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Zephyrhills winter flock arrives for the season

The ritual has begun anew in Zephyrhills.

Gray-haired people leave their perfectly good houses in Michigan, Ohio and Ontario and travel 1,200 miles to a modest, inland town with scarcely 10,000 inhabitants.

If Zephyrhills' success as a winter haven for retirees is undisputed _ few places can boast 150 mobile home parks in such a small area _ the unanswered question is, why?

Many of the tens of thousands who flock to Zephyrhills repeat the same answers: the cheap housing, the central location, the tasty spring water and the best shuffleboard this side of Lake Okeechobee.

Spike Hoenig has been a true believer in the charms of Zephyrhills since the late 1970s.

While he ran a lawn and garden business in his native Michigan, Hoenig used to listen to his customers as they returned from winter visits to Florida reminisce about a place called Zephyrhills.

Soon Hoenig joined the exodus south, becoming a winter regular in Zephyrhills in 1981. Now he lives there permanently, a confirmed shuffleboard addict.

"If it wasn't for shuffleboard I don't know what I'd do," Hoenig said as he competed in a tournament at Zephyrhills Tourist Club. "There's more shuffleboard in Zephyrhills than any other place."

Wilfrid Poirier tried living near Lake Okeechobee until his sister tipped him off to Zephyrhills. Since 1989, the French Canadian has returned for the winter.

He likes the small town environment and the central location that puts him within easy driving distance of Disney World, Busch Gardens and the beaches.

The prices aren't bad either. Poirier, who lives at Palm View Gardens park near Chancey Road, said his friend in Fort Myers pays $1,000 more than he does each winter to lease his lot.

"You meet a lot of friends in Zephyrhills and that keeps you coming back," Poirier said.

Hoenig and Poirier fit the profile of most retirees in Zephyrhills: largely blue collar folks from small towns up north looking for a reasonable place to wile away the winter.

"We have a small town atmosphere and it's similar to where they're from," said Zephyrhills city manager Steve Spina. "I think it's the rural flavor they're used to."

Zephyrhills has been pulling in an aging crowd for the better part of 100 years. It was founded around the turn of the century as a retirement colony for elderly Civil War veterans.

The original name of the city _ Abbott's Station _ gave way in 1910 to the more alluring Zephyrhills. City elders thought the name conjured up images of winds whispering through wooded hills.

The town really took off after the age of the automobile began.

By World War II, hordes of vacation trailers descended on the town, usually parking along the shores of Lake Zephyr. Locals called them, sometimes disparagingly, "tin-can tourists."

They earned the name either because of the metallic skins of their trailers or their fondness for canned food.

It was only in the past couple of decades that the mobile home parks have sprouted.

Word of mouth has ensured the parks stay full during the winter months, when the population of Zephyrhills and its environs increases from about 10,000 to an estimated 75,000.

Wilma Van Wagnen, a native of Batavia, N.Y., settled in Zephyrhills because that's where her father lived. Her father came to the city on the advice of his friends.

Such referrals _ from family to family and friend to friend _ have created enclaves in the parks often segregated by state of origin.

It's not unusual to see Canadian flags fly at homes next to a street where most cars bear Michigan or New York license plates. If residents hanker for their birthplace, groups such as the Ohio Buckeye Club meet regularly.

Jack and Ruth Schmitter, Michigan residents who winter in Zephyrhills, are still mulling whether to move to Florida full time.

But one thing is certain _ there are few other places besides Zephyrhills they'd rather live.

"We went to New Port Richey when we first moved down. But you've got Route 19 over there. You'll get run over," Jack Schmitter said. "It's much better over here in Zephyrhills."