Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A couple of Florida Legends

When I was a kid growing up in Gainesville, many of my weekends were spent at our family's place on the St. Johns River in tiny Welaka, Florida. On Fridays my dad would come home from work and we'd load up the car and stop for dinner somewhere in Putnam County. One of the places we stopped was Holiday House in East Palatka.

Fast forward to adult life – living in the College Park section of Orlando – one of my favorite Old Florida haunts became the Holiday House Restaurant next to the Ben White Raceway. Seemingly untouched by time, they served food that my grandmother would love, buffet-style, and they had the best desserts anywhere. When the city announced plans to tear down the Holiday House, I wrote letters to the mayor and the newspaper in protest, to no avail.

The sign for the former Ben White Raceway Holiday House

So last year when I heard they were closing the original location in DeLand, I was saddened that a Central Florida institution might go the way of the Dodo. But after six months in limbo, the Holiday House re-emerged on Hwy. 17, further from the Stetson Campus and closer to DeLeon Springs. Jonesing for a slice of monster cake, Mrs. Ephemera made a pilgrimage to DeLand last weekend to fill our bellies.

The new location is a modern building filled with gorgeous artwork created by the owner Willa McGuire Cook. Mrs. Cook is a legend in her own right - she was recruited by Dick Pope Sr. to move to Winter Haven to star in his water ski show at Cypress Gardens. And Mrs. Cook isn't just any skier- she is a three time World Champion, an eight time National Champion and she is credited with creating many of the water ski moves that competitors use today. She was the first person to ever successfully jump off a water ski ramp backwards and she was Esther Williams' ski double in the movie Easy to Love. And the award given to the most outstanding female water skier of the year is named in her honor.

Cypress Gardens publicity photo with Willa Cook, courtesy of Lu Vickers

So in addition to feasting on creamy, delicious mac and cheese and a gigantic slab of salmon, I feed my appetite for Floridiana when I had the opportunity to met Mrs. Cook at her restaurant. She explained to us how she had been lured from Oregon by Mr. Pope and how she was part of the Cypress Gardens ski shows for a decade. A prolific cook since her teen age years, it was her dream to open a restaurant and she opened the first Holiday House in an old house in DeLand in 1959. At one time the Holiday House chain had 17 venues, but Cook and her husband sold the chain. The last one still open is the DeLand location and it is owned and operated by her and her son.

Willa Cook's harness racing painting inspired from the Ben White Raceway - she told us she tried riding the horses once but got a face full of flying mud from the horse's hooves.

Former Florida Citrus Queen Florence Ember

Tommy Bartlett, the man that started world tours and the Wisconsin Dells ski shows

Her artwork decorated many of the Holiday House locations including the one at the Ben White Raceway in Orlando, a spot Mrs. Cook called "one of her favorites." In addition to adding ambiance to the restaurant, her portraits hang in the Water Ski Hall of Fame in Polk County. I was very impressed with her artistic talents and amazed at the fact that at 82 years old, Mrs. Cook seemed as vital and lively as someone half her age. In fact the waitress shared with us that many of the vegetables served in the restaurant were grown in Mrs. Cook's garden.

Ironically, after stuffing myself at the buffet, I didn't have room for dessert, the "goal" of this particular quest. But the opportunity to meet a Florida legend in person was more satisfying than any cake, pie or cobbler.

Although all the comfort style food is outstanding in the buffet,
I am huge fan of Holiday House's desserts

Photo collage from restaurant

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Museum in the Hospital

The DeLand Memorial Hospital Museum in DeLand Florida is an interesting gathering of collections in a restored 1920s hospital. I saw pictures of some of the ephemera in a friends blog, and it has been on my list every since.

Located in Dreggors Park, the building itself served s a hospital from 1922 to 1948 when the hospital was moved to DeLand Naval Air Station. After a brief stint as a frat house for Stetson University, the building was used by the School Board until it was restored in 1993. It is now on the Historic Register.

The museum is housed in the 2nd and 3rd floor and a docent has to let you in to each exhibit. Our tour started with a tour of a recreation of Former US Ambassador Bert Fish's office. In addition to a fine career in the diplomatic service, Fish was a philanthropist and according to our guide, opened up oil drilling for US companies in Saudi Arabia.

The next gallery was a re-creation of a 1920's operating room with life sized mannequins performing surgery. Next up was the gallery of Ice and Electricity which was mainly comprised of a huge collection of insulators of all shapes and sizes. The small town of DeLand was actually the first city in Florida with an electrical system and the generator was the 3rd or 4th one ever made by Thomas Edison.

There were two large galleries of World War I and World War II memorabilia, each stuffed with great artifacts and models. The tour then led to a re-creation of a 1920s doctors office and then to another building that housed the Hawtense Conrad Elephant Fantasyland.

My overall impression is that I enjoyed looking at these collections amassed by individuals who were obviously very passionate about the objects they accumulated. They all fit together to give a fairly good history of the area in an interesting, visual way. The docent was a colorful character and I recommend making a stop there if you are in the DeLand area.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The State of Springs

I headed out early this Saturday to visit some of the springs closest to my home. I don't usually do much in-state adventuring during the summer months because: 1.) it's too damn hot and 2.) the light is usually crappy. But I was itching to take some pictures and I was really tired of hearing politicians talking about abandoning "cumbersome" environmental regulations and I wanted to see people enjoying the environment they are so willing to forsake.

Wekiva Springs
The closest spring to my house is Wekiva Springs State Park and I hit I-4 early enough to get there in just about 30 minutes. Wekiva Springs has been a favorite recreational spot for Central Floridians for a very long time: it was originally know as Clay Springs and the Orange County Regional History Center has great images of Victorian Floridians trying to beat the heat there. Home to one of my favorite canoe runs, I hadn't visited the springs themselves in several years.

I got to the park 15 minutes after opening and found a small group of tri-atheletes swimming in the clear blue waters. Otherwise I beat the crowds that usually cover the lawn surrounding the bowl-like swimming area with blankets, coolers and lawn chairs. It was very peaceful briefly, but the folks were streaming in rapidly to make the most of the last Saturday of summer before the public schools started.

Orange County Regional History Center

Rock Springs
Next up was Rock Springs, which I am embarrassed to say, I had never visited before. The entrance to this spring was through Orange County's Kelly Park, and I didn't beat the crowd here. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say it was the most crowded county park I've ever visited. But the facilities seemed to handle it well, and it was refreshing to see all sorts of folks enjoying the natural side of Florida.

Rock Springs was originally owned by planter from Georgia named Joseph Delk who moved there with a few slaves in the 1850s. After he passed away the land was sold to a lumber company and the property eventually made its way to the hands of Dr. Howard Kelly who donated the site to Orange County in 1926. On Saturday, the 248 acre park was a lively place as kids of all ages, (adults too), grabbed inner tubes and walked down to the rocky cliff where the water emerges from the aquifer. From there it's a 25 minute float to "lagoon" areas with sandy beaches. It's kind of like lazy river attraction at a water park, except mother nature provides the current. I can't wait to go back another time and try it out.

Green Springs
Soon I was soon back on the road cutting through Mt. Plymouth to get back to I-4 and cross the St. Johns River to get to Volusia County and my next two springs. Next up was the appropriately named Green Springs, a Volusia County Park, where 19th century visitors "took the waters" in hopes of healing their ailments in the sulphurous spring. Coming by steamboat to the area that was to be known as Enterprise on the north side of the River, guest stayed at the 100 room Brock Hotel, one of Florida's premier destination in the post Civil War era.

Today the hotel is long gone and the park surrounding the spring is only 3 years old. The emerald green waters of the spring don't have a boil like most typical Florida Springs, and I had little desire to "take the waters", yet it is a fascinating historical site and has beautiful, peaceful quality. The shady road along the river leading to the park is gorgeous.

Brock Hotel from the State Archives of Florida

Gemini Springs
My final stop was Gemini Springs, which is a 210 acre Volusia County Park. The spring itself is much smaller compared to the massive boil at Wekiva, but I was pleased to find it magnificently illuminated by serendipitous light rays. I also found evidence of the algae growth that I had seen in abundance further north at DeLeon and Silver Springs, and was not surprised. Both Wekiva and Rock Springs had signs created by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection with the following copy: "The clean, clear waters of Florida's springs provide a variety of recreational uses, including tubing, swimming, canoeing, and nature study. However, the health of our springs is threatened by human activities: Pollution from fertilizers, pesticides, animal wastes, septic tanks, gasoline, industrial wastes, and other contaminates pollute the water in our aquifer – our drinking water – and ultimately pollute the springs. Withdrawal of water from the aquifer for irrigation, drinking and industrial uses can reduce the flow of the spring."

Florida's first human inhabitants found sacredness in these waters. On the Saturday I visited these four Central Florida springs, they were all being enjoyed; I saw people having picnics, swimming, tubing, and exploring. I think these sacred waters are places that connect Floridians to the environment, and that the people of our state would support their preservation for future generations to enjoy.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Jet Set's Palm Beach hotel

The Breakers Hotel currently on Palm Beach is actually the third hotel built on the site; the first two wooden hotels burned in fires. The first was built in 1896 by Henry Flagler and burned seven years later during an expansion. A second building re-opened on the site a year later and burned down in 1925, twelve years after Flagler's death. The current hotel was designed by architect Leonard Schultze and opened in 1926. The Breaker's website has an in-depth article about the architecture – if you'd like to learn more click here.

On my visit to the Breakers earlier this summer, we walked from Flagler's home, Whitehall, to the grand hotel, following the golf course down a well-worn trail to the building's impressive front facade. The fantastic interior spaces reminded my quite a bit of Coral Gable's Biltmore Hotel, both in scale and decor. Like the Biltmore, ornate banquet rooms occupy much of the first floor space, and we peaked in to see extravagant, over-the-top weddings being set up in several of the rooms. I even found Ponce De Leon in one of the rooms, as my obsession with finding evidence of Florida's "discoverer" continues.

Feeling a bit out of place in this palace of extreme luxury, Mrs. Ephemera soon departed, driving past the opulent mansions that line the beach in this city full of grand structures. As we turned inland, the song on my satellite radio station played a country song with the appropriate lyrics "we're not the jet set, we're the old Chevrolet set" and we rolled down the road back to Orlando.