Hernando County has thousands of acres of glorious nature preserves, a grand Southern belle of a county seat and a thriving new-home market. Yet its national claim to fame is a spring full of faux mermaids. Since 1947, tourists have visited Weeki Wachee Springs’ underwater theater to watch the mermaids perform underwater feats, discretely breathing through air hoses placed strategically in the scenery.
The venerable tourist attraction, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last year, is operated by the City of Weeki Wachee, population nine, and owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Brooksville, the only other incorporated city in Hernando, is the county seat, and its history reaches back more than a century before mermaids began cavorting in the Weeki Wachee River.
Fort DeSoto was built on the northeastern edge of present-day Brooksville around 1840 to protect settlers from Indians. It also functioned as a trading post and a stop on the Concord Stage Coach Line, which ran from Palatka to Tampa.
In 1864, during the Civil War, Brooksville withstood a raid by Union troops trying to stop locals from shipping supplies to the Confederacy. Each January, the city commemorates the raid with a reenactment and a festival. Originally known as Melendez, Brooksville was renamed by residents in honor of South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, a states’ rights advocate before the Civil War famous for beating an abolitionist senator over the head with his cane after a U.S. Senate debate.
Today, Brooksville, population 7,500, retains its historic charm. Victorian homes line brick streets near the picturesque downtown, which is packed with antique shops, restaurants and the distinctive brick courthouse. So, with only two small municipalities, where do all the people live in Hernando County?
Plenty live in unincorporated Spring Hill, on the county’s west side. First developed in the 1960s by the Deltona Corporation, Spring Hill’s population has more than doubled, from about 30,000 in 1990 to nearly 70,000 by 2000. Much of that growth is a result of homes popping up on infill lots left over from its early days. That may change in coming years, as master-planned communities invade central and eastern Hernando County, thanks in part to the Suncoast Parkway, a 57-mile toll road that runs from the Veteran’s Expressway near Tampa International Airport to the Citrus County line.
With development poised to boom, substantial portions of Hernando County remain dedicated to pristine nature preserves. The Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge comprises a portion of Hernando’s northwest boundary, while the Withlacoochee State Forest and the slow-flowing Withlacoochee River frame its east side. Nearer the coast, the 6,000-acre Weeki Wachee Preserve provides a home for black bears and bald eagles. And just off the coast lies a long expanse of shallow water stretching far out from land, creating excellent “flats” fishing. Hernando Beach, in fact, is thought to be adjacent to the finest tarpon fishing grounds in the world.