A Step Towards a City

LaBelle...a name existing only on paper, was absorbed by a young city expanding its boundaries more than a century ago. Mention the town's name to local historians and you will likely be met with blank stares. While few records exist, the ionic columns and full façade porches of Zephyr Street let you know you've arrived in the city's oldest established neighborhood.

A Community's Earliest Roots

LaBelle was a small community existing just west of what is now downtown. A faded piece of parchment exists in the historical archives of the old courthouse; a map with a grid of city streets containing the long forgotten names of Pearl and DeSoto Streets, a part of LaBelle. Why such little history? LaBelle existed prior to the creation of Citrus County (June 2, 1887), so older records, if they exist, may likely be in the chronicles of Hernando County.

LaBelle was platted January 13, 1885 on approximately 154 acres in an area southwest of Little Lake Henderson. On March 10, 1887, the Town of Tompkinsville was platted, with population according to 1896 tax records of 27 property owners, yet later reduced to 15 owners in 1900. Just months after Tompkinsville was platted, Citrus County was established reporting about 2,000 county residents and LaBelle accounting for about 30. Did Tompkinsville population include LaBelle property owners initially, thus causing the reduction of property owners in 1900? Quite possibly, considering so many legal changes were being recorded within months of each other.

Tompkinsville changed its name to Inverness in 1889 and on March 5, 1917 the Town of Inverness became an incorporated City. Today, a scattering of houses -- some dating back to the late 1800's -- are virtually the only remaining pieces of LaBelle and the city's earliest days. The A.K. Ruff House (circa 1910) at 805 West Zephyr Street is a hipped-roof house partially reconstructed after a fire in the early 1900's. The 4-bedroom, three bath house has been remodeled several times.

Coming to Life

A review of historical records provides some insight into the people that called the town home. Many of the town's residents worked at a nearby lumber camp or for various railroads that had rails leading through town. According to tax records from the 1880's, property owners included Andrew K. Ruff, Francis M. Dampier, the Silver Springs Ocala Rail Road Company, and George deMuro and his family. A deed dated April 10, 1885 indicates Ruff bought a square block of two lots from the United States that faced Trout Street, and were bordered by Emery Street, Dampier Street and Cherry Avenue. The deed for 154 acres was signed by President Grover Cleveland.

According to Hampton Dunn in his book, Back Home, Ruff transferred the property to the Supervisor of Citrus County School No. 12 for a school to be built there. The deed contained a provision that it was understood that "the upper part of the building to be erected is to belong to and controlled by the Worshipful Master and Wardens of the Masonic Fraternity of Citrus Lodge in the Town of LaBelle. The lower part shall be under the control of the proper school officers and to be used for school and church purposes." However, in August 1925, the school system deeded the property to the county, saying it had no interest in the land, per Dunn.

George deMuro, a Cuban immigrant who settled in Citrus County with his wife, Josie, in the 1880's, worked in the citrus business. He was a County Commissioner and Justice of the Peace before serving 25 years as County judge; he died in 1917. He was also one of the organizers of the Florida Orange, Canal and Transit Co., which owned much of the property that eventually became the City of Inverness.

Up the road from deMuro's West Main Street house, lived Walter F. Warnock at 227 North Ella Avenue. The Folk Victorian home was built in 1887 by the Rev. J.P.Wilson of Tennessee, Warnock's father-in-law. Warnock served as Citrus County Clerk of Court from 1901-1919, and was editor and publisher of the Citrus County Chronicle in the 1890's. Dr. Robert Warnock, Warnock's father, was the first physician in Inverness, according to records.

Francis Dampier, who lived on Bay Street, is credited with surveying and developing the town of Tompkinsville, building one of the first saw mills in the state, operating several general stores in the area and numerous other accomplishments.

The M.C. Scofield House, 811 West Zephyr Street, was built in 1910. It has a two-tiered, full facade porch common in the south, according to the city's Historical, Architectural and Archaeological Survey.

The Neighborhood Today

The neighborhood is located in the area between present day West Main Street to the south, Cherry Avenue to the east, Hendrix Ave to the west and Lounds Street to the north. It covers an area roughly 100 acres.

Though no longer an official town, records with local real estate offices and the property appraiser list some homes in the old neighborhood as being in the subdivision of LaBelle. According to tax records with the property appraiser, in March 2008, there were 81 homes and businesses in the area once called LaBelle.

U.S. 41 now curves through what used to be part of LaBelle, splitting the community in two. The neighborhood still boasts a high concentration of historic homes according to the Historical, Architectural and Archaeological Survey by Brenda J. Elliot & Associates of Kissimmee in June 1993. The survey, financed in part with grant assistance from the National Park Service, identifies 10 historic homes in this neighborhood. This includes the Warnock house, a gable-front-and-wing subtype L-shaped home that, according to the survey, is the oldest remaining home in the city. Shown here is a photo of the Warnock family and their home taken in the 1890's, shortly after the house was built. The home still occupies the lot on Ella Avenue as the oldest remaining house in the city. The home used to have a third story with a "captain's walk" that offered a view of the surrounding area.

Other structures noted in the neighborhood besides Warnock, M.C. Scofield home and Andrew K. Ruff house is a two-story Colonial at 812 W. Zephyr Street (1930); a masonry vernacular at 201 Talmadge Avenue (1923) and 205 Talmadge Avenue (1930); and a craftsman style home at 220 Talmadge Avenue (1930).

Neighborhood Notables

Claire Jenkins has lived in the county her entire life. She grew up on Tompkins Street in a home built in 1910, which is now a chiropractor's office. Her current residence is on Ella Avenue.

Her grandparents, W.T. and Pearl Baxley, started a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Hernando in 1906. The plant was eventually relocated to 110 N. Pine Ave., behind the Baxley's home. W.T. Baxley died in 1931. Pearl Baxley took over the family business and erected a brick building at 112 N. Apopka Ave. The business was sold in 1979 to Florida Coca-Cola. The county purchased the building from Coca-Cola in 1983. It is currently the site of the Supervisor of Elections Office.

Mrs. Jenkins fondly remembers the way Inverness used to be, and the old Coca-Cola plant. She said the building used to have a large picture window so people passing by could see the bottles go by on a conveyor belt. Though the city has changed a lot over the years, Mrs. Jenkins -- a board member of the Citrus County Historical Society -- said in her neighborhood survey that "I am so proud of Inverness and all its improvements."