Motorists passing through Wesley Chapel today are likely to see it as a place on the move.
Within the past decade or so, a landscape once characterized by cattle ranches and citrus groves, has become a place becoming more widely known for its shopping, medical, education and residential options.
But, there are plenty of people who remember when the community was more closely associated with timber and turpentine operations, moonshine stills and gator hunts.
To help keep those memories alive, the Pasco-Hernando State College’s Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch hosted a Wesley Chapel History Fair.
The college intends to have the event every year, said Dr. Bonnie Clark, vice president of distance education and provost of the Porter Campus.
Speakers at the event were:
- Madonna Jervis Wise, author of “Images of America: Wesley Chapel,” who talked about details about the community she unearthed during her research
- J. Thomas Touchton, founding chairman of the Tampa Bay History Center, who brought along an 1884 map of Hernando County, when it included Wesley Chapel, though not called that at the time
- Quinn Porter Miller, who shared stories about the Porters’ history in Wesley Chapel
- Stephanie Bracknell Black, director of the Pioneer Florida Museum & Village, who shared stories about her grandfather, Lonnie Tucker
- Angelo Liranzo, a librarian who talked about a project involving the digitizing of more than 100 years of newspapers, and how to access the data
Because Wesley Chapel, unlike some communities, did not have a central downtown or a government, Wise relied on information she gleaned from homestead records, pension records and other public records, and interviews with families.
As she conducted her research, she learned about the close connections between families.
“I’ve rarely seen families that cared so much about each other,” Wise said.
She was surprised to learn about the important role that music played in Wesley Chapel.
“There’s something in Southern Culture that’s known as the fifth Sunday sing. Sometimes it is known as the singing convention,” Wise said, explaining people would gather for an entire day of singing and picnics.
“The First Baptist Church of Wesley Chapel was the center. After the convention, they had something that was known as ‘Dinner on the Ground.’ This was an all-day thing.”
Wise also talked about the turpentine communities, truck patches, gator hunting and moonshining that were part of life in Wesley Chapel.
There aren’t many remaining historic houses in Wesley Chapel, and that’s mainly because most were constructed of wood, Wise said. “We actually only found about three or four homesteads that were still standing.”
Quinn Porter Miller, another speaker, applauded the idea of annual history fairs.
“My dad would talk about all of these stories. My brother and I would say, ‘We’ve just got to get them all in one room, give them some Scotch and hit record.’
“We didn’t get the chance before my dad passed and, thankfully, Madonna (Jervis Wise) was able to get these people together and really document all these wonderful stories and these things, otherwise, that would really go down with the people,” Miller said.
Miller told the crowd about her grandfather James Hatcher “Wiregrass” Porter, who moved into the area in 1946 with his wife, Martha.
Her dad, Don Porter, was 6 when the family moved to Wesley Chapel.
“Wiregrass’ father, J.B. Porter, or J.B. or Pop Porter, as he was called, bought the land in 1937 from the Rockefeller Land Trust, for somewhere around $3 an acre,” Miller said.
When Wiregrass moved to the area, he and his family lived in an old frame house.
“My grandma Martha would cook these three hot meals a day on a Coleman stove. No electricity, no running water up there until they built their red brick house on (State Road) 54 in 1960,” Miller said.
“I don’t know if anyone could have known how this area would grow,” Miller said.
But, the family has always known how important education is, and that’s what inspired the gift of 60 acres where Porter Campus now sits.
She recalled her father’s determination to help make that happen.
“He knew how important it was that a student could go from preschool through college without having to leave the Wesley Chapel community,” she said.
And, when Don Porter came to the college’s dedication ceremony shortly before his death, he was thrilled by the college, she said. She recalls him saying: “Can you believe this? Isn’t it wild?”
Touchton also recalled Don Porter’s vision for the area.
“I remember visiting with Don when he would show me the master plan, as it was being developed. He was willing to be patient, and he would point out different areas of the property – this will be residential, this will be shopping, this will be education, this will be sports. He was very, very proud of the vision, in conjunction with his brothers, of course, and I’m sure J.D. and Quinn,” Touchton said.
Black shared tales of the legendary Lonnie Tucker, known for his gator hunting abilities and his marksmanship.
To her, though, he was her grandpa.
She recalled asking him once to bring two big watermelons to share at school.
But, he also brought scores of small watermelons so all kinds of people got to take one home.
The annual history fair aims to prevent such memories from fading away.
Published April 6, 2016