BY GREGORY ENNS
PHOTOS BY ROB DOWNEY
As a boy growing up in West Virginia, Paul Hoskins looked forward to the holidays when his family would visit his grandparents at Wilhocapa, their winter homestead in St. Lucie Village.
“We came down here at Christmas, and I fell in love with this place,” the 84-year-old says. “I knew when I got older I’d live in Florida. I wanted to be a dentist and I wanted to move to Florida.”
Hoskins family ties have been so constant to Wilhocapa and St. Lucie Village that this year, the family celebrated 100 years and five generations of Hoskinses enjoying the homestead. Built in 1908, the house and waterside property began as a winter estate for Paul’s grandparents, Etta and William Hoskins.
William, a founder of the Columbian Carbon Co., and Etta had been regaled with stories of St. Lucie Village by early settler Rupert “Pop” Koblegard, a neighbor in West Virginia. Koblegard settled in St. Lucie Village and, in 1923, built Fort Pierce’s Sunrise Theatre, the largest vaudeville theater on the east coast.
After buying property from Koblegard, the couple built a simple two-story wood house in a sabal palm thicket on the Indian River, with Etta living on a boat to oversee its construction. The house’s unusual name, Wilhocapa, came from a combination of the first letters of William’s name and his three sons, Homer, Carl and Paul.
The house is constructed of Dade County pine, and its most prominent exterior features are gables, wood shake shingles and a long porch sporting most of the original double-hung windows.
One of its most talked-about interior features is the sturdy double oak flooring throughout the first story. The double floors were added several decades after construction so that they wouldn’t creak when Paul’s grandmother, Etta, rolled her wheelchair over them.
As a child, Paul remembers his grandfather raising a flag every morning on the front lawn in memory of his son Paul, who was killed in World War I. And he also recalls cracks in the plaster caused by practice bombing runs when Fort Pierce was a World War II military base.
And before air-conditioning, he remembers burning citronella to ward off mosquitoes inside the house with the familiar palm frond near the door used to swat off mosquitoes as folks entered.
In the early years, the house was supplied with potable water from a series of large water towers on the property. The last one was dismantled in 1987.
The original homestead consisted of 180 feet of waterfront, with about 5 acres of land extending more than a quarter-mile to what are now the tracks of the Florida East Coast Railway. About 3 acres of citrus groves were planted by Paul’s grandparents.
Today, the lawn is so extensive that Paul used to boast in his early retirement years that he had put more than 1,000 hours on his John Deere mower.
A large split oak, which legend has it was used as a gathering place for Indians, still stands in the back yard. A similar ancient oak in the front yard was destroyed during the hurricanes of 2004. “I cried for two weeks over losing that big tree,’’ Jean says.
A freshwater stream used to run along the south side of the property and perhaps was one of the features that prompted the Army to locate Fort Capron, an outpost used during the last Seminole war, just a stone’s throw away.
Paul said that in the early years the house was sparse of furnishings. “They didn’t have the best of everything. They treated it like you would a cottage up at a lake.’’
Etta died in 1937 and William in 1949. The ownership of the house eventually came to Paul’s father, Homer, who retired and moved to it in 1955.
After dental school, Paul moved to Florida and started a practice in Fort Pierce in 1949. He met Jean, a new teacher from Bowling Green, Ky., at Fairlawn Elementary School, where Paul was giving dental checkups to her first-graders. “She came in with a little troupe of people and I couldn’t see anyone but her,” Paul says.
A ‘LIVING BACKUS’
After marrying in 1954, they bought the house next to Wilhocapa, a 1912 cottage known as Cherokee Lodge. In 1956, Paul’s mother, Mabel, died, and Paul’s dad soon found that house was too big for him.
“We were living over there and he was living here, and this house was too large for him so we traded houses,” Jean says. That was 1959, and Wilhocapa has been their home ever since.
Today, the house, which has central air-conditioning, features some of the original furnishings such as a large secretary made in Pennsylvania. A Tappan gas range the couple bought shortly after their marriage still cooks their meals. Their life in Wilhopaca and St. Lucie Village has been a continuum with only subtle changes.
“You take it for granted, but every day the mood of the river is different,” Paul says. “It’s beautiful.”
“It was a wonderful place to raise our boys,’’ Jean says, noting that with the river as a playground they never went far from home. “They were perfectly happy to stay in St. Lucie Village."
Following the family tradition of living on the property, son Steve, a Fort Pierce lawyer, built a large plantation-style house behind Wilhopaca in 1987. The couple’s younger son, Mark, died in 1995.
“Even though my father and mother have lived in the Wilhopaca homestead longer than any other homeowner, I feel that I am the most blessed of all because I have lived almost my entire life in and around our family property – land I can only describe as a ‘living Backus,’ ” Steve Hoskins wrote earlier this year in a booklet commemorating the Wilhocapa centennial.
Jean and Paul hope that some day Steve’s children, Taylor and Page, will be the next generation to live in the house. In the meantime, Paul will continue to pursue one of his favorite pastimes at Wilhocapa.
“It sounds indolent, but a lot of times I’ll just go out to the front porch and sit down and listen to the fish flopping around out there.”
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