Driving along the U.S. Highway 27/441 corridor that dissects a good portion of Lake County, it’s easy to miss the small city of Fruitland Park. If you’ve visited Lake Griffin State Park, though, you’ve been to one of Fruitland Park’s most cherished treasures. And there is more if you look just beyond the highway’s seemingly endless road construction.
STORY: Mary Ann DeSantis / PHOTOS: Fred Lopez+Matthew Gaulin
Take a westerly turn off U.S. Highway 441 onto Fruitland Park’s historic Berckman Street and you’ll find neighborhoods, lakes, and city parks tucked behind massive oak trees lining the streets. The quiet charm belies the noise and congestion of the highway that many people associate with Fruitland Park.
All that road construction is a harbinger for the growth that Fruitland Park will soon experience. The Villages of Fruitland Park, an extension of Florida’s fastest growing active adult community, will bring 2,000 new homes and a steady stream of new residents. Predictions are Fruitland Park’s population will double after the new development opens in 2015. Encompassing more than 700 acres just off County Road 466A, the development is also expected to bring to the area commercial development that often accompanies The Villages. Anticipating the growth, city leaders recently outlined a five-year plan that includes new enhancements and amenities for Fruitland Park, including better signage, a visitors’ center, and historical museum.
At first glance, Fruitland Park may not seem like a place that has much to offer visitors and new residents, but that is not the case. Just ask the locals who recommend its small town charms and family friendly amenities. And, of course, the town’s unique history certainly adds to the sense of place for many newcomers and residents alike.
Fruitland Park has seen its share of changes since the area was first settled prior to the American Civil War by M. Calvin Lee of Leesburg’s Evander Lee family. The person who may have had the biggest influence on Fruitland Park’s history, however, was Major Orlando P. Rooks, a horticulturist originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, who built a home on Crystal Lake in 1877. Major Rooks chose the name Fruitland Park in honor of his friend J.P. Berckman, who owned Fruitland Nurseries of Augusta, Ga. Rooks also named the town’s main street, Berckman Street.
All did not go smoothly, however. Postal authorities refused to recognize the name because Florida already had a Fruitland, and they requested the name to be changed to Gardenia in 1884. The railroad that came through town had already listed Fruitland Park on all its printed materials and refused to recognize the name of Gardenia. For four years, confusion reigned as freight had to be directed to Fruitland Park while mail was addressed to Gardenia. In 1888, the postal service relented and granted the petition to change the name back to Fruitland Park.
The name Gardenia lives on, though, with one of the most popular city parks located next to the library on Berckman Street. The complex includes a swimming pool, soccer and football field, playground, and one of Lake County’s oldest skateboard parks.
CURRENT POPULATION: 4,181 (2012)
SIZE: 3.7 square miles
Mayor: Chris Bell
Commissioners: Sharon Kelly, Chris Cheshire, John Gunter, and Albert Goldberg
Police Chief: Terry Isaacs
City Manager: Gary La Venia
BUCKET AND DIPPER CLUB
Welcoming an onslaught of new residents from outside the Deep South is nothing new for Fruitland Park. During the 1800s, the community had a steady stream of settlers from Ohio, Illinois, Maine, and England. In 1863, Londoner R.F.E. Cooke immigrated to Florida with a group of British colonists. He later became a banker, businessman, and a prime mover in Lake County. In fact, so many Brits came that Fruitland Park had its own English community. Englishman A. P. Bosanquet built a boarding house on Zephyr Lake, called Zephyr Hall, where the American, British and Colonial Racing Association was formed. The first organized races were held in 1887, and guests also participated in fox hunts and played golf. English residents also formed the Bucket and Dipper Club for those who were British by birth or had been born to British subjects. The club was known for its parties, dances, theatrical productions, and for its only method of refreshment — a dipper of water from a bucket.
Near Zephyr Hall, a Carpenter Gothic style church was built in 1888 and still stands as one of Florida’s oldest church buildings. Holy Trinity Episcopal Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also home to the oldest “lych gate” in Florida, given to the church in 1889 by Emily Tatham. The lych gate was used in British and European churchyards as a resting place for coffins.
Many of Fruitland Park’s homes are examples of early 20th century architecture. One eye-catching building is the “casino,” built in 1914. Early Florida casinos were just community gathering places, no gambling allowed. The restored casino on Rose Avenue is still used as a community center and the home of biweekly senior socials.
The go-karts look like small replicas of Daytona 500 cars, and the pint-size drivers are every bit intense as NASCAR legend Kyle Busch as they make their turns toward the finish line. Fruitland Park’s Speedway Park has been offering family fun since 1958 when it began as the Micro-Midget Race Track. Operated as a non-profit organization, Speedway Park is Florida’s oldest 1/6 mile dirt go-kart race track, and generations of Fruitland Park youngsters have spent their Saturdays feeling the wind in their hair, learning about safety, and competing for trophies. For information, visit www.speedwaypark.biz.
LAKE GRIFFIN STATE PARK
Home to one of the state’s largest mammoth oak trees, Lake Griffin is a great place to hike, kayak, or enjoy a picnic. No swimming allowed, though, because the alligator population is quite healthy. Anglers have found the park’s canal to be an excellent access for Lake Griffin, the eighth largest lake in Florida.
The iconic Fruitland Park Café on U.S. Highway 441 is where the locals gather, especially for the legendary “Nawlins Style French Toast” and 50-cent cups of coffee for breakfast. Open from 6a.m. to 2p.m. every day, the café is all about honoring its customers and supporting local causes including Fruitland Park Days and the local elementary school.