Deeper Inside West Orange County, Florida: Oakland, Beulah, and “To Kill A Mockingbird” in Winter Garden

This area is caked with history… you should have a slice!

I know what you’re thinking– but I can’t seem to get enough of this area. Something about it’s even tenor matches mine; I feel the same way out in Oakland as I do in Key West. Maybe I was always meant to be a small town kind of guy– Brooklyn is wonderful and all, and I can’t get enough of it when I’m there (when Mom lets me out of the house), but I feel most at home in small towns and rural landscapes. Maybe it comes with age. Maybe there’s a front porch in my future– can you see me sitting there with a pistol hidden under my lap robe, like Mrs. DuBose in “To Kill A Mockingbird?” Who can say? Damn kids running all over the lawn… !

But I digress. I’ve been going out to West Orange County because I’ve become affiliated with the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation, their History Center, and the Central Florida Anthropological Society. They’re all busy cataloguing some of our area’s history via sophisticated computer programs and doing digs on historic properties. It’s amazing what they unearth, and it goads me into further explorations on my own.

I did a leisurely tour a couple of weeks ago, taking photos in places I hadn’t been to in a few years, and revisiting other old favorite spots. I was pleasantly surprised when I drove south on  Daniels Road down to where it meets the 429 at the intersection with county road 435 (Fowler Groves). On the left, backing up to Lake Tilden (there are your Oakland and Tildenville Tildens again) is a horse farm.

The day I’m writing this, I picked up a copy of the West Orange Times and read that the land will be considered in a sale to a hospital that wants to build here in the Fowler Groves area. Don’t mistake me– hospitals are good, though my Inner Utopian wishes otherwise.

Going north on 435 you’ll pass a beautiful old home set back from the road on the right; this is the Hause-Roper house. The Ropers owned a lot of agricultural land in these regions; they helped establish Winter Garden and many of them are buried in the Oakland cemetery. The house was built in 1932 and has orange groves on three sides. It looks like it has a coffeepot warming on the stove all day, with maybe Mr. Cleaver sitting in the breakfast nook reading the day’s newspaper headline: LIZ LEAVES EDDIE FOR DICK.

Going back north from here, towards Highway 50 and the Turnpike, you’ll find Beulah, a tiny settlement (and the home of giant West Orange High School). Driving through here in the 1980s, the surrounding area was pastureland and orange groves: Lakes Beulah, Tilden and Black supplied water for agriculture. And, since there weren’t enough highways in the neighborhood, they added the 429 Western Beltway recently. There’s a reason why they call the intersection of 50, 429 and the Turnpike the “Fruit Loop.” I distinctly remember driving along lonely sand roads which hugged Lake Beulah, but now it’s hugged by houses on three sides. The west side does feature the beautiful and tranquil Beulah Cemetery however; Beulah in the bible means “heavenly Zion.”

Here’s little Beulah Baptist Church, and a cozy old house surrounded by palmettos.

Heading back to Winter Garden you’ll come to Resurrection Catholic Church, a rarity for these parts.

In the chapel, this rather exuberant Madonna and Child keep watch: you wouldn’t want to get tangled up with HER.

One of the linchpins of the resurrected downtown Winter Garden is the History Center, where you can get lost in all the documents and photos they have. I mean, imagine moving to central Florida and never availing yourself of this information? There are people who come here who aren’t even curious. I just don’t understand that; when you move to a new place, the first thing you should do is not check out the malls– you’ll find the same stores back in Ohio and White Plains– but you should read up on the history of the area you’re helping to populate.

The Winter Garden History Center is housed in one of the former train stations. Staff and volunteers help maintain and preserve the collection, and they’re building a brand-new addition and expansion nearby. And their train ephemera and memorabilia collection is incredible!

A couple of beautiful country miles east is the Petris home in Oakland, built in 1885 by the Orange Belt railroad men. It’s one of three homes standing which were constructed by this railroad company. A sign out front reads “The 1879 House” but that could be wrong.  The stone block in front, which was a carriage block, originally began as a tombstone which the original purchaser was dissatisfied with; it was subsequently sold to the man who first lived in this house.

 This yellow house on Tubb Street, the Hartsfield house, was once the Oakland hospital. The Central Florida Archaeological Society did a dig here recently and uncovered lots of artifacts from the town’s past. Back in those days, refuse and broken objects were often buried on site, effectively serving as time capsules. Excavations help show that Oakland was once an industrious, populous town, busy with railroad and agricultural enterprises as well as being a noted social hub for Orange County.

Speer Park is named for one of the town’s earliest settlers, James Gamble Speer. (You can read about the Speer family’s unfortunate burial circumstances here.) This man was incredible, not only having provided much of Oakland’s history, but Orlando’s as well.

One of THE most peaceful spots in Florida can be found right here at the northernmost end of Tubb Street (which stretches from Lake Apopka south to Johns Lake.) Yes, there are alligators here, so you are encouraged not to swim, but you can rest on the dock’s benches and not hear a sound for hours. Hard to believe there used to be a band pavilion here, back when Oakland was hopping; you can still see the concrete posts in the water.

I thought to myself: what would happen if I tapped my foot lightly on the dock? And this guy showed up a minute later…

This is the Hovsepian home, “The House of Three Mayors.” I need to find out exactly which mayors, who and when. The house faces Tubb Street but has been joined, I believe, to at least one other house around the corner on Speer Avenue– it’s huge.

This day I also planned on exploring the older of the two black cemeteries in town; there’s the historically white one at Walker Street and Sadler Avenue, and the black cemetery that you see on Highway 50 just outside the southwestern corner of Oakland… but I only recently became aware of an even older black cemetery, forgotten until it was rediscovered by highway planners when the Turnpike was being configured. I had no idea where it was, only that it was near the black cemetery that you see from the road, so I parked there and began to walk into the brush. Three people were in the cemetery a few yards east of me, and a woman called out and asked if I needed help. I explained my mission, and it turned out that she was in charge of the Oakland-Tildenville Cemetery, Inc., and would be happy to escort me to the older cemetery. What a stroke of luck! The four of us (the two women in dresses) plowed through the high grass and weeds, traffic on Highway 50 whizzing by closely, and then we disappeared into the woods. I was thinking about ticks, deer flies, rattlesnakes, bobcats, panthers, bears, ants, wasps, hornets and poison ivy, but all the while jabbering a mile a minute with Sharon about the cemetery. On we pressed… stumps, spider webs, fallen trees… on and on we walked, and I’m thinking thank GOD I wore long pants and socks that day. Soon we came into a low area, actually a wide, shallow sinkhole surrounded by a high chain link fence with a locked gate, and we were there. Sharon spun the tumblers on the combination lock and we went inside. I tell you, it’s incredible– here’s an old burial ground that very, very few people even know about, considering its location between two busy roads. We walked and walked, very carefully, because there are many red flag indicators planted in the  ground: a crew from UCF has gone in here and identified many of the plots, though most of the stones and markers are gone. Also, due to varying family circumstances, many graves are marked only with metal signs or even faded paper cards.

Come along with me… 

From the frying pan and into the fire: we still had a ways to walk after entering the woods from the high grass…

Believe it or not, you are looking at a cemetery, complete with many markers…

A very old marker made with seashells, a tradition which reminds many families of their coastal origins.

There’s a Herriot Avenue in the traditionally African-American “Quarters” in Oakland.

The next day we were back in the area with Darlyn and Brad, this time to see To Kill A Mockingbird at the restored movie theatre in Winter Garden.

The stone benches in the center of town are constructed to look like citrus crates, complete with reproductions of original labels. Here’s Grace, the doyenne of Edgegrove, the Mather-Smith estate in Oakland.

We had dinner at a restaurant inside the Edgewater Hotel…

This was taken inside the theatre…

It was wonderful seeing To Kill A Mockingbird on the big screen; Gregory Peck never looks so good as when he’s towering over an audience. And you see details which you miss when watching the film at home. Incredible. And what an audience! It was composed of all ages, and everyone was quiet, polite, respectful, and attentive. Nobody was playing Tetris or Angry Birds!

I hope you’ll get out to West Orange County one of these days… you’ll come away with a broader sense of the history of the region, something that California-based Disney just wouldn’t understand.

More History / PhotoBike Tours and blogs:

PhotoBike Tour 16: Oakland and West Orange County, Florida

Where’s Grandma? (Not in the Osceola Vault.)

PhotoBike Tour 9: Biking the West Orange Trail

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5 responses

  1. Pingback: UN-Disney West Orange County: Oakland, Beulah and "To Kill A Mockingbird" in Winter Garden - City-Data Forum

  2. NOt sure if it was real or a camera angle artifact but several of the homes had incredibly steep pitched roofs. re the Madonna: looked like a Madame Alexander doll accessorized by a tourist just back from Haiti.

  3. The HUGE safe, early typewriter, phones, etc that were inside the theater were fantastic!
    I always enjoy seeing “really old” houses. These were unbelievably beautifully maintained. I’ve really enjoyed the trip.

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