West Orange County History Posts


The people! The history! Working out here in West Orange County is a history buff’s dream come true. Here are some pictures that we’ve run recently on the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation Facebook page.

First off, here’s our Historic Marker, which stands at Woodland and Plant streets at the eastern entrance to downtown:




Going through the archives, we often encounter particularly striking images. Here’s a dramatic view of Lakeview High School. Alumnae, check in with your class year!


The history! The people!
While researching an article on Fullers Crossing, the old agricultural community northeast of Winter Garden, we unearthed a newspaper piece about Mrs. Mary Dale. Beginning in 1919, she lived on the property known locally as “Deadman’s Curve,” which is where North Fuller’s Crossroad makes an extreme right turn and becomes East Fullers Crossroad. Before the road was cut through and improved in the late 1920s, which included a wooden bridge spanning a creek, Mrs. Dale said “the only reason people drove up here was to come and see me.” Mrs. Dale is shown second from left in this gathering of ladies honoring Mrs. Phil Peters for the latter’s work at Winter Garden’s First United Methodist Church.
L to R: Margaret (Mrs. Bill Story), Mary (Mrs. Neal) Dale, Laura (Mrs. J. S.) Kirton [long-serving principal of Lakeview High School], (Charman of arrangements), Billy (Mrs. Bob) Davis, Madge (Mrs. Phil C.) Peters, Murphy (Mrs. L.W.) Tilden.


The Hawthorne Grove care barn fire occurred on August 18, 1975. The building was located off Broad Street behind the former First State Bank on South Dillard St. in Winter Garden, and was rented from H.M. Bowness of Ocoee. The Winter Garden Fire Department was assisted by the Ocoee Fire Department to help quell the flames.
Pictured are Fire Chief Jim Briggs (center) and Mike Spears (second from right). The other firefighters are not identified.



Welcome back to school from the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation!
The first schoolhouse in Winter Garden was built in the 1890s on the northwest corner of what is now Park Avenue and State Road 50, on land homesteaded by J.W.F. Bray in 1880. Consider yourselves lucky, kids: this school didn’t come with air conditioning!
By 1929, it was a private home lived in by Beulah’s Gillard family. Twenty years later it was moved to the South Tildenville neighborhood, though it no longer stands.


State Road 438 through Oakland was once a quiet country byway, and nowadays you might miss this Oakland gem constructed by the Orange Belt Railway company in the late 1880s. It is one of four residences still standing that were built to house company employees. The house, photographed here in 1986, exhibits many of the architectural details characteristic of the Carpenter Gothic style popular at the time. It is known historically as the “Pierson home,” named for Datus L. Pierson (1855-1914), its first owner. He was one of the founders of the South Lake Apopka Citrus Growers Association, the agricultural cooperative whose buildings still stand on Tildenville School Road at the West Orange Trail. Pierson is buried in the Oakland Cemetery, located a half mile west of the house.



The Old and New Around Orlando’s Lake Eola


I haven’t blogged much lately. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in writing; my job at the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation involves a lot of writing, and I still take tons of photos as I wander and document West Orange County. Working as much as I do now has me staring fleetingly at my bicycle as I pass it where it stands perched in our living room, and I wonder when I’m going to go on another PhotoBike Tour. I’ve walked, though; downtown Winter Garden is just a few miles east of the area I’ve been documenting lately– Oakland and Tildenville and an area informally known as Brayton, which used to be a railroad stop where Brayton Road meets the railroad tracks. There were fertilizer plants here, and a packing house; if you’ve ridden the West Orange Trail and seen the building with the Seminoles logo on its roof- that’s Brayton; that building was once the Diamond R (Roper family) fertilizer plant. Cater corner to that, across the trail, is where the Bray packing house stood (the 1914 piers are still in the woods), which later became the Hall family fertilizer plant; if you peer closely at the picture below, you’ll see two of the piers. They sleep quietly in what looks very much like a jungle today, though this area was hopping with activity for many decades.


It was beautiful enough this morning to visit downtown Orlando, where Kirk usually goes every weekend for a walk with friends. Occasionally join them, though not always; I like to retain my air of exclusivity, feeling that my rare appearances will only be that much more appreciated. This morning, after a snack at the very delightful Le Gourmet Break on Magnolia Avenue (perfect French pastries), we headed to Lake Eola to have a walk and to tour the remaining house on Washington Street- you’ll recall the recent imbroglio regarding the demolition of homes in the block across the street from the park’s playground. The house at the head of this blog post was saved, and rehabilitated for a few hundred thousand dollars. It will serve as a community center and event rental facility. It was built in 1930 according to the OCPA site, and we’re very glad that it’s been saved. Here are a few shots of the mansion:


This window located at a landing halfway up the stairs to the second floor brightens up the center of the house.


Here’s a view of the park from an upstairs porch.


On a wall inside, a large postcard blow-up depicts the original Lake Eola bandshell.


Another view of the exterior.

The floors have all been refinished, and everything is fresh and clean and ready to receive guests in its new incarnation. There were lots of visitors, and plenty of city guides to answer questions and hand out literature. What would be a welcome addition, however: some sort of researched handout that details the lives of the families who built and occupied the house over the years. I love finding out about all that!

We followed our tour of the house with a turn around the lake, noting the remarkable rise in the swan population. I tell you, there are more than ever. When we exited the house, they handed us bags of swan food, and it’s like they’d been alerted to the fact: dozens of them were congregating at the water’s edge, waiting for us to sprinkle pellets into the water. They would nudge one another, sometimes lashing out with their beaks, as they vied for diving space. How come swans portrayed in movies and on greeting cards are always so benign? They’re actually snappish, impatient creatures. As I sprinkled my pellets like some latter-day version of St. Francis with his sparrows,I imagined myself starring in a movie called “The Swans,” in which I am pursued across hill and dale by these birds. They don’t move that quickly, and neither do I anymore, so picture endless sequences featuring this tableaux in slow motion, filmed with a lens shrouded in gossamer fabric. (Sort of like Lucy in “Mame.”)


As you walk around the lake, you might find yourself stepping in time with these guys… that’s daniel at the right,  entrepreneur at Kombucha!


And, finally, a stop for rye and ciabatta from Denny at the Sweet Traditions Bakery table at the Farmer’s Market.

What I like about the park is that so many different groups of people use it comfortably with one another. It’s a great urban space, made even more accessible by the intelligent use of a house that could just as easily have been demolished.

Umanhattans in Umatilla with the Girls

I’ve made reference to my friend Becky on this blog site. She’s related to just about everybody in Florida who’s been here forever, and so you have to be real careful what you say to her: there’s a cousin under every bush. We recently went to find one of her ancestors in Geneva, and a couple of weeks ago we set out to find some more– this time in Umatilla.

Umatilla is an ancient Florida town located way up north of Orlando on the fringes of the Ocala National Forest. To get there you find 441 through Apopka, and then avail yourself of the Eustis By-Pass. That sounds rather like open heart surgery, doesn’t it? But I love Eustis; the By-Pass actually takes you thorough some beautiful farm country. After bypassing Eustis in a nice way, you get on 44A and then 19 north to Umatilla.

Now, Becky had told us that there were plantation houses in her family, but we weren’t quite prepared for The Palms… you can just about hear Melanie Wilkes opening the back doors onto the porch at Twelve Oaks and saying “I love it as more than a house… it’s a whole world that just wants to be graceful and beautiful.” And then Ashley takes her in his arms and kisses her in a cinematic moment of innocence and foreshadowing. Smash cut to Scarlett sitting under a tree surrounded by a dozen randy bloods: “I’m glad I sat here instead of at a table… a girl’s got only two sides at a table!”

The lady of the house, Becky’s Cousin Sister, is just as gracious and beautiful as the home she lives in. That day she was getting ready to root for the Gators on TV with her friend Dixie, both of them proudly wearing the orange and the blue. Sister let us roam up and down the two stories, poking into rooms and basking in the sheer simple beauty of The Palms.

Yes, I go into people’s homes and photograph their mixers. Someday the Umatilla Historical Society is going to be wanting a photo of this!

In the neighborhood of this fabulous house, which is situated downtown, you’ll find this old Methodist church, now occupied by another sect. You see it pictured in just about any historic treatise dedicated to Umatilla, and it was built in 1922. Methodist churches are always so solidly-built, as they plan on sticking around for a very long time.

Later we drove north to the family camp on Lake Beakman, which is quite a distance away. We drove through Altoona and Pittman, Linda and I glancing at one another in the car as the sky darkened. On either side of us, nothing but banks of trees and green isolation… … and then Sister says something to us like “there are still plenty of people living in these woods.” Which immediately brings to mind every horror movie you’ve ever seen. But, we were well taken care of. We weren’t dragged from the car by triple third cousins intent on introducing us to the rest of the family.

Beautiful Lake Beakman.

There’s a wonderful little restaurant called the Blackwater Inn on the St. John’s River just east of the camp, in Astor, just below Lake George. (Daytona Beach was due east as the crow flies.) We watched a rain shower sweep toward the big glass windows and had a couple of drinks to top off the ones we’d had earlier at The Tavern in Umatilla, which was another type of place entirely.

The Tavern has a sign on its front door imploring  bikers to refrain from displaying their colors while inside the joint. That was our first reminder that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. The second reminder was a karaoke set-up, thankfully shut down for daytime or I would have been up there crooning, after my two “Manhattans,” everything that Tammy Wynette ever recorded. And she’s a girl.

Our little boy is four years old and quite a little man
So we spell out the words we don’t want him to understand
Like T.O.Y or maybe S.U.R.P.R.I.S.E
But the words we’re hiding from him now
Tear the heart right out of me.

Our D.I.V.O.R.C.E becomes final today
Me and little J.O.E will be goin’ away
I love you both and it will be pure H.E double L for me
Oh, I wish that we could stop this D.I.V.O.R.C.E.

Watch him smile, he thinks it Christmas
Or his 5th Birthay
And he thinks C.U.S.O.T.D.Y spells fun or play
I spell out all the hurtin’ words
And turn my head when I speak
‘Cause I can’t spell a way this hurt
That’s drippin’ down my cheek.

Our D.I.V.O.R.C.E becomes final today
Me and little J.O.E will be goin’ away
I love you both and it will be pure H.E double L for me
Oh, I wish that we could stop this D.I.V.O.R.C.E.

Right? Even before the first refrain, I would have been tied to a motorcycle muffler and given an involuntary tour of Umatilla– from the ground up– past the car parts emporium and the Collins Building that’s being restored, around the square, and finally deposited in the parking lot of the feed store.

Let me tell you about those Manhattans. First, let me begin by saying that I and my friends are in no way elitist; we love everyone and treat everyone according to our political and societal mores. That said, our waitress at The Tavern– smiling, big-hearted, friendly– came to take our drink orders. A Maker’s Mark Manhattan straight up for me and Becky, and a Ketel One Martini (very dry) for Linda, with a twist. I tell you, the friendly light blinked out in our server’s  eyes, replaced by a haze of unknowing, but she brought our drink orders to the bar and started to make them with much clattering, fizzing, and ice picking. She hollered over to us at one point and asked which kind of glasses we wanted, and we chose martini glasses. But.

Time passed. The other waitress finally stopped by and whispered conspiratorily that SHE would be making our drinks: what were they again? Becky and I eventually got our Manhattans: straight up bourbon on the rocks, with lemon slices and straws; no vermouth; no cherry. Linda’s turned out to be just vodka on the rocks, with lemon. Was there a straw? I have no recollection.

And we ordered another round, with nary a complaint. Why complain? The cycles and the chains were parked just a few yards away, their owners seated mere feet from our cynical backs.

Through a Manhattan glass… darkly.

… and we tipped very well.

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!

Exploring John’s Lake, West Orange County, Florida: Keeping Oranges Warm, Osama bin Laden’s Brother, and A Vanished Family Estate

West Highway 50 in the 80s was a dusty four-lane road that stretched from Orlando all the way out to a community called Bayport. I’m not romanticizing– it really was dusty, especially in the low areas near Winter Garden and Oakland that were so flood-prone; after the water from the four o’clock summer thunderstorms steamed off, your car the following morning would kick up clouds of sand and dirt that had washed onto the road from the surrounding groves and vegetable fields.  I used to pore over maps and photostats from the library, looking at property plats, determining what was public and what was private, just so I could go exploring in relative safety. I had to know what all those fascinating map symbols on the State Topographic maps meant: was there really a country church there along the roadside, or an ancient cemetery, or an abandoned barn? And the roads had names and varying gradations of dotted lines, covering all possibilities from “Highway with full control or access” to “primitive” and “impassable” roads. What did they mean by primitive? I had to find out, and so there I drove. “Seasonal dwellings closely spaced.” Boy, was I intrigued!

Just south of an area where they crammed hundreds of pseudo-palazzos into former orange groves that froze in the 1980s you’ll find John’s Lake. You’ll find it written in many ways– Johns Lake, Lake Johns, Lake John– but I and Google Earth agree that John’s Lake is the nicest. Before Google, we had to depend on the aforementioned maps, and road atlases that you’d find at the 7-11. My favorite was the Official Arrow Central Florida Street Map Atlas, published in 1976. Apparently based on much older maps, it lists every community that ever even thought of sprouting up in the area. Lots of old and forgotten train sidelines are listed; thinking they were tiny towns, I’d drive to, say, Neheb, Iowa City, or Kolokee, and find myself in the celery fields surrounding Sanford. You’d think a locality named Iowa City would contain a main street, a post office, and maybe a movie theatre showing Harold Lloyd movies… but no. It was all celery.

This atlas, on a two-page spread, mapped the area just south of Lake Apopka which drew me, probably because I wanted to see how close I could get to the lake. Lots of communities were shown: Killarney, Oakland, Tildenville, Winter Garden, Crown Point, Fullers, Ocoee… Gotha, Beulah. I did them all, happily taking photos of everything I saw– and so much of it is gone these past twenty-five years. I did get to see the lake, from Oakland and Magnolia Park and Winter Garden. Since the reclamation project hadn’t yet started, the air above it was cloudy and the water itself was an unhealthy-looking mucky green. It didn’t look inviting.

One area that intrigued me was something called the Williams Cemetery, situated on a peninsula that poked out into John’s Lake from its south shore. I found out that Williams Road led to it, and so I went out there. In those days you had to go south on Avalon Road from Tildenville, past the gates of the abandoned West Orange Country Club, past the Harlem Heights migrant labor camp, and then west on Marsh Road. Williams Road goes north from Marsh, just a minute east of the Lake County line. I discovered that it petered out into a dirt road marked Private, and so I hesitated to venture further. I still wanted to see how close I could get to John’s Lake, so I went a bit down another dirt road with no sign, near the Lake County border, and captured this scene:

That’s John’s Lake from a spot just a few feet north of Marsh Road.

Okay. Fast forward to last week. I was still intrigued by the Williams Cemetery out on John’s Lake. The internet is a wonderful thing and so I went to the Orange County Property Appraiser’s site, pulled up the map, and saw that the peninsula and much of the area was owned and farmed by a local citrus growing corporation. Their office is in Oakland, in the first Charles H. Tilden house. (Those Tildens keep turning up!) All I had to do was call, explain who I was, and why I wanted to go prowling on their property. And the doors opened! The gentleman I spoke said he’d have one of the grove managers call me and arrange a meeting out there, and the manager called a few minutes later and said he’d be happy to give me a tour. Just like that!

We met at 8:30 on a Thursday morning, not too hot yet, and I hopped into his four-wheel-drive all-purpose-vehicle truck as nimbly as I could without spraining anything. In a minute we were driving down Williams Road, and I relished the moment when we rumbled past the Private Everything signs. I was in!

Maps can be wrong– it wasn’t the Williams Cemetery, it was really the Eli Williamson Family Cemetery. There was once a Williamson house out here, but all that’s left is a patch of grass, the foundations of what was once the house’s garage, and the family cemetery.

The home site.

The garage site.

This huge live oak is right next to the cemetery.

My escort and I couldn’t find the  dogwood tree; we identified a couple of possibilities, but nothing was blooming… maybe next spring we’ll go back. (And there are Shupes in the Oakland Cemetery, incidentally.)

And here are some of the Williamsons:

Chase was only too happy to drive me all over the peninsula, and I received a crash course in citrus farming and management. All that strange machinery you see in orange groves? Now I know what it’s for. These prop fans keep groves relatively warm in the event of a freeze– they create an updraft which helps prevent cold air from settling down too close to the trees. Someone’s got to climb up there and oil the works once a year or so.

Here’s a row of adult-sized Tonka toys that are still used on occasion…

At one point on the peninsula, a large home across the lake was pointed out to me. I realized I was staring at the lakefront view of what was once Osama bin Laden’s brother’s compound; he bought the 1928 Mediterranean-style mansion some years ago, but was escorted out with his family on 9/11. It’s in a gated compound just south of Highway 50, and is for sale.

Only in west Orange County can you learn how to keep orange trees warm AND see Osama bin laden’s brother’s former stomping grounds. It just depends on who you know…

PhotoBike Tour 15: Random Shots, and More Key West

Sometimes I’ll bike for hours and not even do a post, or I’ll take a million photos and use… three. It all depends on my mood, as I can morph from crazed enthusiasm to apathetic ennui in seconds. I think it has to do with sugar levels, endorphins, and cream cheese– whatever’s coursing through my system at any given time. Like, it’s not a good idea to load up on carbs before, say, a funeral Mass, because you’ll crash fall asleep just when the eulogy begins; you’ll wake up in the cemetery under a tree, wondering how you got there, and asking yourself who all those people are dressed in black? OH!

Sometimes I’ll take a photograph of something that profoundly affected me, and all sorts of captions, descriptions and references will pop into my head. And often, by the time I get home, I’ve forgotten everything. I’ll stare at the photo and wonder just where in hell THAT was taken. Luckily I have resorted to taking along a notebook and maps , though i am working on remembering to take along something to write with.

Here’s a shot of the altar at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, which is located on the grounds of the retirement village over in Slavia, an old settlement strung out along Aloma Avenue in Seminole County. This little brick church was built in 1939 and cost just under $7500. One of its stained glass windows depicts Jan Hus being burned at the stake for heresy. I avow as to how tragic and unnecessary that was. And the irony is that this Lutheran church belongs to a branch of Lutheranism called the Missouri Synod, which is very conservative and very close to Roman Catholicism’s sacramentals: hence the crucifix. It’s not that I’m particularly religious, but the whole topic of comparative religions fascinates me; I’m currently reading a book called Jews and Mormons– Two Houses of Israel, co-written by a Mormon and a Jew. It’s fascinating how they get after each other over fine points of doctrine and practice. Mormons believe that the indigenous peoples on the American continents are descended from Jews who took a boat over here in about 600 B.C. They also have a publication called The Pearl of Great Price, which includes alleged translations by Joseph Smith of things that were written on a traveling circus mummy’s papyrus wrappings; Smith calls this the Book of Abraham, and you can imagine what the Jewish guy must think about that.

I didn’t take the picture above. A reader of my blog sent it after I posted something about an old house I was trying to locate on State Highway 50 in Ridge Manor, north of Dade City. I remembered passing it a couple of times, but couldn’t remember exactly where it was. I always imagined it to be a decaying Southern colonial mansion, a leftover from the mid-nineteenth century, but it’s actually relatively new– just in not such great shape, but I was informed that the owner is attempting to fix it up. It’s a nice reminder of Gone with the Wind’s Twelve Oaks, which is where Ashley Wilkes lived. Scarlett O’Hara had an unnaturally strong erotic attraction to him– it must have been the sight of his blond frame straddling his horse– and also the scene of her first encounter with Rhett Butler. My favorite scene at Twelve Oaks is when Scarlett alights from her carriage on barbecue day, spies India Wilkes in a tacky brown velvet hoop-skirted gown, and trills “why India Wilkes! I just love that dress! I can’t take my eyes off it!” And India smiles her thanks, even though the two of them can’t stand one another. Then Scarlett sweeps into the house in search of Ashley, sees him with his intended, Melanie, and proceeds to slice and dice his fiancée with a series of backhanded compliments which have no effect on Melanie because she’s so GOOD.
Here’s an old brick building in Winter Garden,  one of my favorite areas to poke around in. That whole region south of Lake Apopka is crammed with history and remnants: Winter Garden, Oakland, Tildenville, Beulah, Killarney… it’s easy to get lost on the back roads and not see anything that reminds you of the 21st. century. There used also to be a migrant labor camp around there called Harlem Heights, but it’s gone.
Here are some power pylons marching through a field in rural Seminole County. If you look at this area on Google Earth, you can see a definite rectangular swath rammed through the area in order to support the power grid. They come very close to Saints Peter and Paul  on Old Howell Branch Road, and I swear you can feel these things humming and buzzing. Maybe that’s just my imagination; maybe I also stand in the yard late at night, waving a flashlight and hoping that the aliens come and take me away for a springtime tour of The Outer Planets. There’s one member of this household who believes strongly in Bigfoot; I’m not gonna say exactly who, but he always tells me that I’m going to look out the bedroom window one night and see one of those creatures staring back in at us.
Here’s a little barbershop in Goldenrod. It reminds me of the place I used to go to in Brooklyn, up the street and across Fort Hamilton Parkway. A guy with hairy arms gave haircuts, and he was eventually replaced by a dark Italian named Tony, complete with oiled hair and a mustache. I always thought he was going to tie me to the railroad tracks. I used to hope that I’d have to wait a little while so that I could sit and read the wrinkled magazines he had stacked on a little table. There were always copies of Playboy, which fascinated me. What I would do was slowly and sneakily try to hide the copy of Playboy inside a copy of Life magazine, which took a while to maneuver, and usually by that time the barber would be shouting “NEXT!!” But sometimes I was able to sit there and read, and I learned a lot from Playboy– most importantly that nobody looks good in a leisure suit, no matter how enticing the ads.
In Key West, this “peace bell” graces the West Martello Museum and Gardens. There’s a little plaque right there, saying something about peace and brotherhood, and so I felt compelled to pull the rope and ring that bell. Little did I know that they also ring that bell in order to let the volunteers know that it’s lunch time, as evidenced a few minutes later when the bell was rung by someone in charge and a calm stampede ensued; I had only succeeded in confusing everyone.
Here’s a place in Key West that apparently is “on hold.” It reminds me, actually, of certain houses in Brooklyn located in certain neighborhoods. Certain families have to live close to their business interests, and so the money is put into the house. After awhile there’s just so much you can do with the house, so they add things like marble balustrades, blue tile roofs, plaster dogs and dragons, and shiny, chrome fences. Soon these houses look like Chinese restaurants.
Soon I will be traveling to Geneva with Becky, and I’ve got to start my Polk County excursions as well though, with gasoline so expensive, I wonder how I’m going to do that. Polk County is HUGE, and there’s so much to unearth…

The Back Roads of Sorrento, Bay Ridge, and Mount Dora

The high N-R-G intersection of Brooklyn and Vine in downtown Sorrento.

Our friend Tyson is here on his annual visit from Philadelphia, and today we did some touring up through the more remote, rural areas of Orange and Lake Counties.

Why, you ask, did I not take him to Disney, Sea World, EPCOT, the Holy Land Experience? Been there, done that, and we have already memorized all sixty-three verses to It’s A Small World. And we won’t be going back to EPCOT until they come up with another country– Kreplachia deserves a pavilion, doesn’t it? The traditional nude folk dancing alone would draw crowds!

So, we set out for distant environs, mainly because I had to pick up the bag of clothes that we’d left in Jon and John’s car after our drive back from Key West this past Wednesday. They live up in Sorrento with horses, cats and a dog.

These are the horses:

We didn’t tarry long; we had places to go, and (dead) people to see. Who, you ask? Well, since Tyson is an expert on the Victorian-style cemetery embodied by such grandeur as The Green-Wood in Brooklyn and Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, he was open to traipsing with me through sand spurs, brush, thorn vines, and the like. Crumbling ruins, abandoned mental institutions, rusting industrial areas? He’s there! I like people who are game; I’m so often solo while making these jaunts that it was a nice change to have someone in the car who is as interested in the rotting and obscure as I am.

The Suttons– friends and lovers through all eternity, though she’s been waiting on him for over fifteen years so far. I picture her waiting at the Celestial Malt Shop, cradling an ice cream soda with two straws. The Sorrento Cemetery is nice: well kept, it contains a lot of the area’s early settlers. A lot of people think it’s morbid to have such a pleasant time in cemeteries, but people of Italian extraction think of them as way stations, a way to keep our departed loved ones in sight until we join them on the A Train to glory. Or Cleveland, if something goes awry.

“Let’s go down this road,” I would say to Tyson, and he would agree. As long as there’s no sign telling me NO TRESPASSING, or GUARD DOG ON DUTY, I march forward, thankful however for the safety of my car’s interior. The more rutted a road is, the more curious I grow. And this is what we saw around a bend. I believe this is situated in the John Puder Yard, but I have no idea what these buildings contain. Oats? Soylent Green? Taffeta? It’s very silent here and, it being a Saturday, there was nobody to chase us away. Still, there were no GET OUT NOW signs, so I went. This reminds me of First Avenue in Brooklyn, near Lutheran Medical Center; when visiting an uncle in that hospital in 2010, I became fascinated with the rusting infrastructure hugging the  waterfront.

As we continued through the back roads of Sorrento, Tyson spotted a railroad crossing sign on the south side of State Road 46, and his pulse raced; he’s a railroad man, having worked for Amtrak and Auto Train in the past, as well as working as a consultant regarding the restoration of old train cars.  So down the street we go, and we see this rusted set of cars parked along the tracks, practically hidden in the woods.

The string of cars spilts here; turning west, we found a path running alongside the rest of the train. Here there were chickens, and all sorts of flying bugs and, I figured, chiggers. (We were lucky.)

When I see a sign that says Church Street, I assume that, at one time or another, it led to a church; taking Church Street in Sorrento south took us to this little wooden gem…

On to Mount Dora. If you’ll recall, I blogged a day here with my sister and brother-in-law when they came up here from Port St. Lucie to look at wedding venues for his daughter. Today we made a quick tour of this little village, and it was rife with tourists buying things like calico cats stuffed with potpourri. That’s all good for the economy, but we did sniff around for some local history. We walked the mournful railroad tracks, sadly deteriorating since the little dinner tarin was discontinued; what a boon to light rail this line could be… but here’s Tyson, tracing a path back to the past.

We couldn’t decide if this house was a ruin or if was occupied; if it was occupied, it was occupied no doubt by a lot of cats.

On a hill outside of Mount Dora, just before you get back on U.S. Highway 441, is the Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church, established in 1896. Apparently they still hold services, though we were at a loss as to exactly what it is that Primitive Baptists believe in. Today they had some screen doors lined up for sale, I know not why, and I can’t tell you what all the rocks are for either. Is the Bible set in stone? On this rock I will build My church? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone? Who can say?

Our next stop was the Bay Ridge Cemetery, east of Mount Dora and south of Sorrento. As most of you know, I grew up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, though my block is considered part of Dyker Heights since they rammed the Interstate 278 expressway through the neighborhood. I was surprised, years ago, to discover Bay Ridge, Florida, which consists of a few concrete block homes and this cemetery. Overgrown and forgotten, it’s hidden from the road and bordered by properties containing rusted barns and barking dogs (thankfully behind fences).

This is the Goding plot:

This is a steel headstone from 1937, its legend formed with solder… W. T. Gunn was two days old.

Flush with history, nettles, and all manner of dust, we returned home as an approaching storm settled in over Lake Ola; this is a view from Tangerine.

There were hundreds and hundreds of motorcycles converging on nearby Zellwood as we drove past; was there some kind of Harley confab that I wasn’t aware of? And why wasn’t I contacted? I can ride with the best of them, after all.

St. Cloud… and Narcoossee

How do YOU pronounce St. Cloud? If you’re used to having lunch in the shadows of the Eiffel Tower, your say Sahn Cloo; otherwise, if you’re like me, you say Saint Cloud. Either way, it’s a long drive from my house, and I’m reminded of it every time I drive Aloma Avenue in Goldenrod, which is where this sign is posted. It used to say NARCOOSSEE and ASHTON, but Ashton has apparently been blanketed over with suburbs. You can find a little bit of Narcoossee, though, on the way down Highway 15.

I decided to do just that the other day after fulfilling my morning obligations. S.R.15 is Goldenrod Road and it wends its way north and south from Belle Glade, down by Lake Okeechobee, all the way up to the Georgia line.  It’s all over the place in the Orlando-Winter Park area, but takes you through some interesting old neighborhoods. I decided to take it to St. Cloud, as I hadn’t been there since 1978. I figure everyone should visit St. Cloud every thirty-three years or so, just to see if anything has changed.

I tell you, the way down is under MUCH construction, being transformed into a major 4-lane highway (six lanes in some areas), which is a far cry from the two-lane road I remember. It’s very developed now– you see CVS Drugstores popping up in the middle of nowhere– and there’s not much green left , though you can see some while driving 60 MPH and taking pictures through the windshield. (I know, I know.)

After many miles– about 20, according to the sign– you arrive in what is very possibly downtown Narcoossee: some stores, a gas station, a fire station, and this odd little building that resembles a church. According to the Osceola County tax records, the county owns it; it’s part of the Old Narcoossee tract. I was dying to go inside, but… you never know. I think the fire department actually uses it for storage, and you know how they get when you trespass. I was being watched from another car while I took pictures– it pulled up a few spaces from me in the lot I parked in– and I wondered if I was going to be brought in to the hoosegow.

There was a short story I read, years ago, about a traveling salesman who drives into a typical small town A big banner stretched across the main street advertises a  town barbecue to be held that night. He gets caught in a speed trap and is brought into the police station, and left in a room until they can process him. While he’s waiting, the room becomes hotter and hotter and hotter… Yes, you guessed it! Spare ribs!

I got back into the safety of my air-conditioned Ford Focus and continued south, and soon encountered more construction. Surprise! They’re widening 15 even down here, but that didn’t stop me from threading my way through Bob’s Barricades in order to explore the little streets that lead west. One of them, Chisholm Park Road, takes you to a recreational area situated on the eastern shore of East Lake Tohopekaliga, and I was the only visitor. Nice!

It’s a Fish Management Area, and a good place to launch boats onto the lake. There are all sorts of signs telling you what you can and can’t do, which sort of litter the shore, but there you have it. Still, it’s really beautiful, and peaceful. You can smell the marsh and the fresh air, and it’s completely silent. Your pulse slows down as you breathe deeply, and you want to stay all day. If you’re reading this at work, stop for a few minutes and look at this picture:

I made my way to St. Cloud by way of Rummell Road, which skirts the old settlement of Runnymede and then connects to Lakeshore Drive via a dog leg at Mississippi Avenue. I love the fact that practically all of the north-south streets in town are named after the states; almost a hundred years ago, when they were establishing St. Cloud as a haven for Civil War veterans, the streets were named for the states from where the veterans hailed. And that’s the feeling I got, even before I read about the veterans: sleepy old folks dozing on benches, exactly who I saw along with the usual 21st. century demographic.  Granted, today’s veterans are most likely from the Korean and Vietnam “adventures.” And we had our own adventures, stateside: poignantly and sadly, the 1939 WPA Guide to Florida says that “Negroes have always been excluded from St. Cloud,” which probably explains why less than ten percent of the current residents are of African-American descent.

Even though a large Crabby Dick’s seafood restaurant has been built on the lake’s shore, there’s still a sense of quiet here that’s even more pronounced along the streets in town. I think the lake absorbs any real noise. The houses and downtown shops all seem to be resting in the sun, waiting for something to happen. And while you’re waiting, you can drive slowly along and look at some very interesting buildings.

A lot of the houses look as though they’d been constructed by a contractor who gor a discount on a large shipment of porch columns– you see these on a lot of houses in St. Cloud. There are also a lot of little Spanish-style stucco cottages.

The house below reminds me af a brooding old dowager, proud of herself for having lived so long, and turning her confident face to the street for everyone to see.  (And notice the porch columns.)

This remarkable little building is in the downtown business district; it’s the Chamber of Commerce and welcome center. I’m surprised I didn’t go inside and bother everyone with questions and introductions, and then coming away with shopping bags filled with brochures and information. The people inside these places are usually so happy for some company, even from strangers like myself, but I dunno… I wasn’t in the mood.

Along the western reaches of Lakeshore Drive you’ll find a slice of property where it’s Good Friday 365 days a year. And why does Jesus get the yellow cross? Is it sort of a nod to the whole yellow ribbon thing?

Also along Lakeshore Drive, this very attractive vernacular house, inexplicably fronted with a modern pink door.

The main street downtown, which leads to a modern city hall; the Hunter Arms Hotel; and two striking homes.

Did they paint the house that bright yellow in order to contrast nicely with the refuse container?

I love this place; it reminds me of the place Joan Crawford lived in during the opening scenes of Mildred Pierce, before she became a restaurant tycoon.

Probably the best way to see the town is to strap a bicycle onto the car and then wend your way slowly up and down along the streets. You don’t even have to go down to U.S. Highway 192, which forms the southern border and leads to the crowds and screams of International Drive. This is definitely a place designed to soothe the soul and put you to slumber– just ask all those veterans dozing along the lake.

A Day at Daytona Beach

You don’t hear much about Daytona Beach these days. I mean, it’s there, but not in the way you might recall hearing about during its halcyon days as a spring break destination; in 1985, Florida was forced to enact strong minimum-age drinking laws in order to quell damages caused by drunken college partiers– they allegedly were throwing an alarming number of beach chairs into hotel pools. Most college students traveling south  for respite from all the snow and ice tend to stop in Panhandle Florida or even the Alabama and Mississippi coasts, where there are apparently virgin populations of beach chairs available for pool tossing.

And so of course I drove to Daytona Beach this past Monday morning, just because. I’d heard all sorts of adjectives linked to its charms– seedy, rundown, passé, over– that naturally I needed to spend some time there.

It’s an easy run along Interstate 4 to the International Speedway exit 129, which takes you directly along U.S. Highway 92 toward the beaches. I love U.S. highways, and take them whenever I can; they’re much more picturesque than the barren interstates. While picturesque can mean anything from fleabag to palatial, you definitely get to see some interesting sights.

Here’s that entry way you pass at the intersection of 92 and White Street. In the vague recesses behind my brain, I always thought this was part of the Sugar Mill ruins, but those are up in New Smyrna Beach. WRONG. This is known as the Tarragona Tower and was built in 1926; click on the link to read about it. It’s the entrance to a neighborhood of stucco and coquina Spanish-style houses that form the Daytona Highlands neighborhood.

I headed down an interesting-looking street and came across this street sign in a down-at-its-heels neighborhood behind some sort of facilities. As soon as I stepped out of the car into the stillness, sirens wailed, lights flashed, and a man eyed me shiftily; there was a commotion taking place a block away, and there I was with my little camera. I mean, you can’t take pictures of the police and firemen doing what they do, so I wove past them all and headed further east.

This blue dot is one of many adorning a building on Main Street. It occurred to me that the circles should be painted in a tromp l’oeil simulacrum of sky, but then birds might try to fly at them. Not good.

I parked right by this BREAKFAST place, which presumably has its entry on the opposite side of the building, but should there be any doubt, rest assured that BREAKFAST is served here, somehow. I parked behind a car which was unloading its occupants– an older surfer dude and three young ladies who looked like Dolly Parton at various stages of her life. They were either his daughters or a singing group making their debut on the World’s Most Famous Beach…

That’s the Main Street Pier above, sheathed in construction garb– closed to the public! I’m glad Daytona Beach is only an hour away, rather than ten hours away. I was tempted to ask the construction workers if they would loan me a hardhat and let me roam freely– that sort of thing always comes to me easily– but I decided against it; various British couples leisurely approached the fences, which were plastered with large signs letting us all know that the pier was closed for repairs, and they were politely turned away by the Man In Charge of the Gates.

Here’s a view of the hard-packed sand (cars drive on it) stretching north along the Atlantic Ocean.

And here is a row of eateries just north of the pier. I love places like this– French fries never taste better than on the beach, and I was reminded of Coney Island: knishes, corn on the cob, the wax museum, the fun houses…

I stopped at the Cruisin’ bar to have a drink, and I was the only one in here– it was well before noon. The bartender and I had a pretty good discussion about sports, touching on the Super Bowl, the Mets, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. I have stories– being on the packed bus coming from high school in Fall of 1969 when the Mets won the world series, and  the time I asked my mother why Brooklynites picketed the  Dodgers for their last few games before they moved to California. Duh. And cheers.

The multi-level cemetery on Main Street houses many of the area’s first families. It’s nice and quiet, and you can look into the windows of some nearby houses from its heights.

On Ridgewood Avenue back across the river is St. Paul’s Basilica, built in the 1920s. At the rear of this imposing building is a ministry that is open a lot, where people in need can walk up to a window and secure services dispensing job placement, food, furniture and shelter. I tell you, it’s very busy. There’s a lot of need in Daytona Beach. Especially downtown, I saw a lot of men and women with no apparent means of support, carrying all their belongings with them in shopping carts.

Heading back home on Interstate 4, I detoured to Lake Helen, but that’s for another day and another blog posting. And here’s that odd structure  in the Altamonte Springs area, apparently in a state of suspended construction. It is part of the proposed SuperChannel Centre, but construction appears nil. I think the religious organization that initiated construction ran out of funds. In any event, it’s a monolith seated next to the highway, looking sort of forlorn and abandoned. Maybe they can turn it into housing for the homeless.

PhotoBike Tour 12: Casselberry and Fern Park

HA! You’re laughing! Casselberry? Fern Park? Isn’t that all about 436 and 17-92, you’re asking? Well yes, in a way; 436 slices through the heart of the old farming communities east of old Winter Park, and 17-92 bisects the old fern nurseries of Fern Park. There IS old to be seen here.

Casselberry only became a city in 1965. It has a very picturesque “old” section centered around the Triplet lakes, and its old unincorporated Fern Park section features a lot of old motels and pre-Disney relics strung along 17-92. Casselberry stretches down to Howell Branch Road, and parts of it are still wild, mere seconds from crazy 436. (Remember that you can click on any picture to make it larger and more complete.)

On Lake Ann Lane, just south of Lake Howell. This is a little known street that leads to the big properties that border the lakes .

Here’s Lake Howell as seen from one of the condominiums that line the lake’s west edge. If I don’t see a guard house, I venture in; I’m fourteen years old and invisible, which is how I get many of these shots. While moseying along today, I got caught in a giant cloud of dryer exhaust coming from the condo’s laundry facility, and smelled nothing but fabric softener for a few minutes. Ecch!

This next shot is up near Semoran Skateway, where I and my little spent many evenings in the past rolling round and round and ROUND at Gay Skate. What exactly is Gay Skate? It’s cruising on little rubber wheels, trying to glide with aplomb without looking too ridiculous. For me, that was mostly impossible because I would go into these spastic convolutions rather than just crash merrily into a rail or onto the floor. And you just don’t do something like that in front of a group of gay people, because you will be socially ostracized for life.

Just past the Skateway is the southern entrance to the Kewanee trail, another rails-to-trails path that threads through Casselberry and into Fern Park. I never knew it was there until I looked at Google Maps one day, and there it was.

Along the Kewanee Trail.

Pausing along the Kewanee Trail, with a culvert managing to look picturesque.

Kewanee Park is in here, situated deep inside the suburban spread. Who knew that this place existed so close to 436? Shirley Jackson would have a field day with this isolated little wetland: “and no one can hear you scream, in the night, in the dark… “

Back to Lake Howell Lane, which branches off east and west from Lake Ann Lane, is this imposing set of gates; I think I know of the people who live here. No bikes allowed! Do you think I need to fill my white basket with yellow jonquils?

No Bikes Allowed.

The eastern end of Lake Howell Lane borders on the western edge of the San Pedro Retreat Center. This is a grazing area for local cows, who tend to move to this part of the property at night. I’m told by a San Pedro employee that it’s creepy hearing the cows lowing in the dark late at night…