CITY SERIES: Eustis — America’s Hometown

Doug Hay's "Heron" sculpture at the Ferran Park fountain in Eustis.

History, arts, entertainment, and progressive ideas draw people to the lakeside city of Eustis.

STORY: Mary Ann DeSantis // PHOTOS: Fred Lopez

“Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

The song lyrics from the 1980s hit series “Cheers” could easily be the theme song for Eustis, the picturesque town that has a reputation for making everyone feel right at home. In fact, the City of Eustis calls itself “America’s Hometown,” and that is how many of the musicians planning to attend the upcoming 16th Annual Lake County Folk Festival feel about it, as well — even the ones from other places.

“A few years ago, Al Scortino, a musician from Sebastian, told everyone prior to the festival that Eustis was the best small town in America,” says Kace Montgomery, a longtime Eustis resident and one of the festival organizers. “We loved that, so we made T-shirts with his quote for all the festival volunteers.”

The musicians come year after year, as if they are returning to their hometown. And so do a lot of others who — like the “Cheers” theme song says — just want to take a break and get away from their worries. Fishing, sailing, and magnificent sunsets on Lake Eustis, the largest water body in the Harris Chain of Lakes, attract visitors year round. Those elements also contributed to Eustis’ image as a resort town for wealthy Northern families during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Bay St. Historic Theater

The first sound motion picture “The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson, had its southern premier at the State Theatre on Bay Street in 1927, even before theaters in Tampa and Miami showed it. The theatre was originally designed to serve as a vaudeville stage as well as a venue for “moving pictures.” The building’s 1922 façade was restored in 2005.

Festivals, restaurants, museums, and a variety of entertainment options continue to make Eustis a popular destination. The Bay Street Players draw more than 17,000 people annually to the award-winning plays and musicals in the iconic and beautifully renovated Historic State Theatre on Bay Street. The elaborate productions, such as the currently running “Lost in Yonkers,” rival those found in much larger cities.

If you like music, then Olivia’s Coffeehouse on Bay Street is the place to be with open mic sessions that attract up and coming musicians from around the state. The coffeehouse has been described as the town’s heart of acoustical music. “Olivia’s is always rocking,” adds Kace.

If music is the heart of the town, art is its soul. At one time, Eustis boasted more public art than any other Florida town its size. Nine pieces of museum-quality art, including the iconic “Heron” sculpture by artist Doug Hays in Ferran Park, are sprinkled throughout the historic downtown area.

Although the Eustis Main Street initiative was recently dismantled, the Public Arts and Music (PAM) grassroots effort that the organization administered is still alive and now falls under the umbrella of the Lake Eustis Institute, a nonprofit educational organization.

“We are looking forward to bringing even more art and music to Lake County,” says Kace.

Festivals have always been a major draw to the lakeside city. The 16th Annual Lake County Folk Festival is scheduled for Oct. 12–13 and is expected to draw more than 8,000 people to the area. The nonprofit event is considered one of the top five acoustic music festivals in Florida.

“The folk festival captures what you should have downtown and what you want in your community. It’s all positive,” says Kace. “And musicians come from all over the state.”

GeorgeFestEustis also has the distinction of hosting the second longest running GeorgeFest in the nation, only behind Laredo, Texas. The first GeorgeFest was held in February 1902 on the grounds of the Ocklawaha Hotel where guests at the hotel enjoyed the festival that depicted Florida’s and the nation’s early history. In 1911, the GeorgeFest crowd was estimated at 2,500 people — twice the size of the actual population of Eustis at the time. In recent years, as many as 10,000 people have attended. The 112th GeorgeFest is scheduled for Feb. 28–March 2 in Ferran Park.

The Alice McClelland Bandshell in Ferran Park

The Mediterranean-style Alice McClelland Bandshell is one of only two historic bandshells remaining in Florida. The other is in Daytona Beach.

The downtown waterfront district lends itself to festivals and events with the beautiful lake walk and renovated Ferran Park, the site of the Mediterranean-style Alice McClelland Bandshell — one of only two historic bandshells remaining in Florida. Originally built on the south end of Ferran Park in 1926, the acoustically designed bandshell was financed by William S. McClelland in honor of his wife, Alice, and donated to the city. When it started to settle and sink, the structure was moved to its current location in 1936.

“The bandshell was the cornerstone of Eustis,” says Ann Huffstedtler Rou, who was born in Eustis. “I have so many personal memories of the bandshell, including being crowned as Miss Eustis there in 1958 and then later seeing my youngest child in a baby contest on that stage.”

Not surprisingly, Ann was instrumental in saving the bandshell in 1992 when it was slated to be demolished because it had fallen into disrepair.

“It was a neglected lady,” she remembers. “Sallie Wallace and I went to Tallahassee and lobbied for an historical preservation grant and got it. Along with some others, we started the Eustis Bandshell Society.”

With private donors and the grant, the city had enough money to restore the bandshell, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is once again a cornerstone among Eustis’ entertainment venues.

Building on the city’s elegant history is important to Eustis residents, but looking to the future is always in the minds of those who want to see the city reach its full potential. Attorney Frank Gaylord, also a native son, says the city is poised to do “a lot of good things.”

He points out the new mixed-use building recently completed on the corner of McDonald Avenue and Eustis Street as an example. “It’s a progressive idea for Eustis, having businesses on the ground floor and residential condos above it,” he says. “We think there will be an appetite for these types of buildings, especially with retiring baby boomers who want to live downtown.

“The first building is always the hardest to do, but we think others will follow,” he says. “And we hope to see more businesses coming in.”

Frank, whose law office is in the same house where he grew up, believes Eustis has a “developable core” area that makes it attractive to businesses. “Our connectivity to the lake is the best in the county,” he says. “Many towns are separated from their lakefronts. We’re not.”

Lake Eustis Sailing Club. Photo by John Cole

The Lake Eustis Sailing Club began in 1953 as the Eustis Marine Club and was more for powerboats than sailboats. That all changed in 1982 when the current name was chosen. Photo by John Cole.

One of the newest downtown businesses will be Lake Eustis Brewing Company, a dream come true for Eustis native Alan Sheppard, who is returning to his hometown to open the microbrewery in late October. Alan has designed breweries around the world for more than 20 years and will be in Barcelona working on a brewery when his son Brendan takes the helm of the Eustis operation. The facility, which will be in the former Harper’s Alley building, will have a tasting room, a “listening” room where acoustic musicians will play regularly, and an art gallery managed by Alan’s mother Mary Ziegengeist, one of the founders of the Lake Eustis Museum of Art.

And just like the song says, everybody will know the Sheppards’ names by the time the first brew is served in “America’s Hometown.”

General Abraham Eustis, for whom the city of Eustis is named.What’s in a name?

The city had a hard time deciding what to call itself after the first settlers arrived in the 1870s. It began as Highlands; then it was named Pendryville after homesteader and postmaster A.S. Pendry. Shortly thereafter, the town was named Lake Eustis for General Abraham Eustis who led several skirmishes against the Seminoles. Around the time the city was incorporated in 1883, the ‘Lake’ was dropped and Eustis became the permanent name.

Image courtesy of the State Archives of FloridaFrank D. Waterman of the Waterman Fountain Pen Company built Fountain Inn, a first-class hotel in downtown Eustis, to capture the growing tourist market in 1923. The hotel operated until 1936, but the impact of the Great Depression killed the resort industry in Eustis. In 1937, Waterman gave the hotel to a group of local doctors to use as a hospital, which became known as the Waterman Memorial Hospital. Florida Hospital Waterman, as it is called today, operated in the heart of downtown Eustis for over 65 years before relocating in 2004 to its current location on U.S. 441.

The Clifford HouseG. D. Clifford, who came to the area in 1875, established the Clifford General Store and began the first mail service for the new settlement that was to become Eustis. The second-floor meeting hall in the store hosted the town’s first churches. Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian groups all organized and held services there. His private residence, the Clifford House on Bay Street, became home to the Eustis Historical Museum and Preservation Society in 1983. The neo-classical house is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Notable Natives

Gunner Wright, Eustis native and film star.Gunner Wright

(born August 26, 1973, in Eustis)
Actor who appeared in the films “Love” and in Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar.” Wright also portrayed the face and voice of Isaac Clarke in the videogames Dead Space 2 and Dead Space 3. He raced motorcycles competitively until the age of 21 when he moved to Southern California.

Thomas McClary, Eustis native and co-founder of The Commodores, preforming at Madison Square Garden in New York, 1972Thomas McClary

(born October 6, 1949, in Eustis)
The co-founder and lead-guitarist of The Commodores, an internationally famous Motown group in the 1970s. He left Eustis to attend college at Tuskegee Institute, where he met fellow student Lionel Richie who became The Commodores lead singer. McClary, who had a successful solo career in the early 1980s, returned to Florida in 1986 and turned to his Christian roots by becoming the music director of his church and forming a gospel music record label under which he released the 2008 album titled A Revolution Not a Revival.

Edgar James Banks, American diplomat, antiquarian, archeologist, and novelist who was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character.Edgar James Banks

(May 23, 1866 – May 5, 1945)
American diplomat, antiquarian, archeologist, and novelist who was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character. Banks also started two movie companies and climbed Mount Ararat in a search for Noah’s Ark. Cecil B. DeMille invited him to become a consultant on Bible epics in 1921. Banks was an active lecturer and author, and during a 1921 lecturing trip, he discovered Eustis and decided to retire here. The Eustis Historical Museum features one room called the “Indiana Jones Room,” which is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Banks.

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