Our Forgotten Past: Grand Hotels of West Volusia County

It began as a question. Whenever I visited downtown DeLand, something seemed different about the place. Coming from Orlando where I witnessed the arrival of Disney World transforming everything I’d known and grew up with, DeLand was like a step back in time. A refreshing and comfortable step back in time.

The very appearance of the mainstreet of the downtown featured buildings with architecture that seemed alien to the ‘modern’ city I came from. There was a soft pattern and presence that spoke silently to me of a special sense of place. That feeling was encouraged when I happened into some of these old-styled buildings and observed brick walls and ornately tiled high ceilings. Some shops even had what looked like original wood floors. All of it spoke to me of a history that wasn’t being shared, until I took the time to look even closer.

I found bronze plaques mounted on some buildings that gave backgrounds for these structures that spanned a hundred years. It was fascinating to me so I explored further. Colorful murals located about the town depicted scenes that I later found told stories of various points in time in the town’s history. A large derelict highrise sported to look of a once magificent building. Research revealed it was once a grand hotel. Then my journey into the past exploded.

Going through history of the town I learned how the place became to be and how for decades it was a tourist attraction. There was not just the one hotel but numerous ones. Each of them came with its’ own unique story and then I discovered a treasure trove of historic images from these old hotels. I was amazed and awed by the hundreds of pictures of stately porches, elaborately carved trim work, sitting rooms, lounges, and countless other images from the past. Sadly nearly all of them were long gone and forgotten, but not all of them. I found four of the grand hotels miraculously still standing. Of the four, one was vacant and up for sale. A second was also up for sale and two of them still operated as hotels.

It was then I determined to write a pictorial history of them so that their existence would not be totally forgotten. Arcadia Publishing does a series called Images of America featuring historic images so I submitted them a book proposal. My proposal was accepted and almost a year later, Grand Hotels of West Volusia County became a reality.

I like to think that the images in this book will draw interest to the existence of the remaining historic hotels in this area. These reminders of our past are links to the rich history that has made us what we are today.

“I believe that the more you know about the past,

the better you are prepared for the future.”

                                                  Theodore Roosevelt

If enough people organize in support to save and preserve them in some way perhaps they too can be saved in similar fashion as the Athens Theatre in downtown DeLand was.

Grand Hotels of West Volusia County

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ever Walk in Those Moccasins?

Have you ever heard that, “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his Shoesmoccasins” expression?

This American Indian Proverb suggests we take time to consider other perspectives before we act. I’ve tried to apply this to my own comprehension of history. After all, if we only have one side of a story we only have half the story. What about the other half?

I’d heard from some people that most history is written by the victors. From that context there may only be aspects documented that seemed relevant to a select number of people. Others, like the vanquished might not have much of their side told. In so doing we’ve somewhat dehumanized the history that we tell. The feelings, pain, despair, and anguish are left out and we tend to focus on other things that disconnect us from a fuller impact.

010e4686290e14d8f40312f718b441de1d229b4236I wanted my writing about history to be both relevant and insightful. I wanted it to help people in the present to relate to events in the past. So I decided to become a Civil War reenactor. Little did I know then the extent of learning the experience was going to be. That’s because I enlisted with a group of authentic reenactors. These people really know their stuff. They are the kind of folks that try and do everything like it really was back then. For starters, it was pointed out to me that the conflict was not a Civil War but a War Between the States. I found that interesting and the first of many definite varied points of view to discover in studying the subject.

It was also pointed out to me that if I wanted to transition into this time period certain kinds of apparel and behavior was required. That meant wearing wool or cotton clothing and a hat. Virtually everyone back then wore a hat of some kind. In my observation, they seemed a lot more purposeful for sun protection than most hats we have today. There were no zippers as yet. Everything was fastened with buttons, even the under garments. I acquired a pair of shoes from a vendor who specialized in reproductions of early shoes. When they arrived, I was amazed at how beautiful the soft leather was. They were one of the most comfortable pairs of shoes I’ve ever worn. These shoes were so good that I still have them nearly 30-years later. The soles and heels have been repaired and replaced but the leather is just as soft and comfortable as the day I first put them on. It’s made me think about the quality of some products today. Do you ever wish you had something as good and lasting?

DigiCamWearing period attire alone doesn’t make one fit into the time period I found out. I had to learn the jargon and expressions of the time. That included several behavioral practices almost lost in this time. For example, I had to learn to stand up when a lady approached or entered a room. Introductions were important. You tipped or lifted your hat in greeting and were always cordial. Boy, what a difference this was to social interaction today. I found that the ladies really liked being treated with such respect.

Living History PortrayalPortraying a soldier then can take a lot of effort. I chose to learn the aspects of a soldier that served on either side so I wore both blue and gray. Doing this taught me a lot of things. First of all, I learned that men on both sides of the conflict had a lot of things in common. Dairies and stories I read related how at varied times individuals from either side peacefully socialized and shared things like tobacco, coffee, or passed letters. As I delved more into DigiCamwritten accounts, I began to see the human side of individuals from either side. Each of them had their reasons for fighting and sometimes those reasons didn’t line up with the causes and factors I’d initially learned in school.

The more I studied and reenacted the more I could find myself understanding some of the rationales behind why these people fought. The experience has given me a different perspective than I had before. It’s also shown me the importance of going to all kinds of sources for information. The books written by common soldiers or family members relate more than some of the more formal history books. Someone’s journal can also given a glimpse of the thoughts and feelings the people had. I personally found myself keeping a journal of what I saw, thought, and experienced. At times, it has helped me to relate more to this history. It’s also in some sense given me the chance to walk the moccasins of others.

Posted in empathy, historical, history, living history, portrayal, reenacting, role play, shoes, understanding, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Living in Rhythm

img_5624We were made to move. Our bodies were designed like so many other functioning living things we see around us in the natural world. We see the importance of active living in studies that reflect on healthy living and our frequency to move. We also were made to interact and live in a sustainable way with our environment. When we recognize such principals our lives take on more purpose for we understand somewhat how we fit into the grand scheme of things.

So many things in the biosphere are set to rudimentary patterns and cycles. Take for instance the response of plants and animals to the changes of the seasons. Just about everything is powered by energy from the sun.

There are cycles in our climate of wet, dry, cold, and warm periods. Plants and their environment interact to grow keyed to these various factors. So it seems futile to constantly cut down vegetation in a wetland because it is all set to grow back profusely, unless the climate and water patterns change. Things like this do happen on occasion but who has the far-reaching vision or knowledge to read their coming? Most of these far-reaching changes come about slowly, like over hundreds or perhaps thousands of years. Yet there are some changes in the rhythm of life that can come about quickly, like the vast impact of an erupting volcano, a tornado, a flood, or a hurricane. The challenge with us is we can’t always read the signs accurately to know the exact timing of lots of these things. We still sometimes can’t get the prediction of weather correct.

So why do we waste our stay here on this Earth involved in activities that “kick against the stones” of rhythms and cycles? For example, like the man who wades out into the aquatic grasses on his lakefront property and cuts it all down. What do we expect to achieve? Sure, those grasses are cut down to the waterline for a time but they grow back and he has to repeat the process of cutting them down. It’s like we wage a constant battle of futility against things we can’t change.

Sure, we can come up with ways to create more lasting impact. Like the guy who goes and takes an earth-mover to tear up the same lakefront and then cover it all with white sand to make himself a facsimile of a beach. There’s a nice sandy beach for a time but it doesn’t last. Sediment begins to leave nutrients in the sand and eventually the same grasses that were originally eliminated come back. I’ve seen similar things happen when people try to rid their yards of grass by removing it all and placing a layer of pebbles in its place. Sooner or later grasses and other plants reestablish themselves in it.

Why do we waste away our time and energy in such things? Could we do better to learn from the same rhythms and patterns we try to defy? After all, it’s all connected in some way.

This brings to mind something I observed just the other day. While walking up the driveway I noticed high up in the blue sky a pair of marsh hawks. They seemed to only yards apart gliding on the air currents, barely moving a feather, just holding steady. It fascinated me how they were doing that so I watched them. One of them lifted a wing and veered away to some distance apart from its mate. Despite the fact they were now separated, the two of them still appeared to maintain a connection, staying at the same height. I imagined how they might be glancing at one another with their binocular vision as I saw their heads tilt from side-to-side as they kept their distance.

At one point in this observation, the one who have ventured away circled out even farther. The remaining marsh hawk turned slightly, letting the wind carry it in the general direction of the other. Soon the two of them were in formation as I’d first noticed them. I watched them as they together drifted off together beyond my sight horizon and marveled at how beautiful their ballet of flight had been. It was but another example of how living things stay connected and in-tune with their environment. There are so many ways we can do that.

When we take time to notice and learn about the world around us we make those connections. I know my wife and I after nearly 40-years have grown together to the point that we often know what the other is thinking and complete each other’s sentences. Spending enough time observing weather factors can eventually lead most of us to be familiar enough with patterns of weather that we don’t need to watch for a weather forecast—we come to know what it will be. The same can be true in other natural patterns and rhythms around us. If we pay attention to these things we can respond rather than react to certain things. Take for instance the terrible tsunami that hit Indonesia a couple of years ago. I remember how it was reported when some people noticed the ocean water receding there were those who stood in awe and others who fled. Many of the people who failed to realize what was happening perished.

Another report spoke of a community of natives that observed the wildlife around their village fleeing to high ground. The villagers did the same and as a result they escaped the danger. Being aware of our surroundings and knowing how plants and animals interact can also help us to avoid unfortunate predictable outcomes. Perhaps this reminds you of the consequences that come about when people feed wild animals or fail to realize that house pets left to roam outdoors can also become links in the natural food chain. How many times have we heard about somebody’s Fido becoming lunch for an alligator or Fifi being taken away by some winged raptor? Often times these kinds of things can be avoidable. We just have to be aware and at times know enough to beware.

The wildlife and natural world around us are not something to be feared; respected, yes, but not eliminated as a result of our own ignorance. There are cause and effect relationships in nature. Things interact and impact each other in various ways. Some of them are complicated but others are simple enough for all of us to understand. For example, domesticated cats are meant to house pets not outdoor roamers. When we introduce these animals to an ecosystem around our home there are all kinds of consequences. There’s nothing like being woken up in the middle of the night by a cat fight outside your bedroom window or discovering the unmistakable foul odor of territorial marking. Just the kinds of things to make your life enjoyable. Domesticated pets aren’t really suited for being in the wild.

Natural predators sometimes seek out easy prey in the form of our pets. In some areas, cougars, bears, bobcats, wild pigs, coyotes can be a possible pet threat. A raccoon alone can tear up a cat or dog pretty bad. Snakes too can shorten the lifespan of your dog or cat. But these are all things that can to some degree be avoided with proper precautions and awareness.

Imagine the outcomes we might have if we could learn to recognize the signs and know the interactions we have with our natural world. Perhaps we need to learn how to dance better to our world’s natural rhythms and cycles.



Posted in adaptation, Nature, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nature’s Healing Touch


I’d almost forgotten how therapeutic working outside was, especially in my garden. This morning, we got reacquainted.

I was out there pulling weeds, untangling sugar snap peas, and planting some more vegetable seeds. It wasn’t long before I began to imagine what I was doing illustrated some of the challenges that I’ve faced in my life. It was so bizarre but then I remembered how in the past I had been so comforted by things in the natural world whenever I took the time to interact with certain of its elements.

WIN_20160410_17_22_24_ProThe weeds or oxalis in particular, had pretty heavily infested several beds and crowded the sugar snap peas I was working on badly. Most of the young pea plants had sent out their tendrils seeking sunlight and become entangled in the thick stands of tall oxalis. Instead of growing upward toward the fence the peas had been planted along, they appeared hopelessly lost in a maze of weeds. If the peas weren’t separated from the oxalis and trained to trail up the lattice work of the fence they would die. What was I to do?

Well, I sat there and observed how the two plants were entwined and fallen over together onto the ground. They had to be separated but it couldn’t be done with the small claw rake I had. Sizing up the task at hand, I realized that my gloves would equally hindered the careful touch that was needed for the job ahead. So I set the gloves and claw aside and slowly and meticulously began to selectively remove individual pea plants from the mass of oxalis. Once I had some plants separated from it, I directed them to the lattice work openings and set their tender tendrils in places where they might re-attach and pull the pea plant in that new direction. It took a lot of time and patience but I managed to re-direct all of them and then next turned my attention to the oxalis.

WIN_20160410_17_22_11_ProTo reduce the impact on the pesky plant, I had to dig down carefully, so as not to damage the fragile roots of the pea plants, and pull out the root ball of patches of the oxalis. This took even more time and directed effort but in time I had the entire fence line of sweet peas freed. That’s when I started equating what I was doing with some other real world situations I was dealing with.

The oxalis was a type of the kinds of weeds that can present themselves to us in some of our real-life situations. We may be engaged in a creative enterprise that seems full of promise and energy, like the quick and vibrant growth of the sweet peas. Along the way, weeds like the oxalis make their way into what we are doing and we’re faced with situations where we have to make decisions that will affect the outcome of what we are attempting to grow. We can meet the challenge of our individual ‘oxalis’ and rip it out. This may in turn destroy the fragile roots of what we are trying to develop and we lose the harvest of what we sowed.

We can also take the more time-consuming route of painstakingly picking away at our ‘oxalis’ and possibly in the process learn something more about what may have caused the unexpected challenge we encountered. I know in my own personal case, the garden had been neglected like how I might have overlooked the particular feelings and perspectives of others. As a result, I found myself faced with unexpected obstacles that turned out in some cases to be simply instances of miss-communication and misconceptions. Like when I hadn’t spent enough time in the garden, some of my own affiliations had been overlooked and their respective needs neglected. In time, they developed into feelings of hurt and resistance that barred my progress, not too unlike the oxalis entangling the pea plants’ growth.

Once I took time to address the matter the pea plants found an opportunity to WIN_20160410_17_21_57_Procontinue their growth. When I addressed some of the unnoticed personal perspectives that impacted my own situation I found a true realization and understood better what I was facing. Of course, people are not plants but they do have predictive behaviors that can help you assess what you’re up against. In the instance of the garden, I knew that if I did nothing to try and change what was affecting the pea plants they would most assuredly die or amount to nothing. In my own situation, I found I could address the factors playing out against me and attempt to correct some of them but the ultimate outcome was not dependent upon what I did. Sometimes there are factors and forces beyond our control. Like a dry spell or swarm of pests, the garden peas might become beset with overwhelming forces that prevent their flourishing. I had realize and be resolved to the fact that some individuals or situations might not be correctable or workable in what I was dealing with. In such cases, I had to be prepared to adapt. Again the garden provided some direction.

A seed when it grows first has to pretty much die to germinate. It sometimes goes through a long period of waiting until conditions are just right for growth. Then it springs into life. It reaches out to sunlight that gives it energy and draws from its surroundings for nourishment. How much different are we in our own lives in this life? Each of us is either natured or nurtured, perhaps a combination of both but if we succeed it is because we have found a way to adapt and live on. No matter what the circumstances there is always a way. We can always find solace in the natural world around us. That’s what I learned from the peas in my garden.


Posted in adaptation, Nature, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Much Needed Refreshment


The world that refreshes me outside my window

Outside my window today my heart, mind, and soul find refreshment.

For the first time in a while, I took the time this weekend to stop busying myself doing things and just lay in my backyard hammock. How quickly we forget such important things in our lives. After an hour my whole perspective and countenance had changed.

It was quite nice being outside because the foul weather of the preceding days had brought us a cool morning with clear blue skies that stayed the entire day! All afternoon, I glanced up in to that blue canvas and watched thread-like cirrus clouds fly by high above me. As I look up at them, I imagine times when I was traveling up there going cross-country and gazing out the plane window.

The view of patchwork color patterns stretching across the Earth below me would draw my attention. I’d see land form features, such as rivers, lakes, strands and spreads of forest that often drew me into them, wondering what it might be like down there, instead of where I presently was. In such a way, I transported myself into another place and time and to be there and then I just as quickly found myself lying there in my backyard hammock. The air was free of mosquitoes but filled with the songs of several birds.

The morning started out with our resident thrasher singing from the treetops. Next came the echoing calls of cardinals. Then, the rhythmic honking of cranes crossed over our heads a we sat outside in our backyard paradise with our coffee enjoying the gradual waking of the natural world around us.

Oak blossoms in the surrounding hardwoods bled from bright fresh green to early shades of brown in a varied palate of color. Squirrels darted after one another through the canopy while other trees around us bristled with new leaves of green and berries, a hint to the feast that will soon come by our community of birds. Clusters of blue color are also appearing among our bushes of plumbago and the birds of paradise have blooms branching out like upturned hands of lily white while smaller shrubs add to the rainbow of color with their varied blends of green and yellow blossoms.

Even the palmettos are adding to the palette of sprouting life. Their flower shoots promise to bring a welcomed sweetness to the countless insects they will beckon like our golden rain tree does each year in the front yard. When it’s in full bloom, I can stand silent outside and hear the buzz and beating of bees, it’s such a fascinating experience.

All around us are reminders of the hope and life that brings wonder to our existence. Once again, I find myself refreshed by what I take time to find outside my window.


Posted in Nature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Relevancy of Humanities and History

Larry French Living HistorianThose of us who love history or have a profession that deals with its’ interpretation may already understand what I am about to share. Study of history and the humanities has relevance to our understanding of many things.

When I state that, I do so with the realization that even though I’ve been involved in living history demonstrations and portrayals for over three decades, I am still learning and discovering.  This awareness makes me reflect differently on many things around me today. I tend to find connections between events and various factors of everyday living that provide me a broader perspective than I had perceived before. Living history portrayals and historic re-enactments take on a totally new and vital role in what they offer us today. They make history relevant.


Re-enactors portraying the Fernandina Avengers militia that once occupied Ft. Clinch State Park, FL during the War Between the States.


Making Re-enacting Relevant

Our history helps to define who we are. That can also work the other way around.

Take for instance the amount of misinformation our electronic media can spread. How many of you have been duped into believing a post about something that turned out to be erroneous or a complete hoax?

Re-enactors depicting camp life activity.

Well, just as there are ‘re-enactor isms’ in our hobby there are also misrepresentations and other miscommunications that we perpetuate. Re-enacting is not just all about a bunch of grown men playing ‘army’ and camping out on the weekend. The hobby came about in an effort to memorialize important events in our past. In a sense re-enacting attempts to create a living history to make such monumental events and words such as Lincoln’s “. . . the world will little note nor long remember what we say here. . .” into vivid illustrations for our collective memory.


Defensive guns of Ft. Clinch State Park overlooking the Atlantic and St. Mary’s river, FL.

Windows of Learning

What we do is remembered and it can have a lasting impression on others. That’s

Golden Teacup Society demonstration

what events in time do for us. They help us to remember and hopefully learn from our history. This is all the more reason why we as re-enactors must be actively involved in educational activities when we do our portrayal. Each time we dawn a uniform or civilian garb we create a window of learning opportunity. If you or your unit are not seizing these moments to share more than the conflict our presence represents then you are merely playing games.

Living Historian
Part of a school presentation

For real learning of the lessons of our history to take place we must learn more about what we ourselves portray. We need to know about how the people lived and be able to relate it to our present.

Are You Teaching Anything?

Think about. Is what you are doing creating more of an awareness and a learning experience? If you are not sure then you need to be evaluating what you are doing. Look for ways of interaction that indicate you are effectively engaging people. See how your portrayal can link to their everyday lives. This important if learning is to occur. If we cannot relate to others the relevancy of what we do then we are truly doing disservice to all of those who we portray that gave us the heritage we have today.

Larry French

French is a veteran re-enactor with the 2nd Florida Volunteers Co. E, historian, writer, and executive director of the West Volusia Historical Society, DeLand, FL. His novel, Time Will Tell: The Awakening blends his knowledge of history and re-enacting into a time travel adventure set at the ending of the War Between the States.

Posted in Nature, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In 2016 Will The Force of History Awaken Volusia County?

The advent of the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens has created a stir in the imaginations of many who grew up in this series on the screen about a conflict of galactic proportions. I couldn’t help but find this story conjuring up pondering thoughts of parallel struggles and monumental dreams in my mind as it must have done too many. Great stories and even some television series at times have done the same.
One that comes quickly to mind is Star Trek. I recall how that series introduced innovative use of communicative devices, like the communicator, that eventually became today’s cell phones. Various episodes of the series dealt with many social issues and political challenges of the times. It was inspiring how the world depicted had overcome so many of those problems plaguing the people of Earth.
That same kind of futuristic view of life was sometimes employed by newspapers to make predictions of life in the future. It’s interesting to see how some of those depictions played out. So in the same vein, I’d like to attempt to do capture some of the futuristic hope of what we all enjoyed in Star Trek and Star Wars to predict what life might be like in Volusia County 20-50 years from now.
In the future, Volusian’s as well as most Floridians will have realized the untapped value of their greatest age-old draw – tourism. Following the Great Recession of the late ‘90s, which lasted well into the 21st Century the diminished economy had the vast majority of people, especially businesses looking for enterprises that were sustainable and durable to the slow recovering economy. Many of them rediscovered how earlier Floridians used the natural assets of the state to make money in non-consumptive ways. With its’ abundant water, various sport and recreational activities became lucrative business opportunities. Kayaking, sail boating, houseboats, rentals and various forms of guide and self-use businesses based on water use became new industries for many. With these, related supply and commercial service oriented businesses sprang up.
People studied how Florida’s early 19th Century tourism industry 1186250_537053729697775_1025256223_ntapped into all sorts of natural resources that Volusia County was blessed with. Bicycle trails, hiking trails, campgrounds, wildlife preserves, parks, historic sites, and ways to tap into their use brought about a surge in entrepreneurship. Visionary municipal leaders seized upon the opportunity for change these new businesses were suggesting and in turn changed zoning and long-range growth plans to incorporate all of them to encourage eco-tourism. Marinas and other water use increased. A resurgence of river tour travel also sprang from the initial river tour and dinner cruise businesses that used the St. Johns River.
IMG_3491The SunRail system was expanded to reach not only locations in the Metro-Orlando area but also to locations along the east coast and far north into Volusia County along the historic railroad grade still in West Volusia County. The city of DeLand became the Winter Park of Volusia County and many other communities saw growth and found ways to capitalize on the visitors the rail brought them. Operation of the rail line to weekends brought massive shifts in recreational trips and ridership that surpassed all previous projections. People were using the rail to reach distant areas for day trips and extended stays. Even the once struggling city of Deltona, long plagued with a lack of commercial infrastructure saw experienced a boom in recreational oriented commerce. A network of walking and bicycling trails connected all parts of the community to the County-wide trail system and to the rail line. Various businesses such as restaurants, sports shops, inns and bed & breakfast services grew up with the SunRail line and local recreational trail connections linked to it. The tiny hamlet of Enterprise became a cultural arts and history preservation attraction with huge festivals and humanities events. DeBary linked to the Spring to Spring Trail system and the DeBary Mansion Historic Site became a magnet for historic public awareness events much like Enterprise.
Volusia County saw tremendous increases in tourism and outdoor recreational use from residents and visitors from outside the County and State. As more industries sprang up that serviced the natural assets of the County the more recognition and emphasis there also grew for its farm to table food businesses and industries. The value of local markets and non-vehicular travel created a healthier population that supported sustainable resource use that also helped preserve the natural appeal of Volusia County. This in turn fed even greater advertising and visitor use bringing more opportunity for a better standard of living for residents of Volusia County. The political polarity that once existed between East and West Volusia County disappeared as entities on both sides of the County joined in partnership to enhance and encourage use of one another’s attractions and assets.
All of these things came about because people used the resources HBP River Viewthat they had and their own ingenuity to work together and achieve great things. Does this sound as far-fetched as a bunch of rebels taking on a mammoth Death Star or visionaries pursuing a dream of a better world? I have to admit I have not yet seen the new movie but everybody knows the ‘good guys’ win so what are we waiting for?
The future is what we make it.

Posted in Nature, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment