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:

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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.

 

 

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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!

The Old and New Around Orlando’s Lake Eola

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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.

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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:

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

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

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

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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.”)

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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!

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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.

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!

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