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Hernando County's Kirk Hill is a piece of paradise

Brad Bates walks through his family’s Kirk Hill property on Tuesday morning with Phoebe, a stray cat that lives there.


Brad Bates walks through his family’s Kirk Hill property on Tuesday morning with Phoebe, a stray cat that lives there.

An old acquaintance, Brad Bates, called me recently with a startling claim: A piece of property owned by his family, he said, "is like Chinsegut Hill.''

Hold on, I thought. Nothing else, not in Hernando County, is like Chinsegut Hill — an azalea- and camellia-covered Eden, site of the county's only true antebellum mansion, former home of two of its most famous residents, Col. Raymond and Margaret Robins.

But Monday morning, standing outside a wood fence on Croom Road — just west of where the road enters the Withlacoochee State Forest and the pavement ends — I started to think that Bates might be right.

I could see, beyond a sign that read "Kirk Hill,'' rows of citrus trees with newly sprouted green leaves; I could smell the orange blossoms and hear chirping cardinals.

Once Bates had unlocked the gate, he led me to the top of the hill and an oak — with a dozen spreading limbs as thick as mature tree trunks — that a University of Florida naturalist measured as the second-largest in the county and estimated to be about 400 years old.

Bates pointed across wide, shallow valleys to water towers in Ridge Manor and downtown Brooksville and on Hope Hill, south of town. Opening a loose-leaf notebook of historical documents on a picnic table, he showed me evidence that the grove, once owned by former state Sen. B.F. Kirk, had been in continuous cultivation since the 1880s.

No, it's not quite Chinsegut. Kirk never owned more than 200 acres. His home, which was neither as big nor as old as the Chinsegut Manor House, is no longer standing.

But it is "like" Chinsegut — and like Hope Hill, south of Brooksville, and Snow Hill, where Anderson Mayo built a plantation in the 1850s, and Spring Hill, the Lykes family homestead west of Brooksville.

These were all choice hilltop properties claimed by prominent families. All became productive agricultural operations. Visit these places now and you can see some of the beauty that made them so attractive to settlers.

And, because Kirk Hill is not as well known as the others (by which I mean, mostly, I'd never heard of it) I thought its history was worth retelling.

Bates, 39, a Brooksville insurance adjustor, started investigating this history about three years ago, after he happened to see the land identified on a map as "Kirk Hill.''

"I was in the library five days a week, a couple of hours a day,'' he said. "I kind of went crazy with it.''

Kirk, Bates found, had moved to Hernando County from Mississippi in 1880 and bought the land four years later from Mayo, who once owned thousands of acres in the county and had acquired the hilltop in 1860 from the state of Florida for $1.25 per acre.

Whether or not the land was in citrus at the time of Kirk's purchase, it was by 1893, when he used 40 acres as collateral for a loan with the stipulation that the grove be maintained "in a good, workmanlike manner,'' according to the documents Bates collected.

Kirk apparently used the money to buy a house on Liberty Street in Brooksville, a more suitable base for his growing political career.

He had been elected to the state House of Representatives in 1884 and to the state Senate in 1888. He was respected enough to be part of the Hernando delegation at the convention that nominated the eventual governor, Brooksville resident William S. Jennings, in 1900.

He stands out in a photo from this event — and a half-dozen others Bates has collected — for his severe expression, framed by a sternum-length beard and a wide mustache.

Kirk was re-elected to the Senate in 1900 and later served as supervisor of elections and tax assessor. With his wife, Alice, he raised eight children, according to U.S. Census records, and died in 1924.

Though the Kirks sold the last of their grove in 1904, it passed through other families with long histories in the county — including the Weekses — before it came into the hands of Roy Hardy of Dade City and then Bates' mother-in-law, Dianne Waldron, who bought it five years ago.

So Bates doesn't even own Kirk's old property and doesn't seem to have much else in common with him.

Bates is anything but stern, still lives in the county where he graduated from high school and, other than speaking out against a few housing developments, is not involved in politics.

So, why did he become so fascinated with Kirk's life? Bates sometimes puzzles over that himself.

But Bates, who lives a couple of miles away from Kirk Hill with his wife, Leah, and three children, visits almost every day to feed two cats that live there, Smoky and Phoebe.

He sits under the same oak tree that Kirk did, in the same blossom-infused breeze with the same vistas.

Now that I've been there, I understand completely.

Hernando County's Kirk Hill is a piece of paradise 03/18/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 21, 2008 11:08am]
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