A Fiery End to Local Landmarks
written and submitted by: Roger Landers
this article appeared in the Hernando Times Edition of the St. Petersburg Times Monday, December 10, 2007.
Landmark buildings can give us a sense of place - of belonging. Whether it is a school building, church or stately old home, as the familiar structure comes into sight, we make a connection. Look around Brooksville at the Jennings building, Weeks Hardware and what was the courthouse square. These are our surviving landmarks. During the last century and a half, the people of Hernando have lost other landmarks, including the Hernando Hotel, Bayport House and the Varnada Hotel, all through devastating fires. The Hernando Hotel once stood at what is now the northeast corner of Main Street and Fort Dade Avenue. This fine three-story structure had a wide two-story veranda on the south and west sides. A tall cupola and flagpole topped the building. Undoubtedly, the hotel was visible for miles, and guests could see far to the west for great sunsets. In 1885, Edmond Johanet described the Hernando, built by John Parsons in 1858, as a large, well-run hotel managed by L.Y. Jennes. The well-appointed rooms were expensive for the time. The restaurant fare was good but also expensive. The cook was the wife of a former slave of the Gary family. The $3-per-day fee included the room and meals; the weekly rate was $10 to $15, depending on accommodations. The large orange grove of T.S. Coogler lay just north of the hotel, and the fence of the Coogler estate is visible in photographs. In 1899, fire destroyed the Hernando Hotel, along with the buildings on both sides of Main Street from Jefferson Street to the Bayport Road (now W Fort Dade Avenue). Developing friends West of Brooksville, along the coast, was the community of Bayport and another county landmark, the home built by John Parsons there in 1845. Parsons came to Florida in the early 1830s, met David L. Yulee, and they became strong friends and business partners. The two men were interested in development and purchased much of the coastal property with river outlets north of Tampa Bay and south of Cedar Key. Parsons represented Benton County (Hernando) in the 1852 Legislature. In 1855, he became a member of the board of directors of the Florida Railroad Co. - Yulee's business - the first such rail company in the state. That same year, he married Susan Decatur, who came from a prominent family in New York. During the Civil War, Parsons commanded a group of volunteers for coastal protection. The Parsons' Bayport home, at the western tip of the mainland, was at the terminus of a road that connected to inland Florida. In 1855, the Parsons' home became the Bayport House, which, according to the Jacksonville Republican, was the southernmost resort on the Gulf Coast in Florida. Some older residents of Hernando County describe the hotel in its later years as being "spartan" in furnishings but comfortable. In 1854, the Parsons' Bayport home also served as a post office, and several of Parsons' relatives served as postmaster. In 1899, Joseph L. Goethe, a commercial fisherman by trade, became postmaster. The large, rambling hotel continued to serve as the area landmark into the 20th century, when it became known as the Bayport Hotel. In 1939, Agnes M. Goethe became the postmistress, and her mother-in-law, known as "Aunt Fanny," would ring a large dinner bell at the hotel to let the area anglers and other locals know it was dinner time. "All the fish you could eat for 50 cents," R.B. Grubbs was quoted as saying in an article by Bob Griffiths in the Brooksville Sun-Journal in the 1970s. On a November night in 1943, young Bill Cobb attended a Boy Scout meeting at the Baptist Church, then on Jefferson Street in Brooksville. As he left the meeting, he saw a red sky to the west. The Bayport Hotel was burning. The Varnada Back in Brooksville, the Varnada Hotel had already been gone for 25 years. That large structure, facing the courthouse on Jefferson Street, occupied about half of the city block where the main office of SunTrust Bank now stands. The Varnada had a large lobby, with the dining room, pool room, barbershop, Western Union and telephone office all on the first floor of the magnificent structure. With the large columns and wide veranda, it was a great place to see and be seen. Often, visitors and locals met on the veranda. On one occasion, a down-on-his-luck businessman lamented to a friend about the potential loss of his building to Mr. Will (McKethan, of Hernando State Bank) in a foreclosure. "You have fire insurance, don't you?" the friend replied. The county's "fire bug," as Alfred McKethan called it in his Hernando history book, visited the Varnada in 1918. Although some suspected arson, no one could be certain about the source of the fire that took the Varnada and two adjacent buildings. The bank was spared. The April fire was so intense that Brooksville's mayor, fearing the loss of the entire business district, sent a telegram to Tampa asking for assistance. The mayor of Tampa sent by special train a fire engine to help save the town. Other fires took more landmark stores, fruit packinghouses and offices. And, over the years, demolition of other landmarks changed the face of the town. Perhaps future renovation of existing buildings could turn back time and give this old community a return to the quaint town square we once would boast of as "our place."
Roger Landers is retired from the Hernando County School District, where for nearly 33 years he was a teacher, principal and district administrator. He is the historian for the county's Heritage Museum, historical adviser to the new Hernando County Historical Advisory Commission and a member of the Florida Historical Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.