Friday, March 25, 2011
Rediscovering a Forgotten Piece of Florida: Dispatches from the Sunshine State III
Very few people have heard of Aripeka and fewer still have ever been there. I recall first visiting this tiny fishing hamlet on Florida’s Gulf Coast back in the mid-1960s when my family began to frequent the beaches near St. Petersburg and Clearwater. I didn’t recall very much about that first visit, and although I have driven by the sign on US Route 19 pointing out its location down State Route 595, I had not returned there until just a couple of days ago. From the looks of it, nothing much has changed since my first visit.
Aripeka, originally known as Gulf Key when it was first settled in the early 1870s, straddles both the Pasco-Hernando county line as well as the two branches of Hammock Creek as they meander from the Gulf of Mexico through marshland and sand flats bordered by saw grass and clumps of red mangrove. Ironically, it changed its name to Aripeka around 1886 to commemorate a Mikasuki Seminole chieftain who had fought against the encroachment of white settlers during the Seminole wars and who died of old age near here twenty years earlier.
For most of its quiet history, this unincorporated town has consisted of a few simple homes scattered along the branches of Hammock Creek and what little dry ground there is between them. A post office was first established in Gulf Key in 1883 when population was 24 souls, and it has, with a couple of interruptions, continued to operate to the present day. There was once a school and a store, and the Osowow Hotel was situated on the south branch of Hammock Creek throughout the first half of the 20th century until it burned in 1960. It was home to the Aripeka Saw Mills Corporation and there were sugar cane fields nearby as well as turpentine stills in the pine hammocks to the east. The Gulf and the coastal waters are rich in marine life, including snook and striped mullet, and the locals have always been involved in subsistence fishing and guiding sportsmen. There has never been a commercial fishing operation in these waters. This area, along with the Homosassa and Crystal rivers just north of here in Citrus County, has long been a wintertime mecca for the West Indian manatee who enjoy their warm waters.
In 1910 the entire town, save the post office, school and the Baptist church which had been established two years earlier, passed to the ownership of Eugene D. Willingham (1839-1922), a prominent Atlanta lumber tycoon, who chose Aripeka as his winter home and bought up the foreclosed mortgage on the land. It was Willingham who had helped lay the groundwork for the Baptist church and who was largely responsible for the construction of a new highway from Brooksville, the seat of Hernando County, to Aripeka and then further south to Tarpon Springs and eventually to Tampa. Until then the town could only be reached by boat and was a regular stop on the coastal steamer route between the railhead at Cedar Key and Tampa Bay. Despite these improvements, Aripeka remained a backwater until the middle of the 20th century. The Rural Electrification Agency extended the power grid to the area in 1941-1947, and the first telephone appeared in 1950. Aripeka has one claim to fame although the stories vary, depending whom you talk to. The basic facts are there. During the 1920s Babe Ruth, often in the company of some of his teammates, used to travel north from St. Petersburg, where the New York Yankees were based during spring training, to fish and hunt in the area. Local lore has him staying at any number of places around town, but it would appear that he actually stayed at the Osowow Hotel on Hammock Creek. He is reputed to have thrown lavish parties at the hotel and during one of these he lost his World Series ring down the hotel’s privy. There are other stories - that Jack Dempsey use to train here and that the Wright Brothers once stayed in town - but these legends tend to be slightly more opaque.
We found Aripeka to still be a sleepy fishing hamlet although in more recent years it has turned into a budding artist colony. There are some newer homes fronting the creek and along the main channel leading out to the Gulf, but otherwise it hasn’t really changed much in years. The local Norfleet family, who started a fishing camp adjacent to the bridge over the north branch of Hammock Creek back in the 1940s, still operates a small grocery and general store on the site. The store once had a single gas pump which has since disappeared. A sign over the entrance announces we are “5.9 miles from Heaven.” I am not sure exactly in which direction one needed to go to reach that point, and neither did the fellow working behind the counter, but we took this claim to be true. It sure is a beautiful spot on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.
There were a number of men fishing from the bridge - some fishing for striped mullet with snagging hooks (they are delicious smoked and their roe is a tasty delicacy) while others cast nets for baitfish. They told us we had just missed a manatee cruising along the mangrove roots, but there was a mature and juvenile bottlenose dolphin splashing in the creek lagoon and we watched as they passed under the bridge on their way to the Gulf, pausing to harass a school of mullet. I am not sure one needed to travel almost six miles to find heaven. I think we may have found a little piece of it right here.