Citrus Park clings to pieces of its past, despite a growth explosion

About a mile from the mall, you can still see the remnants of Citrus Park's rural roots and know-your-neighbor traditions.

There's the Little Red School House.

The place on Ehrlich Road that sells firewood.

And the Little League fields where large signs honor dozens of past baseball and softball teams, with each player listed by name.

Today residents prize that rustic community identity even as Westfield Citrus Park has raised the area's profile.

"Now people know where Citrus Park is," said Sunny Boleman, 77, who grew up here and still raises cattle on Old Hixon Road. "It used to be, 'Where is Citrus Park?' 'Well, it's out there in the country somewhere on a little road.' Now they know."

That's not to say Boleman likes the changes better. She fondly remembers the big sawmill on Cosme Road, kids going to school barefoot and picnics in the groves.

"It's sad because it used to be an old-time community," she said.

Citrus Park's history started shortly before World War I with the establishment of a township covering 70 blocks. Many streets, including Mobley Road, Gunn Highway and Hixon Road, are named for its original settlers.

With its farms, acres of citrus and turpentine stills, the community thrived through the 1920s.

Citrus Park also had a close-knit black population, most of whom settled east of Gunn Highway near Peterson Road. The former Citrus Park Colored School was built in 1924 at 9703 Gunn Highway.

Clarence James, 74, attended school there in the early 1940s and remembers the place well. It had no electricity, one teacher, three blackboards and 15 to 20 students at any given time. There was a hand pump for water and two outhouses, one for boys and one for girls.

Charlie Walker, for whom Walker Middle School is named, usually furnished the firewood for the stove, but if he felt ill, then boys from the school gathered sticks from the woods.

Children brought their lunches, and James, the son of a grove worker, recalls eating corn bread with mustard, biscuits and maybe some guava jelly for lunch. When they played baseball, they used a piece of an old desk for a bat and pine cones for the ball.

However poor the area was, though, James loved it. He loved knowing everyone who lived nearby, just as he still loves being able to plant what he pleases in his large yard on Peterson Road. (Some people today regard the area as part of Keystone.)

James, who retired from a career in the Army and runs a small lawn mower repair shop, has seen the area develop, starting in the 1950s. He hopes the mall and other growth doesn't erase Citrus Park's rural identity.

"I don't think it's going to stay that way," he said. "I like it like it is."

The Citrus Park Colored School closed in 1948 but remains a local landmark, one of two historic schoolhouses in Citrus Park.

The other is the one-room Citrus Park School — known locally as the Little Red School House — at 7700 Gunn Highway, next to Citrus Park Elementary. Built in 1911, it was the second public school in Hillsborough County. Students attended classes there until 1926.

After its promising start, Citrus Park struggled during the Great Depression. For decades afterward, it remained a little-known byway while other parts of Hillsborough boomed.

That changed about the time the mall opened. Not only was there more traffic, but the national real estate bubble created the demand for more development.

In response, residents, landowners, business people and county planners spent more than two years working on the Citrus Park Village community plan.

Like community plans for other areas of Hillsborough, Citrus Park's plan was meant to guide future development and lay out a vision more detailed than the one in the county's comprehensive land use plan.

But some residents still don't embrace the plan. For one thing, it encompasses 820 acres north of the mall. That's larger than the original Citrus Park township.

Over the determined opposition of some residents, the plan also set the stage for urban mixed-use projects with commercial development and multi-family homes.

More than five years after the plan's adoption, opinions vary on what it accomplished and who profited.

Civic activist Linda Gadbaw said some people sold their property and left over worries about what the plan might bring.

"That hurt us a lot," she said.

The rise of high-density rentals had a more detrimental impact on the neighborhood than the mall did, she said.

Others continue to watch for threats to the community's quality of life.

Earlier this month, after Grant Walters noticed that a left-turn signal had malfunctioned at Gunn Highway and Sheldon Road, he contacted the county, which fixed the problem quickly.

And he has taken photos of illegal banners advertising businesses along Citrus Park Drive.

Bringing such problems to the attention of county officials "slows down the deterioration of the community," said Walters, a retired technical writer who lives in the Fawn Lake neighborhood just south of Sickles High School.

Despite the changes, 30-year resident Cheryl Pulley still sees signs of the neighborly Citrus Park she loves.

Recently, she said her step-grandson was walking home from work about 9 p.m. when he saw someone breaking into a neighbor's front window. He told Pulley's son, who grabbed a gun, ready to defend his neighbor's property.

But the man breaking the window wasn't a burglar. He was another neighbor. He had seen smoke, called 911 and was waking up the sleeping homeowner who had left a pot on the stove.

"It could have been much worse," said Pulley, president of the Citrus Park Community Civic Association. But someone noticed and cared enough to take action. "That's the type of neighborhood it is."

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

Citrus Park clings to pieces of its past, despite a growth explosion 03/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 26, 2009 4:30am]

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