Motorists cruising through Zephyrhills along State Road 54 or U.S. 301 may not realize what a mecca the city is for residents wanting to escape winter’s chill.
If those passing through took a closer look, however, they’d observe the myriad mobile home parks dotting the community.
There’s Betmar Acres, at 37145 Lakewood Drive, which founder M.H. Meengs and his partner, George Sprinkle named by combining their wives’ first names — Betty and Mary.
There’s Winters Mobile Home Park, Inc., 38022 Winter Drive, operated for generations by the Winters’ family since the 1950s.
Grand Horizons, Gem Estates Mobile Home Village, Southport Springs, Baker Acres, Valleydale and Palm Tree Acres are among the other parks that are home to the thousands of seasonal and permanent residents dwelling in Zephyrhills.
These communities are more than mere collections of manufactured homes.
Residents talk about the sense of community that develops from mingling at potluck suppers, going to square dances, playing card games and shuffleboard, and taking part in other special activities.
The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce office, at 38550 Fifth Ave., is often the first place that new seasonal residents visit when they arrive in town, said Vonnie Mikkelsen, the chamber’s executive director.
“They’ll come in for a map, and they’ll leave with a handful of information,” Mikkelsen said.
Those who haven’t been to the chamber before often are surprised by the friendly reception they receive, Mikkelsen said. Many don’t realize that Zephyrhills has a history of welcoming newcomers — one that dates back to the city’s earliest days.
Capt. Howard B. Jeffries purchased land in December 1909 in Zephyrhills to initiate a colony for Civil War veterans, according to a book authored by local historian, Madonna Jervis Wise.
He attracted people from all over the country to live in the city known for its sparkling water and gentle winds.
“He had visited, at that time, every state in the union. He had recruited people from every place. Even Alaska,” Wise said.
The early seasonal visitors, dating back as far as the 1910s, were known as Tin Can Tourists, according to an excerpt from Wise’s book, “Images of America: Zephyrhills.”
The development of railroad lines and of automobiles brought even more visitors to the area and over time, many visitors decided to become seasonal or permanent residents of the city.
The seasonal residents play an important role in the ebb and flow of life in Zephyrhills.
“They’re the economic driver for at least three months of the year,” Mikkelsen said.
“We’d like them to come earlier and stay longer. If there’s anything we can do to encourage it, we’d like to know about it,” the chamber executive added.
There are telltale signs of the snowbirds’ arrival.
More lights go on in the mobile home parks. Restaurants, churches and stores are more crowded. There’s more traffic on area roads.
Typically, it’s the weather — not dates on a calendar — that chart the arrival and departure of the seasonal residents. They come south to escape frigid weather and head north when the weather warms there.
Helene Rubenstein and her husband, Marty, visited a number of places before choosing to live in the community of Grand Horizons, at 7645 Green Slope Drive.
Some of the communities they visited had better access to an interstate highway, but didn’t measure up in other ways, said Rubenstein, who lives part of the year in Connecticut.
She likes the convenience Grand Horizons offers, when it comes to meeting her daily needs.
“The hospitals, the doctors — they’re right around the corner,” Rubenstein said. Nearby restaurants are a plus, too.
After living in Grand Horizons for 11 years, Rubenstein is perhaps most impressed by one of the community’s intangible strengths: The people living there.
“It may sound corny, but it is the truth. Everyone, so far, I have liked,” she said. She must admit, however, some people took a little longer to warm up to than others.
Grand Horizons is loaded with activities.
“We have shuffleboard on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays,” Rubenstein said. “We have a reading club. We have a writing club.”
There’s coffee and doughnuts on Wednesdays. There’s mahjong, pinochle and euchre, too.
In fact, there’s so much going on that Rubenstein said her husband sometimes says that he barely ever sees her.
People are cordial, as they make their rounds in the community.
“We walk down the street and everybody says ‘hi.’ We wave to whoever passes by. Sometimes we don’t even know who they are, but we wave,” said Rubenstein, a former auditor for the state of Connecticut.
Lee Heffelfinger describes a similar feeling of camaraderie at Gem Estates Mobile Home Village.
“It’s like a big family,” she said.
Friendships are formed through potluck dinners and game nights. Residents enjoy entertainment and special events, such as the Christmas golf cart parade.
Coffee socials, held on Thursdays, are a big hit when winter residents are in town, typically attracting about 125 people.
To help Gem Estates residents put a name to a face, they wear nametags to the coffees and programs in the park.
Residents also get acquainted while strolling through the community, said Heffelfinger, who along with her husband, Russ, has lived full-time at Gem Estates for 15 years.
These communities tend to be tight-knit places, where people share life’s joys and sorrows.
They celebrate anniversaries and weddings. They help each other through illnesses. They grieve when someone dies or is forced to move away because of poor health.
There’s a genuine sense of concern for one another, Heffelfinger said.
“When the ambulance comes in here, you can’t believe how the people will flock to that house. ‘What can I do? What can I do?’ ” she said.
On Christmas Day, for instance, there were three ambulance calls to Gem Estates.
“Luckily,” Heffelfinger said, “nobody died.”
We know there’s a lot going on in the mobile home park communities in Zephyrhills, and we’d like to help you share your news. We encourage you to write accounts of what’s happening in your park and we really appreciate photos, as well.
Please help us to share your stories.
If you’d like to know how you can submit your park news, contact Mary Rathman at .
Published January 7, 2015