On a recent visit to Port Richey, I enjoyed a charter up the Pithlachascotee River (called the “Cotee” by locals) from Sims Park in downtown New Port Richey and then out about a mile into the Gulf of Mexico where I was greeted by houses on stilts! Captain Ray of Miss Daisy Boat Tours was my guide.
When we stopped back at the dock, I was very impressed with the improvements along what is termed Port Richey’s “waterfront bayou district,” especially the nice restaurants, boat rentals and charter opportunities that are available there. A perceptible vibe is brewing along the shore as new businesses and venues continue to offer waterfront entertainment for Florida’s NatureCoasters.
Still, my mind went back to those stilt houses – how did they get there? who built them? when? why?
Pasco’s stilt houses look like a great way to get away from it all – build your vacation home in the Gulf of Mexico! But alas, these historic structures were not built for relaxation – instead they were built to aid fishermen in their daily toils.
Here is a glimpse into the Florida of our forefathers. Most of these aquatic icons were built by “squatter’s rights” in the early to mid-twentieth century. At that time, there were no outboard engines or supermarkets, so settlers poled their boats out to the gulf to fish and crab.
According to a Sept. 30, 1973 article in the St. Petersburg Times, “Uncle Willie” Baillie, a pioneer resident of West Pasco, claimed to have built the first stilt house in the area when he and his brother, R.E. Baillie, got the idea of building a camp right on the fishing grounds to watch for mullet runs.
They netted and sold mullet for their livelihood and they were compelled to pole their boats from the shore out into the Gulf, fish all day and then pole back at night.
The Baillie brothers then went onshore to cut cypress trees for lumber, sharpen the pilings and float them on a barge out to their construction site. After the construction was complete, they had a place to eat and sleep between mullet runs and a place to clean and pack their fish, salted, in barrels. Then “run” boats would pick up the fish bound for Cedar Key to be shipped north by train.
Is this why many locals refer to these historic icons as “fish camps?”
An August 17, 1977 article in the Suncoast Shopper & News claims that James W. Clark, Jr., former New Port Richey mayor, built the first stilt home so he could rest and get away from the “petty annoyances of life on land.”
While we are not sure which person built the first stilt house in the area, we do know who built the last one – Mike Olson, former Pasco county commission chairman and tax collector, built his stilt home in 1968 – the same year Hurricane Gladys destroyed all but two of the “shacks.”
After Hurricane Gladys, the Florida legislature stopped allowing the building of new stilt houses on submerged state lands, or repairing those that are damaged more than 50%.
Pasco stilt house owners brought their case to Tallahassee and convinced the governor and the legislature to grant a “grandfather clause” for those who had lost their camps to the hurricane, allowing them to be allowed to rebuild and hold a lease on the land underneath until July 1, 1999.
Then the no-name storm of 1993 hit, destroying or severely damaging several of the stilt houses, including the one built by Mike Olson and owned by James and Jane Baillie. Jane Baillie was quoted in a Mar. 17, 1993 article in the Tampa Tribune, stating, “It’s the end of a way of life. We spent every weekend in the summer out there. The only way to get there was by boat… the sunsets were gorgeous. I’m going to miss it.”
In 1998, Florida granted those whose Pasco County stilt houses were standing a 20 year extension from the July 1, 1999 lease end.
As of 2005, there were 9 stilt houses left along the west coast of Pasco County. Many of the original builders have handed these camps down to their children and grandchildren.
“In the 1920s, both of my grandfathers, Grey and Boyd, built a camp about 300 feet from shore at the mouth of the river,” stated John Grey in a July 24, 2005 article in the Tampa Tribune. Later he recalls mullet fishermen leaving a note stating that they needed to use the house as refuge from a storm and they had brewed some of our coffee. They returned when John was at the house and asked how many mullet we wanted, then left us 6-7 for dinner.
In 2006, a speeding power boat with no one aboard crashed into Stilt House No. 5 and on Jun 29, 2010, the southernmost stilt house was destroyed by what was suspected to be a lightning strike.
At different times, these structures (and their predecessors) have harbored seamen in need of a safe haven, those who wanted a better way of life, families spending time together to pass on water-based traditions such as how to fish, cast a net, catch scallops or crabs and water ski, and those who see this as the best way of life.
Some of these stilt homes have been visited by the famous, including Johnny Cash and Billy Graham. John Grey states, “Johnny Cash would go out there for a week every year just to get away from things. People left him alone and that’s what he liked about being here.” (Nine Remaining Camps in the Gulf are Symbols of a Rich History, Tampa Tribune, July 24, 2005).
Most are currently used by their lessees and are occasionally put up for sale. They carry a pretty price tag, considering the houses and their contents cannot be insured. Still, what is the appropriate price for gorgeous sunsets, family camaraderie and fishing through a hole in the floor?
The leases would be ending in 2019, but the State government has given the lessees a reprieve. As long as their stilt houses are in good repair, owners of the stilt houses may have 20-year extensions on their leases throughout the foreseeable future.
Today, the west coast of Pasco County is redeveloping into a water recreational paradise of sorts, with waterfront restaurants, boat rentals and charter services readily available. You may want to get out and get a glimpse of these historic structures while they are still available to see.