The mention of Lady Lake to non-Floridians most likely conjures up a picture of sunshine glistening on a serene lake surrounded by beautiful trees. And that image isn’t too far from reality. Lady Lakers indeed have lots of lakes and magnificent tree-lined streets hidden just beyond the always-busy Highway 441 corridor.
story: Mary Ann DeSantis / photos: Fred Lopez
Lady Lake has had to work hard to maintain its small town charm. In the 1950s, Highway 441 cut through the center of the downtown area taking with it the quiet, peaceful days where life went by at a much slower pace. Then came The Villages, an active retirement community where life is anything but slow. Despite the massive growth around the Lake County’s most northwestern town, Lady Lake has managed to keep its own identity. Some say what is left of the quaint downtown, including the historical museum in the original 1883 train depot and a picturesque log cabin built in 1935, make passersby take notice. Others believe the residents have created and maintained a sense of community.
Town Incorporated: 1925*Est. 2013 BEBR, University of Florida
Population: 13,947* including approximately 8,500 in the Lake County portion of The Villages.
Size: The Town of Lady Lake covers 8.5 square miles, including 3.2 square miles inside The Villages.
Tipping the Scale: 60 percent of Lady Lake residents are Villagers.
A Salute to Veterans: Lady Lake is home to the largest American Legion Post (#347) in the world with 4,366 members.
Mayor: Ruth Kussard
Commissioners: Jim Richards, Dan Vincent, Tony Holden, and Paul Hannan
Town Manager: Kristen Kollgaard
Chief of Police: Chris McKinstry
Lady Lake Mayor Ruth Kussard, who has lived in The Village of La Reynalda for 15 years, says she is a Lady Laker first, then a Villager. Preserving Lady Lake’s small town atmosphere and a separate identity from The Villages is important to her.
“I am proud to be from Lady Lake,” she says. “We have been able to retain a small town atmosphere because we have so much community involvement from people all over town.”
Mayor Kussard cites many events that have become Lady Lake traditions, such as the Light Up, Lady Lake celebration in December, the twice-yearly Art in the Park, and the town’s Easter Egg Hunt. The weekly farmers market on Tuesday mornings in Log Cabin Park has introduced newcomers to the town’s historical area and has become a meeting place for many longtime residents, as well.
“Of course, the Lady Lake Historical Society’s Museum in the old train depot is a ‘can’t miss’ for anyone who wants to know more about this area,” Mayor Kussard adds. “Knowing a community’s history is important just as it is with the U.S.”
THE ROOTS BEGAN WITH TRANSPORTATION
Most Lady Lake newcomers do not appreciate the significance of the long-gone Slighville on the shores of Lake Griffin. Prior to the Civil War, Sam and Jake Sligh owned a boat landing, which kept the community alive with the comings and goings of steamers along the chain of lakes. All that changed, however, when the Tropical Railroad laid tracks a few miles west connecting Wildwood and Leesburg, and the preferred mode of transportation quickly tilted toward rail. A train depot was built in 1883, and almost all of Slighville’s residents packed up and moved to the new community. Even Sam Sligh himself moved to Lady Lake, where he built a large three-story hotel in 1885.
The lyrical-sounding name of Lady Lake almost did not happen. Railroad executives preferred the name of Cooper, after a contractor who worked on the line. The early settlers, however, insisted on the name Lady Lake after a lake east of town where a legend says Indians found a woman who had drowned there. Despite the inauspicious origins for a name, the community grew into one of Central Florida’s most picturesque towns. Early residents Loveard Lee and Dr. Newton C. Stevens led the efforts to beautify the town and little oak trees were planted along many of the streets. By the time the town was incorporated in 1925, some of those little oaks had grown into a magnificent moss-draped tree canopy along East Lady Lake Boulevard. That picturesque scene near Lake Hermosa was featured in the June 16, 1928, issue of the Saturday Evening Post and became known nationally as “Cathedral Arch.”
The railroad created growth for Lady Lake and surrounding towns like Wildwood and Fruitland Park, but growth became stagnant when the railroads ceased operating through the area in the late 1960s. Lady Lake fell back into being just another sleepy little town, occasionally known as a speed trap along Highway 441.
The town was awakened rather quickly, however, after entrepreneur and developer Harold Schwartz began expanding a manufactured home park that he bought in the 1970s. His concept for an active retirement community called The Villages took off just north of Lady Lake’s main downtown area in the 1980s. By the turn of the 21st century, the population in The Villages was about 21,000; today, it is closing in on 100,000, and approximately 8,500 Lady Lake residents have a Villages address.
Large businesses, including Kohl’s and Sam’s Club, recognized the area’s growth potential early on, and Mayor Kussard says more is coming. She attributes much of the town’s success to how well the Lady Lake and The Villages have worked together.
“So many of our services are combined, like the police department that patrols the Lake County portion of The Villages, as well as Lady Lake,” she says. “The people in both the town and in The Villages are all great and very cooperative — working with them is one of the best things about my job.”
Did you know?
THE LEGEND OF LADY LAKE
No one knows for sure how the lake known as Lady Lake really got its name. The most popular legend says that local Indians found a woman’s body there, an apparent suicide because her husband was gone so much. One version says the husband was a Native American hunter while another says it was an early settler whose husband was a trapper. Another explanation is the lake is shaped like a woman’s profile. Surprisingly, the lake is not within the Lady Lake town limits, and its shores are surrounded by private properties so very few people can check out the profile theory.
The log cabin on the corner of Highway 441 and West Lady Lake Boulevard is certainly the town’s focal point. Built in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) with pine logs from the area, the cabin was originally a community center and town hall. According to the Lady Lake Historical Society’s book The Story of Lady Lake, the doors were open during town meetings so that residents could see and hear the proceedings. Today, the log cabin is home to the Lady Lake Chamber of Commerce.
EVERYTHING BUT MILK
Lady Lake’s General Feed Store was built in 1926 on West Lady Lake Boulevard and carried everything but milk, which had to be purchased at dairies in Fruitland Park or Leesburg. The original building still stands and now houses the Ye Olde Thrift Shop, operated by volunteers from The Villages Regional Hospital Auxiliary.
Before the Town of Lady Lake was incorporated in 1925, another community existed briefly in the late 1880s. Conant, named after a Florida Southern Railroad financier, was a thriving community with a three-story hotel, a ladies finishing school, a general store, and large homes. The town’s founders were snobbish and did not accept people who did their own work or sent their children to public schools. Most of the hard-working residents moved to friendlier towns and Conant fell into hard times when the hotel couldn’t attract guests. The only visible remnant of Conant is a railroad sign.
In February 2007, a tornado struck the Lady Lake area killing eight people and damaging nearly 200 homes. Actor John Travolta, a part-time Ocala resident, sponsored a motorcycle run to raise money for Lady Lake tornado victims during the opening of his movie, “Wild Hogs.” The Lady Lake Historical Museum currently displays the large checks used in the dedication ceremony.
SHOP UNTIL YOU DROP… OR UNTIL 1P.M.
One of Lady Lake’s most popular events is its Tuesday morning farmers market at Log Cabin Park. Local vendors set up shop from 9a.m. to 1p.m. Be sure to stick around for lunch to try the popular pulled pork from Darryl Harris, pictured left, of Jake’s BBQ.
The Villages: A Lady Lake “suburb”
A history of Lady Lake is incomplete without mentioning The Villages. The two are so entwined that it’s hard to know when you are leaving one and entering the other. And many newcomers think the Town of Lady Lake came about because of The Villages. Not so, according to the Lady Lake Chamber of Commerce.
“Lady Lake is the birthplace of The Villages, not the other way around,” says Peggy Hayes, the chamber’s director. “People on the original side of The Villages staunchly call themselves Lady Lakers.”
Longtime town residents barely took notice when Michigan native Harold Schwartz sold lots for Orange Blossom Gardens on Highway 441 during the 1970s and early ‘80s. The “park” may have contained small manufactured homes, but Schwartz’s vision was to give retirees the “lifestyle of their dreams” with their own golf courses and amenities. In 1983, Schwartz bought out his partner’s interest in the venture and brought in his son, Gary Morse, to manage the property. Morse, who had an advertising background, recognized the possibilities of his father’s vision.
Orange Blossom Gardens grew and began pushing the original boundaries. Schwartz began purchasing large tracts of land on the west side of the Highway 441. In 1985, Orange Blossom Gardens was annexed into the Town of Lady Lake. The first “town square” was a community plaza on La Grande Boulevard, where nightly fiestas were held. By then, amenities included two pools, horseshoe, bocce ball and tennis courts, and the front-nine of the Orange Blossom Hills golf course.
By 1987, the development had $40 million in annual sales and the “village” concept was created. The first villages — Del Mar, El Cortez, and Mira Mesa — were built on the Lake County side, and in less than a decade after Schwartz started, the population of Lady Lake grew from 3,000 to more than 10,000.
In 1991, the retirement community officially became known as The Villages, and three years later, Spanish Springs Town Square opened. Designed by the same architectural firm that created Universal Studios in Orlando, Spanish Springs became a huge draw for Villagers and Lady Lake residents with shops, restaurants, nightly live entertainment, and a movie theater.
Today, the population in The Villages is pushing 100,000 with more to come as The Villages has announced plans to expand farther into Lake County by building over 2,000 homes in Fruitland Park.
THE VILLAGES VITAL STATS
Population: 93,420* (*First quarter 2013 estimate by Forbes.com)
Size: 32 square miles over Lake, Sumter, and Marion counties
Governing Bodies: Village Community Development Districts (VCCD)
THE VILLAGES BY THE NUMBERS*:*Est. 2013 BEBR, University of Florida
70+ Villages neighborhoods
9 regional recreation centers
21 neighborhood recreation centers, as of Sept. 1.
11 championship golf courses
30 nine-hole executive golf course
90 miles of golf cart trails
3 town squares