Thirty years ago, Brooksville was a one-horse town.
Then a former Navy submariner turned bank executive with a quick laugh and taste for beer acted on a dream.
And Brooksville became a one-mule town.
We 20-somethings who lived here celebrated Les Jinkens' decision to swap his starched white shirts and ties for blue jeans and T-shirts. He gave us a place to hang out, to enjoy a pastrami sandwich and live music.
Three decades later, the Red Mule Pub depends more on its lunchtime business than late-night brews. It's more of a family place. And as Hernando County's population has grown from 36,000 to an estimated 169,000 in that period, there are many more watering holes and restaurants.
But there is only one Red Mule. While Broad Street out front has grown from two to six lanes and the thick forests at the intersection of the truck bypass have surrendered to shopping centers and chain businesses, Les Jinkens' tiny emporium has become something special.
The tables and chairs haven't changed since 1978, but wall space in the 1,200-square-foot restaurant is now at a premium. Every inch is covered, mainly with local heroes and Jinkens family favorites.
Jerome Brown dominates, naturally, just as he did for the Philadelphia Eagles before his tragic death in a car wreck just up the road in 1992.
Mike Imhoff, the Hernando High football coach murdered in 1996, is pictured during his playing days at Michigan State.
Bronson Arroyo pitched for Hernando High before helping the Boston Red Sox win the World Series. He was a Red Mule regular. Near his picture are other sports stars, including many NFL players who came to town every year to help youngsters in memory of Brown.
Other pictures will test you. For instance, there are Homer and Howard Jones, loyal boosters of Hernando High when it was the only high school in the county. There is a "Go Leopards" sign that once graced the scoreboard at Tom Fisher Stadium and a large purple and gold wooden sign from the baseball field that says "In Memory of Leopard Booster Fred Farmer." Coaches didn't come any better.
Maulty Moore makes the Red Mule wall. He played football at the old Moton High School before desegregation and later earned a Super Bowl ring as a member of the 17-0 Miami Dolphins. He still drops by the pub from time to time.
Stacy Westbrook catches your eye, pictured in her Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleading outfit. Jamie Cuffe gave her autograph — as Snow White at Disney World. Just below her picture is Tommy Scrivens, another local boy, who is distinguishing himself as a dancer in New York and likely headed for Broadway.
Country music star Tracy Lawrence once played the Hilltop Lounge in Brooksville and stopped by the Red Mule long enough to sign a picture. Rocker Ted Nugent's mother lived in nearby High Point and came by every Saturday for a corned beef sandwich. Ted tucked his hair up under a hat so nobody recognized him, but Jinkens got him to sign a picture.
Last week, the best-known of the Jinkens family, 82-year-old Julia, was busy making room on the wall for the most accomplished of all the former Hernando County residents — Dr. Paul Farmer.
The Harvard-educated medical anthropologist and physician founded an international charity organization that has saved countless lives in Haiti and served as a model in poor communities around the world. Farmer has been called a likely candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Julia is a hero in her own right. Her fundraising and good deeds are legendary in Brooksville, and in 1996 she was selected to carry an Olympic torch for a half-mile. That torch is at the Red Mule.
Julia still works at the Brooksville Elementary School cafeteria each weekday morning and then helps with day care at Hernando Christian Academy. She regularly comes by the pub to help, as she has for 30 years.
About 15 years ago, Les welcomed his brother, Tim, as co-owner.
"Mom made him," Tim said with his usual dose of humor. Tim, a 1976 graduate of Hernando High, where he played football, wore a toga along the parade route when Julia carried the torch.
Though business is about as soft as the rest of our economy, the brothers figure to keep the pub open for years to come.
Les has been seeking a copyright on the Red Mule name for a year and is exploring franchise opportunities.
He chose the name after visiting the mountains of North Georgia, where the red mule is admired for its strength and stamina.
It has taken a similar stamina to last 30 years, including all that time road crews tore up and widened Broad Street (U.S. 41).
Inflation has also made things tricky. The original menu listed the now famous Red Mule Reuben at $1.95. Today it goes for $7.95. A mug of Budweiser cost 55 cents 30 years ago. Today it is $1.85.
Of course in 1978, Jinkens paid $18.50 for a keg that yielded 200 mugs of beer. That same keg today costs him $68. Rent in the small strip center was $325 back then; today it's $1,850.
"Everything goes up," he sighed. "How much did you pay for gas 30 years ago?"
Les professes affection for other longtime independents in Brooksville — Luigi's, Coney Island, Mallie Kyla's. It's a tough business, he says, especially with competition from national chains such as Applebee's.
"But I wouldn't change anything. We have done this as a family. And we have made our mark in Brooksville."
Bill Stevens is North Suncoast editor. When the Red Mule opened in 1978, he wrote the story for the Times. He can be reached at email@example.com or at (727) 869-6250.