High noon, February 8, 1882, the town of DeLand, originally known as Persimmon Hollow, was incorporated by a unanimous vote of its 23 townspeople. However, human existence had its roots deep in the sandy soil of Central Florida long before DeLand was created or the state of Florida even imagined.
The Timucua Indians were the first inhabitants of this land we now call Volusia County. In "Memoir of Escalante Fontaneda," Fontaneda, a shipwrecked Spaniard who found refuge with the Timucuan, wrote that the area was known to its earliest people as Mayaca, "the fresh water province." And indeed the description fits as the county is bordered to its west and south by the northerly bound St. Johns River. West Volusia, where DeLand, the county seat, is located, is marked with crystal-clear spring-fed streams whose headwaters originate in the Appalachian Mountain range to flow silently and swiftly underground to their destination in the limestone caverns of the vicinity.
During the English occupation of Florida from 1763 to 1783, pioneers north of Florida migrated across the St. Mary's River searching for warmer weather and richer soil. In 1821 when Florida became a United States territory, an even greater influx of settlers moved to the peninsula. They fought the Seminoles for land these Native Americans had been granted by the government. Of course the Indians lost and with their departure into the Everglades of South Florida, the population of Central Florida increased. Cattle cowboys and dirt farmers multiplied and eventually Persimmon Hollow was born.
Lauded for its natural beauty and conservation of its environment, the city of DeLand sits atop a geological formation known as the Volusia Ridge, a worn-down mountain range that predates civilization by millions of years. Its fertile soil nurtures massive live oaks, towering pines, and hearty ferns that sprout without so much as a nutritious act on the part of man. Poinsettias and hibiscus abound, as do non-native camphor trees, noted for their sturdy climbing branches. Of course, though, the favorite tree among DeLand residents is the ubiquitous citrus-orange, grapefruit, lemon, and lime-species by the dozens found growing in cultivated yards throughout the area and originally introduced into Florida in the 1500s by Spanish explorers.
Persimmon Hollow's name change took place after the generous donation of acreage for a school, church, and main thoroughfare by Henry Addison DeLand, a wealthy entrepreneur from Fairport, New York. DeLand first visited the carved-out little hollow of a community with his brother-in-law, O.P. Terry, who had purchased property to raise oranges. Terry, impressed with the favorable agricultural opportunities, encouraged DeLand to accompany him on a trip south.
March 1876 found the men traveling by rail to Jacksonville, then a steamboat up the St. Johns to Enterprise, and finally a rig to the hollow. DeLand was unenthusiastic during his bumpy ride from Enterprise but as the flat terrain transitioned from swamp to rolling acreage, it was reported that DeLand exclaimed, "This looks like the West. Here is snap and push. I am willing to go on." And so he did.
In October 1876 DeLand returned to Persimmon Hollow to assist in the establishment of the town. That same year the settlers voted at their December meeting to name the community "DeLand" in honor of the man whose vision for growth and fervor for citrus production was captured in the hearts of many.
Henry Addison DeLand became the driving force behind education and culture in his fledgling adopted town. In 1884 he contributed $10,000 to build DeLand Academy, forerunner of Stetson University. A hundred years after its construction the building still bears Mr. DeLand's name and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the oldest private academic building in continuous use for higher education in the state of Florida.
Henry DeLand proudly boasted that DeLand was the "Athens of Florida" due to its unique cultural and educational attributes. The nomenclature followed the city until the late 1920s when the Florida Land Bust, precipitated by the Great Depression, hit town.
At present the former hamlet of Persimmon Hollow faces the onslaught of Orlando's voracious growth appetite. It is gratifying though that both Volusia County and the city of DeLand actively pursue the purchase of land for conservation in order to protect their natural resources.
DeLand's downtown was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. In that same year DeLand was the first community chosen in Florida to receive MainStreet designation, thereby becoming a part of a nationally acclaimed program established to promote the revitalization of America's downtown areas affected by urban sprawl. City officials then created DeLand's Downtown Tax Increment District in order to fund on-going downtown redevelopment.
In 1997 MainStreet DeLand received "The Great American MainStreet" Award from the National Historic Trust. From 1999 to 2002 DeLand was named the "Best Main Street" in Florida. Is it any wonder then that downtown's locally owned outdoor cafes and quaint shops entice residents to shop at home rather than at rambling nondescript malls 20 miles east in Daytona Beach or 35 miles south in Orlando?
DeLand maintains its cultural events and remains home to Stetson University, one of the leading educational institutions in the nation. DeLand has an active art community and museum, a preeminent historical society determined to preserve the city's heritage, and numerous supportive civic organizations. The city government works diligently to offer its residents a quality lifestyle, revering its historical ambiance, while encouraging responsible development.
Stately trees shade the streets, many planted during Henry DeLand's tenure as town leader. There is a tranquility in DeLand that predates the town's founding and continues into the 21st century. DeLand has a sense of place, a sense of community that began decades ago in the heart and mind of Henry Addison DeLand and those who supported his dream for a better life.
Indeed, DeLand as the "Athens of Florida" continues to thrive thanks to those who created it and to those who keep it flourishing.
---Maggi Hall, Author