ARIPEKA — It didn’t have electricity, phones, or running water, but the small fishing village of Aripeka had a convenience store.
It wasn’t open all night; it didn’t have a Slurpee machine or an ATM. It did have fish bait, as right off its doorstep was the north branch of Hammock Creek, and the little wooden bridge spanning it where anglers dropped their lines for snapper, sheepshead, trout, snook, redfish and various other things with fins.
The little store, Norfleet’s, is still there after more than 80 years, essentially the hub of the peaceful fishing village that straddles the Pasco-Hernando County line. For those driving through, the store’s rustic board-and-batten siding, tin roof and eye-catching sign identify it as a must-stop-and-see piece of old Florida. The sign reads, “Norfleet’s At The Bridge, 5.9 Miles from Heaven — Aripeka, Florida.”
The store sells cold drinks, beer, ice cream, essential groceries, common household supplies, tackle, frozen bait and packs of smokes. It’s enough variety for most to avoid a trip to busy Commercial Way, which while only half as far away as Heaven, isn’t nearly as convenient as Norfleet’s, especially for those in town who don’t own a motor vehicle.
Aripeka’s resident historian and library volunteer Lou Charity has paid tribute to the town fixture by publishing a new historical calendar dedicated to Norfleet’s, which began as a tiny bait shop as part of Norfleet’s Fish Camp, opened by James LeVern (Vern) Norfleet during the Great Depression years. By the early 1940s, Norfleet doubled, then tripled its size and brought it more things to sell. One of those things on the shelf now is the calendar ($10). The proceeds are to help support the town’s community center, which has been struggling since the onset of COVID-19 and the cancellation of many events.
Norfleet’s also is known as “Carl’s Store,” after Carl Norfleet, son of Vern and the “unofficial mayor” of Aripeka today. Now retired, he took over running the store after graduating high school, operating it daily with his sister, Verna Mae, for 50 years. Carl is the oldest living resident of Aripeka who was born there. The store remains in the family, with Carl’s niece Terri and husband Rick running it for the past 10 years. The store is open seven days a week, serving a steady flow of locals and visiting customers, many of whom congregate at the bridge next door at the end of the day to watch the sunset.
Norfleet, who drops by the store nearly every day, said he enjoyed running the store, and the only bad times were storms over the years that flooded the store, the worst being the March 1993 “No-Name Storm.”
“The storms were bad, but then they also were kind of exciting,” he said.
His niece said she’s happy to pick up where her uncle left off.
“It’s nice to carry on the family tradition; one day she’ll be running it,” she said, looking over at Maelee Ann White, 5, the great-great-granddaughter of Verna Mae, sitting on the stool behind the counter munching on a chocolate cupcake.
The idea of producing a series of historical calendars chronicling Aripeka’s 160-year history is Charity’s, but it was his son who suggested the first of the series be dedicated to Norfleet’s store.
“He noticed we had so many old photos of the store that it could be a calendar all by itself,” said Charity, who has the calendars for sale at the library, Norfleet’s and the Aripeka Stone Crab Company, just across the creek from the store.
Author of several historical books about Aripeka and nearby places, Charity is working on another that will chronicle the history of the little store.
“It likely won’t be long — maybe 100 pages, but that will be enough to tell the story,” he said.
Stepping inside Norfleet’s is like walking through a portal in time, when country stores with lots of things hanging from the ceiling and humorous hand-drawn signs were the lifeblood and social hubs of remote little towns.
For those living in Aripeka during WWII, there were some stores in Hudson 7 miles south, but in Hernando, the only commerce was downtown at the county seat of Brooksville, 20 miles east. Compared to Aripeka, Brooksville and Hudson were modern metropolises. Consider that Aripeka didn’t get electricity until 1947. Residents were still getting their water from the town well for years after that, and phone lines didn’t arrive until 1950.
Charity said anyone in West Pasco or Hernando County who’s taken the scenic route through Aripeka owes it to themselves to take the drive. A lot of folks will have the day off July 5, he said, and the town is throwing a free barbecue and live music event (featuring the Big T & Company Band) for anyone who wants to come. It runs from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Aripeka Community Club, 1393 Osowaw Blvd. Ribs, chicken, beans, coleslaw and cold drinks are free, though Charity said the town “sure would appreciate donations.”
For those visiting, take Aripeka Road from U.S. 19 toward the Community Club, but stop at the historic old post office on the way. There’s a historical plaque there, and Norfleet’s is just a couple of hundred yards farther down the road on tiny Palm Island. Aripeka Road then becomes Osowaw Boulevard going north to the Community Club. Along the way, take in the view of the Gulf. It’s the only road around from which it can be seen.