San Antonio, Florida — Pasco County’s “Gem of the Highlands”

San Antonio, Florida Pasco County’s “Gem of the Highlands”

By EDDIE HERRMANN, P.O. Box 212, San Antonio, FL 33576-0212 © copyright 2008 and 2010; updated October 12, 2010

San Antonio was incorporated as a municipality under the laws of the State of Florida on August 7, 1891. Its beginnings, though, can be traced back to a promise made to St. Anthony of Padua. Established in 1881-1882 as the Catholic Colony of San Antonio, the community was founded by Edmund Francis Dunne, ex-Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, to honor the saint. For, you see, years earlier when Dunne had been lost in the desert of the American west he had prayerfully asked the intercession of this saint to aid him in getting back to civilization. Among the devout, St. Anthony has a reputation as being helpful in finding the lost. In this case it was Dunne himself who was lost. He and a companion had become lost while prospecting in the arid zone. He asked St. Anthony to help him find his way and vowed to start a Catholic colony to be named for him. His prayer was answered as he was guided to a light he saw off in the distance. The source of the light was a charcoal fire and, with it, human habitation.1

With his prayer answered, he began searching out locations far and wide for his promised Catholic colony. He even considered such places as Brazil, Canada, and Mexico. None of these were fruitful, though. Finally the opportunity presented itself in 1881 when Philadelphia saw-maker Hamilton Disston hired him to broker the $1,000,000 bailout of the nearly bankrupt government of the State of Florida. The Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund of the State sold what the State could sell, namely its land. The deal netted Disston 4,000,000 acres of land for a negotiated price that turned out to be an astoundingly low twenty-five cents per acre. Dunne’s payment for representing Disston would be the reservation of, first, 50,000 acres and then, in 1883, an additional 50,000 for a total of 100,000 acres. The land would not be his but the right to dispose of it was.

Then he set about scouting for the best sections of the Disston purchase for his colony. As luck would have it, his cousin, Capt. Hugh Dunne, had made an 1876 sight-unseen purchase of 160 acres near Bradenton; that purchase proved to be providential. When he arrived with his family he found the land was submerged. He made temporary arrangements for his family and set out — on foot — to Jacksonville, the nearest railhead. In making this journey he traversed some of the very land that would become the San Antonio colony. He undoubtedly made mental note of this lovely land, mostly high-and-dry even though the Disston Purchase, as it was called, was sold by the State as “swamp and overflowed” lands.

As the judge and the captain trekked the area they eventually arrived at the shore of Clear Lake. It was February 15, 1882, the feast day of St. Jovita, a Catholic martyr. Right then Judge Dunne christened the lake with its new name — Lake Jovita. This was when the colony got its start.

Census records and homestead patents reflect that several families had already established homesteads in the vicinity before Judge Dunne arrived to establish his Catholic Colony. Among these early settlers were members of the Carter, Eiland, Howell, Jackson, Mobley, Osburn, Platt, Wells, and (Ben) Wichers families. Descendants of some of these families still reside in Pasco County.

Soon the Judge began sending letters to Catholic newspapers around the country and even to the Ceylon Messenger — anywhere he could get them published. Interested parties were enthusiastic about this colonization effort and they began arriving in San Antonio. Soon the colony would grow, reaching 40 settlers by the summer of 1882. It grew by leaps and bounds and reached 250 by 1884 and a colonization peak of 400 by 1886.2

U.S. Post Office microfilm records show a post office was established November 27, 1882, under the name Sumner. Within weeks, on December 19, 1882, it was changed to San Antonio. Earlier mail had been received through the Fort Dade post office.

The colony had taken a decided turn from its early days and had attracted mostly German immigrants in answer to Dunne’s advertisements in Catholic publications. Because of this, it seemed wise to look for a German-speaking priest. The aid of Bishop John Moore was sought and a request went out to Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, O. S. B., of St. Vincent Archabbey, in Latrobe, Pa., for help. On May 12, 1886, Fr. Gerard Pilz, O. S. B., arrived to look over the situation and the possibility of the Benedictines taking over the mission.

The arrival of Pilz, and his recommendation that the Benedictines come and establish a college as well, led to the eventual founding of what would become Saint Leo Priory, later Saint Leo Abbey, and its college in 1889. Also in 1889, on February 28th, the sisters of the Benedictine order arrived in the fledgling town. They, too, were from Pennsylvania, from the convent in Allegheny.

The nuns hit the ground running and began their teaching mission in earnest with the establishment of Holy Name Academy on March 11. Soon they were living in the massive, three-story frame building that had been built to be the Sultenfuss Hotel (but never used as such). By September the sisters had begun teaching in both the San Antonio and St. Joseph elementary schools. Sr. Roberta Bailey, O. S. B., the last Benedictine sister on the staff, was elected prioress of Holy Name Monastery in 2010. Thus ended the Benedictine tenure at St. Anthony School. As the 2010-11 school year began, Franciscan sisters took the reins and the new principal is Sr. Alice Ottapurackal, FSSE, as of this writing in 2010.

Construction of the the Orange Belt Railway began in late 1887 and regular rail service commenced on February 13, 1888; the future looked promising. At last supplies could come directly to San Antonio and agricultural products could be shipped to northern markets.

San Antonio has had several newspapers over the years, one with the quizzical name The San Antonio What? Others were the San Antonio Floridian, the San Antonio Herald (1884), and the San Antonio News (1887). In the heyday of the colony there was even a German-language paper — the Florida Staats-Zeitung. No newspapers are published in San Antonio at this time and printed news is from regional papers.

From The 1890-1906 Chronology of Benedict Roth, Pg 56, 1896, we learn: “The last Orange Belt Ry (railway) rolling stock passes by… early this Sunday morning at 9:00 am. The first Plant System broad gauge system train consisting of Engine No. 46, two freight cars, one mail, one express and two passenger coaches passed by for St. Petersburg, Fla. This ended the faithful narrow gauge system.” The Orange Belt became the Plant System, operating under the names “Sanford and St. Petersburg Railroad” and later as the “Florida Central and Peninsular Railroad.”

Also in The 1890-1906 Chronology of Benedict Roth, Pg 102, it is noted, “May 15th (1899) Today the County Commissioner of this district began to grade the Hollow road between Saint Leo and Santonio” (written just that way). Apparently this was a welcome project.

Things were not going just as the Judge planned and Dunne left his colony in 1889. He later settled in several places before joining his son Eugene as a partner in his Jacksonville law firm in 1893. His final effort, in 1903, was a failed attempt to start a new colony in Castleberry, Alabama. While there, he had a stroke and subsequently died on October 4, 1904; he is buried in Baltimore, Maryland.3 He came to Florida in 1881 with his dream and left for us a fine little community in what was the wilderness.

Although the judge had moved on, the community continued to grow. There were dark clouds in the future, though, as the citrus industry, which had become the primary source of income for many colonists, dealt with back-to-back freezes in December of 1894 and February 1895. The first had damaged leaves and fruit; the second, the “killer-freeze,” caught the trees in a flush of growth with the sap flowing upwards. This freeze decimated the groves as trees were split wide open when the sap froze. Large numbers of colonists “lost everything” and headed back north for economic survival.

Those remaining stuck it out and worked hard to reestablish themselves and make the best of a bad thing. San Antonio itself became a survivor.

As mentioned earlier, San Antonio was incorporated as a municipality in 1891. The question of incorporation was decided by a relatively small number of colonists — the vote was 28-8 in favor. G. S. Bowen was San Antonio’s first mayor and there were five aldermen.4 That basic structure is still in effect although there is now a five-member commission whereas there had been five council members and the elected mayor.

The first church for St. Anthony parish was built in 1883-84 with Bishop John Moore blessing the sacristy and bell on June 13, 1883, when the church was dedicated on the feast-day of St. Anthony, its patron.5 The church was completed and Bishop Moore celebrated the official first-Mass on January 11, 1884.6

School for the children of the colony was held in the home of Mrs. Marie Cecile Morse where she taught 14 pupils beginning in the fall of 1883.7 Then, for a while, classes were held in the church. A schoolhouse, funded by Bishop Moore, was then built next to the church; a two-story frame building was constructed in 1892.

In 1902, the Atlantic Coast Line took over the Plant System and operated the trains until a 1967 merger with the Seaboard Air Line Railroad created the Seaboard Coast Line.

Of great interest to residents of San Antonio was a cross-county road. There are many references to the building of the “hard-road” in County Commission minutes. In 1906, at the June 4th meeting (of the Pasco County Commission), “… it was ordered by the Board that a permanent public road be established between Dade City and Fivay, by way of San Antonio and Pasco Station.”8 Then at the May 10, 1909, meeting the commission approved what appears to be the same road: a “hard road from Dade City, and running West to the Coast.” Also at that meeting, “B. E. Pool was appointed as an Engineer and road expert” to assist the appointed committee. In another item of business at that meeting, Mutual Construction Co. was awarded the contract to erect the new courthouse.9

At the Sept. 7, 1909, meeting, B. V. Lyons, Supt. of Roads, was instructed to “begin work at once, building (the) hard road… to San Antonio, by way of Ray Pond.”10 The road, though eventually built, ground to a halt when, at the Feb. 10, 1910, meeting, “…work on (the) hard road, was discontinued for the present, for lack of funds.”11

According to the Florida Department Of Transportation (FDOT), the road was finally built by Pasco County in 1924-25. It became State Road 210 in 1931. It was apparently redesignated as SR 52 in 1945. The State Road Department was authorized to renumber state roads in 1941 but did not act until 1945 because of the wartime shortage of signage materials.12

As told to me by “Greenie” Durden, Holy Name Convent was moved from its location at the north side of the plaza to the present site of Holy Name Monastery in 1911. Durden said the sisters went out each day from the convent to their teaching assignments. The moving was accomplished by placing logs (as rollers) beneath the building and winching it forward. Oxen turned the pulleys attached to a “dead-man” on one end cabled to the building on the other. They were usually able to move the “dead-man” only once each day, traveling about 50 feet with each setting.

The present St. Anthony Church, the “stone-face” building still used by the parish, was dedicated by Bishop William Kenny on March 21, 1911.

The San Antonio Methodist Church (now, Community United Methodist Church) was built in 1913 on land donated by John S. Flanagan, a Catholic. It has expanded over the years to include the Fellowship Hall in 1962 and a new, larger sanctuary built in 1973. In the early days the church was pastored by circuit-riders. Today, with some 80 families, it has its own pastor, Rev. Juan Garay.

The St. Charles Hotel, now the St. Charles Inn, was built by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Barthle in 1913. Facing Curley Street, just a few blocks south of the train depot, it quickly gained a good reputation as a fine place for travelers to stay. Some came and stayed for the winter season. The daughters, Barbara, Annie, Bernadette, and Dora (Legere), operated the hotel for decades. Then Wilbur Strehle ran the hotel and in the 1970s Henry and Irene Pike bought it. It became Share-a-Home, an adult care facility. Still later Steve and Doris Miller had a restaurant and ice cream parlor there. Ted and Anne Stephens, with the help of Ted’s father, Jim Stephens, and their sons, Tacy and Hunter, have restored the St. Charles, which they operate as the St. Charles Inn — a bed-and-breakfast. The inn is the Stephens’ family home as well. Guests can enjoy home-cooked meals and great surroundings. The furnishings are antique, including some original pieces.

San Antonio Knights of Columbus Council #1768, a fraternal organization of and for Catholic gentlemen, was chartered December 20, 1914. The charter shows John S. Flanagan as Grand Knight and Fr. Benedict Roth, Chaplain. The booklet, History of the Knights of Columbus in Florida 1901-1968, issued by the Florida State Council, lists Harry L. Henninghauser as the first GK for council 1768.

Undoubtedly the oldest organization in town, other than church and municipal, the council was the tenth K of C council in Florida. It has operated continuously since its founding. According to the Supreme Council archives, the state convention of the Knights of Columbus was hosted by the council on May 9, 1916.

Medical needs of early colonists were served by Drs. J. T. Bradshaw and J. W. Gatton, both MDs, as well as Dr. J. F. Corrigan of St. Leo. Bradshaw served the community from an office in San Antonio as well as one in Dade City. Both Bradshaw and Dr. F. C. Wirt, a doctor of Osteopathy and of Naturopathy who came later and served San Antonio from his home, practiced through the late 40s. Wirt, too, established a Dade City office.

In 1922 a new, three-story, red-brick school was built to serve the educational needs of the children of St. Anthony of Padua parish. This school building is still in service and is now an inter-parochial school with some 200 students. It serves not only St. Anthony but also St. Rita in Dade City, Sacred Heart in St. Joseph, and St. Joseph in Zephyrhills. In addition the school accepts students of other faiths.

Florida’s Land Boom was underway in the 1920s and San Antonio was feeling the exuberance of the state as a whole. Sidewalks had been laid, subdivisions appeared around town, and, through the proceeds of a bond issue, an elevated (140-foot) 75,000-gallon water storage tank was added to accommodate the needs of the growing community. Fire hydrants were a part of the system. The Lake Jovita Fire Club was formed to fight fires in the area and was succeeded by the San Antonio Volunteer Fire Department and, now, by Pasco County Fire Rescue.

Serving San Antonio’s African-American community, Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church is located just west of San Antonio. It was established in 1923 and first met in the Emmaus School, close to the present 31027 SR 52 location, near Emmaus Road. In the earliest days Baptists and Methodists alternated Sundays. Later the church moved to a spot in Cannon’s cow pasture and to the present edifice in 1956. Adjacent is the fellowship hall. Pastor Willie B. Roberts, Sr., ministers to a growing congregation as he has since 1987.

In 1925 a nearby golf course, W. E. Currie’s Lake Jovita Club, was being developed. It would greatly affect the surrounding areas, including San Antonio. Currie was having trouble with mail and freight being misdirected to San Antonio, Texas. At the same time Lucius Herrmann was building his two-story building, The Jovita. A rail-car filled with building materials for Herrmann’s project ended up in Texas. To add insult to injury, the railroad tried to collect freight on the shipment back to Florida.

Currie found a willing ally in Herrmann and, together, they rallied support to change the name of the town to Lake Jovita. The railroad helped in the name change battle when it was announced that they would demolish the San Antonio and St. Leo depots and build a new one for the combined communities. The name change was approved by voters. The new Lake Jovita depot was built and the building remained until it burned in 1948. Lake Jovita was the official name of the town from November 1, 1926, to August 1, 1931, when it once again became San Antonio. At this same time many street names were changed to secular names, whereas they had been named for saints and religious figures.

Betty Ullrich Lee and Monica Ullrich Oswald tell of San Antonio’s Lake Jovita being in the news as a “hot fishing-hole” in 1926. Their father, town blacksmith Max Ullrich, landed a 17 lb. bass, called trout in those days, and a week later his wife, Barbara, came home with a monster 18 pounder. Both fish were caught while trolling from a row-boat. The news story referred to her as a “German fisher-woman.” She took umbrage at that as a slur and quit fishing because of the incident. The “fisher-woman” name probably loses something in translation.

In 1932, the beautiful Lourdes Grotto was built adjacent to St. Anthony church. The cemetery had been in this location but was moved to the present Palm Street location in 1911 when the church was built.

The City Hall, of native-stone construction, was a WPA project in 1932-33. [Note: This date appears to be incorrect. On Nov. 24, 1939, the Tampa Morning Tribune reported, “San Antonio has a new city hall, made of natural rock.” -jm] Prior to that time, it is reported, the city rented space in J. A Barthle’ s store. The attractive stone structure houses the city clerk’s office, the customer service area for the water department, and the commission chambers. The fire department had occupied the eastern segment of the building, now commission chambers, until new headquarters were established next door in 1974.

WWII saw the U. S. Army 661st Signal Corps set up a radar base just west of town.13 It was moved three times and finally set up permanent quarters on the west side of the Scharber Road hill just a little north of Pasco Road. Of the many men stationed there, several were around long enough to find sweethearts in San Antonio and marry them. It has been reported that some seven family units were created by these happy unions.

During WWII, even though the very successful San Antonio Lumber Co. (started by Schrader and Lynch) remained as the place to go for lumber and materials, it was very hard to get building supplies; things were on hold for the “duration.” Beginning almost immediately after the cessation of hostilities, many projects were begun and completed. Among them the concrete-block manufacturing plant next to the ACL depot and the new headquarters for the Saf-T-Gas business, which served five counties from San Antonio.

A major asset to the community was established in 1955 when, through the efforts of Joe Collura and Joe Herrmann, a federal charter was granted for the San Antonio Citizens Federal Credit Union. The men had been seeking a bank charter when they realized a credit union would better serve the people. This institution serves financial needs of the eastern Pasco County area and has branches in Dade City and Zephyrhills.

In 1967, an energetic group of young men — the San Antonio Jaycees — undertook what was to become a widely promoted and very successful project, the San Antonio Rattlesnake Festival. Now under sponsorship of Rattlesnake and Gopher Enthusiasts (RAGE), a successor all-volunteer organization, the event, now expanded to two days, is held annually on the weekend of the third Saturday in October. Proceeds are donated to community needs with special consideration given to the requests of youth oriented groups.

The United States Jaycees honored the San Antonio Jaycees with the First Place Community Development award for 1967-68, recognizing the chapter for its efforts. Outstanding among the projects was the drafting of a new City Charter which was ultimately approved by the voters. The City had been operating under the General Laws of the State of Florida.

On April 1, 1972, the last scheduled passenger train passed through without stopping even though there was a paid fare standing on the platform. It was the end of an era.

As mentioned above, San Antonio’s government is vested in a commission with a hired city clerk and other employees. In an unusual move, Eddie Herrmann, who had been appointed to the office of mayor in 1974 to succeed Vincent Maggio (who died in office), asked for a charter change to abolish the job. His suggestion was that government be by a commission of five members with the mayor chosen from the five. This was put to the voters who re-elected Herrmann and, in another vote, abolished the job in the same election. In 1975, C. B. McCabe became the first of the new-style Mayor/Commissioners as he was chosen for the job by his peers.

Beginning in mid-summer 1976, the Orange Belt Railroad, owned by Bob Most and Associates, rented tracks from the Seaboard Coast Line (SCL) RR and operated an excursion train. It went under the name “Trilby, San Antonio and Cypress” and was forced to cease operations after a short while because the SCL planned to remove the tracks. Most removed the last of his rolling stock on Feb. 21, 1978 and the tracks were soon taken up.

In 1981 the Pasco County School Board built a new elementary school for the San Antonio area. San Antonio Elementary School opened with about 300 students and, with additional facilities, now educates nearly 700.

St. Anthony Parish completed its multi-purpose Parish Center in 1998. The parish population has expanded to the point that, since 2002, it has been necessary to celebrate the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass there each week during the winter season. At the time of this writing, Fr. Edwin Palka is pastor of this faith-community.

San Antonio Community Church is a recent addition to the area. A Southern Baptist congregation, the church began meeting in rented facilities on March 14, 1999, and moved into the beautiful new sanctuary on July 13, 2003. At present, Pastor Bradley Stephens shepherds a flock of 155.

The San Antonio Volunteer Fire Department became a part of the Pasco County Fire Rescue system in 2001 with the inking of an agreement between the city and county. The San Antonio fire station is now a staffed department with three on duty round-the-clock. Some volunteers retain their involvement.

Heritage Bible Church is located at 12940 Curley Rd. Although the church is in its tenth year of existence, it has only recently placed permanent roots in San Antonio. The first worship service for a fledgling congregation of 10 families was held on April 4, 2010. Pastor Santiago Huron and his family are committed to teaching fundamental, Biblical principles that strengthen families and individuals for the ministry of the Gospel. At Heritage Bible Church, precepts taught in the Bible are the core for raising firm foundations for future godly generations.

San Antonio has remained relatively small and has just recently had a growth spurt that, according to Wikipedia, has put its population in 2004 at 913. Wikipedia states that the U.S. Census of 2000 reports there were 655 people, 270 households, and 180 families residing within the city. The October 2007 Local Government Financial Information Handbook places the population at 948.

1The Catholic Colony of San Antonio, Florida — Contemporary Voices, James J. Horgan, August 17, 1989, p. v

2Ibid. p. vii

3Ibid., p. ix

4San Antonio Celebrates City’s 100th Birthday, James J. Horgan, August 7, 1991; published in Pasco News, Sept. 6, 1991

5Chronick, Joseph Kast, June 13, 1883 (Translated from the German by Fr. Benedict Roth, O.S.B., and included in the introduction of Roth’s 1890-1906 Chronology)

6Ibid., Jan. 11, 1884

7Saint Anthony School: Memories of the First Hundred Years, Sr. Margaret Dunne, O. S. B., 1984

8(Pasco) Commission Record, book 2, Nov. 1903-May 1914, p. 128, June 4, 1906; see #12

9Ibid., p. 311, May 10, 1909

10Ibid., p. 365, Sept. 7, 1909

11Ibid., p. 397, Feb. 8, 1910

12From files located at the History Center of Pioneer Florida Museum and Village, Dade City

13The Historic Places of Pasco County, Pasco County Historical Preservation Committee, James J. Horgan, Alice F. Hall, and Edward J. Herrmann, June 1992

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