A Gorgeous Sunday West Orange Trail Group Bike Tour

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There was a chill in the air this morning when I went outside to load my bicycle onto the car’s bike rack, but the sky was a brilliant blue and the weather radar showed an absence of those rough-edged yellow and red and black things which look, lately, like remnants of burnt fried eggs roaming across my iMac’s screen.

West Orange Bikes and Blades  hired me to give a two-hour guided bike tour of the Trail from the Killarney Trailhead five miles east to the Winter Garden Heritage Museum and Ms Bee’s Popcorn and Candy Store, and the weather was perfect. I always jump at the chance to share West Orange County’s history with new people, and these conventioneers were a great group to work with

 

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Here’s the gang, laden with popcorn and candy after their long haul.

Their bikes are parked across Plant Street at the Heritage Museum.

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They got to see the new History Research and Education Center (our new offices) going up on Plant Street…

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… our eastern gateway to the downtown Area…

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…the beautifully preserved Edgewater Hotel…

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…Centennial Fountain…

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… the Garden Theatre, where Carol Lee is starring in Hairspray…

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…Splash Park on Plant Street…

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…City Hall…

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…Brayton, an old community just west of downtown Winter Garden, where a former fertilizer company has been repurposed as Roundtable Productions, a multimedia production company…

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…the former South Lake Apopka Citrus Growers Association offices in Tildenville…

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…the old SLACGA water tower…

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…the Luther Willis Tilden home (c.1910) on Tildenville School Road…

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…Lake Brim behind the Tilden home…

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…mile marker 801 from Richmond, Virginia, which stood along the old Orange Belt / ACL railroad tracks…

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…a home on Oakland’s Tubb Street which began life as boarding house for railroad men when it was built in the late 1880s…

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…Historic Town Hall in Oakland, which started out as a bank in 1912…

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…and one of the views south of Oakland, former grove land stretching towards Lake Apopka’s south shore. It was a great ride and a great experience and, after I sent them off on their bus and back to the Portofino, I went exploring through some of the groves which still stand between Oakland and Tildenville…

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Along the old Tildenville-Oakland Road, you pass through some very old properties…

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…and the old road pops you out through here onto Oakland’s Starr Street.

SO… anybody up for a bike tour? There’s so much to see in West Orange County!

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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!

The Oakland Nature Preserve

Today I had a meeting at the Oakland Nature Preserve, just west of the little town and hugging the south shore of lake Apopka; you pass it while enjoying the West Orange Trail. The entrance is just down Machete Trail past the Mosaic Community Church, a non-denominational faith community that was established here a few years ago.

There are exhibits, a library, nature trails and a boardwalk path that takes you right to the edge of the lake where you can relax after the walk.

The Friends of Lake Apopka, an advocacy group dedicated to the restoration of the lake, has a presence here at the Preserve, with exhibits and stored records. I met with a young woman named Julia,who taught me a computer program which will help me, as a volunteer,  to scan and digitize paper articles and ephemera  so that they can then be located and studied on the internet. The program is so cool– it scans an article and then automatically includes all the pertinent words in searches: you don’t have to type in keywords unless you want to include relevant words that aren’t originally found in the article. It’s similar to what I’ll also be helping with at the Heritage Museum in Winter Garden.

The Preserve is a beautiful, peaceful place,. The surrounding area is already peaceful enough, even though the Turnpike, the 408 and Highway %0 are within hailing distance. You’d never know it though– all this lush greenery soaks up any noise, and so you get to enjoy a silent and leisurely half-mile stroll down the boardwalk to the lake.

There were some of these blooming today, and a lot budding. And the foliage does resemble marijuana plants!

A bud being investigated by a red-and-white striped insect– what is that?

Here’s a view from the pier end of the boardwalk, facing toward Gourd Neck Springs:

On the Preserve property is this fish camp cabin that they brought here from near Mount Dora. There used to be a lot of fish camps around the lake, but phosphate pollution due to agricultural runoff led to fish die-offs and the end Lake Apopka’s premier fishing.  It’s slowly coming back, though– the big muck farms have been shuttered and the water is slowly purifying itself.

Have you ever noticed the exotic animals at the Briley Farm just past the church? (The Brileys are an old Oakland family.) The farm’s owners have created a place where these animals are collected and bred.

Next time you’re out on the West Orange Trail, take some time to visit the Preserve, yet another facet of fascinating West Orange County.

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

PhotoBike Tour 16– Oakland and West Orange County, Florida

Looking north along Florida’s Turnpike from the bridge on the West Orange Trail. This highway takes you, eventually, to Wildwood, where it meets Interstate 75. Follow 75 north and you will, after a few days, be on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula which is, for all practical purposes, Canada.

OFFSIDES!! Biking the West Orange Trail is an excursion into the past, a central Florida which hasn’t existed for over a hundred years. I don’t think most people realize the pedigree of the little towns and unincorporated communities they speed through on their bikes, skates, or even their feet. It’s great to schuss from the Lake County line east to Winter Garden, where you’ll stop to have lunch or a drink or browse the cool little shops; the direct line keeps you on the Trail, but i wonder how many people actually go offsides? I like to explore, and prowl. I see a dirt road, or a path leading through the orange groves, or a lonely side street… and there I go. I figure I’m on my bike and can make a speedy getaway if somebody starts yelling at me or chasing me, though so far that hasn’t happened in a big way. I respect private property, and seldom venture to intrude: if my curiosity gets the best of me in a potentially tender situation, I collar the nearest human and ask permission to prowl or take pictures. So far, everyone has said yes; there must be something about my face that disarms people. Or maybe they think “look at that poor idiot on his bike… let’s be nice to him.” This past Sunday I biked a good twenty miles or so in and out of Oakland and the communities of Killarney, Tildenville, and Hull island. Hull Island? Yes, Virginia, it exists for real as much as it does in your imagination… Near where the Trail crosses Deer Isle Road is the site of the Jones General Store at Killarney, an area settled in 1880. Here, a sawmill office, post office and general store were sited at various times in one building. You can still see part of the foundation.

This is the Hull Family monument, which you can see to the left of the bridge just after you cross it going east on the Trail. It says that the Hull Family has been here since 1905, which is a long time for central Florida. (The Pirates of the Caribbean ride isn’t even that old.) You are standing in the vicinity of one of the oldest orange groves in the entire state, though most of the trees are gone and you are lucky if you find some orderly rows of remnants. Hull Avenue in Oakland is named for the family.

Have you ever turned left onto Hull Island Drive while traversing the Trail? Here’s what you’ll find:

It’s a region of old groves and farms that have been worked for  generations, a real slice of Old Florida. And there’s an ashram here too– a slice of NEW Florida.

J.W. Jones Road is accessed just past the foundation of the Jones store, and you can easily bike it to the houses and three mobile home communities (Killarney Court, South Shore, and Gourdneck Village) nestled along the south shore of Lake Apopka. There’s a nice view of the lake, and a residence flying the actual flag of the Confederacy, not the battle flag we are all familiar with.

Continuing east, I paused at the rest stop just west of Oakland, and saw how the trees reaching toward the canopy reminded me of the soaring arches in a Gothic cathedral, which is where they got the idea: from observing how the trees kept themselves standing. Get off the Trail at Pollard Avenue and make a right; it’ll take you directly into the heart of the town’s African-American neighborhood. Here’s where a Masonic Temple stood up until just a few months ago on Sadler Avenue…

Here’s the non-updated image of the Masonic Temple from Google Earth:

I stopped a woman driving by and she explained that there were only a couple of old guys who still went to the Lodge, and that one had recently died, and so that was that.

There are three cemeteries in Oakland– one for white families and two for black families; it’s just the way it has always been.  (The older of the two black cemeteries is hidden in the dense growth west of town, only recently having been “discovered.”) In the white cemetery is the marker for James Gamble Speer, one of the area’s pioneer settlers. He and his family used to all be interred in the family plot on the north shore of Lake John, south of Tubb Street. When the property was sold to a developer, he removed all the headstones, piled them in a corner, and built houses atop the plots. James Gamble Speer (1821-1893) would NOT approve, and I hope he gives them all hell once in a while.

Here’s approximately where the Speer cemetery was located, south of Tubb Street; you go across the bridge that crosses over the Turnpike, and you’re at Lake Johns Circle. I walked through a belt of trees between two houses, and there was the lake. Southwest from here and across the lake is a peninsula which still does have a cemetery on it, nestled in the remaining orange grove.

The black cemetery serves as the final resting place for Samuel Pollard, for whom the street is named. And look… somebody brought him some sandwiches! I noticed a dirt track leading around the northern border of the cemetery, and so I decided to follow it, carefully. I mean, you never know what you will encounter among the trees. All sorts of possibilities entered my feverish brain, most of them ending dimly, but I was spared; I did see some piles of tires, assorted mounds of refuse, but nothing worse. I suppose people use it as a dump driving up off of Highway 50, from which you can see this cemetery. Sad. This path eventually popped me out onto Sadler Avenue, right where the Masonic Temple used to stand. I biked further east to the Vick house on Tubb Street, which used to be an Oakland schoolhouse for a time. It’s apparently the oldest home in Oakland, built as an inn in the 1860s. It became the Vick home in 1903. Beautiful and simple. A bit further east you come to Brock Street… here’s a gem of a house, perfect in its lines and aspect. It bears a resemblance to a home on Tildenville School Road South on Tildenville School Road, just north of where it crosses Oakland Avenue (438) sits this grand old house built in 1908. It was situated cater-corner of its present site until the 1990s when it was sold; the family let it go for a song and the new buyer had to move it to a new lot– thankfully minutes away, since it IS an Oakland grande dame and should therefore have been allowed to stay in the neighborhood. The present owners were on the front porch and graciously answered questions I had about the area, and then they magically invited me inside. (Do I channel Little Jimmy? Does he make an appearance and charm everyone?) I’d been in the house when it was being sold years ago– there was an estate sale then– and I remember it seeming very enclosed regarding rooms and hallways. The house is now so different– structural walls have been opened up, and everything is painted a bright white. Brick Road ends here at Tildenville School Road, a pleasant country lane that goes east to Winter Garden. (Actually, the Winter Garden city limits encompass Tildenville now). Brick Road is a remnany of Highway 22, which crossed the center of the state; Washington Street in Orlando was part of it, as was Story Road in Winter Garden– once also known as Washington Street until it was renamed for the Story family.

This home is located on Brick Road; it was built by a Willis and occupied at one time by Annie Connell, who taught at the old Oakland-Winter Garden School across the way.

Now we travel to south Tildenville, an African-American community separated from north Tildenville by Highway 50 and the Turnpike. The road becomes Avalon Road here. Just past the Turnpike overpass, on the left going south, you’ll find the entrance to the “West Orange, Country Club.” It was built in 1911 by the Mather-Smiths, a prominent Oakland family who found the existing golfing facilities in town too small– the Mather-Smiths loved to party, so they built their own country club and had a ball. All that remains is this archway. (UPDATE: See comments section regarding the existence of the Club’s guest house.)

I love the name: the O Deli.

Back in Oakland, I biked to the Presbyterian church (its third incarnation), hoping to get inside to see the preserved stained glass windows from the second church, which was a beautiful, ivy-covered brick building. It was Sunday afternoon, and services were over, and I wondered how I’d manage. Hmm. An older guy appeared after a few minutes to take down an Easter banner, and I asked about access. Well, everything was closed, services over , the building hermetically sealed, the works… and so I mentioned the stained glass and the guy said “oh yes, right through that church office door, and that’s open.” Oh. So inside I went, and there was this window… and there’s our man James Gamble Speer…

In that lobby area where this window is located, a man and his two young sons were sitting and waiting for someone; he saw me observing the window and mentioned that there was another one down a hall and in another office area. In that direction I could hear a string ensemble practicing, so I followed the sound of the sliding bow and came across a group of people playing in a room off the hall. They all stopped  and looked up as I looked in– the door was open, and their resin  ground to a halt. I was tempted to ask to join them on the flute, or perhaps the tuba, but before I could the conductor, an elegant older woman, asked if I needed help. I mentioned the second stained glass window and one of the ensemblists jumped up and offered to show me where it was. We had to go through the darkened sanctuary, where I almost stumbled into the older guy I’d encountered earlier: “I managed to find my way in here anyway,” I said, and he looked at me like I was crazy, but he did take me to the second window as the ensemblist returned to his practice… and here you see noted our friends the Tildens!

And finally, the Sadler house, built by the family who gives its name to Sadler Avenue. This was also once the house of artist Joe Burch. It receives a memorable Hallowe’en dressing each year. Right here along the road (Oakland Avenue / 438) are the Sadler oaks, planted by the family and now just as much a part of Oakland as the orange groves.

The next time you’re on the West Orange Trail, take a few detours and explore the historical offsides areas– these are sleepy parts of west Orange County that not many people get to see.

Thanks to Steve Rajtar and Eve Bacon for historical footnotes that lead me to these spots…