The legends told in Lake and Sumter counties are stories of people who made their dreams reality, were visionaries who could build the future, and treasured the legacy enough for their children to continue it. People in the area care enough about history to preserve buildings, homes, and churches. This is the place where there is definitely more than one legend.
Story: Leigh Neely, James Combs, Theresa Campbell // Photos: Fred Lopez & Provided
Florida’s oldest continually operated hotel
Mount Dora’s bright yellow Lakeside Inn built in 1883 on the shores of Lake Dora has attracted guests from all over the world, including President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge, who came for a month-long stay in the winter of 1930.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the inn holds the distinction of being the oldest continually operated hotel in Florida.
“It’s a very unique experience,” says owner Jim Gunderson, who loves that guests travel from all over the world to stay at the iconic hotel.
“On weekends we are generally quite busy, active, full with weddings and parties,” he says. “We hear a lot of comments from guests and visitors of how special and beautiful it is, and that is a real treat to hear.”
Jim’s mission is to restore Lakeside Inn to its optimum glory. He purchased the hotel in 2011, at a time when it was in dilapidated condition.
“It was declining rapidly, but I fell in love with the inn,” says Jim, who made the move from Naples. “In the last six years it has been a constant state of restoration, and it probably will be for a good many years to come.”
Preserving the hotel has become his full-time project. Jim has his own construction crew of carpenters, painters, and mechanical workers at the inn Monday through Friday.
“There will always be something we are working toward,” he says, “but every year more and more are checked off.”
1968, 1983, 2011
918 N. 14th St., Leesburg
Wolfy’s is not only a hometown favorite, it’s also a very difficult place to get a table when the snowbirds are in town. Good food keeps people coming in, and owner John Wolf has assured that the quality and delicious quotient continues every day. He was at the original restaurant in 1968, when it was part of the Lum’s chain. When it went under, John bought the restaurant and made it the great American diner that it is today. Every day offers a different special: meatloaf Monday to fish Friday. Everybody has their favorite meal, from Crunchy French Toast – breakfast is served all day – to Chicken Pot Pie with mashed potatoes. A gas leak in old equipment caused a fire that burned the beloved restaurant to the ground in 2010. Though John thought he might move to one of the Leesburg storefronts, it just wasn’t to be, and he brought Wolfy’s back out of the ashes at the same location. Today, it is still one of the most popular restaurants in town, and many of the earlier employees still work there.
Compassion from the heart
Mary Valbuena of Mount Dora has been instrumental in raising $2 million for patient care through Women for Hospice, a group that provides funds for the not-for-profit Cornerstone Hospice.
She has been involved with Women for Hospice for 30 years and is one of the early members.
Mary joined after Erymne Pearson, the group founder, asked her to be in the group, handling the money from the Hospice Hope Chest in downtown Mount Dora. Hospice Hope Chest represents about 60 percent of the group’s annual $100,000 gift.
She’s pleased that Women for Hospice has been vital in raising funds to benefit thousands of hospice patients over the years.
“I admire that all the money goes to patient care; it doesn’t go for salaries or anything like that,” she says.
However, Mary recalls when the club members felt compelled to help make the last days on earth more comfortable for one patient.
“It was a man dying of cancer, and it was summertime and very hot. We bought him a window-unit air conditioner,” she says. “Even though he passed away, the family could use it. We didn’t want it back or anything. The best part of being in the group has been helping others.”
More than 300 women are members of Women for Hospice, she says. The group often meets for monthly luncheons, and Mary believes more women would enjoy being involved in the organization since its devoted to helping patients in need.
Helping patients has always been part of Mary’s life. As a retired nurse, she assisted her orthopedic surgeon husband, Julio, at his Eustis office and when he performed surgeries. Married for 54 years, the pair moved to Florida from Connecticut in 1971 and raised five children. They now have 14 grandchildren.
Mary recently retired from the board of Women for Hospice after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, yet she intends to remain a member.
“Any way that I can be a help, I will be,” she says. “I want to do anything they need.”
Many times a church was opened before a town was fully established. These lovely churches are a part of Lake and Sumter counties’ history.
New Song Community Church
118 W. McClendon St., Lady Lake
This church was established as Equity Baptist Church and is the oldest church building in town with an original operating bell. It contains a short pew in the back that belonged to the only African-American man who attended services.
Holy Trinity Episcopal
2201 Spring Lake Rd., Fruitland Park
The ministry of this church began in 1886, when Florida still was being settled by pioneers. Many groups came from the British Isles and they wanted an Episcopal Church, so they raised funds and built the church in 1888. It’s considered “carpenter gothic,” a modification of an English church style.
Mount Olive African American Episcopal Church
1630 N Grandview St., Mount Dora
Services were originally held under a brush arbor and, according to historic papers, the church was constituted in 1906. The building was erected in 1912 and dedicated in 1915.
Mascotte United Methodist Church
441 S. Main Ave., Groveland
Built by men in the community on land donated by Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon W. Fiske, with lumber donated by J.W. Dulton.
Union Congregational Church
302 N. St. Clair Abrams Ave., Tavares
Organized in April 1885, this sanctuary was built on land donated in 1888 by the founder of the city of Tavares, Maj. Alexander H. St. Clair Abrams.
First United Methodist Church of Umatilla
100 W. Guerrant St., Umatilla
Located at 100 W. Guerrant St. and added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 2000.
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
317 S. Mary St., Eustis
The first service in the Gothic Revival building was held in May 1883. It took several years to complete the building, and it was consecrated by Bishop Weed in April 1890.
St. James Episcopal Church
204 Lee St., Leesburg
In 1885, a small group organized the Protestant Episcopal Society of Leesburg. It became a mission and, in 1889, the first service was held in the Gothic-style church.
Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church
720 12th St., Clermont
Catholic families began gathering as early as 1910 in homes to celebrate Mass. In 1933, a mission church was built, and the first Mass was offered on Christmas Day 1933.
First Baptist Church
24125 SR 46, Sorrento
This church began in October 1912 with a group of 22 people. Property was donated by George Battle, and a church was built that has continued to flourish ever since.
420 N. Palm Ave., Howey-in-the-Hills
The community church of Howey-in-the-Hills originated with a meeting of 10 worshipers in their homes before moving to a dilapidated schoolhouse. This was five years before the town was incorporated.
Gant Lake Baptist Church
1444-C 478A, Webster
In 1890 a Baptist Church was organized Among those listed as founders are Rev. and Mrs. George Hayes, Mr. and Mrs. Dan McCleod (Cloud), Mrs. Tom Wilson, and Mrs. Hanritta Wilson. The land was donated by J.B. Gant and George Hayes solely for the purpose of building a church, which is why the community named it in honor of John B. Gant one of the earliest settlers in the area.
She set a strong foundation
Whether she was leading the Home Builders Association or working in local government, Jean Kaminski left her mark on her community.
Jean served as executive director of the Home Builders Association of Lake-Sumter from 1983 to 2008. Under her tutelage, the Tavares-based organization made lasting impacts on the community.
In 1989, the association revived the Parade of Homes, an event where builders showcase their homes to the public. The organization also started continuing education opportunities for homebuilders, built homes for Habitat for Humanity, and expanded programs into Sumter County.
“I loved my job because every day was different,” said Jean, who resides in Tavares with her husband, Frank. “There was always so much going on in so many different areas that going to work every day offered a new adventure.”
After accepting the job in 1983, Jean ran a one-person office. Her duties included attending meetings, planning events, bookkeeping, formulating a newsletter, meeting with government officials, and maintaining media relations. She also attended county commissioner meetings and city council meetings.
“I was always blessed with a supportive board of directors who were very hardworking. I never felt like I was rowing the boat alone,” she says.
By 1900, more than 3,000 miles of tracks throughout the state helped launch Florida’s growth.
The St. Johns & Lake Eustis Railway Company, chartered in 1879, first built the railroad in Astor on the St. Johns River. Passengers and freight came down the river from Jacksonville on steamboats and boarded the train in Astor for ports on Lake Eustis, Lake Dora, and Lake Harris. The tracks went through Altoona, Umatilla, and Fort Mason before reaching Eustis. To go farther south, travelers moved to lake steamers.
A line from Tavares to Orlando was chartered in 1881 as Tavares, Orlando & Atlantic. The construction of 32 miles of track to Orlando via Lake Jem, Zellwood, Plymouth, and Apopka was completed in 1884.
The line to Eustis was completed in 1880 and then continued south through Tavares to Lane Park on Big Lake Harris. A 15-mile extension put it in Fort Mason around the north and west sides of Lake Eustis. There was a break for the St. Johns & Lake Eustis Railway when it was leased to the Florida Southern Railway Company, but the lease was canceled in 1890, and the company was back in business until 1893, when it went bankrupt.
Established in 1883, Lady Lake most likely owes its success to the railroad built there. It was sold to Florida Southern Railway in April 1884. Though the depot is gone now, the Puc Puggy Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a historical marker.
The railroad came to Leesburg in 1884 and served as a land bridge for the river and the steamboat traffic to provide transportation to Central Florida’s interior. By that time, this was a large system that went from Fernandina Beach to Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Ocala, Wildwood, Leesburg, and Tavares.
The railroad came to town through the Tavares and Gulf as the Sanford & Lake Eustis Railway in 1885. The construction in Sanford continued the route through Sylvan Lake, Sorrento, and Mount Dora before reaching Tavares in 1887. Built in 1915, the Mount Dora passenger and freight depot is still standing and on the National Register of Historic Places. It houses the Mount Dora Chamber of Commerce. The Tavares and Gulf railroad served this area until 1969, moving grapes, citrus, and vegetables as the main freight.
This train depot was built to service a section of the Henry B. Plant Railroad System that went from Tampa to Savannah. In 1978, the original train depot was donated to Cracker Country museum, on the Florida State Fairgrounds, by Seaboard Coastline Railroad. The museum allows visitors to sit in the original waiting room and stand in the ticket office that Florida pioneers used.
The line from Wildwood to Orlando stopped running in 1954, the tracks from Leesburg to Tavares were abandoned in 1982, along with the tracks from Wildwood to Leesburg in 2008, but the historic branch of Florida Central Railroad is still active more than 125 years since it began. The depot, built in 1947 by Seaboard Air Line Railroad, now serves as a bus station for Amtrak’s Thruway Motorcoach bus systems.
Goodbye, Old Friend
The Orange Blossom Cannonball and the Lake Dora Limited have left Lake County. For six years, residents and visitors enjoyed rides on the great locomotive between Tavares, Mount Dora, and Sorrento. The trips were especially fun at Christmastime, when Santa went along, and at Halloween, when children received pumpkins. The beautiful old trains will be greatly missed, but stay on the lookout for them. The Cannonball was built in 1907 and is known as “America’s Movie Train,” having appeared in the TV miniseries “North and South,” and the films “True Grit,” “Appaloosa,” “3:10 to Yuma,” and “There Will Be Blood.”
Celebrating a centennial and high rankings
The iconic El Campeon Golf Course—The Champion—at Mission Inn Resort and Club in Howey-in-the-Hills was built a century ago on land of former citrus groves.
The course opened its first nine holes in 1917, and is hailed as an original member of the Florida Historic Golf Trail.
Mission Inn and its golf amenities earned high rankings through the years, including No. 2 in the United States, based on Golf Adviser player surveys.
“The hotel was just ranked No. 9 in the United States for layout and design and El Campeon is the only course in Florida to be recognized in the top 10 for layout and design,” says Drew Toth, marketing director for Mission Inn Resort and Club. “It’s a big deal to us because we are compared to our peers.”
The acreage that is now Mission Inn Resort and Club all began when businessman John “Bill” Howey bought land in Lake County in 1914. He hired golf professional and architect George O’Neil of Chicago to design the course when the property—first called Florida Chain-O-Lakes Country Club—was one of the first in the Sunshine State with grass greens. The design was upgraded in 1926 and the club was renamed Floridian Country Club.
Years later, in May 1964, Illinois businessman Nick Beucher spotted a classified advertisement in the Wall Street Journal that the 18-hole golf course on 168-acre property near Orlando was for sale. He purchased the Floridian Country Club in September 1964 and went to work to renovate the golf course, club house, and enhance the resort with Spanish architecture.
The award-winning Mission Inn now features 176 hotel rooms, fresh-water fishing, marina, full-service spa, three restaurants, and 30,000 square feet of group space for meetings, weddings, and special events.
A second golf course, Las Colinas –The Hills—opened in 1992 and was designed by former PGA Tour player Gary Koch. Golf Digest proclaimed it as “best new resort course” when it opened.
Mission Inn remains in the Beucher family; today, the second and third generation is actively involved in the daily operations.
Tailored for Tradition
It’s a familiar store on Leesburg’s Main Street. For 67 years later, Getzel’s has kept the men in the area looking stylish.
The phone rang constantly at Getzel’s Department Store on a recent weekday morning while two men took turns being assisted by owner Freddie Mularsky. One customer wanted a white suit for his sister’s funeral; the other came for a black tuxedo for the Black and White Ball in The Villages.
Freddie, 57, gives his undivided attention just like his late parents Getzel and Betty Mularsky did when they opened the popular store Feb. 1, 1950.
The 127 W. Main St. shop in downtown Leesburg specializes in ethnic clothing and men’s apparel of pants, suits, jackets, ties, shirts, shoes, hats, socks and accessories, yet it has a nostalgic feel—the same cash register and décor from when Freddie’s parents and brother Melvin ran the store.
“I love helping people,” Freddie says. “I love the memories—people coming in and telling me about my parents and my brother.”
He envisions his deceased family members being pleased the business lives on.
Getzel’s has remained in the same location for 67 years while other department stores that once were on Main street—Penney’s, Sears, Woolworth’s, McCrory’s—all left downtown decades ago.
“I hope my mom, dad, and my brother Melvin are happy because I’m still trying to please them,” Freddie says.
It would have been easy for him to close up shop since he’s a retired schoolteacher who taught for 30 years, including 18 of these at Leesburg High School before ending his career at Tavares Middle School.
“Running Getzel’s is not as easy as teaching school,” says Freddie, who happily continues the traditions his parents started, including giving away socks with every pair of shoes purchased.
“We have been doing that for 67 years; we have given away hundreds of thousands of socks,” he says.
“I’m impressed,” says first-time customer Mel McLaughlin of The Villages, and a member of Sophisticated Gents. “My friend, Art, bought his tux here and he recommended Getzel’s to me.”
Freddie credits customers from The Villages for boosting business while Freddie’s son, Nathan, 29, says being in Getzel’s is special. “It brings back memories of my grandfather,” he adds.
The State Theater
109 N. Bay St., Eustis
What began as a vaudeville theater has become a treasured part of the lively scene on Bay Street in Eustis. The State Theater not only presented live entertainment in those early days, it was a place for “moving pictures” accompanied by one of the largest “photo play” pipe organs in the Southeast. The Southern premiere of the first sound motion picture, “The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson, was held at the State before going to Tampa and Miami. Eventually, it became just a movie house. Unfortunately, the doors closed in 1974, but not for long. In 1975, the founding members of the Bay Street Players worked tirelessly to clean and paint the building, and make it usable again. They debuted “Hello Dolly” in July of that year and are still going, becoming owners of the building in 1986. Further renovations are underway. The troupe stages five plays a year, plus the Young People’s Theatre, which is the longest-running program of its kind in Central Florida. Deborah J. Carpenter, box office manager, is one of the founding members of the theater group.
Horse driver extraordinaire
In elite horse and carriage-driving competitions throughout Europe, Canada and the U.S., Gloria Austin is lauded as a one of the world’s premier four-in-hand drivers.
“For me to be able to handle four 1,200-pound horses and a 3,000-pound coach and be in the same company as wealthy men and be accepted by them socially is probably my motivating force,” she says.
Gloria made the move 35 years ago to the Lady Lake/Weirsdale area from New York to start the Austin Carriage Museum and the Continental Acres Equine Resort.
“I wanted to be in the most rural, isolated place I could find in Central Florida,” she recalls. “I came here for the weather and so that I could use my horses year round. The collecting of carriages has given me an opportunity to go around the world, and being here and actually setting up the museum gave me an opportunity to share the history of horses and carriages that I learned along the way.”
Seventy people a day were visiting the museum when she sold it in 2011, yet she still owns the carriages, artifacts, and educational material inside the museum. She also lives on the spacious property.
The museum at 3000 Marion County Road, Lady Lake, now called Grand Oaks Carriage Museum, continues to house the world’s largest private collections of carriages and equine artifacts. Visitors can see more than 160 European and American carriages, including the elaborate 1850 Armbruster Dress Chariot once owned by an emperor of Austria.
“I am still driving four horses every morning,” says Gloria, who was recently preparing for an international weekend event for the Carriage Association of America.
She has published seven books about the history of horses and carriages. Her latest book, “Carriage Lamps,” came out last month. She has two more books in the works.
“The philosophy that I have writing contemporary books is at least 50 percent of each page has to be pictures,” she says.
Gloria also devotes time as president of the Equine Heritage Institute, a not-for-profit, and its website along with GloriaAustin.com allows her to continue to share her passion for horses and carriages.
A place where the smiles sparkle as brightly as the jewelry
Gruy “Smiley” Merry opened Merry Jewelers seven decades ago. Judy Merry is thrilled to continue the tradition of running the store her beloved father founded in downtown Eustis.
“Daddy started it in 1946,” recalls Judy, 75. “I would come down after school to help him as a little girl.”
After she married and had her own children, Judy returned to Merry Jewelers. In 1965, her father decided to retire, but after the death of his wife in 1986, Judy encouraged him to come out of retirement, and the two worked alongside each other again.
“I feel really blessed. Not only did I have a wonderful father whom everyone just loved and he loved them, too, but he left a wonderful business behind for me to carry on,” she says. “A business which I truly love very much—I love every facet of it.”
Her father visited Merry Jewelers in his later years before he died Feb. 23, 2016—two months after turning 100.
“Every day I hear some really nice stories about my dad,” Judy says. “I admired his love for people. He was honest; everybody loved and respected him.”
It was her father’s infectious smile that people often noticed, along with his upbeat personality and friendliness.
Judy credits her father with teaching her to respect customers, give them good service, and to be honest.
Her father graduated in 1934 from Eustis High School and served two years in the military as a part of the U.S. Navy SeaBees while stationed in the Philippines during World War II. He entered the jewelry business after the war.
Judy is pleased her daughter, Merri, works at the store—allowing the family tradition of Merry Jewelers to keep going.
Decades of compassion
Providing empathy, compassion, respect, and services to families during the loss of their loved ones is a top priority for the local and family-operated funeral homes in Lake and Sumter counties.
Beyers Funeral Home and Crematory
1123 W. Main St., Leesburg
279 S Central, Umatilla
134 N. U.S. Highway 441, Lady Lake
24540 SR 40, Astor
114 W. Noble St., Bushnell
Beyers will soon hit the century mark of remaining local and family operated since 1920. According to the company website, Ivan E. Beyers purchased the LC Page Funeral home in Leesburg in 1931 and relocated Beyers Funeral Home to its present site. In 1956, Byers built Central Florida’s first stand-alone funeral chapel. A crematory was added in 1987.
410 N. Webster St., Wildwood
Banks/Page Theus has served Sumter County regions for decades. The founders were Coleman Banks along with Lonnie Page and his son-in-law, Cecil Theus.
Hiers-Baxley Funeral Services
1511 Buenos Aires Blvd., The Villages
Hiers-Baxley is privately owned and has been serving North Central Florida since 1885. It expanded out of the Ocala area 11 years ago.
Page Theus Funeral Home
914 W. Main St., Leesburg
Page Theus has served the Leesburg community since 1924. Lonnie Page and his son-in-law, Cecil Theus, were the founders.
Steverson, Hamlin & Hilbish Funerals and Cremations
Steverson, Hamlin & Hilbish has been serving the Tavares area since 1959. Hermon Steverson, Verdual Hamlin, and Art Hilbish started it.
Hamlin & Hilbish Funeral Directors
Hamilin & Hilbish in Eustis has been under the same local owners since 1974. Verdual Hamlin was joined by Arthur and Carol Gill Hilbish when they purchased the former Zeller Kennedy & Hamlin Funeral Home.
Places with a Past
A place where families lived stays in memories forever. It’s always exciting, however, when the building remains holding those memories in its precious walls while looking to the future.
17408 E. Porter Ave., Montverde
One of the oldest houses in the area, it is a two-story, frame vernacular home with an exotic and very tall monkey-puzzle tree in front of it. Built by Reuben Wyatt Harper as his family home, it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 2004.
1218 W. Broad St., Groveland
Built by Elliott Erastus “E.E.” Edge, who founded Edge Lumber Company along with several other businesses, including farming, citrus, and a department store. His son, L. Day Edge, was Groveland’s first mayor.
Clermont Historic Village
490 West Ave., Clermont
This historic area was created to keep historic buildings intact though they had to be moved. The Herring Hooks one-room schoolhouse dates back to 1881; Cooper Memorial Library was built in 1914; the Kern House and Townsend House were built in 1895.
1195 W. Magnolia St., Leesburg
Eight-term Leesburg Mayor Edward H. Mote and his wife, Lucretia, built the house for $9,000. The Motes left in 1908 and Bishop Henry Clay Morrison had it until John S. Morris bought it in 1918. It was moved to its current location in the late 1980s. It recently became home to the Leesburg Chamber of Commerce offices and will be open daily for tours and events.
1001 Citrus St., Howey-in-the-Hills
Citrus magnate William J. Howey built and lived in this 20-room mansion until his death in 1938, and his wife lived there until she died in 1981. After several owners, it was abandoned. However, the William J. Howey Mansion Community Restoration Project, led by Realtor Jacklyn Cheatham, is committed to preserving and restoring the beautiful mansion to its original glory.
Fruitland Park Community Center
604 W. Berckman St., Fruitland Park
The wood-frame Cracker-style building is more than a century old and originally was a casino built by hotelier George T. Clark. When the city’s progress posed a threat of the building being torn down, a historical society was quickly organized and now the building is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. However, the building was demolished in January.
240 E. Lady Lake Blvd., Lady Lake
Built by John Wilson Dyches, the house is Folk Victorian style with decorative double front doors and scrollwork on the porch railing. Something notable about Dyches is that he was married five times.
6106 CR 44A, Wildwood
Built by state Sen. David H. Baker in Orange Home, Baker House is a beautiful example of Victorian architecture. It has a two-story front porch under a Spanish-moss draped oak tree. There also is a separate two-story kitchen house. Fortunately, much of the main house has the original wood floors and a beautiful stained-glass window on the second floor. Now a landmark in Sumter County, it was donated to the city of Wildwood in 2012, and the Wildwood Area Historical Association is restoring it.