The Promise of DeLand

Henry DeLand sought to create a town that would become a center for culture, education, religion and enterprise.

View of town from the sawmill, with seedling grove in the foreground — DeLand, Florida

When Henry DeLand first drove through the blossoming settlement we know as Orange City, Florida he said: “This looks like the west. Here is snap and push. I am willing to go on.”

Henry Addison DeLand was a wealthy baking soda manufacturer who came to Florida 1876 with his family for an overdue vacation. DeLand extended his trip to visit his sister and brother-in-law, a Mr. & Mrs. O.P Terry at their rural homestead in Volusia county. The journey there had been long, consisting of a train ride from New York to Jacksonville, a steamboat ride to Enterprise and a horse and buggy ride into the sandy hammock of the wild Florida landscape.

Although Mr. DeLand described his trip down the St. John’s as “delightful,” he found that the country on either side of the river did not interest him. It wasn’t until his brother-in-law drove him through the busy logging industry of modern day Orange City — where “Orange Fever” had taken hold, that he found himself in awe of many miles of pine-covered rolling hills, fragrant with orange blossoms and possibility.

In his own words, Mr. DeLand described his first impression of the untouched wilderness that would one day bear his name:

“I enjoyed my ride through the pines… over the high rolling lands with no underbrush, where one could gaze for a long distance through the pine woods. The face of the country reminded me of my own loved Western New York. We passed one orange grove in the pine woods and I saw that the orange trees would grow on the high pine land. I thought what a charming country this would be if settled like Western New York, or the Northern States, with pleasant homes here and no standing water near. I thought it would make a healthful home for the year round.”

Birth of a Community

Henry Addison DeLand

During this trip Mr. DeLand stayed with Captain John Rich, who had taken homestead on the site of the present DeLand and was the first to build a house there. “During my stay with Capt. Rich, I enjoyed the luxury of sleeping on the floor, where I could put my hand out between the logs.” Despite these rough accommodations, Mr. DeLand was delighted with Capt. Rich, his charming wife, and the piney woods they called their home. He immediately purchased over 150 acres of land from a Mr. Hampson. The area was then called Persimmon Hollow, after the wild Persimmons that used to grow in the area.

Mr. DeLand would return to Florida later that same year to meet with settlers scattered through the area. He said he found the settlers to be “young, intelligent, cultured and enterprising.”

“I thought what a first class nucleus these people constitute for a town.” It was here that Mr. DeLand described his vision, a center for culture, education, religion and enterprise. It was remarked that there should be a post office nearer then Beresford, and the question was raised, “What shall we call it?” Someone, said “DeLand,” Florida. So it was voted that evening. Soon after a meeting was held in the woods, and the streets were named.

Plan of the new Town of DeLand, drawn up by D.D. Rogers in 1883. The map shown is a reproduction of the original, now in the possession of the State Library of Florida.

In order to draw people to settle in his new community, DeLand made a promise to anyone who purchased land from him: If they were unhappy within the first two years, he would buy back all the land he sold them. It was a rich bet, even for so wealthy a man, but the promise shows his commitment to his vision and his unwavering belief in its ultimate success.

Deland Hall, which would later become part of Stetson University, built in 1883 and still stands today.
DeLand Hall, Stetson University, Today

Mr. DeLand left his Fairport home several years later and moved to DeLand so that he could fully commit himself to its development. “So I concluded to sell out my business in Fairport that had been paying me from five to twenty-five thousand a year, and to give my undivided attention to making this (DeLand) a religious, educational, business and social center.” It was in this way that he choose to put his fortune and efforts into the general welfare rather than enrich himself. He donated land and funds to build a church, paid to bring in entertainers and sponsored community events. In 1883 he founded The DeLand Academy and watched it grow with the efforts of his friend John B. Stetson. Stetson would later contribute so much time and money to the academy that Mr. DeLand insisted it be renamed Stetson University.

John B. Stetson

The community of DeLand flourished as It became every bit the center of business, culture, religion and education that DeLand had envisioned — soon it became known as the, “The Athens of Florida,”

The Great Florida Freezes of 1894–95

In December 1894 and again in February 1895 two devastating freezes destroyed the citrus industry in northern Florida. Temperatures logged in Orlando during the freeze reached an all-time low of 18F and 24F in West Palm Beach. The first freeze did not kill many of the mature trees, but the second killed any recovering growth — splitting whole trees from the trunk down to the root. Entire homesteads were abandoned as land values bottomed out in citrus growing areas. Prior to the freeze Florida produced more than 6 million boxes of fruit per year, but after that number dropped below 100,000.

Orange grove after the Florida Freeze 1885

Mr. DeLand was heartbroken by the devastation and felt responsible for the losses of local circus farmers. Determined to keep his word, he quickly began to buy back land from unhappy settlers at great personal and financial loss to himself. In the end he lost nearly his entire fortune in order to keep his promise. Despite these grievous circumstances, Mr. DeLand maintained his positive outlook and determination. Of his losses, he was reported to have said, “I will begin again, I am sixty years young, not old,” and with those words he left Florida and returned to his home in New York to resume his prior career, aided by his son Harlin. He continued to work in order to buy back land from ruined farmers and by the time he died in 1908 he had purchased back every piece of land that he had sold to settlers who wished to leave. Shorty before his death he returned to DeLand for one last visit, and was welcomed back by its residents with open arms, like an old friend who stayed away too long.

To those who knew him, Mr. DeLand was often referred to as a true man of his word. Honorable for keeping his promise, when others may have fled such a disastrous situation. However, it was his promise of a community, rich in culture, religion and education that still remains, strong and vibrant, long after his debts were paid.

For more information on DeLand history you can visit the DeLand House Museum — at 137 W Michigan Ave, DeLand, FL 32720 Phone: (386) 740–6813

References:

Gold, Pleasant Daniel. History of Volusia County Florida. Daytona Beach, FL: The E.O Painter Printing Co. DeLand, FL. 1927

Nunemaker, Mary Alice “Founder of DeLand Died 52 Years Ago.” The Sunday News Journal [Daytona Beach, FL] 13th, March 1960. Front Page.

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