By Kyle LoJacono
The Shops at Wiregrass, Wiregrass Ranch High and the future Pasco-Hernando Community College’s (PHCC) Wiregrass Campus all got their names from a ranch owned by the Porter family.
Don Porter said his father, uncle and grandfather — James, Bob, J.B. Porter, respectively — bought 14,000 acres of land in 1941.
“Originally we had a smaller piece of land where the Zephyrhills (Municipal) Airport is,” Don said. “When World War II happened, the government bought the land for the Air Force training base. They used that to buy the land.”
Don said the family first came to Zephyrhills in 1937.
The Porters first moved onto the land in 1946. At that time, Don said the area was known as Gatorville, which was what they used to mail things.
The original home Don grew up in with his brothers, Tom and Bill, was on the south side of SR 54 across from where Heritage Ford is today. The original land went south to the area between 30th Street in Lutz to Bruce B. Downs in New Tampa, up to their homestead and to the east into where New River is today.
The family raised cattle on the land, which is where the ranch part comes from. Wiregrass is a kind of bunchgrass that grows in the area, according to Mimi Williams, plant materials specialist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Williams said the grass grows about 20-30 inches long. It is native to Florida and has virtual no use to people except as a food source for grazing animals like cows. However it is not the most nutritious food for livestock. It is a favorite food for gopher tortoises and quail.
Don said his father would burn the wiregrass on a regular basis to try and keep it in check as much as possible and also to encourage younger and tenderer growth that is easier for the cattle to eat.
Don and his family called the area Gatorville for years. It was not until 1950 when a family friend, Ed Madill, sent the Porters a postcard while on vacation in Mexico. Don said Madill did not have the Porter’s address, so he sent it to Wiregrass Porter, Gatorville, FL USA. The name stuck.
While Don was growing up, there was only a one-room schoolhouse. He said everyone just called it “the schoolhouse,” which was located south of SR 54 across from Boyette Road. Don remembered about 13 students who shared the school.
Don, who was born in Plant City, married his late wife Lajuana and built a house for their new family on the ranch in 1970. The couple have two children, J.D. and Quinn.
“I grew up in a house right by where the new Wesley Chapel (Medical Center) will be,” J.D. said. “Back then when we wanted to go for pizza we had to drive south on Bruce B. Downs to Fletcher Avenue. There weren’t lights all the way down and there was an ABC’s pizza there.”
J.D. was born in 1979 and went to Quail Hollow Elementary, Weightman Middle and finished up high school at Zephyrhills High.
The family started selling large parts of the original ranch in 1972, with Saddlebrook Resort as the first buyer. The next year the land of Meadow Pointe was sold to a developer.
Don said the family now owns about 5,000 acres and still raises cattle and orange trees on the property. He said he envisioned an area with schools, shopping centers, recreation, neighborhoods, businesses and a hospital decades ago. That vision is coming true.
The Shops at Wiregrass opened in 2008 and has more than 100 businesses. Saddlebrook has become known across the nation for its tennis and golf programs and large developments like Meadow Pointe, New River Township and Seven Oaks have built up.
The educational center of the area has grown around Mansfield Boulevard where Dr. John Long Middle and Wiregrass Ranch High currently sit.
John Petrashek, Pasco County director of construction services and code compliance, said the family sold the land to the county’s school district around 2004. Both Petrashek and Don said the Porter family worked with the Pasco school board to come up with the high school’s name.
“Other names were proposed, but Wiregrass Ranch made the most sense,” Petrashek said.
In 2012, the education in the area will progress further when construction begins on PHCC’s Wiregrass Campus. It will be located just north of Wiregrass Ranch High on Mansfield and is scheduled to open in 2013.
Within the next few weeks the Wesley Chapel Medical Center, a full-service hospital, will also break ground on the east side of Bruce B. Downs north of SR 56. The facility will take 18 months to build.
Wiregrass Ranch has progressed far from the Gatorville of Don’s youth, but it is the same place he knows and loves.
“I’ve grown up here and I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Don said. “There’s been a lot of progress and that’s needed. I’m glad I’ve been able to see the area build up into what it is today.”
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