The Winter Garden Heritage Foundation: Where I Work

Many of you know, thanks to the instant technology of eMails and Facebook, that I have recently been hired by the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation as a Writer / Collections Curator. That, along with my organization and eCommerce work for The Black Sheep Needlepoint Shop and various other gigs, keeps me busier than ever these days. Ultra Organizers is a little enterprise I’ve also started up, so I’ve been doing organizing projects for businesses like The Awards Store as well as for people in their homes.

The position at the Heritage Foundation is really something special for me, because I get to hang out in West Orange County– places like Winter Garden, Oakland, Tildenville… Beulah, Ocoee, Crown Point… Fullers Crossroads… Killarney… it’s great. And I get to write about it now, and sift through boxes of history. Lots of the volunteers have deep roots in the area, and they’re always so generous with their time and their stories.

The Heritage Foundation, along with lots of business owners and concerned individuals, have done so much to revitalize downtown Winter Garden after the fallow 80s and 90s. Well, it was still a place where people lived and worked, but there was a lot of potential that hadn’t been tapped. It’s even more beautiful now– the West Orange Bike Trail and the Green Mountain Scenic Byway meander through the area, taking you past and through well over a hundred years worth of concentrated history: beautiful homes and buildings, a restored movie theatre, busy shops… it’s all very invigorating.

The Winter Garden Heritage Foundation where I work  manages the History Research Center, the Central Florida Railroad Museum, and the Heritage Museum. If you have any interest in trains– boarding them, riding them, or even just knowing about them– the Railroad Museum, housed in a former depot, will astound you with all the ephemera you’ll find inside…  this is just a small part of it:

Visitors spend hours in here!

My workspace is in the History Research Center, a documentation and preservation facility jammed to the rafters with photographs, donated items, newspapers, letters, and anything else you can think of that has to do with West Orange County. We are currently involved in digitizing the photograph collection, an ongoing project, and we also produce a quarterly newsletter and displays that are set up in various venues in town. Many people drop things off so that their family history can be added to the collections. It’s a great place to ask questions, too, as the staff is ready and able to share information or steer you in the right direction; some local visitors like to stop by and see if we can help them find their cousins.

The History Research Center where I work is in that white building:

The Heritage Museum is also housed in a depot, just a block or so away from the Railroad Museum and the History Research Center. It features lots of displays and photographs which focus on the area, as well as a large collection of yearbooks from Winter Garden’s Lakeview High School. (I really enjoy looking at all the senior grad hairstyles; hairspray stock must have zoomed to the ceiling in 1964.) The citrus label collection is definitely worth seeing, as it highlights the very fruits that put West Orange County on the map. My favorite corner of the museum displays rare photographs of Oakland, with striking views of the large, rambling Mather-Smith home that stood on the site of what is now the Southern Oaks subdivision. (You can still see the Mather-Smiths’ original front gate– it’s survived.)

The Winter Garden Heritage Museum

All of these museums are free to explore, by the way, though your contributions are always appreciated. Winter Garden is unique because, for such a small city, its historical facilities are vast. Stop by and see what’s going on down here, and then take me out for a coffee break!

A Drive to Bradenton and Ellenton: Botanical Gardens, Castles, Mansions, Ruins, and Pottery

Today we made like Mother Cabrini and went not to the east, but to the west. Kirk had some time off and so we headed to the balmy west coast of Florida to gaze upon flowers, friends, squeezins, and mansions. And decayed castles, which was the main draw for me. Okay, the REAL main event was visiting Evelyn and her husband Brian (she and Kirk went to massage therapy school together), but you know me: “decayed castle” perked my radar and there we scurried.

Above is the entrance at the Palma Sola Botanical Park, which we had completely to ourselves the whole time we were there. (Office Closed Until August 7th. No brochures. No map. No polite answers to our exorbitant questions.) We roamed and roamed in the intense heat– it was like an oven, but it’s August in Florida and so there you have it. The park boasts of the fact that many of its specimens simply won’t grow inland.

There’s a section here planted with exotic fruit trees, so you can see where all those weird-looking things at the Spanish supermarket come from.

We behaved, even though my mother wasn’t around to say “don’t touch anything! You could get a rash!”

And this lovely thing crashed to the ground from a tall palm tree A SECOND after Kirk moved out of its range. A SECOND! Imagine having to visit the emergency room at manatee Memorial Hospital with this thing in tow? Incidentally, we didn’t see any signs warning us of falling frond sheaths… I think we’ll build the house over by the inlet.

I sat and stared at this duck for a good ten minutes, and he stared back at me. I felt a bit guilty– my lovebird’s first commandment is “I am the Lord thy bird– thou shalt have no strange ducks before me.”

Some shots of the striking and beautifully maintained landscape here, mostly photographed by Kirk:

This area of Bradenton is generally referred to as Palma Sola; the name alone makes you relax. It’s just north of state route 64, which leads you west across the bay and eventually to Anna Maria Island. Here you can make a right and go through the sleepy beach towns of Holmes Beach and Anna Maria on the island which juts northwest into the Gulf. Of course, “sleepy” is relative; there is much development and plenty of Chrysler Imperial Crown Victorias prowling the little streets at ten miles per hour, but at least you get to stare at everybody’s front yards.

We had a late lunch at the apparently incredibly popular Sandbar, which has both valet and lot parking scattered all over the place, but it was very relaxing indoors. I always love looking at people at the surrounding tables, and beach restaurants always seem to attract people who would normally seem more at home in offices: the men look uncomfortable in their Lacoste alligator shirts, ironed plaid shorts, and sock-less feet wedged into topsiders, the muu-muued and flip-flopped women more at ease in high heels and red power jackets. I guess they’re slumming! Then there are the three-generation families who, practically naked and covered in sand and salt, sit merrily at giant tables swilling iced tea and causing giant, heaped bowls of fritters and fried calamari to disappear. I love them all.

Here’s the Palma Sola Community Church, nestled within an old cemetery… On the map on the way home I noticed that we had completely bypassed (can you imagine?!) another site– the Fogartyville Cemetery– and so I’ll have to go back one day.

Our next visit was to the Braden Castle ruins, hidden in a manufactured home community that hugs the south shore of the Manatee River. We’d been here years ago, and I recall Kirk muttering “it’s just a pile of coquina” as he sped by, but this time I made him park the car while I circled the site and took a thousand photos. It’s not the friendliest sort of neighborhood: signs surrounding the site warn you to NOT park, so you have to settle the car on a tiny side street. (Everything is tiny in here: the roads, the houses, and– I hope– all the people.)

A display shows a photo of the “Castle” when it was intact.

And here’s its story:

And here’s what it looks like now:

We then left this pile of coquina tabby (a mixture of lime, sand, crushed shells, water, and heartbreak) and headed across the river to Ellenton, where we paused to refresh at the Gamble Mansion, which was built between 1845 and 1850.

There are a couple of plantation devices on the grounds, used to press the juices from corn and sugar cane. When Liz and I were here years ago, we laughed and laughed when we saw the “squeezins” machines. Well, it was beastly hot; the mansion was closed; of coursed we were half hysterical in the heat. This time the mansion was open but we didn’t tour it. Next time!

Our last stop was to Evelyn and Brian’s house nearby; she was a fellow student when Kirk went to school at the Reese Institute of Massage Therapy. Evelyn and Brian ahve a neat little house which they are surrounding with foliage and love, and inside we discovered that she had once worked at a potter’s studio in Massachusetts. (Evelyn is also an accomplished painter.) Here are some of the wares she designed and worked her sgraffito magic on:

And then home toward a blackening sky. As we approached Orlando on I-4, we decided to go north on the 429 and head into Winter Park via the 414 through Maitland, thus avoiding all the storms. Good move! And I noticed some sort of monument at the intersection of I-4 and the 429, which bears investigation… stay tuned!