Pasco County once had a split personality. The west-side communities of Holiday, New Port Richey and Port Richey were developed primarily for Midwestern retirees, who flocked to small, inexpensive homes up and down the U.S. 19 corridor. Meanwhile, the county’s east side, anchored by Dade City, remained vintage Florida. With the exception of Zephyrhills, which was (and still is) invaded by winter residents, the east side was populated mostly by natives, many of whom were longtime ranchers or citrus growers.
But in recent years, as both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have begun to run out of developable land, growth has begun marching steadily into Pasco. New subdivisions have been appearing along the entire width of the C.R. 54 corridor on the county’s southern boundary, stretching from Trinity on the west to Zephyrhills on the east. On the east side, New Tampa’s growth has impacted Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills, where pastures and groves are giving way to neighborhoods. And in the central part of the county, around Land O’ Lakes, the new Suncoast Parkway has opened up huge tracts for family-oriented, master-planned communities.
Much of the growth is a result of big projects. For example, the $1.5 billion master-planned community of Trinity, located in southwest Pasco County, is one of the largest communities of its kind in the county’s history. It’s so big that it even boasts its own postal designation. But long before anybody thought of doing anything more than raising cattle and harvesting lumber in central Pasco, there were several thriving towns and communities in other parts of the county. Dade City became Pasco County’s seat of government in 1887, when Pasco and Hernando counties separated. Before that, it was an Indian trading post.
Today, Dade City’s recently renovated, circa-1909 courthouse remains a focal point. Downtown, with its quaint antique shops and restaurants, draws visitors from all over Florida. Nearby San Antonio and St. Leo got their start in 1882, when Edmund F. Dunne, former chief justice of the Arizona territory, was walking through the hills north of Dade City with his cousin. The pair spotted an unusually clear lake and decided that its shores would be an ideal spot for a Catholic colony.
The pair named the lake Jovita because they had spotted it on the Feast Day of St. Jovita. In acknowledgement of an answered prayer, Dunne named his planned town San Antonio, after St. Anthony of Padua. Dunne plotted streets and residential lots for his colony, setting aside property for schools, a monastery, convent and or-phan’s asylum. By 1883, San Antonio boasted several stores, a barnlike church and a school.
St. Leo, originally a spin-off of San Antonio, sits just to the east. Its claim to fame is St. Leo University, a small liberal-arts college overlooking Lake Jovita. The school was chartered in 1889, when the Florida Legislature authorized the Order of St. Benedict of Florida to confer academic degrees. Unincorporated Land O’ Lakes is more of an area than a community. It didn’t even have an official name until about 1950, when several residents came up with the whimsical moniker and installed it on the local post office. The name fits; there’s more water than land in the area.
However all that waterfront, and its location just across the line from Hillsborough County, has made Land O’ Lakes a desirable growth area. Developers have snapped up thousands of acres of ranchland and plan an array of new communities. New Port Richey, Pasco County’s largest municipality with 16,000 residents, was a quaint village on the Pithlachascotee River in the 1930s, when Works Progress Administration (WPA) writers dropped by to research their Guide to Florida. They extolled its abundant petunias, snapdragons and sweet peas, as well as the roads, which were shaded by oaks and magnolias.
New Port Richey’s picturesque downtown is an ideal setting for the city’s biggest annual event, the Chasco Fiesta, which honors a complicated romantic legend involving a Spanish boy and girl, a priest and a Calusa Indian tribe that captured them. The biggest development New Port Richey has seen in years, Main Street Landing, is under way on the river near downtown. Most of the 44 residential units in the $30 million mixed-use project were sold before construction started, at prices ranging from $300,000 to $585,000. In addition to condominiums, Main Street Landing will include retail shops, restaurants and docks.
Port Richey, population 3,000, wasn’t incorporated until 1925 but has been an active fishing village since the late 1800s. The city’s namesake, Aaron M. Richey, built a home near the mouth of the Pithlachascotee River in 1883. Soon after, he bought a piece of riverfront property to build a dock for his schooner. The enterprising settler later established the city’s post office and operated a small general store. Zephyrhills, described in a 1912 newspaper article as “the healthiest place in Florida,” is certainly the best-known Pasco County locale, thanks to Zephyrhills Brand Natural Spring Water, which is bottled here and sold around the world.
In certain circles, the city is also known for its highly productive poultry farms and excellent skydiving facilities. These disparate elements, combined with hilly terrain and genuine charm, make Zephyrhills truly one of a kind. The community was first known as Abbott, after Dr. J.M. Abbott, who ran a drugstore and practiced medicine at the crossroads of what is now U.S. 301 and Fifth Avenue. The name was revised to Abbott Station in 1896, when a railroad depot opened.
In 1909, a Civil War veteran from Pennsylvania named Captain Howard B. Jeffries decided to start a veteran’s colony at Abbott Station. One day, while showing the area to prospective residents from atop LeHeup Hill, Jeffries heard someone mention the rolling hills and “zephyr-like” breezes-and a new name was born. The community was incorporated as Zephyrhills in 1914. For most of its history, Zephyrhills has been highly seasonal. Today its population of nearly 12,000 doubles and even triples in the winter as snowbirds flock to relatively inexpensive second homes. But it won’t be long before more year-round residents find their way here. As nearby Wesley Chapel, closer to I-75, fills up with new homes, developers are looking east toward Zephyrhills.