History and Lore

By Steve Fussell

A great big chunk of our history here has vanished before our very eyes. That says something painful about how we regard the past.

It’s not like we don’t have historical societies, long-established families and government poobahs who have a vested interest in historical preservation, and all of us could do more.

Trouble is we live in a fast-growing part of the country. For all of the past century and more, most people hereabouts—these local histories we are losing—have depended on growth and development. Development tends to cover over the history of a place. And most of us were raised someplace else. That’s always been the character of our part of the country here.

“Colonists.” That’s what we called “snowbirds” a century ago. They bought land, cleared and plowed fields, built houses, erected fences, planted gardens and groves (and hired us to help).

They spent their money—much of it here—on cars and lumber and cattle feed, until successive waves of them had a patchwork of profit-driven agrarian factories and support industries clustered around a village of level streets, tidy yards, and most of all social opportunities.

We called it Gardenia, and then Fruitland Park.

On March 6, 1917—a Tuesday evening—our colonist predecessors turned out for a Masquerade Ball at The Casino on Berckman Street. Altogether.

The ladies in charge were most generous with their invitations, the whole Park being included. And the whole Park came clad in costumes that showed not only versatility and gray matter but a wondrous scope of geography.

And the costumes! In the words of an as yet unidentified reporter on the scene: four Japanese ladies, two Dutch girls, a Spanish girl, a Spanish maiden, and a Spanish lady, a Mexican girl, a country maiden, a Gypsy, a Greek lady not Xantippe, a Wild West girl, Moss Girl, a Red Cross nurse, a Bewitching lady, the Goddess of Liberty, the Queen of Hearts, Madam Butterfly, the American Beauty rose and the Indian maiden Silver Springs.

The men weren’t so imaginative, but still: a Buster Brown, a Rip Van Winkle, The Dog, The Cat, a Pirate King, Charlie Chaplin, a “colored boy,” a courtier, a Palm Beach classic, a farmer boy, a West Point cadet, and five clowns, one of whom “carried a big fan and fanned every clocked stocking he saw.”

So they had their fun too. I’ll publish the full text of Masquerade Ball in a later posting.

Masquerade Ball was first published in the Leesburg Commercial—then a weekly newspaper of eight or ten pages, out every Friday.

The earliest edition of the Commercial you can read today is dated October 10, 1913.

Image of Palm Villa Hotel

The Palm Villa Hotel in Fruitland Park, from the Florida Historical Archives

What happened before that—whatever was recorded—has been lost to the ages. Poof, gone. That’s the painful part.

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous patch of mixspeak, you don’t march into the future with the history you wish you had, you go with the history you have.

So let’s look at what remains.

Most issues of the Commercial included a page dedicated to Affairs of Interest in Fruitland Park.

Future postings in our History and Lore department will detail transcribe excerpts from the Commercial round-about a century ago. They are sometimes charming, always revealing, occasionally ribald and once in a while thought-provoking.

Everyone’s heard the old saw, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. That might be enough motivation to look into history if you’re hoping to avoid another Inquisition, but I have a more practical purpose.

I want to understand why we live with what sometimes today seem like dumb decisions. Usually, the context of the times shows they weren’t such dumb decisions back then when they were made.

Why do we have the sort of city government we have? Why can’t we raise chickens in our back yards in Fruitland Park? Why does a church (Heritage Community Church) rank as the largest single land owner (10.12 acres) in downtown Fruitland Park? And why is First Baptist Church of Leesburg the owner of the largest single property (the 900-acre Pine Ridge Dairy site, much of which is slated to be sold to The Villages) inside the city limits?

We aren’t looking for scandals here, only reason and rationale. A city that tags its residents with $8 monthly fees to support its police and fire departments (a voluntary fee we continue to pay because it’s our city and our police and fire departments, FYI) has a vested interest in bringing large-scale land owners onto the tax rolls. There are legitimate reasons that both our biggest religious land barons are what they are, and some of those reasons benefit our community, right? A look at the history of both properties might tell us more.

So we launched our own History & Lore project. We’ll post stories about the history of Fruitland Park as we find them. And lore too. Haunted houses? We have a few, and we hope to check them out, up close and personal.

And we hope you enjoy them.

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