Same place, different pace

With one daughter born 17 years after child No. 2, Myra Varn noticed great change in Brooksville. Though Cosby replaced Howdy Doody, their hometown was the ...

Published October 13, 2006

BROOKSVILLE - Tom and Myra Varn had three children.

Lorraine was born in 1949. Tom Jr., better known as Bubba, was born in 1951.

Then along came Brenda - 17 years later.

"And I had to raise her completely different," Myra Varn said in a recent interview at her home.

"There was a big skip in there," she said, "and by that time Brooksville had really changed."

People who have lived here for any length of time talk a lot about this. Everybody agrees there has been plenty of change in the Hernando County seat. But the stark differences in the upbringings of the Varn kids help tell the story of when that happened, and how, and why, and what it meant and continues to mean.

Bubba and Lorraine, after all, grew up with seed-spitting contests in watermelon fields, and Fats Domino and Elvis, and cherry Cokes and comic books at downtown drugstores. Lorraine got polio. But Brenda's childhood was more about Mickey Mouse and Michael Jackson and far-flung strip centers and shopping malls.

Tom Varn was an institution as a coach and a gym teacher, and the Varns are one of the longtime Brooksville families - a locally known name like Crum, Hope, Snow and Springstead. Lorraine Varn McLain now teaches at Brooksville Elementary School. Tom "Bubba" Varn is an assistant principal at Hernando High. And Brenda Varn Hagen is a principal at a Christian elementary school in Tallahassee. But back when they were kids, what Lorraine and Bubba did compared to what Brenda did, where they did it, and whom they did it with - well, about the only thing that was the same, it seems, was the name of the town.

Here, according to those who were here back then, is what Brooksville used to be:

"My neighbors went from house to house," HHS Class of '57 grad Ginger Garnett said this past summer before she passed away. "We had porches."

"If a stranger came to town," Class of '46 alum Gene Manuel said, "everybody knew there was a stranger around here."

"Brooksville," said Myra Varn, Class of '45, "was just one small family then."

And then ...

"People found Florida during World War II when all the servicemen came down to places like the Brooksville airport," said Murray Grubbs, Class of '46, "and they saw Florida and saw the climate and the potential, and after the war they started coming.

"And they're still coming."

John Mason, Class of '46, believes the real shift started to show in the late 1950s.

Joe Mason, Class of '61, says it happened in the mid '60s.

Tom Deen Jr., Class of '43, says it was the early '70s.

Some of this, of course, was the natural result of national trends: more cars, better roads, air conditioning, television. All of that set into motion what University of South Florida St. Petersburg historian Gary Mormino calls Florida's Big Bang. The state went from being the least populated in the South in 1940 to being the fourth-biggest in the country about 50 years later.

In Hernando, the population stayed pretty steady from 1910 to 1950, going to nearly 6,700 from about 5,000. By 1960, though, it was up to more than 11,000.

In 1964, Brooksville's first shopping center, the nine-store Brook Plaza, opened south of downtown on U.S. 41.

In 1967, on the west side of the county, on land that locals around Brooksville considered all but worthless - land that wouldn't even grow grass, they all said - the Mackle brothers of the Deltona Corp. bulldozed the sand hills and the scrub oaks and opened a subdivision with 33,000 lots they called Spring Hill. They started targeting Northern retirees.

"There was nothing out there. Absolutely nothing," said Steve Manuel, the general manager of local station WWJB-AM 1450. "But add a little water, stir, and you get Yankees - lots of Yankees."

"I'd spend my afternoons in the late '60s and early '70s in my car following moving vans" coming into Spring Hill, said Brooksville native Jim Kimbrough, the SunTrust Bank/Nature Coast chief executive, HHS Class of '57.

The changes kept coming.

The schools in Hernando were fully integrated in 1968.

The Brooksville Golf and Country Club opened in 1971.

So did Disney World, in Orlando, not a far drive on State Road 50.

Springstead High School opened in 1975. It was the first high school in Hernando outside of Brooksville.

McDonald's opened a year later on U.S. 41.

"When McDonald's hit," said Lori Krasemann Bolesta, Class of '81, "it was more like we were shifting into Tampa. Next thing you know we had more than one stoplight uptown."

The freezes of the 1980s made it official: The primary industries in the county were houses and roads, not citrus and cattle.

The population was 44,469 in the 1980 census, then 101,115 in 1990, then 130,802 in 2000.

By the end of August, according to the estimates kept by the county's Planning Department, that number was 164,000 and counting.

In the '60s, '70s and into the '80s, here's what all that change meant in the Varn house in Brooksville:

Bubba and Lorraine built forts in the woods and swam in the swimming hole at Weeki Wachee Springs and dug in the dirt for arrowheads that their mother still keeps in an old cookie tin.

Brenda wanted to go to Disney World.

Bubba and Lorraine watched Howdy Doody in black and white.

Brenda watched The Cosby Show in color.

Bubba and Lorraine went to the Westerns and the "shoot-'em-ups" at the downtown Dixie Theater. It cost a quarter, and black folks sat upstairs.

Brenda went to the Brooksville Twin behind the Wendy's out U.S. 41.

Bubba and Lorraine didn't need house keys. The door was never locked.

Brenda had a key.

Bubba and Lorraine went window-shopping at Lingles and Rogers department stores downtown and on Friday nights danced at the parent-chaperoned teen halls.

Brenda went to Tampa to shop.

"With TV, and Disney coming in less than two hours away or so, she was always wanting to go there," Myra Varn said. "I think Disney changed life around here as much as anything. The kids expect so much more now as far as entertainment.

"Brenda's generation," she said, "was always more of a go-go-go generation - Tampa, Orlando, wherever the action was."

By the time she was in high school, in the days of big hair, shoulder-pad blouses and REO Speedwagon, the childhoods of her much-older siblings seemed like still-shot relics from a different time.

A different place.

When Lorraine was in high school, Brooksville was the kind of small, sheltered town where everybody knew everybody, for better or for worse. When she got back from dates, she said, if she sat in the boy's car too long, the woman across the street would let her know by flicking a switch. And the porch light on the other side of the car would come on, then go off, over and over, again and again.

Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 352 848-1434.