History of Wesley Chapel Florida!
It was nicknamed “Gatorville,” and it wasn’t because residents were University of Florida fans. Gatorville was one of several early names of the area that today is one of the fastest-growing communities in the state.
Some historians believe the area was called Godwin, then Gatorville, Double Branch and Westley before being named Wesley for the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.
In the 1840s, pioneer families including the Boyettes (or Boyetts), Gilletts (or Gillettes), the Godwins and Kerseys received land grants. More settlers followed about the time of the Civil War when the Stanleys and Coopers arrived.
Edward Boyette Sr. and his four sons settled on land granted to them in the Armed Occupation Act in the mid-1800s. In the years that followed, Thomas Boyette, Edward’s grandson, named the area Double Branch after the twin creeks that flowed across their land.
As more pioneers came to settle in Double Branch, a Methodist chapel was built on the northwest corner of what is today’s State Road 54 and Boyette Road. And the area came to be called Wesley and then Wesley Chapel.
According to records gathered by Margie Partain, a member of the Pasco County Historical Preservation Committee, the name already was Wesley Chapel in 1888. It was listed as such in county commission records when mapping out election districts the year after the county was formed in 1887.
No To Prohibition, Post Office
Noteworthy was a poll in October 1888 to decide whether liquor could be sold in the county. The majority was against it, but voters in Wesley Chapel and St. Thomas favored sales. Despite public opinion, the county wasn’t dry until Prohibition in the 1920s.
The area also applied for a post office, originally under the name “Lemon.” That was denied, but a post office was established at Wesley Chapel on Sept. 15, 1897. It closed Sept. 30, 1902, with service continued from Abbott, which became Zephyrhills in 1910. A post office was again opened in Wesley Chapel in recent years.
Across the road from the first Methodist chapel, a Baptist congregation constructed Double Branch church.
It was built on property settled by Mary Jane Godwin, who had applied for homestead by 1884 on 160 acres along S.R. 54. She didn’t receive the certificate until Aug. 26, 1891, but a year earlier she donated an acre for Double Branch Missionary Baptist Church and another acre for a cemetery.
A Tale Of 3 Buildings
The congregation of Double Branch Baptist organized in 1878 and the church has had three buildings since then.
The first church was built in 1880, with Henry Ryals as pastor. Deacons were Robert Cason and Daniel Smith. Other early pastors included John Spivey in 1890.
As the membership dwindled, the church fell into disuse, and the building deteriorated until 1914, when the congregation regrouped under pastor O.N. Williams. In 1919, he built Williams Department Store in Dade City. His grandson, Phil Williams, still owns the business, which he transformed into an upscale clothing store and French-style cafe called Lunch on Limoges.
After dwindling again, the congregation of Double Branch Baptist was revived in the early 1930s by Willie Neil McCloskey. He began holding Sunday school at his house because the church building was in disrepair. He recruited others to help build benches for Sunday school beneath the trees on the Double Branch grounds. During bad weather, McCloskey moved the classes into the nearby one-room schoolhouse.
Industries in the early days of Wesley Chapel included turpentine stills, with numerous trails running between stills at the communities of Ehren, Nowatney and Stemper. The carts hauling resin to the stills wore paths and wagons often followed those routes, carrying lumber and turpentine products from the sawmills and stills to the railroad line.
And thus the first roads were created. Denham-Dade City Road, now S.R. 54, remained dirt until gravel was put down in the 1920s. When it was paved, old-timers called it a “2-2-20” road, meaning it took two years to build, two years to wear out and 20 years to pay for it, Partain’s information stated.
A 1935 map shows the road as County Road 209. It then became County Road 9 until it was renamed S.R. 54.
Other early industries included cattle ranching, hog farming and growing citrus and other crops. When times were hard, people made charcoal and moonshine.
The area also was known for a 10- to 15-acre cactus field planted by Anthony Tuzzolino of Ybor City in 1940 and 1941 between state roads 54 and 52. The field became a garden of bright yellow flowers when the cacti bloomed. The 1962 freeze killed the cactus field.
Although the cacti stopped growing, the Wesley Chapel area was ready to blossom into the thriving community it is today with the construction of the Interstate 75 system in the late 1960s. The opening of Saddlebrook Resort in 1979 greatly attributed to the growth that hasn’t stopped since.