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Wesley Chapel’s History & Presence

By Florida's Original NatureCoaster™ Posted on September 12, 2019

Wesley Chapel is an unincorporated census-designated place of 6.1 square miles at the southern border of Pasco County near I-75 and I-275. In 2010, the US Census recorded 44,092 residents. It is one of the fastest growing areas in the United States

Boyette family
John Boyette was born in 1875, the son of John “Berry” Boyette and nephew of Thomas Ashley Boyette. He is shown with his wife Blanche, and children, Johnnie, William, Ruby, and Vera. Photo courtesy of Cletia Pierce, from Images of America: Wesley Chapel by Madonna Jervis Wise. (e2679)

The pioneer Boyett(e), Gillett(e), Godwin, and Kersey families received land grants in the area in the 1840s. The real influx of settlers, however, began around the War Between the States when the Stanleys and Coopers arrived.

A historical marker has: “Originally called Double Branch for the twin creeks that flowed across the Boyette land, the community was named for the Methodist chapel that stood on the northwest corner of SR 54 and Boyette Road.”

The church itself was named for John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. The name “Wesley Chapel” appears in Hernando County school board records from 1877-1878. At this time, Pasco and Citrus Counties were united as part of Hernando County.

Previous Names for Wesley Chapel

alligator hunting in Wesley chapel
Alligator hunting in the swamps of Wesley Chapel. Lonnie Tucker on far left is guiding the two visitors through the swamp. Photo courtesy of his daughter Anna Jo Bracknell, who said it was typical for him to harvest 3 to 4 gators per evening. From Images of America: Wesley Chapel, by Madonna Jervis Wise. (e2656)

A popular nickname for the area at that time was Gatorville. It was not because of University of Florida either.

In September of 1887 voting precincts were established for the newly-formed Pasco County. Wesley Chapel was designated Precinct 4.

A post office operated in the area from 1897 to 1902. The post office was called “Wesley,” and maps during that period have the shortened name “Wesley” and some school board minutes also used the shortened name.

Since its founding in 1878, the Double Branch Baptist Church (now the First Baptist Church) has served as a focus for Wesley Chapel community life. The church has had three buildings in its long history. Henry Ryals was pastor in the first building in 1880, Ed Bryant the second in 1935, and Lynn Foster the third in 1970.

Early Wesley Chapel Industries

Cuts Manning, a log roller at the sawmill. (Florida State Archives)

The turpentine still and sawmill represented early industries, though cattle ranching and hog farming on the then open range, crop farming, and citrus growing predominated. When times were hard people turned to charcoal making and even moonshining to survive.

Most roads began as wagon tracks between the farms and ranches and the locations where goods were sold. Eventually these were improved, paved and today have names like State Road 54!

Born on July 25, 1876 in Quitman, Georgia. Moved to Pasco County as a young man and married Ellen Osburn. Agent Waters was shot and killed along with Pasco County Deputy Sheriff Arthur F. Crenshaw from ambush on October 4, 1922. They were returning from a ranch after completing the execution of a search warrant for bootleg liquor. The name of John V. Waters is inscribed (East Wall, Panel 27, Line 5) on the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C. (State of Florida Archives)

In 1925, there were 3 incidences of arrests, deaths and illegal moonshine production in Wesley Chapel reported in the Tampa and Dade City newspapers. The moonshine operations continued through 1927, with Federal Marshalls uncovering numerous stills and confiscating thousands of gallons of liquor and mash.

Moonshine and a still in the attic.
Moonshine and a still in the attic. (Florida State Archives)

A prominent local name, Strickland, and a Sicilian distiller named Sangiorgi were some of the many people whose copper stills, liquor, weapons, and mash were confiscated from the local swamps and deep woods during Prohibition.

Wesley Chapel begins Growth with Electricity in the 1940s

Luther Daniel Smith was instrumental in bringing electricity to the community of Wesley Chapel in 1940s while he served on the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative Board.

In 1956, the Highway 54 West Bridge was built west of the Eagles Flea Market. The 1960s saw the construction of I-75, connecting the area with travelers from the north and south.

Double Branch Baptist Church Groundbreaking. Photo provided by Madonna Jervis Wise, author of Images of America: Wesley Chapel. (e2651)

In 1971, a new sanctuary was built for the Double Branch Baptist Church and the former one was torn down.

The Wesley Chapel pioneer cracker home of Daniel Smith, built in 1894, was donated to Cracker Country in 1979. This  hands-on museum is housed at the Florida State Fairgrounds, Smith House, and shares the story of frontier life in Wesley Chapel.

Saddlebrook Resort post card
Saddlebrook Resort post card, about 1982.

Saddlebrook Resort formally opened in 1981, with a car-free walking village design, allowing guests to walk throughout the resort without the need of a transportation system while providing sanctuary to nature. Thomas L. Dempsey was the visionary for this award-winning golf and tennis resort in Wesley Chapel.

Wesley Chapel’s Education and Housing

wesley chapel school 1926-27
Wesley Chapel School (1926-27) The two-room schoolhouse was located where the current parking lot of the current First Baptist Church of Wesley Chapel (off SR 54) now is situated. It would be the parking lot to the left of the church if you are facing the front of the church. One room was designated for the 1st through 4th grades and the second room was for the 5th through 8th grades. Photo courtesy of Wayne Sweat, from the new book “Images of America – Wesley Chapel” by Madonna Jervis Wise. (e839)

Wesley Chapel began growing at an unprecedented rate about this time. 1998 saw the construction of the Sand Pines Elementary School, the community’s first modern school. Today there are eight public elementary schools in Wesley Chapel, as well as two middle schools and two high schools. In fact, the Double Branch Baptist Church was renamed the First Baptist Church in 1999, the same year as Wesley Chapel High School opened.

In 2006, Wiregrass Ranch High School opened to meet the growing demand of families moving to Wesley Chapel. There are many housing and apartment complexes that were built on the ranches and farms of yesteryear.

Epperson Ranch opened with the Crystal Lagoon in Wesley Chapel.

In 2018, Epperson Ranch opened the Crystal Lagoon, the first man-made clear water lagoon in the U. S. This 7.5 acre freshwater lagoon is available to both residents of the Epperson Ranch and the public.

Wesley Chapel’s Shopping and Dining

The first outdoor mall to be built in the area is The Grove, a 445,000 square foot complex that includes a Cinebistro movie and dining theater. The Grove is located in the northeast quadrant of I-75 ad State Road 54.

Cobb Theatre at The Grove Wesley Chapel
Enjoy dining served at the movie theater at the Cobb Theater in The Grove shopping center.

One of those is Wiregrass Ranch, a 5,000-acre ranch that was owned by the Porter Family. In 2008, The Shops of Wiregrass, an open-air retail and entertainment destination located on the corner of State Road 56 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, opened there.

The Shops of Wiregrass
The Shops of Wiregrass is a popular Wesley Chapel shopping and dining destination.

Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel opened a $150-million hospital and wellness center on part of the land in 2012.

In 2015, the Tampa Premium Outlets shopping mall brought discount designer retail to the area and continued the wave of development to the west side of I-75/I-275.

The abundance of state-of-the-art retailers, restaurants and amenities have caught the eye of people from around the world who seem to be moving to Wesley Chapel in droves.

Wesley Chapel’s Sports Tradition Continues

The largest hockey complex in the southeast U.S., premiere golf and tennis academies and more make Wesley Chapel a great place to grow your sports skills!

The largest hockey complex in the southeast United States is in Wesley Chapel. Advent Health Center Ice was opened at I-275 and State Road 56 in 2017. It has four full-sized ice rinks, as well as a kid-sized rink and offers classes in figure skating, hockey, curling as well as tournaments, open skates and dry rink activities. Rentals and events are available.

Saddlebrook has continued its tradition of tennis and golf education, opening the Saddlebrook Preparatory Academy to provide an accredited comprehensive education program while they are attending the Saddlebrook Tennis Program or Golf Academy

Wesley Chapel is an unincorporated area at the southern border of Pasco County, approximately midway between the east and west borders. It is a unique part of Florida’s Nature Coast. Arkyan [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Is Wesley Chapel part of the Nature Coast?

Wesley Chapel continues to grow in population and amenities. In an area that was pre-designated for economic growth and development, the Connected City is focused on the next-generation experience of its residents. This is not simply rooftops, streets and commerce, this is Smart Homes, autonomous vehicle paths and a business core designed to attract and support the best and brightest, according to Pasco County.

And, though Wesley Chapel seems more like a bedroom community of Tampa, its location within Pasco County makes it part of Florida’s Nature Coast. There is certainly a lot of shiny new stuff there along with a history that is common to the rest of our area.

Wesley Chapel is one of the fastest growing areas of Florida with tons of options and amenities. Image courtesy of Pixabay

My eldest son chose to live in Wesley Chapel, even though he was raised in Brooksville. As a young man, it was more appealing to him to live in a multi-story apartment complex with twenty chain restaurants that will deliver to him at any time. He still loves to come out and kayak, fish and walk in the woods. He would rather drive to the outdoor recreation. I would rather drive to the shopping and restaurants.

Florida’s Nature Coast has it all and Wesley Chapel is an important part of that.

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