Spanish conquistadors arrive in the 1500s and admire the natural beauty of the land, naming it Florida, “place of flowers.” They also discover Native Americans of the Timucuan tribe living in settlement throughout Central Florida, including Winter Park. Over the years, the Spanish force the Timucuans into mission villages and in less than 200 years, war, intermarriage, disease and hunger wipe them out of existence. By 1767 the last known Timucuan dies, and in 1819 the United States purchases Florida from Spain.
When David Mizell, the first white settler, arrives in 1858, he purchases eight acres of land, builds a log cabin home in the scrub pines, and names the region “Lake View.”
Opportunities for adventure, profit, or a new beginning attract many folks to relocate to an untamed Florida. These hearty settlers follow old Indian trails around the lakes and see little civilization for miles.
New Englanders Oliver Chapman and his friend Loring A. Chase purchase 600 acres bordering Lakes Maitland, Osceola, Virginia and Killarney for $13,000. They refer to their property as a “necklace” of lakes surrounding lush acreage. Their goal is to develop a residential community of winter homes for wealthy Northerners — a “planned community.” It is the very first one in Florida and they name the new town “Winter Park”. They designate home sites, a hotel, churches, schools and parks and market their Florida enclave to northerners fleeing harsh weathers. Soon the railroad pulls into Central Park with loads of affluent tourists.
Winter Park’s first official building, a train depot, is dedicated and later in 1882 the post office and the Rogers House hotel open.
“Winter Park is a beautiful winter resort for well-to-do people who wish to escape from the cold and blustering weather (which is) so helpful to colds, coughs, diphtheria, consumption, etc; a collection of beautiful villas in the midst of orange-groves upon acre-lots running to the shores of crystal lakes; a dozen or more large first-class hotels scattered along the 2 mile of lake-frontage — a resort that shall be for the winter what Saratoga, Long Branch, etc., are for the summer. SOCIETY is first-class. A social gathering in Winter Park Town-Hall will bring together as refined and cultivated a company as can be found anywhere, representing nearly every State. “
Chapman and Chase design and build a general merchandise store in 1882 — The Pioneer Store — that also serves as the first school and town hall. The building’s location is the northeast corner of Morse Boulevard and Park Avenue.
In 1885, the First Congregational Church establishes Rollins College. It is Florida’s first four-year school of higher learning and both men and women are admitted as students.
The college attracts lecturers, writers, artists and professors who add interest and intellect to the town’s social life.
Charmed by the planned community’s natural beauty and architectural aesthetics, President Chester A. Arthur pronounces Winter Park “The prettiest place I have seen in Florida."
On New Year’s Eve 1886, the Seminole Hotel officially opens. A the cost of $150,000, it’s the height of luxury and the state’s largest hotel. Guests enjoy croquet, tennis, golf, and sailing on the surrounding lakes. It’s the site of tea dances, socials, lectures and theatrical productions. Typically, guests arrive in Winter Park after the Christmas holidays and live at the hotels through April.
Chapman and Chase sell building lots, rent land and employ the African-American community, who live on the West Side of the city, which is split by the South Florida Railroad tracks.
West side resident Gus Henderson establishes the city’s only newspaper (1889 - 1891), The Winter Park Advocate. Just two decades after the Civil War, Henderson rallies the Hannibal Square residents to vote in favor of including Hannibal Square within the town limits. Their affirmative vote is the deciding factor in the election and in 1887 Winter Park is incorporated as a town.
The six-mile-long Orlando and Winter Park Railway, commonly known as the “The Dinky Line, “ opens in 1889.
Following the Lake Virginia shoreline, the train transports Rollins students in style. They previously rode horses to campus. In its heyday, the Dinky Line made as many as eight round trips a day for a 15-cent fare. But over the years, as automobiles became more prevalent, the railway fades into obscurity, discontinuing passengers service, and by the 1960s was running only once a day. In 1969, the final removal of the Dinky Line tracks is complete.
By the early 1890s, citrus cultivation is Winter Park’s leading economic activity. The city’s population increases to more than 100 citizens.
Three major hotels serve the tourist trade: The Seminole, Alabama and the Virginia Inn. Smaller boarding houses also pop up around town to welcome traveling visitors.
In December 1894, a low temperature of 24 degrees freezes the town’s fruit and most of the young trees die. The following winter the citrus industry is totally destroyed by a second “Great Freeze” and the industry doesn’t recover for another decade.
The back-to-back freezes of 1894 and 1895 devastate the citrus crop, the town finances and the population. By 1900 there are only 500 citizens living in town.
Charles Hosmer Morse, industrialist and founder of the Fairbanks-Morse Company of Chicago, falls in love with the little community and establishes a home here in 1904. He also buys out Chase and Chapman, purchasing hundreds of acres of land. Throughout his life and and through his foundation he generously endows the town with gifts of land for a community golf course, University Club, Women’s Club and the centerpiece of downtown Winter Park and Central Park. He is so beloved that when he lay dying the city reroutes traffic near his home so he won’t be disturbed.
More visitors purchase their own winter homes — some simple cottages, some elegant lakeside mansions. They bring with them the architecture reflecting their northern roots — many colonial style, two-story homes with clapboard siding. They name the streets after the states they left: Pennsylvania, New York, Minnesota, Georgia and Virginia, and get their guest rooms ready for visits from friends back home.
A variety of tradesmen arrive to support the burgeoning tourist population. The African-American community, located around Hannibal Square, provides numerous porters for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, grove workers for the citrus industry, and domestic help for the white community. Hannibal Square citizens open an array of small businesses to serve their own community.
The canals connecting the lakes are completed to float logs to Lake Virginia sawmills. More small shops emerge on Park Avenue and the 1910 Carl Galloway installs the first telephone. He later establishes the Winter Park Telephone Company, which becomes part of the United Telephone System in 1979.
By 1923, the citrus groves bear fruit again and a new land boom begins. On Palmer Avenue, Louis Hakes cultivates the Temple orange, which becomes one of the most popular oranges in Florida’s history.
The 1930s and 1940s bring financial woes to the entire country, but novelist Irving Bacheller and George Kraft pledge their personal funds to keep the local bank operating. Federal work projects support the economy by widening and deepening the canals on the chain of lakes.
In the late 1930s Jeannette Genius McKean, granddaughter of Charles Hosmer Morse, establishes the Morse Museum of American Art. Along with husband Hugh McKean, Jeannette begins to collect select pieces of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s work. And in the midst of town, 47 beautiful acres are set aside for the Mead Botanical Garden showcasing Theodore L. Mead’s extensive plant collection. Today this property is owned by the city and its beautiful acres are open to the public for exploration, nature programs and special events.
The Langford Hotel, featuring modern accommodations for visitors, opens with a splash — an Olympic-size pool, glitzy nightclub, upscale banquet facilities, and most importantly, air conditioning!
Archibald Bush, a Director of 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company), and wife Edyth become winter residents and generously provide community support, especially to Rollins College. Mrs. Bush later founds the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation that becomes an important charitable benefactor to the entire non-profit Central Florida community.
In 1959 Eve Proctor establishes her women’s clothing store with European style and merchandising ideas that revolutionize shops along Park Avenue. The 1950s and 1960s bring increased school enrollment as Winter Park attracts more residents than tourists.
September 1960, Hurricane Donna sports gusts of 120 mph as it roars through town, smashing trees, flooding homes and shutting down electrical power for a week.
Located on Lake Osceola, the beautiful Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens opens to the public in 1961 and still provides house and garden visits.Interstate 4 is completed between Tampa and Daytona and Winter Park gets three exits!
In the early 1960s, Cuban children flood into town on “Peter Pan” flights escaping Fidel Castro’s rule. Because their parents are not allowed to leave Cuba, most children travel alone to live with host families, enroll in school and create a life here.
During this same time period, all public schools in Winter Park successfully integrate. Central Florida continues to grow and Winter Park benefits from new industries in the region.
In 1966 Walt Disney announces the construction of a new “world” 26 miles from Winter Park and five years later the Magic Kingdom opens its doors.
In 1974 the Winter Park Historical Association is founded to preserve the town’s heritage and artifacts and to share its history with the public.During a severe drought in 1981, Winter Park gets national media attention when a sinkhole sucks up a house, five cars at a foreign car dealership, a public pool and part of Denning Avenue! Today the site of the sink hole is a pond and recreational facility.
A more vibrant Park Avenue emerges. Apartments and condominiums built around the downtown core take advantage of the location near upscale restaurants, shops and galleries. And the “Avenue” draws thousands of Central Floridians to a variety of annual events held in Central Park. Movies, jazz concerts, parades and performances by the Bach Festival Choir of Rollins College, all add to a sense of community and enrichment.
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art expands and reopens on Park Avenue in 1995. The internationally-acclaimed museum houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Full Sail University opens, offering majors in music, film animation and film production.
In 2004, Hurricane Charley’s 105 mph gusts whip through town taking down hundreds of oaks and shutting off electricity during the hottest days of August.
By 2005, 300,000 visitors attend the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival. Held each March, it has grown into a prestigious, national art festival.
National Geographic Traveler Magazine ranks Winter Park as #38 in historic world destinations in 2008. In 2011 the City’s Downtown Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The logging and citrus industries no longer exist and you won’t see chauffeur-driven matrons primly sitting behind their drivers here.
Since the 1960s the town belongs to year-round residents, but the city’s roots are still firmly attached to the soil: The village green remains the heart of downtown; the residential areas still feature sprawling oaks draped with Spanish moss; lush vegetation and brick streets still encircle a chain of sparkling lakes.
The valued elements that attracted winter visitors in the 1880s still remain today.