferns.'"
That's why they landed on grapes, and planted a vineyard.
"Our crop, when we started, we knew nothing about it," Ms. Elliot said.
A few crash courses later and they were growing quality Muscadines. To sell them, the couple opened Elliot Vineyards, which became the meeting place for the Sandhill Gang Wine Club. They also got some locals trying out growing blueberries. They hope to help the town diversify its agricultural activities.
Back in Ormond, it was easy to pick up newspapers to find out what was happening around town. Pierson was a different story. While local media cover the town, Pierson just doesn't get that much ink and doesn't have its own paper. The Elliots wanted to stay on top of what was happening in their new hometown.
"We realized that the only way we'd know is by going to Town Council meetings," Ms. Elliot said.
What they didn't know was that attending council meetings is how folks in Pierson end up on a plethora of boards and committees. Someone needed to go to Volusia Growth Management and Volusia County Transportation Planning Organization meetings to represent Pierson. Town Clerk Debbie Bass knew engaged citizens -- or na´ve victims -- when she saw them.
Ms. Bass had Mr. and Ms. Elliot volunteering to attend meetings and sit on boards before they knew what happened.
"Since her husband and she moved into town, they, she especially, have been instrumental in making sure Pierson doesn't fall off the map," Ms. Bass said. "She makes sure we have a voice about wanting sidewalks and such."
The Transportation Planning Organization plans and programs federal and state transportation funds for Volusia and parts of Flagler County. Ms. Elliot said she quickly realized Pierson's seat on the TPO was easily ignored.
"When I first started going to the (citizens advisory committee), they didn't know where Pierson was," Ms. Elliot said. "They thought it was a joke. 'Pierson? Where's Pierson?' When they came out with money for sidewalks, I got very vocal about that. These were really needed, because people (in Pierson) were walking in the gutters. If I've done nothing else, I've made them realize we need things as much as Daytona, Deltona."
The town is now slated to get sidewalks built on Center Street (U.S. 17) and Washington Avenue, a road many students walk on to get to Pierson Elementary and T. DeWitt Taylor Middle-High School.
The Elliots also are interrupting their retirement by working with the local Future Farmers of America chapter to help keep young talent in Pierson.
"I'm trying to work with the FFA and get these kids to understand that there's something more than fern growing," she said. "We're losing too many kids from the community, because they think fern growing is all there is."
Chesai died about two years ago after a two-decade lifespan. The Elliots took him in when he was three weeks old, thinking they would foster him for six weeks, so the Halifax Humane Society could then put him up for adoption.
"Our whole life revolved around this cat. That's why we looked for a place out here," Ms. Elliot said.
The cat left an interesting legacy.