By Sarah Sekula, published in Where Orlando Guestbook
When 80-year-old Herb Hiller hops onto his bright blue, 18-speed Trek touring bike, he’s in heaven. And when he pedals through a place that screams Old Florida, well, that’s downright magical, he says. In fact, since moving to Florida in 1958, he’s covered more than 30,000 miles on his bicycle. Why? The thing is, while many have forgotten Florida’s past, Hiller has not. And, for him, two-wheeling it is an excellent way to connect with the Florida that once was.
“I may be living in a pretty far out time,” Hiller says. Case in point: Hiller’s father was 50 years old when Hiller was born in 1931. “Being born in the 1880s, my father was clearly influenced by a rural way of life.”
Needless to say, Hiller is partial to the 19th century, too.
That explains his deep affinity for the bucolic side of Central Florida, where the real attraction is the area’s natural beauty. Likewise, when he’s not trekking about on his bike, he’s tucked away in his quiet office in DeLand penning guidebooks about off-the-beaten-path venues that make the Sunshine State so special.
It’s what many describe as Old Florida. Ask what it means exactly, and you’re likely to get a variety of answers. Some look at it as the Florida that existed before the 1940s or, in parts of South Florida, before the beginning of the wetlands alteration in about 1920.
This was before the area was highly populated, and when cattle was the only thing impacting the land. Two-lane roads framed by patches of live oak hammocks and sandy pine woods led visitors to roadside attractions and hamburger stands.
To Hiller, Old Florida means the “soulful side of Florida.”
“For me, whenever I’m traveling anywhere, discovering its historical places is a must,” he says. “Rent a bike or put on some good walking shoes. Toddle around a bit, and talk to people at the Native Plant Society. Find out who the master gardeners are. It’s marvelous, and it doesn’t cost anything.”
Visiting Hiller’s favorite hangouts is like stepping back in time. Plus, you’ll escape the crowds.
Fortunately, there are other conservation heroes out there like Hiller. Tricia Martin is the Nature Conservancy’s peninsular Florida program director. In other words, she nurtures nature for a living.
Her office includes the Disney Wilderness Preserve, a 12,000-acre refuge that straddles the headwaters of the Everglades. About an hour south of Orlando, it’s a place where undeveloped lakefront property abounds and the sighting of a rare southeastern big-eared bat is not uncommon.
“When a visitor sees The Disney Wilderness Preserve, they see what much of Old Florida looked like,” Martin says. “It was a longleaf pine savannah ecosystem where you could see for a mile in the distance, and nothing in the ground was much higher than your knee.”
Martin’s work is about preserving this authenticity. “Our vision for the site is to maintain the kind of habitats that sustained biodiversity before large- scale human impacts,” she says.
This means reintroducing birds like the red-cockaded woodpecker; and restoring the habitats of scrub jays, gopher tortoises, panthers and bears, as well as the bald eagle nesting habitat.
The Preserve “has a very calming impact,” she says. “Most visitors are surprised that is what most of Florida once looked like, and it doesn’t now.”
See for yourself. The Preserve offers self-guided hikes, where guests can view some of the restored habitats that are so similar to the Old Florida of decades ago.
“Our wetlands restoration work also has helped re-create an environment that’s much like the Old Florida environment, when the wetlands were a free-flowing, functioning system,” Martin explains.
For more proof that Old Florida still exists, take a look at Bok Tower Gardens, where each morning the 205-foot tower springs to life with a quick ring of its 60 bronze bells, which range from 17 pounds to 12 tons. It’s been a tradition since 1929 when President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the grounds.
The gothic-style tower alone is worth the visit to Lake Wales, about an hour south of Orlando. Its intricate marble sculptures and swan-filled moat are straight out of a fairy tale. The 160-acre garden is a bonus. Here you’ll find endless shades of green in the form of ferns, palms and pines.
The top of the “mountain” is home to a marble exedra, an ancient Greek and Roman semicircular recess. At an altitude of 295 feet, this point held a sacred value to the native Seminole Indians. It comes as no surprise that the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It speaks to a standard that regrettably is missing in Florida [today] for the most part,” Hiller says. “All the people who have followed the Bok family have largely been absorbed by the mission and have maintained it.”
Venture along the Pine Ridge Nature Preserve Trail to see native plants including the dune sunflower, cabbage palm and sky blue clustervines.
“Our mission is to conserve the rarest species of Florida through curating a national collection of rare-plant germplasm,” says Cheryl Peterson, manager of the Bok Tower Gardens’ Rare Plant Conservation Program. In other words, you’ll likely see things here you’ve never seen before.
Equally notable is the tiny town of Mount Dora, 25 miles north of Orlando, which is a century in the making. The area’s first homesteaders set up shop here on the shores of Lake Dora in 1874. Since then, downtown Mount Dora has managed to maintain its enchanting allure. Some define it by what it’s lacking: no Mickey Ds, no theme parks, no big box stores, no flashy billboards and no shopping malls.
Instead, you will find an authentic Main Street filled with nifty antique shops and mom-and-pop stores that maintain the scale and pace of Old Florida.
Eric Baker and his wife fell in love with the place more than a decade ago. What he enjoys most is that Old Florida towns like Mount Dora still offer up Southern hospitality. “You can ask for directions or for a good restaurant recommendation, and the townspeople are happy to oblige,” he says.
Baker recommends stopping by the century-old Lakeside Inn, a popular place to play croquet or sit in a rocker on the porch and sip a glass of lemonade. In its heyday, the country inn welcomed Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Presidents Coolidge and Eisenhower. The new innkeeper is attempting to restore the building to its original 19th-century charm.
“We are passionate about preserving Mount Dora’s history because it is there to be saved,” says Carolyn Green, an officer at the Mount Dora Historical Society. “It has made and remade itself over the last 136 years. Many of the founding families can still be found in the area.” Head east to the coast for a different side of Old Florida in the form of rich maritime history, including Cracker-style, duplex fishing cottages built in the 1920s and Ponce Inlet’s last civilian lighthouse.
A half-mile from the historic lighthouse on Beach Street are three turn-of-the-century Florida Cracker-style dwellings built in the 1920s. Julie Davis, 53, was just a teenager when she moved into one of the cottages with her parents. Her father, Edward Lockwood Meyer, was the town’s last civilian lighthouse keeper.
Peer inside the 600-square-foot, green cottage for a look at the way things were. Old fishing photos adorn the walls. A stone cistern sits outside under the live oak trees.
Fast forward to 2007, and the beloved house was on the chopping block. Davis and her friends formulated and presented a plan to the Town Council to restore the two historic houses, receiving a grant to do so.
It’s a good thing she held her ground. During the restoration process, teams uncovered a prehistoric midden of oyster shells, pottery estimated to be 1,000 years old, and fragments of a Chicago elixir bottle and a bone tooth- brush from the late 1800s. Thanks to Davis’ efforts, a little slice of Florida’s history has been preserved.
Interestingly enough, for each of these history-loving heroes, the herculean efforts go far beyond nostalgia. Keeping authentic sights alive is second nature for them. Herb Hiller sums it up nicely: “Old Florida is only worth visiting if it still exists.”