The ultimate path of I-75 shaped Pasco County’s future

Robert Frost has a famous poem that talks about two roads diverging in the woods, and how taking the one less traveled by made all of the difference.

In Pasco County’s case, the final alignment of Interstate 75 had similar, far-reaching implications.

Back in the 1960s, before I-75 began construction, locals debated with state officials about where the interstate highway should go.

This 1956 photograph shows a dirt road, which would later be paved to become State Road 54 in Wesley Chapel. (Courtesy of the Department of Transportation, State Archives of Florida)

The county’s power base in Dade City argued for a path closer to that settlement, which at the time had a population of about 4,700.

After all, it was the largest town between Ocala and Tampa during the 1960s.

Several interstate routes already had been moved — in response to public outcry around the state — including in Ocala, Tampa and Wildwood.

Dade City leaders decided to push for an alignment closer to their community, which they believed would be an economic boost.

In 1961, the Dade City Chamber championed moving I-75’s path closer to the city.

The Pasco County Commission passed a resolution favoring the shift.

Commissioners proposed that the route would leave Hernando County and continue south, passing west of Trilby, and continuing to a point about 1 ½ miles northwest of Dade City, then turning southwest to pass 2 miles west of Dade City, and 1 mile east of St. Leo.

Sydney Houston, of the Dade City Chamber, led a public relations campaign that encouraged telegrams and letter-writing.

Those pushing for I-75 to be closer to Dade City lamented the damage that had been done to the city’s economic prowess from the closing of Cummer & Sons Cypress in Lacoochee and from the discontinuation of single-strength canning at Pasco Packing.

They predicted that I-75 circumventing the town would trigger additional economic stress.

They claimed the official plan to enter the state at the Georgia line and then move due south to the Sumter-Hernando County line, where it veered to the southwest toward Tampa, would hurt Pasco County whose population and power base was in the eastern portion of the county.

Popular sentiments claimed Pasco would benefit more, if the interstate sliced through an area closer to Dade City.

This 1956 photograph shows a well-paved Highway 52 near Dade City, as compared to the dirt road near Wesley Chapel.

Initially, their efforts made little headway.

Gov. Farris Bryant retorted that the present alignment of I-75 was justified, via John R. Phillips, chairman of the State Road Board.

However, in response to community outcry, a public hearing was set at the county courthouse on Aug. 8, 1961.

More than 200 people crowded into the circuit courtroom.

O. Perry, state road department engineer, listened intently.

Pasco Commissioner Robert K. Butler pleaded for the I-75 shift.

County Clerk of the Circuit Court Stanley Burnside contended that I-75’s bypassing Dade City would ignore an essential resource — the National Guard unit of the 51st Infantry stationed in Dade City. That unit would be deployed to metropolitan centers in need, and moving I-75 would delay its response times, he said.

Dade City Chamber Director Ed Carren proclaimed by realigning the route the greatest number of people would be served — including Pasco’s largest population living in Dade City, San Antonio, Lacoochee and Zephyrhills, and residents in neighboring Lakeland, Plant City and other communities, in Polk and Hillsborough counties.

George Sanford, a city planner from Lakeland, and representatives of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce endorsed the plan. They believed the thoroughfare would provide direct access to U.S. 98.

Attorney Bill Larkin, who had been instrumental in getting U.S. 301 positioned through Dade City, pointed to the scenic beauty that the altered route would allow motorists to view – the hills, groves and land of the area.

This 1966 photo shows the completed Interstate 75, near the closest access to Dade City. Resident Jeanette Reilly, a retired educator and a member of the Pasco County History Society, recalled that soon after completion of I-75, one could travel for several miles without seeing another driver. Note in this photograph, there are just four cars.

Undoubtedly, the Dade City contingent did not anticipate the opposition that would be wielded by the towns of San Antonio and Brooksville.

San Antonio Mayor Joe Herrmann was worried that the new route would cut through the middle of several small citrus groves, whereas the current route passed through large acreages allowing resulting damages to be more easily absorbed.

Representatives from Brooksville, the county seat of neighboring Hernando County, had grown accustomed to the existing plan and stood firm in their defense of the governor’s map.

Dade City’s champions failed in their efforts to shift I-75’s path.

If they had prevailed, Burnside, now 97, is confident the altered path would have made a real difference in Dade City’s economic development.

Instead, it was Wesley Chapel’s growth that was fueled by I-75’s path.

What a difference an interstate makes
Growth in the aftermath of I-75 literally put Wesley Chapel on the map.

The community had fewer than 100 residents before I-75 was built — about 2 ½ times smaller than the population needed, to be recognized by a circle on the map by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Throughout most of its history, Wesley Chapel had been known for its open ranges, lumber and turpentine-making operations, and sparse population.

Highway 54 was a dirt path used by carts to haul resin to the turpentine stills and for wagons to carry lumber from sawmills to the railroad line.

But since I-75 sliced through, the landscape in Wesley Chapel has changed from a place dominated by orange groves and cattle ranches to one which features scores of housing subdivisions, a hospital, a state college, numerous schools, two regional shopping malls, several churches and all sorts of businesses.

Wesley Chapel’s population has grown. U.S. Census figures put the community’s population at more than 44,000 in 2016. That compares to Dade City’s population of 7,099, at the same time.

Still, both communities have their strengths.

Wesley Chapel residents have more choices, now.

Dade City residents, though, can enjoy the quiet streets, historic buildings and ambience that combine to give the community its widely recognized Old Florida charm.

By Madonna Jervis Wise

Madonna Jervis Wise is a local historian who has written local history books about Dade City, Zephyrhills and Wesley Chapel.

Published April 18, 2018

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