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Schools

History club collects firsts

Wiregrass Ranch High students document the beginning of their school: 2007.

By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published June 11, 2007


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WESLEY CHAPEL - Teacher Connie Hines is the head of the student history club at a school that just opened in January. The kids in the club at Wiregrass Ranch High spent parts of this past year archiving interviews with classmates and collecting "artifacts" to document the start of this school in central Pasco County.

History might seem like a funny thing to think about in a building that's not even a year old and in a growing, changing place where the official tree could be the just-planted, still-plank-supported baby palm, and where these days some of the most defining features are signs that say NOW OPEN, NOW HIRING or COMING SOON.

Three points, though, to consider:

1. There is history here. It's not all that different from surrounding spots in what used to be the woods, scrub and swamp north of Tampa.

2. History isn't less important in these sorts of areas. It's more important.

3. These kids at Wiregrass have an unusual opportunity. When it comes to history, they're making it, they're marking it, and they're doing it from the beginning.

"I think oftentimes kids think of history as something that happened a long time ago," Hines said the other day at the school.

It's not like that here.

Here, she said, history is now.

Wiregrass principal Ray Bonti talks about building "instant tradition."

How Pasco. How Florida.

Boom!

Something from nothing.

And let's make it quick.

Current Wesley Chapel is what happens when Tampa's suburban surge jumps a county line. It has a chamber of commerce that has an executive director who's 26 years old. It has an Applebee's that has in its entryway black and white historical photos -- of Zephyrhills.

But there was a Wesley Chapel before Meadow Pointe and the Toyota dealership and the Sam's Club and the plans and the permits for the coming movie megaplex and malls. Wesley Chapel had its own post office from 1897 to 1902 before merging with the one in Zephyrhills.

Its history over the last century or so follows a pattern familiar in this part of the state.

First: lumber and turpentine.

Then: citrus and cattle.

Now: stucco and strip shopping centers.

"Wesley Chapel has got a rich history," said Susan MacManus, the University of South Florida professor who along with her mother, Elizabeth Riegler MacManus, wrote the 1998 book Citrus, Sawmills, Critters & Crackers: Life in Early Lutz and Central Pasco County, the 544-page definitive account of the area. "It's just a little more of a Wild West history."

What that means: pigs, chickens, horses and cattle, not a lot of population, not a lot of money, hardy Crackers and characters doing their thing, trying to make a living, mostly minding their own business.

"Wesley Chapel," said Eddie Herrmann, a lifelong Pasco resident and local history buff, "was known for wonderful people and a lot of moonshining."

Then came Interstate 75 in the 1960s. That triggered the start of the real shift. Only in the last decade, though, and practically even less than that, has the growth picked up to a pace that has made the local census statistics from 2000 all but obsolete: There weren't even 6,000 people here then, and now that number is up to, or even past, some 30,000 -- move-ups from Tampa, move-downs from the Midwest and Northeast.

Wiregrass Ranch High sits on land that was the old Porter Ranch north of County Line Road and east of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. It was built to ease some of the overcrowding at Wesley Chapel High, which was built all of eight years ago, and it's named after James H. "Wiregrass" Porter, a rugged man whose death in 2003 was another piece of the end of the era of ranch-rich Pasco.

This year was a year of firsts at Wiregrass.

First fall dance, first football game, first student council elections.

Next year's enrollment will go up to almost 1,200 kids, with freshmen, sophomore and juniors in the building. This past year, though, it was just freshmen and sophomores, 730 kids in total -- all of whom started the school year in portables.

"Teachers will come and go, coaches, principals, but this first group, they made history," said Bonti, the principal. "You can't take that away. They're part of history. I think the kids understand that, even though they're 14- and 15-year-old kids -- I think they appreciate that they started something new."

"We're setting a bar," student council president Michael Moran said last month.

The front lobby at Wiregrass smells like the upholstery in a just-finished Holiday Inn Express. A bulletin board on the wall labeled WRANGLER NEWS includes a poster with a map that highlights future roads around the school.

In a glass case across the room: a ticket from the first dance, a program from the dedication ceremony, even one of the cheapie plastic ponchos that was donated by the New Tampa Muvico so the kids wouldn't get wet in the rainy season going from one portable to the next.

Artifacts. All of them.

There's also a ball from the first golf match -- and a written account of that day, by student Aaron Henry, a member of Connie Hines' history club.

"Aug. 24, 2006," he wrote. "It was the first home golf match. The first golf match at that. It was against Zephyrhills and it was a perfect day for golf. Sunny but not too hot, a little cloudy, and a slight breeze. Travis Snyder was first up for Wiregrass. You could feel the nervousness in everybody on the team while they were waiting to see if the first drive would be great or if it would be shanked into the woods. The backswing goes up, we hold our breath, and the club comes down. Travis Snyder hits it 220 yards down the middle of the fairway."

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 813 909-4617.

[Last modified June 11, 2007, 07:12:22]


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