The History of Fruitland Park, Part 1

The History of Fruitland Park is the title of a book written by Leesburg Commercial reporter Lillian D. Vickers-Smith in 1928. We are currently transcribing that book for publication at FruitlandParkNews.org. In the meantime, we came across this entry in the March 30, 1917 edition of The Leesburg Commercial, author unidentified. It is reposted here verbatim. The illustrations are from other sources. —The editor

The Evolution of Fruitland Park (March 30, 1917)

What 41 Years Have Done For One Corner of Lake County, Told in a Log

It was Mrs. R.E. Filcher, Mrs. Lord and W.G. Dwight’s week to furnish the entertainment for Casino night the other night, so they carried out their contract. Mrs. Filcher gave several recitations which so delighted the audience that she still had to give more.

Mrs. Lord for her “stunt” got a male quartet to render some glees. The gentlemen were Messrs. West, Benedict, Cook and Uries, and they were in fine voice. Miss Finnegan was accompanist.

The third member of the committee for his part of the “show” gave a brief paper on the evolution of Fruitland Park, going back 41 years when O.P. Rooks took up the first homestead claim in this vicinity.

The paper while representing some work, was most simple. Still R.E. Filcher was anxious to have it go on record through the Commercial, so here is the log of Fruitland Park:

Through the kindness of Mrs. Rooks, Misses Margaret and Elizabeth Smith and others, the writer has been enabled to get together some data relating to the early days of Fruitland Park.

And it is interesting in this connection to note that there have really been two Fruitland Parks in the last 41 years. Each with its club houses and community centers. Each with its church, school and social interests, which goes to show that the world wags along in about the same way. Aside from the tasks and duties of life there must be times and places for the engendering and development of the social side of our character.

The Fruitland Park of thirty years ago, with its Bucket and Dipper Club, was not many removes from the spirit of our present Community Club. The only difference is that we are more modern in our ways of enjoyment.

But let us turn to the historical data.

I find that the pioneers of Fruitland Park were O.P. Rooks and his brother, W.A. Rooks. Up in Pennsylvania back in 1875, these two brothers fell in with a Captain Kendrick of Cincinnati, who had been much of a traveler about the country. He was very enthusiastic about Florida and at his invitation the Rooks brothers came down to “God’s country,” as Captain Kendrick called it.

Image of early map

This clip from a later printing of the 1857 Johnson’s Florida Map shows Long Swamp where the Villages is today and Pineboro about where Fruitland Park is today. The big blob in the lower right corner is Lake Apopka.

The three men made the pilgrimage to Jacksonville and then down the St. Johns River and Oklawaha River, finally landing at Silver Springs, hired a hack and were driven to Leesburg through the wildest part of wild country.

They reached Leesburg, then just a hamlet, at 11 o’clock at night. It was a hard, dreary trip as their hack broke down and several times they had to be hauled out of the sand.

This was January, 1876. The land in this community was then only homestead claims and to be taken up one had to get in touch with the government claims office in Gainesville.

The Rooks brothers struck out over the wild country and came to the site of Mrs. Rooks’ present home on Crystal Lake. O.P. Rooks was charmed with the location and at once decided to pitch his tent here. He took up a homestead claim of 160 acres and after breaking the land and clearing it, started a home.

In December, 1879, he was joined by his wife, Mrs. Rooks, who came on from Philadelphia, and has lived here ever since. W.A. Rooks, who came with his brother, about this time went to Washington to live.

Pioneering cannot be done entirely by one man. The one-man power is inadequate for such construction periods. It needs the combined energies and brains of men. Kind Providence was good to Mr. Rooks and his homestead claim of 160 acres, four miles out of Leesburg.

At this time there appeared on the scene an English gentleman who had come across the seas with the view to establish a colony of his countrymen. He tumbled into Leesburg by hack and fell in with Mr. Rooks.

This gentleman was G.C. Stapylton, the son of a canon in the English church and a young man of liberal education. Messrs. Rooks and Stapylton surveyed the country all about and through tier energies other homesteaders were to locate here.

Rooks and Stapylton gave the name of Fruitland Park to the community. It was later called Gardenia by the United States postoffice department. Still the railroad stuck to the original name, Fruitland Park. As there was another Fruitland so much confusion resulted that the postoffice department dropped its postoffice Gardenia and went back to Fruitland Park.

About this time the Plant line, which had built as far south as Sanford from Jacksonville, was to be pushed further along. One branch was to come to Ocala and south of there the original survey through this territory called fot the road to be built on the other side of Dead River.

But Rooks and Stapylton were alert to the exigency, the route must be on this side of the river to do Fruitland Park any good. So they got busy and by donating the land they got the line built where it now runs between Ocala and Leesburg.

While Mr. Rooks was busy with the development of his own claim, planting orange groves and acquiring more acres, Mr. Stapylton devoted himself to corralling the English homesteaders.

And they were a class all by themselves. While orange growing was a new business for them they were adepts at horseback riding, hunting, and enjoying to the fullest the happy open air life of Florida.

It is neighbor Cowles who calls Florida the only “play land” he knows. This is just what the young Englishman found in this land of beautiful lakes, tropical flowers and sunshine. They were trained men, most of them graduates of Oxford, Eton or other amous English public schools, and it was easy for Stapylton to start a colony. It was throiugh his inspiration that a community was established around Lake Ella. It was called Chetwynd, it being his middle name. So enthusiastic were the colonists that a large hotel was built by a syndicate, but it was in operation only one year. Lake Ella was too remote from the railroad. At the other end of the colony, where R.F.E. Cooke’s present home was built, a hall stood as the center of all social activities of Fruitland Park.

It was here that the old Bucket and Dipper Club had its creation.

Members of the club had to be balloted for and at one time its membership was up to 60. To quote Mrs. Rooks, at the time of the freeze there were 85 Englishmen in this vicinity. In the hall Mr. Stapylton had classes for instruction and here all the dances, musicals and good times were had.

It is Mrs. Watts of Leesburg, who says “some of the best good times of my life have been at the old club house of the Bucket and Dipper Club,”

Miss Margaret Smith played for the dancing and all musical rehearsals were held at the Smith sisters’ home.

In those days all the trading had to be done in Leesburg and the prices of the common necessities grew so exorbitant that a Mr. Linville, a Quaker, was induced to open a store on what is now the Schuphelt place. It was in this store that Abe McCoy, one of the Park’s gardeners, did his first work as a store boy.

Among some old-time photographs that Miss Margaret Smith has in her collection is one group picture of the English colonists. They are a fine lot of men in the picture. Many of them are dressed in their outing suits or sporting togs.

Miss Smith could not recall all of the individuals of the group, but among them were V.C. Smith, Mr. Holford, two Elin brothers, two Westons, two Dowdneys, two Shelfields, two Dietz, Mr. Cazlet, J. Vickers-Smith, Mr. Hill, Mr. Budd, R.F.E. Cooke, Mr. Geary, Mr. Hafford, Mr. Tasca, two Vincent brothers, Mr. Rutledge, Mr. Dawson, two Topham brothers, Mr. Dunn, Mr. Sargent, Mr. Cheshyre, Mr. Merriles, two Cadwell brothers, two Trowers, two Fellows.

Miss Smith says one of the tragedies of the group was when Dawson, one of the finest of the bunch, was fatally bitten by a rattlesnake that was on exhibition in Leesburg. Mr. Dawson was handling the reptile when it struck him.

Mr. Rutledge, another of the group, occupied the place now owned by Mr. Gott and it was his daughter who married G. Chetwynd Stapylton, the pioneer of the community.

Image of Trinity Episcopal Church

Trinity Episcopal Church on Spring Lake Rd., the oldest building still standing in the area, was built in 1888.

The English colonists, with all their free life and social activities, could not be without their church. It was as necessary as their food and here follows the history of Holy Trinity church:

The very first services were held in the old school house, now replaced by the new building at the Park. The preacher was Rev. Mr. Tosea. But this was too inconvenient for most of the colonists. So the church was moved to an old barn where the colored church now stands, overlooking Geneva Lake. From here the house of worship was moved to the present Holy Trinity church, every cent for the construction of which was raised in England.

The altar cloth now in use was the original given by V.C. Smith’s aunt and sent from England. The same cross is in use today that graced the first service. At the approach to Holy Trinity church today is the lychee gate which is one of the very few in the United States.

The nearest suggestion to it is one that has recently been placed at the entrance of the Church of the Transfiguration at New York.

The lych gate at Holy Trinity church is the gift of Miss Emily Tatham who was an aunt of Mr. Schriver of Ocala.

The lych gate is an old institution of the English churches of England. At funerals the casket is brought to this gasket where it rests until the rector, clad in his vestments, comes down the church steps to meet the funeral cortege.

The first fair for Holy Trinity church netted 300 pounds, or $1,500, which was a most generous offer for those days.

So life went on on Fruitland Park of those days. They had their good times, their joys and their sorrows. The pendulum of life swung merrily on and the orange groves grew and shed their sheaves of golden fruit.

The Florida slogan was to place all eggs in one basket. The diversity of crop raising and their possibilities was an undiscovered country. So when the famous freezes of December 29, 1894, and February 8, 1895, came it caught the Fruitland Park orange kings as the German submarines catch the defenseless merchantmen in the open sea—helpless. Fortunes melted away in a night and groves that were valued at thousands of dollars were valueless at sunrise. It was these freezes that discouraged the English colonists. Prosperity under Southern skies had come too easily. They scattered to other states and countries. Where then was this wonderful colony of homesteaders there are now but four of its personnel left in these diggings. They are our V.C. Smith, R.F.E. Cooke, J. Victor Smith and Mr. Chesshyre, the veteran Leesburg lawyer.

Joseph Hannah, the pride of the Park’s batchelordom, is just as English as any in the old Bucket and Dipper Club, and yet he did not belong to it. Then there was Louis Bosanquet, another of our very best. He came from England right from Eton, yet he did not belong to the original colony.

So much for the Fruitland Park of the old days. But my story is not told until you hear a paen or two from the Fruitland Park of the old days. Each generation profits by the experiences of its predecessor. The new Fruitland Park has its Clarks, Freidrichs, Rosses and Bosanquets.

The Palm Villa Hotel on Mirror Lake was one of the first buildings that helped make Fruitland Park a city.

The Palm Villa Hotel on Mirror Lake was one of the first buildings that helped make Fruitland Park a city.

It was the late Jonathan Clark who came as an early pioneer and bought the wonderful site on Mirror Lake where he build Palm Villa. Mr. Clark came here from Chicago and was so delighted with the climate and community that he permanently located here.

After his death and that of his widow the estate came into George T. Clark’s possession nd here Mr. Clark still lives, counting all the time not spent in Fruitland Park as lost hours of paradise.

It is Mr. Clark who built the Gardenia Hotel, was one of the originators of our golf course and conceived the idea of a Casino as a social center. Thanks to Mr. Clark we have the finest water in all Florida. No word about Fruitland Park is complete without its tribute to Mr. Clark for his contributions to the community, his hospitality and his liberal expenditure of money.

Mr. Friedrich, with his beautiful estate on the opposite side of Mirror Lake, is demonstrating what can be done by twentieth center methods and brains.

Mr. Ross, by his natal hay and watermelon crops, is showing the marvelous possibilities of the Florida soil.

From another angle Mr. Bossanquet is proving that intensive farming is the only safe and sane way to keep even and more too.

No mention of Fruitland Park of today is complete without its tribute to the Lake County Land Owners Association, with its remarkable coterie of men that direct its affairs. Such men as R.E. Filcher, Dr. W.A. MacKenzie and J.Q. Lloyd are an inspiration to any community. We all know and love Mr. Filcher for his splendid character, his liberal hospitality and his intense faith in the possibilities of Florida.

Dr. MacKenzie, with his brilliant personality and education. J.Q. Lloyd as the practical farmer have done their share to make the Land Association stand for more than a mere business enterprise.

This triumvirate of strong men have made their undertaking an asset for Fruitland Park. Through their personalities Lake County has been enriched, our community has been quickened to better things and the people have been made to realize that uplift only comes by cooperation.

Just here it is interesting to note that it was W.T. Dean who induced Mr. Friedrich to locate in Florida. Mr. Dean came down to Florida for the first time 6 years ago. Once here for a winter he has never missed a season. His enthusiasm interested Mr. Friedrich, and fifteen years ago the latter came down with Mrs. Friedrich and spent a winter at the Dean home.

Then he came back again and Mr. Dean picked out the Fox place on Mirror Lake as the ideal spot. At first Mr. Friedrich was indifferent to its possibilities and held off. But 12 years ago he “came across” and bought the property which he has made one of the garden spots of Lake County.

Many other instances might be cited to show that if one is willing to look and use his brains about his crops he must succeed. The Florida soil is the most responsive on earth. Freezes can be blessings in disguise.

The new Fruitland Park has no Bucket and Dipper Club, not even in replica. But it has a modern casino, a live Community Club with a membership that includes all the Park and that is doing big things along the lines of sociability.

With dancing under the skillful leadership of Mrs. Filcher and evenings for cards and special programs the Community Club is rising to its opportunities. It was only last week that a card party was given at the Casino where 88 people were in play. Such resources amused our 30 or so Leesburg guests that night.

But better than the Community Club, the new Fruitland Park has a choice spirit of good feeling and hospitality. What other Florida community has such social assets as Mrs. Whitney, Mr. and Mrs. Cowles, Mr. and Mrs. Friedrich, Mr. and Mrs. Clark and all the rest that make up the endless chain of good fellowship. This is the Fruitland Park we know and love. We are all just neighbors.

4 Responses to The History of Fruitland Park, Part 1

  1. Donna Bott Reply

    December 11, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Wow! What a find! It’s given me a bit of new information. But even in 1917 memory was not as sharp as it might have been.

  2. FruitlandParkNews.org Reply

    December 12, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    The idea of “irony” stems from the character Eiron in ancient Greek comedies. Always the underdog, Eiron used his dominant survival skill—his wit—to outmaneuver his protagonist, the boastful, conniving Alazon. They were Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, 2,000 years ago.

    I find it ironic (and gratifying) that the first person to log a comment at FruitlandParkNews.org chose the article that addresses the earliest (western European) settlers in Fruitland Park, the origins of our community as it were.

    More deliciously ironic: the first commenter is also an historian and author of The Chetwynd Chronicles, The British Colony of Lake County, Florida 1882-1902—available in paperback from Amazon for $18.

    Thanks, Donna!

  3. Cynthia Hernandez Lemus Reply

    June 30, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    Thank you for sharing this interesting story about our City of Fruitland Park, I ‘ll look forward to the book publication. I love history as it allow us to understand and appreciate our present. Cynthia Hernandez

  4. Paula Kinney Brown Reply

    November 19, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    I will also be looking forward to the book publication. Is there anything about all the old homes in Fruitland Park, some of them are so beautiful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>