But people took note when the South Dakota tags never left town. And there suddenly were Montana and Illinois tags, too, that seemed to be everywhere.
The newcomers were neat, well-dressed model citizens; but, frankly, not the type of people usually drawn to settle in this modest city.
People started asking questions, and some came to hate the answers they got.
Lake City, they were told, had been designated as a sort of promised land for a group of "true Christians," the followers of one Charles Meade and his End Time Ministry.
Meade, they were told, had special revelations from God. His followers would be saved from imminent cataclysms that would send all others to an eternity of damnation.
Now, there is a certain amount of civic pride in Lake City, but even the biggest booster would have trouble calling this an Eden. The locals know this has been a rough town with a long history of prostitution and political corruption.
The crusading local newspaper was once sprayed with gunshots by angered residents. Even the current mayor, though a devoted conservative, seems best known for penning smutty political verse.
So now these affluent End Timers-perhaps as many as a thousand-were talking of Lake City as holy ground and refusing to send their children to public schools. They didn't believe in doctors and they weren't exactly flattering the mainstream religious denominations deeply entrenched in this community.
Simply put, the locals didn't trust them.
Rumors soon were racing through town. Businesses were boycotted, and all newcomers were suspected of End Time membership. The suspicious death of an End Time infant raised new fears and has left simple people facing complex questions about religious freedom and children's rights.
"They are a cult, not a religion," says Anne Conner, a Lake City resident who has been the most outspoken critic of the End Timers here. "I have real concern for the children. They have no choice how they live. It's just not right."
Charles Meade won't talk with reporters, but his wife, Marlene, says End Timers are the victims of small-town gossip- and paranoia.
"Our story is the Bible from cover to cover, and that's what we believe," Mrs. Meade says. "We serve the Lord, and the Scriptures say good Christians will always face opposition."
A promise of salvation
The roots of these Lake City tensions stretch across the country and back to the mid-1970s.
Then Joni Cooke Eddy was a bright, 17-year-old whose high school sweetheart had returned to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, talking about the dynamic man he had met at school in Chicago.
This was in the post-Watergate era, the Vietnam War was not far behind and any good, smart, ambitious youth-the honor society sorts -- were looking for answers to the disillusionment of the time.
Ms. Eddy says she and her boyfriend and others started listening to the many taped lectures of Charles Meade. He spoke of a special revelation and offered a structured way of life with specific roles and rewards for those who would follow his teachings.
Hard work and deep faith, he taught, would bring wealth and health, When the End Time came-and he said it would come in his lifetime-those who lived his way would be saved.
He seemed, Ms. Eddy says, to have the answers that many ambitious middle-class youths were not finding in their mainline religious denominations.
"But the more attention we gave him, the more he demanded," Ms. Eddy says. "The group became more and more tight-knit. We eventually cut off all ties with family and friends. We more or less were given new roles in life."
Meade, Ms. Eddy says, remained in Indiana but kept in constant touch with his followers, making frequent visits and calls to the groups in Sioux Falls, Montana and Illinois. End Timers, Ms. Eddy says, gave Meade money. He took his tithes only in cash: the larger the gift, the deeper the faith.
In time, members grew to rely solely on their teacher to determine right and wrong.
Among the rights: strict adherence to Meade's interpretation of Scriptures. Limited contact with non-End Timers. Belief that health and success stemmed from religious faith and adherence to Meade's way. Women should marry early and have many children.
Among the wrongs: Visiting doctors. Attending public schools. Associating with anyone-even family members-who don't accept the Meade vision.
"It was like living in a little box, and the box became smaller and smaller over the years-no movies; no books, no telephone," Ms. Eddy says. "All you knew was the group. It was your identity. You didn't want to do anything wrong, or you risked offending the only people you really knew."
Though she didn't leave the End Timers until 1986, Ms. Eddy attributes her departure to the birth of her first child in 1978.
Late in her pregnancy, Ms. Eddy says, she suddenly gained 55 pounds and showed signs of what she thinks was toxemia, a poisoning of the blood. She was in terrible pain and feared for her baby's life, but she would not admit her illness or see a doctor.
"You prayed," she says. "Seeing a doctor? That was totally from Satan. If someone died, well maybe they weren't listening to Meade enough. Maybe they didn't have real faith."
Two days after her baby was born prematurely, they noticed breathing problems. On the fourth day, the infant died without a doctor's care.
Doubts raised by her child's death grew over the next decade, Ms. Eddy says. She had four more children, but watched two adult and 11 infant End Timers die without medical attention.
The event that finally pushed her from the group was the 1986 death of Meade's first wife, Ms. Eddy says.
Marie Meade, Ms. Eddy says, had struggled for two years as untreated breast cancer literally ate away the tissue.
"The last time Marie visited," Ms. Eddy recalls, "blood was running down her arm."
Accusations of harassment
Meade bought a home in Southwood Acres, a secluded tree-lined development just south of Lake City, in the early 1980s. Neighbors say he was a very private man who appeared to live a quiet life. There were no problems.
But in the last few years, more and more End Timers began buying homes around Meade's. Neighbors said they were approached by Charley Sparks, an End Timer and a real estate agent, about selling their homes to ministry members.
"It's gotten to the point where people feel they have to sell," says Hudson Ayers, a Southwood Acres resident, but not an End Time member. "People are wondering who would ever buy their homes if the neighborhood is nothing but cult members."
Nearly half the 60 or so homes in the development belong to End Timers, Ayers says.
Ayers accuses the End Timers of harassing Southwood residents in hopes they can be persuaded to sell. He tells of being forced off neighborhood roads. He thinks his telephone has been tapped, but he acknowledges he can't offer concrete proof of these allegations.
"They came in here quietly, and they're real smooth," Ayers says, "But there's reason to be concerned, real reasons."
A school psychologist, Ayers worries about the development of End Time children who live such isolated lives. Others are worried about the very lives of the End Time children.
In March of 1989, four-day-old Michael Boehmer died after suffering a nosebleed that doctors said could have been stopped by simple vitamin K injections.
State Attorney Jerry Blair and a county court judge examined the death. But authorities decided that because the Boehmer parents tried to get medical help when the severity of the child's condition became apparent, no criminal charges would be filed. But Ms. Eddy says the Boehmer case fit a pattern she became familiar with over the years: A child approaches death. The parents pray and then call authorities at the last moment.
"After several deaths in South Dakota stirred up problems," Ms. Eddy says, Meade sent out word that people shouldn't be dying at home. He didn't say, 'Get Medical help.' He just wanted to avoid all the attention the home deaths were bringing."
Authorities are investigating a second Lake City case involving 16-year-old William Carl Myers, an End Time youth that investigators think almost starved to death as his heart ailment went untreated.
Myers is listed in serious condition at the intensive care unit of Shands Hospital in Gainesville.
The Myers case could pose different questions to authorities because the illness occurred over a longer time and the severity of the youth's problems were more apparent than in the Boehmer case, investigators say.
Columbia County Sheriff Detective Beryl Mayo says authorities are awaiting the outcome of Myers' struggle to determine what charges might be filed against Myers parents. l
For their part, the End Timers are not interested in a public fight with their detractors. Meade, whose house is closed off by an automatic gate, seldom talks to reporters.
In brief comments made to the Florida Times-Union, he has denied commanding his followers not to seek medical attention.
And Meade's wife, Marlene, says her husband has never ordered the ministry members to shun their parents and family members. Critics such as Ms. Eddy, Mrs. Meade says, simply represent the persecution the Bible predicted good Christians would face.
"If a Lutheran dies, does everyone come around asking his church about how he lived his life?" she says. "But when one of our people dies, suddenly everyone comes running to us. It's just not fair."
In fact, there are some in this town who think the End Timers are getting unfair treatment.
Mayor T. Gerald Witt, for example, the outspoken and colorful mayor of Lake City, shocked some in town by suggesting the End Timers' might be victims of religious persecution.
In the angry days following the death of the Boehmer baby, Witt was quoted as saying, "It's maybe necessary for some babies to die to maintain our religious freedoms. It may be the price we have to pay; everything has a price."
The talents, intelligence and money the End Timers have brought to town, Witt says, could be looked on as a great asset. "Really, I still don't see much difference between them and Christian Scientists," Witt says today.
But End Time detractors say those comments come from a mayor better known for his poetry than his leadership. (Witt's latest poems - Pope's Bull to Peasants and The Damned Kennedys offers religious and political criticism in words that rap group 2 Live Crew might recognize.)
The End Timer critics say the control Meade has over his followers clearly goes beyond the normal link between pastor and congregation. . The willingness of so many members to uproot and move families and business and assets to rural north Florida, they say, shows the depth of Meade's control.
"He calls himself the 'Moses of the End Time,' " Ms. Eddy says. "He tells them that what he says comes directly from God. They believe. I guess when you're in a cult you don't always know it."
Truth be told, it's not always easy for those outside the End Timers to tell who is following Meade.
War of whispers
There were no other stores in the city's newest plaza when Peter Hancke opened his TCBY frozen yogurt shop last year.
But with traffic always surging along Route 90, he took a chance. It appeared to be a good one. The first month he did $30,000 in sales-a record amount. The future looked sweet.
Then suddenly, inexplicably, customers stopped coming in droves. Hancke started doubting his business skills.
As it turns out, he was being hurt by what might be called the war of whispers.
Word had gone out through town: "The yogurt shop owners are End Timers."
Overnight, sales dropped to about a $10,000 a month. With no legal way to fight the newcomers, Lake City apparently had turned to economic boycott.
"Just about any new business in town is suspect," says Conner, the outspoken End Timer critic. "People figured we may have to live with them, but we don't have to trade with them."
As it turns out, the rumor mill isn't always accurate. Hancke, for example, is Catholic, not a mainline religion in this Bible Belt town, but not quite a cult in most views.
So Hancke-and other merchants- took out newspaper advertisements denying End Time membership.
Still, Hancke says business hasn't rebounded as suspicions persist. Some End Time opponents still support the boycott method.
"There may have been some innocent victims-maybe the yogurt shop there," Hudson Ayers says, "But by and large I think it's an effective action."
The End Timers arrival also posed difficult questions for the local newspaper.
Editors at the Lake City Reporter considered it a big story when hundreds of new residents moved to town, but before the death of the Boehmer baby, the End Timers appeared to be nothing but model citizens and a Bible-based group in a city with many strong, Bible-based churches.
An editor of a small newspaper might be reluctant to do stories that might offend an affluent and ever-growing portion of his community.
But Don Caldwell, publisher of the Reporter, gave a go-ahead for a series of stories on the End Timers. The stories of estranged family members and the testimony of former End Time members made the group a legitimate subject of study, Caldwell says.
Mrs. Meade and other End Timers say the Reporter series, which included many of Ms. Eddy's allegations, deepened local distrust of a group of people who are simply living good Christian lives.
Caldwell acknowledges the End Time debate has caused turmoil and, in some instances, may have resulted in unfair treatment of the ministry members. But he stands by his decision to air the subject.
"It was a tough call, but I think we made the right one," he says.
The Boehmer death and the Myers investigation have kept the End Time Ministry in the news here, and parents of End Timers continue to travel to Lake City. When their children refuse to see them, they often stop by at the Reporter to see if the journalists can help.
"I've actually cried," Caldwell says. "Having a son, I know the pain I would feel -the rejection."
But even as local concern grows, the End Timers keep moving in. Meade won't say how many followers he has. Nor will he say how many are heading for Lake City.
The number of children being schooled at home in Columbia County has risen from 41 in 1987 to 289 today. Estranged relatives of End Time members estimate as many as a thousand people from 17 states have followed Meade to Lake City.
And a large billboard advertising Charley Sparks' realty expertise now looms over the main drag, a constant reminder to some that Lake City is changing.