History of New Port Richey, Florida – Recollections of Chester Wilcox


New Port Richey

Recollections of Chester Wilcox

The following letter written by Chester Wilcox in 1980 describes New Port Richey at it existed in 1918-1919, when he lived here as a child. The postmaster was Gerben DeVries. The bank building constructed in 1919 became the office of the Port Richey Company, rather than a bank. The text of this letter was provided to the West Pasco Historical Society by Barry Gilmore, grandson of George and Gladys Rollins, who are mentioned in the letter. In 1980 Wilcox also drew a map of New Port Richey as he remembered it. The map is below.

I have no doubt that you will be more than a little surprised to hear from me, well to put your mind at ease let me tell you that Dot and myself are fine, altho a bit tired of the winter this year, we are just waiting for spring.

The reason that I have wanted to write to you, ever since we got the first letter from you saying that you were living in New Port Richey, is that when my folks first went to Fla. to live we went to New Port Richey and I can not get it out of my mind what a coincidence it is that you would move to the very place that we moved to when we went to Fla. in 1918

I do not know if you have heard that Geo. and Gladys were down in Fla., it must be about fifteen years ago now. I do remember when they got back that they said that the place had changed so that they would not know that they were in the same place.

Well in 1918 Geo. and Gladys and my Father David Wilcox bought ten acres of land in New Port Richey and had five acres of it cleared and a small house built on the front part. At this time we were living in Worcester Mass. At about the time that the furniture was enroute by freight, we left Worcester in a model T Ford for the happy land, the trip took 18 days, for after we left Washington D.C. there were very few hard roads and no signs, so it was a case of asking in most every town the way to the next town

When we reached our destination we found a house about fifteen feet wide and twenty five feet long and it was just rough boards sitting in this field of sand. The furniture had reached there before we did and was all piled up in the end of the house, still in the crates.

To point out the local of the first place that we went to, it was out on the Tarpon Sprs. road, north of the town on the way to Old Port Richey, it must have been about a mile north of town and then there was a road off to the right and that was called Mass. Ave, I do not know just why, unless it was because the man that sold the land to the folks was from Worcester Mass also, his name was a Mr. Shelden and he had a farm just beyond the five acres that the folks had cleared, in fact we stayed with them until the folks could get the furniture uncrated and ready to start to living in the house.

In 1918 as you entered New Port Richey, coming from Tarpon Spr. the first thing was the railroad tracks crossing the road and then just to the right of the road was the freight station. I think about a thousand feet beyond this was the center of town, at this point there was a street going off to the right and the Tarpon Spr. road continued on to Orange Lake, where it bore to the left and then on to run about parallel to the Cootie River, this river did have another name, but it was always called Cootie, so that is all that I remember.

Where the main road bore to the left around the lake there was another road that went to the right and about half way around the lake on this one there was another street that went off to the right, the road around the lake finely joined the main road, on the other side of the lake.

The main town street must have been some clay, or hard pan for it was rather a hard surface, all the other streets in town were just sand ruts. Right on the corner of the first town street was a Drug store and in one end of the building was a small store that had nails and hammers and saws, on the other side of the building was a small store that had some clothing. Beyond this was a rather large building that had a grocery store and on the other side was a restaurant, up stairs in this building was the Hotel. This was all on the right side of the Tarpon Spr. road.

Going up the street that was the main street of the town was the Post Office, at the time a Gerbin Deveres was the Post Master, that name is probably not spelled correctly, for I do not remember ever seeing it spelled out. Just beyond the Post Office was the weekly News Paper. I do remember working in there afternoons wrapping the papers to be mailed.

Quite a good distance up the street was the School and that was a two story building, but I do not think that the classes went beyond the sixth grade at that time. I was only eight years old then so I was in one of the lower grades and did not pay too much attention to the others. All of this was on the left side of the street and on the right side, about opposite the News Paper office was another store that had groceries and in one side had clothing. That was about the extent of the shopping area.

To get back to our first domicile, the the five acres of sand, of course the first thing was to get the furniture uncrated and then set the place up to be able to live in it, we had not been living there more than a couple of nights until we discovered that the beds were full of fleas at night and the house during the day, you could see them hopping around on the floor. At this time the county had what was called a no fence law, which meant that the cattle and hogs ran wild and everywhere, the house was just set up on posts and the hogs would get under the house and scratch their backs on the timbers. Well it meant that every night we had to spray Bee Brand Flea powder in the beds and around the floors. The first thing was to get the porch built around two sides of the house and then a small porch on the back, so that it could be closed in to keep our friends out from under, the next thing was to get the five acres fenced in to keep all of the cattle out.

It was early in the spring when we arrived and as soon as they got the place fenced in they planted cotton in the five acres, it grew very well too, for I remember hoeing the cotton and then in the fall I helped with the picking, there was a lot of it too, we had that piled up in the end of the porch, until they could get it to the gin. That was the extent of the cotton growing. I guess it was because there was no cotton gin nearby.

This must have been quite a traumatic experience for the folks moving out of a large city and into the sort of living conditions that we found there at that time. At the time I was only eight years old and as kids do I seemed to adjust very quickly, for I rather enjoyed the open country. I remember that I wandered over most of the near by land.

The folks only lived out at the farm about a year and then they bought a small house in town, on that street going off to the right from Orange Lake, however my Father and I used to go out to the farm every night and sleep there, until they could sell the place. I used to walk to school from the farm, by cutting through the woods. I do not know how far it was, maybe three quarters of a mile and then we would walk back out at night.

At about this time the cattle men brought in five Brama Bulls to try to improve the stock I guess and of course they were running around loose too. I used to see them once in awhile while I was going back and forth to school, but they did not seem to pay very much attention to me and I certainly did not bother them.

Soon after Geo. and Gladys moved into the small house in town Geo. built a garage, on the Tarpon Sprs. road just before you came to the town, on the right hand side. At about the same time Geo. started a bus line to Tarpon Sprs. My Father used to drive the bus in one trip a day.

This bus was made over from the model T that we drove down to Fla. in. I believe they took it to Tampa and had the body built on the chassis. It was a nine seater, but the back seat could be taken out for more room for cargo. I know the folks used to let Geo. know the day before if they had something coming that was bulky, so they could be ready.

The road to Tarpon Sprs. was hard surface, but it was only nine feet wide, which meant that if you met another car it was a case of having to drop off of the hard road and into sand, many of the places would drop off a foot into the soft sand and if you were going too slow you could not get back up onto the hard part for some distance and if you were going too fast, when you hit that soft sand it would throw you and then have to wait until someone came along to pull you out.

The bus had curtains on the sides in case of rain, so if you did run into a shower it meant that you had to get out and roll the curtains down and they fastened on the body with small turn buttons.

When school was not in session I used to ride in with my Dad quite often, for I liked to see the sponge divers sitting at the sidewalk cafe’s smoking their water pipes and go down to the port and see all the boats and the diving gear that they had down there.

I should not forget to tell you about the bridge coming out of Tarpon Sprs. I do not know if it was a river, or just a back water from the Gulf, but it was quite wide and the bridge was wooden and the floor was not nailed down tight, for the car going across would make a lot of noise, sounded as it it was about to come down for sure. The sides were two by fours for a railing. It was just about wide enough for two cars to pass. I know once we stopped and looked at the pilings under the bridge and they looked like they were trunks of Palm trees and at the water edge they looked to be about half the side of the original tree. I know that a lot of the passengers said a little prayer after we got across one more time.

During the time that we were living in the small house near Orange Lake we used to see an alligator out in the lake so Geo. borrowed a rifle from a store in Tarpon Sprs. and went down a few times to see if he could shoot him, from the size of his head it was thought that he must be about ten feet long. I do not think that Geo. had very good luck for I did not see him bringing him home. At the time there was some talk that there was a connection between the lake and the river, but I think that was mostly imagination.

In 1918 there was no Police Dept., no Fire Dept. and of course there was no water dept. Everyone had pumps, no sewers. In fact no roads as such, for except for the one main street they were just ruts in the loose sand. None of them had names, all in all living was not very complicated at that time. I don’t think that I ever heard of any trouble in town. People seemed to live to-gether pretty well. I suppose that there was a County Sheriff, but I did not see him around anytime.

Soon after we moved to the small house, Geo. and Gladys built a larger house up on another street nearby, then there was room for all of us to sleep in the one house, and it was much nearer to the school, which I thought was pretty nice.

During the time that the carpenters were building the new house, we had a Hurricane visit us and they had just got the studding and rafters up, which the wind blew down flat, this meant that they had to start the house all over again.

It must have been about a year after we got in the new house that a Mr. Brown and Family moved into town and they built a house on the other side of the river, soon after that they started a lumber yard in town, just about opposite Geo’s garage.

Geo did pretty well in the garage, for there was no other place until you got to Tarpon Sprs. All of the work was on model T’s for there was only one car in town that was not a model T and I think that was a Buick, this belonged to a family named Sims they lived out north of town along the river.

Just before we left town they built the small Bank across the street from the Drug store. It was built with cement blocks and the only one in town that was not wood, at the time we thought that now we were on the map for sure.

It was quite an experience for the folks and I know that I liked growing up In a small place. It was certainly different from what the living was In a city tho.

If you know of anyone there now that has been living In town all their life and are about our age, maybe they can fill you in on growth of the town. That is if you or Bruce is interested. It would be nice to get a Post Card of what things look like at this time.

As I said In the beginning Dot and I are both fine and are looking forward to seeing Carolyn and Dave in the spring, Carolyn is still living in Oklahoma City, but she has been coming on to see us most every summer.

I think Dot will write to you before long now, but as you know she does hate to write letters, we are always glad to hear from you and like getting the Christmas letter so we can keep track of the family.

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