From the sacred grounds of a cemetery for the men and women who served their country to the pastures of a ranch that is a haven for rescued horses, Lake and Sumter counties are home to some Extraordinary Places. Learn the history of two of the most famous houses in Lake County and tour a modern home with its 21st century technology and beauty.
Never to be forgotten
College project preserves memories of veterans interred at cemetery.
Florida National Cemetery, 6502 SW 102nd Ave., Bushnell
Story: Chris Gerbasi // Photo: Fred Lopez
If not for a history project, Frieda Lambrecht may have remained a largely anonymous veteran of the military.
Visitors at Florida National Cemetery, where she is buried, might not have realized that Frieda rose through the ranks of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps to become a master sergeant and served during World War II and the Korean War. And they never would have learned about her connection to Lake County after the war.
Florida National Cemetery in Sumter County is a place of history, but its stories still are unfolding in the present.
Dozens of University of Central Florida students spent this year documenting and archiving the lives of veterans buried at the cemetery so a new generation can learn more about their history. UCF was one of three universities selected in March to participate in the National Cemetery Administration’s Veterans Legacy Program. The project engages students in researching and writing about veterans’ graves and monuments.
Student Janelle Malagon chose to tell the story of Frieda and her husband, Warrant Officer Conrad Lambrecht.
“I started researching Master Sergeant Lambrecht’s life and service after walking and photographing large sections of the Florida National Cemetery, surprised to find that a woman—a master sergeant, no less—had served in World War II and Korea,” she says.
Janelle used public resources of the Seminole County Public Library System, where she found birth, marriage, and military records through ancestry.com. Using a newspaper subscription service, she looked through records that are nearly a century old to find information on Frieda’s early life in Germany.
These sources also provided the necessary information to reconstruct an image of Frieda’s return to civilian life, as well as her career after the Korean War. In 1955, Frieda and Conrad moved to Umatilla, and she worked as a surgical assistant at Waterman Memorial Hospital in Eustis, Janelle says.
More than 150,000 veterans and family members are interred at Florida National Cemetery in the Withlacoochee State Forest. UCF students tackled the research for about 120 veterans, and also guided a field trip to the cemetery to educate local middle and high school students about the service and sacrifice of the veterans.
UCF students are compiling interactive digital archives of the veterans for a website exhibit, and also created an “augmented reality” interactive app featuring student-authored biographies. This means visitors to the cemetery can access veterans’ stories while standing at the individual grave sites researched for the project.
The program has special meaning to Emily Johnson, a UCF postdoctoral research associate and proud Sumter resident who lives in Webster. She’s a spouse and a granddaughter of veterans.
“The Veterans Legacy Program emphasizes honoring our veterans by recording their stories, which is also something I am thankful I did with my grandfather before he passed,” she says. “I’m thrilled that this project is encouraging educators and students at UCF and local K-12 schools to come here to honor and learn about our heroes in beautiful Bushnell.”
Emily, a former South Sumter Middle School teacher, volunteered to work at one of the learning stations on the cemetery field trip, helping seventh-graders write thank-you notes to veterans.
“The letters these students wrote were beautiful—sincere and sweet—likely because of everything they had been learning at the other stations that day,” she says.
The project is a revelation for the college students, says Amelia Lyons, associate history professor and project leader.
“Learning about the lives and stories of these soldiers is also teaching our students what a historian does,” she says in a UCF web article. “It makes history real for them.”
Janelle, originally from Hialeah, has since graduated from UCF and is now attending graduate school in Minnesota.
“Learning about the incredible life of Master Sergeant Lambrecht was incredibly inspirational to me, especially in my last semester of my undergraduate education,” she says. “My experience with the Veterans Legacy Program has been incredibly helpful in my graduate literary studies, which often focus on genealogical texts.”
The origins of Florida National Cemetery began in 1983, when the state transferred land to the Department of Veterans Affairs for its development. The first interment was in 1988.
Today, relatives and visitors can learn about these veterans in a whole different way thanks to modern technology, and the UCF project has added significance this month as it coincides with Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
From a dream to reality
Remodeling and adding on to a Tavares home were a labor of love for both homeowner Talia Wehrly and builder Bobby Rhodes.
Story: Leigh Neely // Photos: Fred Lopez
Talia Wehrly is a woman of vision, no pun intended, since her husband is ophthalmologist Dr. Scott Wehrly. When the couple decided they wanted to renovate and add on to their home in Tavares, they turned to friend and seasoned builder Bobby Rhodes, of Eco Construction Group in Mount Dora.
The finished product is a nod to Talia’s eclectic style and subdued elegance, and represents the skill of the artisans at Eco Construction and Restoration Hardware, or RH, in Winter Park.
When you walk in, you’re greeted by the Wehrlys’ lively 6-year-old daughter Zoe and three playful dogs who want to be everybody’s friends. The house comes across not just as a place to entertain and display lovely art and furniture, but as a place a family calls home.
Talia and Bobby worked closely together throughout the two-year project, and much of what guests see came from original ideas by Talia.
“I like mixing the crystal with the wood and contemporary with antique to give everything a feminine and masculine look,” Talia says. “We lived here from start to finish, so it’s amazing to see the outcome and difference that Eco Construction crafted. They actually created my vision.”
Work began with the in-law suite built for Talia’s father and his wife. The plans ensured there would be a working kitchen while the main kitchen was being renovated. The front kitchen is open and airy with accented lighting above and below the cabinets. Bobby added a whimsical note with lighting above and below cabinets that changes color.
“The cool part about working with Eco Construction is I tell them the unimaginable things I want and they make it possible,” Talia says.
“I definitely enjoyed that part of it,” Bobby adds. “I thought the idea of the light strip above and under the counters would be unique.”
The workspace in the kitchen has a double-layered counter of quartz done by Counter Impressions in Eustis. There are no signs of seams, which was important to Talia. The gleaming copper kitchen ceiling is accented by a copper stove hood and sink. The unique faucet above the sink was designed by Talia in a drawing she sent to RH, which created it for her. With a wheel and moving parts, it has a steampunk air to it. Above the stove is another useful faucet. It’s a “pot filler” that reaches any stove eye to fill pots with ease.
“I’d get a lot of great ideas when we were talking together,” Talia says. “Bobby and his crew knew I liked to mix materials, and it has been fun from start to finish.”
As you pass down a hallway from the living room, you’ll find an unusual set of stairs leading up to a room that looks like an art gallery/den/game room.
“I’d never seen backlit stairs before, but it looks fantastic” Bobby says.
With thick glass cocooning stairs, the risers are onyx, which is backlit, creating a subdued, elegant atmosphere that leads up to a room filled with original art and a variety of styles. The bar, also made of onyx, is lighted, and the conversation area has a driftwood sofa table with two pieces of tree trunk in front of it. The doors leading to the bathroom and other areas are designed like barn doors and were built by the Eco Construction crew for Talia.
This room also has its own wine cellar for everyday occasions. Downstairs, off the dining room, is the wine cellar that is kept at a constant 56 degrees for the fine wines kept there.
The dining room will seat 16 as Talia cooks for more than 20 guests at Thanksgiving. The table, another unique item, is made from a single piece of wood from a building constructed in the 1890s in Russia with two leaves to extend it.
That the Wehrlys are art lovers is evident throughout their home—from the nature photography done by Peter Lik to the whimsical art of John Whipple from Winter Park. Scattered among these are pieces bought at annual art shows in the area and an array of family photographs and pieces of Zoe’s original artwork that remind you this is home to a loving family.
“It’s life-changing,” says Scott, sitting at the comfortable kitchen counter. “It’s a dramatic, artistic addition to our lives.”
This Old House
In 1892, the Coca-Cola Company incorporated in Atlanta and Lizzie Borden was charged with murder in Massachusetts. In Leesburg, Edward H. Mote began building his home, which still stands today.
Story: Leigh Neely // Photos: Fred Lopez
The Mote-Morris House is a part of history the people of Leesburg were willing to save at any cost. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and moved to its location on Magnolia Street in 1990. It is now home to the Leesburg Chamber of Commerce and often serves as an introduction to the town for businesses and new residents relocating to the city.
“This house is something people seek out,” says Sandi Moore, executive director of the chamber. “It says something about our city, and the most exciting part is how it came to be here. The whole community fought for it. It represents the homes and buildings that didn’t make it.”
The house is open daily now, and self-guided tours are available for the majestic Queen Anne Victorian home, which combines styles with beauty and elegance. Though it’s a two-story home, there’s a four-story turret attached. The house includes a formal parlor, which has a sideboard/buffet that belonged to Evander Lee, the founder of Leesburg. It has three bedrooms and a servant’s room. If you make the climb to the fourth floor of the tower, you’ll find a hammock but no explanation for a faucet in the wall on the third floor.
“We are beyond happy to be here,” says Danielle Parker, operations director. “We have people who have lived here their entire life and have never been able to see this house.”
History lives on with the help of the Leesburg Chamber of Commerce, and the public is always welcome, whether an individual or a group.
“It’s building on the successes of the past that lead to successes in the future,” Sandi says.
The house is also available for weddings and other events, with the kitchen updated for modern caterers.
Mote-Morris House timeline:
1889: Edward H. Mote bought property at 1021 W. Main St.
1892: The Mote House was built for $9,000
1908: Bishop Henry Clay Morrison bought it for retirement and added electricity
1918: John S. and May James Morris bought it, and someone in the Morris family occupied it for the next 70 years
1950s: Robert Morris moved his aging mother May back in to care for her
1973: May died and willed the house to her son and his wife
1974: Placed on the National Register of Historic Places
1988: House is purchased by Morrison United Methodist Church and offered to anyone who will move it
1990: House is relocated to 1195 W. Magnolia St., moved one block south and two blocks west, with $95,000 raised by the community
1996: After seven years and more than $400,000 from city and state grants, the house is restored and celebrated with a gala grand opening
2017: Leesburg Chamber of Commerce relocated its offices to Mote-Morris House
Howey’s historic treasure
The Roaring 20’s were in full swing, and you can visualize F. Scott Fitzgeral walking the grounds of the Howey Mansion.
Story: Theresa Campbell // Photo: Fred Lopez
A stately mansion built in the mid-1920s by Howey-in-the-Hills founder and citrus developer William John Howey is being restored to its glory years, thanks to new owners who want to turn the 20-room Mediterranean Revival-style house into a wedding venue and a bed-and-breakfast showplace.
“We hope to be open to the public in December,” says owner Brad Cowherd, who along with his brother, Clay, was the highest bidder in purchasing the 7,188-square-foot Howey Mansion in July at $630,000.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the rose stucco home with a Spanish tile roof features curved walls, a Florentine beige marble staircase, dome ceiling, a semi-circle of stained glass in a peacock design above the door, brass sconces, carved stone fireplaces, and a large basement safe that was used to store liquor. The house was designed by pioneering female architect Katherine Budd of New York.
Brad is eager to share the mansion’s rich history with the public.
“It’s in amazing condition considering its age,” he says. “I love its secret room for storing liquor in Prohibition times.”
In its early years, the mansion was the site of elegant parties. Former President Calvin Coolidge was one of the prominent guests. To celebrate the completion of the two-year construction of the $250,000 mansion in 1927, town history reveals William hosted the entire New York Civic Opera Company, which included 100 artists. About 15,000 people came to the free outdoor performance.
William served as Howey-in-the-Hills’ mayor from 1925 to 1936 and was unsuccessful in his bids in 1928 and 1932 as a Republican candidate to be Florida’s governor. He died in 1938, and his wife, Mary Grace, lived in the home until her death in 1981.
Chicago heiress Marvel Zona purchased the property in 1984 and lived there until her health deteriorated in 2009. She moved to a Leesburg nursing home, where she died in 2015.
The mansion’s new owner is principal of Florida Oranges Land Co., and a third-generation investor in Central Florida properties.
Howey-in-the-Hills’ town leaders have been working with the Cowherds on a new zoning designation for the historic mansion since it’s in a residential area.
“I am very excited about the mansion opening itself back up, the cultural and architectural value to the town, to the state, and to Lake County,” says Howey-in-the-Hills Mayor Chris Sears, a fourth-generation Floridian who believes activities at the mansion could be an economic boost to the town and is what William Howey would have wanted.
“Mr. Howey brought tourism and agriculture with oranges and real estate. The guy was a visionary long before anybody saw the potential of Florida, so he would want to see the mansion opened back up and return to its former glory, and it is so exciting for the town, it really is,” says the mayor, who relishes seeing work crews restoring the mansion.
“It’s really coming along,” he says. “It is going to be a gem in our town and our county.”
A stable life
Rather than putting horses out to pasture, a nonprofit organization rehabilitates them.
Story: James Combs // Photos: Fred Lopez
Tank, an Appaloosa, was so malnourished he needed to gain 600 pounds to achieve a normal weight.
John, a thoroughbred, has no teeth and must remain on a liquid diet.
Willow, an American quarter horse, spent months eating nothing but sand, causing severe diarrhea that ran down his leg and rotted his skin.
This is the sad shape many horses and ponies find themselves in after being abused, neglected, and unwanted by their owners. However, they find greener pastures upon arriving at Howey Horse Haven Rescue, where Teresa Meixner nurses them back to health and finds them permanent, loving homes.
A resident of Howey-in-the-Hills, Teresa formed the nonprofit organization in 2013. Her five-acre property features oak trees, rolling pastureland, and seven corrals.
“Rescuing horses is like being in the mafia—once you get into it, you cannot get out,” she says. “Just two weeks ago, Willow went running across a pasture, and there was not a dry eye around. When Willow first arrived, his skin was stretched over his bones because he was so skinny.”
Teresa is saddled with much responsibility. As of late September, 17 rescue horses and eight rescue ponies were living on her property. Caring for them is an expensive undertaking, as she spends approximately $4,000 a month for hay, medications, vaccines, and farrier services. To help offset expenses, she makes custom T-shirt decals and sells them on eBay.
“No matter how expensive, I’m going to give these beautiful animals every opportunity to live,” she says. “It’s the ones I cannot save that break my heart.”
Caring for the animals is also time-consuming and physically demanding. Mud, sweat, and tears come with the territory.
“On Sundays, I open the gate at 8am and I’m out there until after dark,” she says. “I have to give them hay, refill their water buckets, refill their feed buckets, groom them, comb them, and whatever else needs to be done. By the end of the day, I have hay in my hair and even under my bra. Mud is caked under my fingernails, and dirt gets in my ear. I take 30-minute showers to get it all out.”
She does receive much-needed help from neighbor Ainsley McFadyen, a 16-year-old sophomore at Real Life Christian Academy in Clermont. Ainsley, an aspiring veterinarian, spends most summer days at Howey Horse Haven Rescue and also visits after school.
“Horses are beautiful animals to be around,” Ainsley says. “Working with the horses has also taught me leadership skills. If you’re not leading them, then they will try to lead you, which can result in injury.”
For Teresa and Ainsley, rehabilitating horses is every bit as therapeutic for them. The words they carved into a wooden fence sum up their passion for horses beautifully:
“Bread may feed my body, but my horse feeds my soul.”
For more information, contact Howey Horse Haven Rescue at 352.223.8761 or visit howeyhorsehavenresuce.org.