A Brief History of DeLand
This town was originally called Persimmon Hollow for the wild persimmon trees that grow around the natural springs in the area. It was originally accessible only by steamboat on the St. Johns River. Located a few miles east of the St. Johns, the community grew steadily after its founding in 1876 by New York State baking soda merchant Henry Addison DeLand. The town was renamed after DeLand who bought over a hundred acres of land when realizing the potential of the hilly pine area for growing citrus. Henry DeLand sought to create a town that would become a center for culture, education, religion and enterprise – soon it became know as “the Athens of Florida”.
Northern visitors and friends of DeLand made regular trips here during the winter months. Many of them came seasonally, while others stayed. John Batterson Stetson built a winter home here and became a major benefactor to the college which was later renamed after him. Stetson also introduced electricity to Florida. He had one of Thomas A. Edison’s first power plants built in DeLand to provide his home with electricity and ice and also illuminates the city streets.
Persevered Despite Disaster
The town survived two disasters. In 1886, nearly all the town burned down when a fire started in a downtown saloon. As a result of the fire, no more saloons and wooden buildings were permitted; only brick and concrete buildings could be constructed in rebuilding the town.
The second disaster came in the form of a Great Freeze. In the winter of 1894-95 a freeze killed nearly all of the citrus trees. It warmed up and the trees sprouted new growth but another more severe freeze after New Year’s destroyed the citrus trees.
The freeze financially ruined Henry DeLand. He bought back citrus properties he had agreed to buy if the owners could not maintain them. Henry moved back to New York State where he worked his business, but he still made regular trips to DeLand to visit his friends until he died in 1904. Over time the economy recovered and times changed.
During the 1920s Florida Land Boom, fine examples of stucco Mediterranean Revival architecture by native architect Medwin Peek and others were constructed in DeLand. Many of these buildings have been handsomely restored, including the recently reopened Athens Theatre.
DeLand has kept its small-town appearance, and it is still referred to as “the Athens of Florida”. DeLand has been designated a Great American Mainstreet and America’s Best Mainstreet not only for its charm and visual appeal but also for the City’s commitment to the community, for the people in that community who are involved and help bring prosperity and excellence to the place they call home. Today, DeLand is truly one of Florida’s “small-town treasures” and a great place to live!
Robin Peroldo in her article: The Promise of DeLand
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