DeLand, Florida

The Athens of Florida

DeLand, founded in 1876, may be one of Florida's best kept secrets.

"Imagine a college campus classified as a National Historic District. Add to that a downtown brimming with gift shops and restaurants, according to the city's Web site. Then place it between the shores of the St. Johns River and the silvery surf of the Atlantic Ocean.

Originally called Persimmon Hollow, the city, Volusia County's seat of government, boasts a rich history, which can be traced to its founder. Henry Addison DeLand visited the area and decided within hours that he wanted to live here. He returned to New York to settle his affairs. Then, he came back to Persimmon Hollow and set in motion the development of what would become a prosperous downtown and surrounding community.

DeLand was first ruled by a government in 1882. There were 28 residents.

The town nearly disappeared on September 27, 1886 when a fire erupted at the Wilcox Saloon. All but a few buildings were destroyed. The next day two ordinances were passed -- one outlawing the construction of saloons downtown and the other required downtown building built of brick. The ban on downtown saloons continued until after Prohibition ended in the 1930s.

DeLand is home of Florida's first private university, Stetson University, which was founded as the DeLand Academy in 1883 by Henry DeLand. It didn't carry hatmaker John B. Stetson's name until 1886.

During President Roosevelt's first campaign, Judge Bert Fish raised funds for the "New Deal's" leader. Fish was considered one of the most powerful politicians in the Sunshine State. In the late 1930s, Fish was appointed by Roosevelt as ambassador to Egypt and played a pivotal role in keeping Arab oil resources out of the hands of the Germans before World War II.

Fish's legacy lives on. A hospital in Orange City is named in his honor. The Bert Fish Foundation supports health care for needy Volusia County residents.

The Downtown DeLand Historic District is a mixed-use neighborhood adjacent to downtown DeLand. The area was originally developed between 1900 and 1920. It fell into a long period of decline after WWII, and by the 1980s had become blighted.

Revitalization of Downtown DeLand began in the early 1990s when a dedicated group of people put their efforts into getting DeLand named as the state's first Florida Main Street. Mainstreet DeLand received national recognition when it received the Great American MainStreet Award in 1997. State recognition included winning seven categories in Florida MainStreet Association's Competition in 2005. Downtown DeLand has been voted best Mainstreet from 1999-2004 by the State MainStreet Association.

Nearby parks offer camping, picnicking, swimming, scuba diving and canoeing. Get a peek at Manatees in Blue Springs, or boat over to Hontoon Island State Park to see a cypress swamp on the St. Johns River. Explore the early settler's history at DeLeon Springs State Park, where you can griddle your own pancakes at The Old Spanish Sugar Mill, then paddle a canoe through the wilderness.

In 2000, Michael E. Arth, a California urban designer, bought 27 dilapidated structures, renamed the area The Garden District, and lobbied to create a new historic district. During the first 5 years he restored or rebuilt thirty homes and businesses, which have become the core of a neighborhood revival. By 2006 Arth had two additional in-fill projects planned for the neighborhood that would add 64 residences and 28 commercial units.

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