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Last relic of glory days in peril

Legend has it that Joseph P. Kennedy vacationed there. So did Gloria Swanson and Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.

But today the lodge at the Moon Lake Gardens and Dude Ranch resort sits empty, its roof leaking onto virgin cypress floor boards. In some spots, sun rays stream onto the massive limestone chimneys.

From 1937 to 1942, this was a sportsmen's paradise with a 7,000-acre, fenced-in hunting area stocked with everything from European fallow deer to African partridges and peafowl. The resort also had its own botanical gardens, horse-riding trails, dance hall and illegal casino.

"This was a city then," said Willard Hawn, who worked at the resort in its heyday. "I would say at one time there were 500 people working here."

Today, a stone's throw away from the former playground of millionaires, dust from unpaved roads engulfs the numerous mobile homes of Moon Lake. Many of the residents are unaware of the history lying in their back yards _ and what evidence remains of that colorful past might soon disappear.

The property owner has applied for a permit to demolish the 12,000-square-foot cypress lodge, sell it off for lumber, and then sell off the remaining 26 acres.

Historic preservationists want to save the lodge, which is on the local register of historic places. But the odds are against them.

The asking price is $375,000, and that doesn't include renovation costs. With no money budgeted for such expenses, county staff members recommend the demolition permit be issued.

The county commissioners will make the call, however, because Pasco's comprehensive growth plan states that commissioners have final authority when historic sites are slated for destruction. Commissioners will take up the matter at 6:30 tonight in the County Commission chambers in Dade City.

Willard Hawn can see the old lodge from his mobile home window, and he beams when he recounts his memories of the property in its heyday. The 75-year-old man worked on the property for several years in the 1930s. His assorted odd jobs _ including cutting timber for the large moonshine still that served the ranch's patrons _ earned him 10 cents an hour, which was better than his daily wage of 75 cents at a nearby citrus grove.

The guests stayed at the lodge and cottages, which abutted Moon Lake, while the resort's employees and the guests' servants stayed in cabins on the other side of what is now Moon Lake Road. A white stone building that housed the resort's electrical power plant remains standing at Little Moon Lake Ranch.

Various historical accounts say Clearwater developer Ed Haley spent at least $600,000 developing the resort, which included an 8-foot-high fence keeping the wildlife from roaming off the property.

"They needed that fence," a chuckling Hawn explained. "For natives, food was hard to come by in those days."

Along with native wildlife, Haley imported hundreds of fallow deer, African partridges, peafowl and assorted other animals. A resident taxidermist could mount whatever a guest wished. Haley also planted thousands of palm trees, rose bushes, azaleas, gardenias, camelias and fruit trees.

A reproduced 1937 brochure lists the following amenities: cottages for servants, cottages for guests, stables, a poultry farm, a casino and auditorium, plant nurseries, fountains, fish ponds, a dance hall to accommodate up to 2,400 dancers at a time, a long dock. And everything was built from native materials, whether it was virgin cypress or local stone.

Various historical accounts note that Al Capone was rumored to have stayed there, but Hawn says no way.

"There is no truth in that whatsoever," he said. "All the time this was going on, Al Capone was doing time in Alcatraz."

Those same histories cite Gloria Swanson as a guest of the report, though some old-timers have expressed skepticism over her supposed links to the New Port Richey area.

"That's a bunch of bull----," Hawn said. "She was here. She was a little woman, very small. She was Joseph P. Kennedy's girlfriend."

Indeed, Hawn recalls the resort as being a popular spot for married men to visit, without necessarily bringing their wives.

"It was no family place _ you better put it that way," he said. "I imagine those cottage walls could tell some awful big stories."

None of those cottages remain, however. Volunteer firefighters burned the last of them down a few weeks ago as part of a practice burn.

One of the last vestiges of the resort is the lodge, and property owner Richard Fedash hopes to be rid of that within two months. Some of the floor is rotting, and he said he worries about the liability of someone hurting himself on his property. Fedash has little patience for the preservationists calling for the property to be saved.

"Then they better buy it, because I can't afford to keep it up," he said in a telephone interview from Idaho. "Anybody that objects and opposes me are going to be subject to lawsuits."

Fedash already has sold much of the lodge's furnishings, most of which were made from cypress branches. Even the chandeliers were constructed from cypress roots.

Records show he bought the property nine years ago from the Pinellas Baptist Association for $475,000. The property appraiser's office values the property at closer to $120,000, and Fedash recently offered to sell the property to the county for $375,000.

"That's about 50 cents on the dollar with all I got into it," he said, noting that he erected a wall around the property. " . . . I love that building. I'd hate to see it come down, but I've got no alternative."

No one has estimated what it would cost to renovate the lodge, but a Pasco building inspector estimated it is as much as 40 percent deteriorated. He also said: "It is a beautiful building."

County commissioners interviewed Monday said that while they would love to see it preserved, they would be reluctant to spend county funds on such a project. That included Commissioner Hap Clark, who remembers visiting the property as a boy, when his uncle worked as a caretaker there.

Members of the Pasco County Historical Preservation Committee have passed a resolution calling on commissioners to preserve the building, but committee co-chairman Bill Maytum acknowledged Monday that the group realizes the cost could be prohibitive.

To Lucille Gerber of the Moon Lake Civic Association, watching the once-proud lodge be dismantled would be a disturbing symbol. This community, where millionaires once vacationed, now is notorious for dirt roads and old mobile homes. Saving the lodge would be a source of great pride.

"As long as the lodge is standing, there's hope for Moon Lake," she said. "Somehow, I feel if we can refurbish the lodge, we can bring back Moon Lake."