Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack/Ap
Frank Merschman bought the land and runway at Jumbolair two years ago for $65 million.
Air space: Marion County's fly-in community
A Marion County fly-in community, home to the longest privately owned airstrip in the country, has a quirky history and a new owner
Once, before it had African elephants, crocodiles, a 400-pound gorilla, a huge airstrip and John Travolta, the 80-acre parcel near Ocala was a horse farm owned by American socialite Muriel Vanderbilt.
When Vanderbilt owned it in the 1970s, the estate was called Idle Hour, a name that reflected its white wooden stables and the green fields where horses galloped and grazed amid ancient oaks.
In 1980, entrepreneur Arthur Jones, inventor of the Nautilus brand of exercise equipment, purchased the property and took it in a different direction.
Jones, a pilot who owned several Boeing 707 jets, bought hundreds of acres surrounding the estate and built a nearly 8,000-foot-long asphalt runway atop a 13-inch-thick limestone base. The runway, capable of landing a 747, is longer than two of the three longest runways at Palm Beach International Airport.
Jones used the runway and his jets to shuttle prospective customers to and from the estate, promoting his Nautilus machines to health club owners, sales reps, chiropractors, physical therapists and anyone else he thought might buy.
"This was Arthur's idea of marketing," says Terri Jones, one of his ex-wives.
Jones, who died in 2007, was a quirky, rough character - he reportedly pulled a gun on Robin Leach during a taping of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" - who happened to like animals.
In the early 1980s, when he heard that elephants were being culled in Zimbabwe, he flew 63 orphaned baby elephants back to Ocala. Along with a gorilla named Mickey - rescued from a roadside attraction in Florida - and other animals, the elephants became part of Jones' sales pitch to visitors.
Terri Jones says the estate became known as Jumbolair not because of the jumbo-jet connection but because of the elephants. Terri, a Tampa native and former Revlon model who married Jones in 1980 when she was 18 and he was 57, also modeled and made personal appearances for Nautilus.
"Back then, women were not wanting to touch an exercise machine," she says.
"There was still a stigma that overnight you would develop Arnold Schwarzenegger-sized muscles.
My job was to demonstrate that Nautilus would not change you into the 'Incredible Hulk.' "
Apart from his marketing talents, Jones also had great timing. His exercise machines, among the first on the market, gained prominence just as Americans started exercising in trendy health clubs rather than gyms, where the traditional equipment was dumbbells and free weights. At one point, Nautilus grossed $300 million a year.
The Joneses divorced a few years after Arthur sold the company in 1986 for $23 million. By then, Mickey was dead and the elephants had been donated to zoos or other animal facilities. Terri owned half of the property. In 1989, she purchased the other half from Arthur for a price she won't disclose but says "it wasn't a substantial amount."
Owning the longest privately owned airstrip in the country gave her an idea. A pilot herself, Terri knew that pilots "are like birds. They flock together." Perhaps, she thought, they might like to share a neighborhood. And so she established Jumbolair as an exclusive, gated fly-in community.
One of Terri's aviation acquaintances was a pilot who flew for John Travolta, a pilot himself who owns numerous aircraft, including a Boeing 707. Using that connection, Terri approached Travolta, who, after a visit to Ocala, decided to build a nearly 12,000-sq.-ft. house overlooking the runway. His house is now one of 10 at the 550-acre gated community.
"He's really just like one of the other residents," Terri says of Travolta."We forget he's here."
Two years ago, the land and the runway were purchased in receivership for $6.5 million by Frank Merschman, the founder and former CEO of Big Top Manufacturing, an airplane hangar and fabric structure maker in Perry.
Merschman, who bought a house in Jumbolair in 2007, envisions a community of 100 homes - not all owned by pilots. He says the new Adena Golf and Country Club nearby should also attract home buyers. "If I have a really high-end customer come in here and want to build a $15-million mansion, I've cleared land to be ready for that," he says. "I've got land that's allocated for really high-end stuff, but I also have land allocated for not-so-high- end. I want all kind of clients in here."