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History is passion for longtime Hernando County resident

Jan Knowles sits on the front porch of the manor house on Chinsegut Hill, one of her pet projects.
Jan Knowles sits on the front porch of the manor house on Chinsegut Hill, one of her pet projects.
Published May 19, 2012

How long have you lived in Hernando County, and where do you live? Where did you live previously?

We moved from St. Petersburg to Hernando County in 1973, settling on the east side of the county. Before moving to Hernando, my husband's job caused us to move around quite a bit. We decided this move would be our last so the children didn't have to live the way I did.

My father was a military fighter pilot, and we moved around a great deal. I was born at Drew Field, a military hospital in Tampa. We moved to Japan six weeks after I was born. I grew up in Europe, mostly England, but we also lived in France. We moved back to the states when I was 13.

Who are the members of your family?

My husband, Robert, and I will celebrate our 50th anniversary on June 14. We had four children. Our daughter Carolyn died in 1969 at the age of 9 months old. Our three other children include daughters Melissa Miller and Kimberly Ryczek and son Bo Knowles, all of whom live in Hernando County.

Tell us about your career.

In 1975, when my son, the youngest, went to kindergarten, I decided to go back to school. I began taking classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College, but before graduating I took a job working for a local CPA. I never did complete my degree, but I worked for the CPA for 22 years. The job allowed me the luxury of being able to be home after school every day for my children.

In 1995, my husband was injured and could not continue working. That same year, my boss died suddenly and unexpectedly. Robert and I decided it was time for us to retire, so we did it together.

Once retired, I was afraid I might stay locked up in the house like a cocoon. So to make sure that didn't happen, I started volunteering in the community.

What kinds of activities are you involved in now?

The Heritage Museum needed a tour guide, so I offered my services. I ended up being president of the Hernando Historical Museum Association for 18 years. The position is what kicked off my interest in history.

In all, I'm associated with nine organizations. I'm president of the Friends of Chinsegut Hill, a board member of the Historic Hernando Preservation Society, first vice president on the Hernando County Tourism Council, a board member of the Hernando County Fair Association, executive director of the Hernando County Arts Council, treasurer of the Brooksville Mural Society, a member of the advisory committee for Brooksville Cemetery, and an alumni of the Rails for Trails project. I also served as chairwoman of the Brooksville Raid for 17 years.

My main focus today is saving Chinsegut Hill. It's a goal of mine.

Tell me more about that.

The University of South Florida had a 99-year lease for Chinsegut Hill, including its 114 acres, the manor house and eight cabins.

Three years ago — 44 years into its lease — USF decided it was more a liability than an asset. It's been sitting empty now for three years.

The main purpose and objective of the Friends of Chinsegut Hill is to be able to open the manor house, cabins and the 114 acres to the public. There are 15 members/volunteers of the Friends, and six sit on the board.

USF gave us permission to hold meetings on the site, which is where we do our research. We've held fundraisers so we can afford more research. We've collected enough research now and have pieced together the exact history of the property to write a book.

Right now, the property belongs to the state of Florida. The Audubon Society expressed interest in taking over the lease. Currently, we're working with Audubon and the state to find a way to keep Chinsegut open to the public.

One of our goals is to hold a function at Chinsegut each month. The eight cabins can sleep 65 people. We also hope to restore the house to a museum and conference center.

A suggestion came recently from a group at the USF College of Arts and Science to keep it open and have us, the Friends of Chinsegut Hill, run the project/property. Though we recently hit a roadblock after our request for a $50,000 matching state grant was denied due to lack of funding, we're optimistic we will get the funds during the next budget session. We can apply again at the end of June.

The funds from the matching grant would be used to restore the roof and upgrade the heating and air for the manor house. We've already secured $27,500 from private donations. Additionally, two years ago we raised $25,000 for house restorations. So we're making progress.

Do you have any special hobbies?

I absolutely love to cook.

What are your favorite things to do in Hernando County?

Festivals. Brooksville has so much charm. I wish when we first moved to Hernando County I would have purchased a historic home. I love the downtown area and all of its rich history.

What do you think would make Hernando County a better place to live?

Awareness of the treasures we have. When the Civil War hit, it only advanced 40 miles from Bayport. It never touched the town of Brooksville. That's why we still have more than 200 historical homes in Brooksville. The city was saved, and studies have shown that Brooksville has the most historic homes in Florida.

Tell us something about yourself that most people don't know.

When I retired, I had no idea that history would be my passion. I was trying to come out of my shell after all the years I spent cooped up in an office — I needed more interaction with the public. The museum opened up a whole new world for me.

Today, many people think I'm still affiliated with the museum. Though I retired from the museum in 2009, my heart is still there and always will be.

Most people assume that I grew up here, but I did not. Since I have lived here the longest I have ever lived anywhere, I consider this my hometown. I love this community.

Hernando Neighbors is an occasional feature of the Hernando Times. Do you know someone who would make a good profile? We'd like to hear from you. Contact Jean Hayes, community news coordinator, at or (352) 848-1438.