Writing about local history is nothing new for Madonna Jervis Wise.
The Zephyrhills woman traced the history of Zephyrhills, and also of Dade City, for books published by Arcadia Publishing, of Charleston, South Carolina.
Now, she has written another book for the publisher’s Images of America series. This one focuses on Wesley Chapel.
When the publisher asked her to do the Wesley Chapel book, Wise knew it would be challenging.
Unlike Zephyrhills and Dade City – which both have city governments, historic buildings and established town centers, Wesley Chapel offered no clear place for Wise to begin her research.
So, Wise relied on her background in genealogy to help her track down descendants of families with deep roots in Wesley Chapel.
She began her quest by tracking down Marco Edward Stanley, of Gainesville, who arranged for Wise to interview his mother, 95-year-old Lillie Sapp Stanley.
The historian met with members of the Stanley family, and that interview led to others.
When she interviewed David Brown, Michael Boyette, Bill Smith or members of the Stanley family, she discovered the families shared deep bonds.
“There was this cohesiveness among the settlers,” Wise said. “They would talk about each other in this real, deep caring way.”
Putting together “Images of America: Wesley Chapel,” meant interviewing scores of pioneer descendants, culling through land records, visiting properties and even putting together a map to get a sense for what it used to be like.
Through U.S. Census records and interviews with primary sources, Wise learned the names of the families of many early settlers, including Asbel, Barnes, Boyette, Bradley, Cooper, Ellerbee, Geiger, Gillette, Godwin, Hill, Kersey, O’Berry, Overstreet, Ryals, Smith, Stanley, Strickland, Thomas and Tucker.
Some of those names, she discovered, had various spellings, such as Stanley and Standley.
She also discovered that the community was known by various names through the years. Those names included Godwin, Double Branch, Wesley, Lemon and Gatorville – and finally, Wesley Chapel.
One surprising discovery, she said, was that women have long been acknowledged for the prominent role they played in the community.
“Pioneer women of Wesley Chapel were revered for their tireless days of toil, with a nurturing spirt and the skill to raise large families,” Wise wrote.
For instance, Francis Asbury Barnes’ granddaughters, Martha and Vida, played pivotal roles in Barnes’ ranching operations. The women, Wise wrote, were “industrious managers of land and cattle.”
Photographs and anecdotes in the 127-page volume paint a portrait of a place where people worked hard and cared about their neighbors. It was a community where the church was the central gathering place.
“This was a haven for the Singing Convention,” Wise said. “That’s something that occurred a lot in the South, but it was really, really prominent here.
“It occurred any month that had a fifth Sunday,” she said.
It was described by one descendant as Wesley Chapel’s ‘Grand Ole Opry.’
“It was hosted usually at the Double Branch Church (now known as the First Baptist Church of Wesley Chapel), and people came from everywhere,” Wise said.
“When I interviewed Cullen Boyette, he said these barbershop quartets that were on the radio would come here. Mostly, it was gospel music,” she said.
“They would have music nearly the entire day, and then they had (what they called) ‘dinner on the ground,’” she said.
They spread blankets out on the ground and enjoyed a potluck feast, Wise explained.
She also noted that Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church, for whom many believe the community was named, operated only from 1890 to 1892, at the corner of State Road 54 and Boyette Road.
Besides its church life, Wesley Chapel was known for its moonshining, gator hunting and turpentine stills, Wise said.
The timber and turpentine industries also played a significant role, she said. And, many ranching operations were founded on land where timber had been depleted, and the land was sold off for for tax deeds, Wise wrote.
Over time, many of Wesley Chapel’s ranches and citrus groves have given way to shopping centers, homes, schools, churches, a state college and other developments.
Of all of the changes through the years, Wise thinks the construction of Interstate 75 had the biggest influence on the community’s growth.
“I think that’s the most significant change. Wesley Chapel would not be what it is today without that. It really did change the landscape,” she said.
As she conducted interviews, tracked down records and gathered photographs, Wise developed a wealth of knowledge about Wesley Chapel.
Despite her prodigious research, though, there were some questions that she could not answer.
For instance, she couldn’t pinpoint the exact boundaries of the community – an issue still debated today.
And, she couldn’t determine precisely how the community got its name.
Some said it was named after an early settler. Others, claimed it was after John Wesley, founder of the United Methodist Church.
As for Wise?
She’s content, for now, to leave those questions open.
Upcoming book events
- Feb. 16 at 2 p.m.: Talk at the Hugh Embry Library, 14215 Fourth St., in Dade City. It will include both “Images of America: Dade City” and “Images of America: Wesley Chapel.”
- Feb. 25 at 12:30 p.m.: Book signing at the East Campus of Pasco-Hernando State College, 36727 Blanton Road in Dade City
- March 4 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.: Book signing at the Zephyrhills Library, 5347 Eighth St., in Zephyrhills.
Published February 10, 2016