By Louise Caccamise, photographs by Bob Dunham
This month we are going to cross the Volusia County line and visit Sanford, our neighbor to the south in Seminole County. Situated on Lake Monroe, Sanford is a town keeping pace with today, but prominently retaining its historic past in its downtown area.
Sanford was named for its founder, Henry Shelton Sanford, who had been a prominent figure on both the national and international scene before coming to Florida. Though he was considered the founder of the central Florida citrus industry, his roots were in Connecticut. There in January 1823, he was born in Woodbury, the son of Nehemiah Curtis Sanford and his wife Nancy Bateman Sanford. He spent his younger years in Birmingham, Connecticut where his father and uncle owned the Shelton Tack Company. In 1849, after receiving a law degree in Germany, from Heidelberg University, he followed a career in the diplomatic service, and was appointed Secretary of the American Legation in Paris where he was engaged in various legal and diplomatic activities during the next decade.
In 1861, President Lincoln appointed him United States minister to Belgium. He was in charge of a surveillance network in England and France during our Civil War.
In Paris, in September 1864, he married Gertrude Ellen Dupuy who was born in Philadelphia, the daughter of John and Mary Richards Haskins Dupuy. After their marriage they returned to the States and in the following years became the parents of six children. It was in 1869, after purchasing a plantation in Louisiana as an investment, that they moved to Florida where he was also looking for an investment during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War.
In 1870, he purchased for $18,000 a former Spanish land grant comprising over 12,000 acres where Sanford is now located. Three years later, he established his orange grove “Belair” where he imported over 140 varieties of citrus and other sub-tropical plants for experimentation.
For many years citrus was the primary crop, but during 1894 and 1895, Sanford experienced
“The Great Freeze” with temperatures dipping as low as 18 degrees. The citrus trees never fully recovered. In searching for substitute crops that could replace the waning citrus industry and withstand low temperatures, celery became the primary crop. By 1900, Sanford was known as “The Celery City.”
In failing health, Mr. Sanford did not live to see these changes. He passed away on
May 21, 1891 in Healing Springs, Virginia. Gertrude Sanford died in June 1902 in Derby, Connecticut. They are buried in Long Hill Burial Ground in Shelton, Connecticut.
The Henry Shelton Sanford Memorial Library and Museum at 520 East 1st Street tells the story of the town’s founder and has replicas of the family living room and library. Outside, a marker depicts the former location of the Henry Sanford Grove and Experimental Garden. The museum opened in 1937 and was expanded in 1974 and 1993. Here one can experience a time in Florida that is gone forever.
Even though in 1887, a fire destroyed much of the town, Sanford was chosen as the County seat of Seminole County in 1913. Brick buildings, many still standing, replaced the burned buildings. Today there are more than twenty commercial buildings in downtown Sanford that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The adjacent residential district has many early twentieth century houses that are listed on the National Register of Historic Homes.
The Historic Sanford Welcome Center at 230 East 1st Street, built in 1917, was once the post office and later the library. Staffed by volunteers and providing information on every facet of the town, it exemplifies what every welcoming center should be.
Jeanine Taylor Folk Art at 211 East 1st Street has revolving exhibits and guest artists. Located in a historic building, they specialize in southern contemporary folk art and share space with The Gallery on First that features working artists whose studios are open to the public.
The Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center at 201 S. Magnolia Avenue has a history of almost 100 years. It began in 1923 as the Milane Theatre and featured live drama. In 1936, it changed owners and was renamed the Ritz Theatre. That closed in 1978, but ownership remained in the family until the 1990s. In May 2000, it reopened under the name of Helen Stairs, who led the restoration. In 2008, contributions were made from the Wayne Densch Charitable Trust and operation began under the present name. John Knox residents have opportunities to attend performances in the theatre.
Along the shores of Lake Monroe, there is a two-mile trail, the RiverWalk, within walking distance of the downtown area. Along the RiverWalk is Veterans Memorial Park on a walled peninsula that reaches out into Lake Monroe. Built in 1924, the park was dedicated to WWI soldiers in 1927, and in 1973, to all veterans. In 2006, historic markers were added, making the walk both interesting and informative. After passing the park, you come to Marina Island where the yacht basin is located and where St. Johns Rivership Company provides lunch and dinner cruises on an authentic paddle-wheeler. Here at the close of day, in a picturesque setting, you can watch a Florida sunset before returning home.
‘Til we meet again, happy trails!