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Quaint, Historic Winter Garden

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We camped at Lake Louisa in early January and absolutely fell in love with historic Winter Garden, which is about 12 miles away from Lake Louisa.

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 Winter Garden is considered a suburb of Orlando although it is 14 miles west.  It is located off Hwy 50 between the smaller towns of Oakland and Ocoee. Its northern boundary is Lake Apopka.  The town has many older homes, historic buildings, various restaurants, and several museums. The 22 mile West Orange bike trail runs directly through the center of town. The Centennial Plaza is easily recognizable by its clock tower, pavilion, swings, and fountain.  Winter Garden is a town rich in history. It was founded by farmers, fishermen, and citrus growers. At a time when other cities modernized, Winter Garden stayed lost in time and kept its older homes and storefronts. In recent years the city realized their architectural importance.  Many storefronts have survived and various buildings have been saved, remodeled and reused. A good way to get acquainted with the city is to stop at the Visitor’s Center on E. Plant Street. There you can pick up a free city map. They have a small selection of local books and gifts for sale.  I bought a copy of “Sundays in the South” which takes you on a page by page tour of historic homes, buildings, and places of interest all over Orange County. The illustrations are done by Rod Reeves, a lifelong resident, and ambassador of Winter Garden. The narratives are done by Kay Cappleman.  She was a past director of the Heritage Foundation and is a well-known town historian.

Not far from the Visitor’s Center is the Heritage Museum.  A stop here will give you a great overview of city history.  The growth of Winter Garden started with the railroad. In the 1880s the Orange Belt Railroad came through the town of Oakland.  The railroad provided transport for oranges from nearby Winter Garden. A few years later the Tavares and Gulf Railroad came in. It became convenient and profitable to move even more citrus. Despite terrible freezes in 1894 and 1895, the citrus industry would recover and then continue to thrive until the late 1970s.  At one time all you could see for miles were rows of orange groves. There were at one time 7 packing houses to ship citrus. The Heritage Museum features a room devoted to citrus heritage. Many of the old packing labels on display are real works of art. I didn’t realize that the background colors on the labels have various meanings, telling you that the citrus inside the crate is either high, medium, or low-grade fruit.

Another museum, the Central Florida Railroad Museum, is worth a stop.  It is located in the old Tavares and Gulf Rail Company Building in Winter Garden.  On display are railroad spikes, rails, signs, signals, and other memorabilia. There are scale model trains and miniature railroad towns.  There is even a telegraph room. The telegraph system improved communication and kept the railroad lines safer. The railroad helped develop Winter Garden.  It not only moved products but people. Celebrities like Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, and Clark Gable came by rail to fish Lake Apopka and enjoy the outdoors.  They stayed at the Edgewater Hotel.

A historic landmark, the Edgewater Hotel, is located on W. Plant Street.  The hotel was completed in 1927. It offered a night’s lodging for tourists coming to a growing Winter Garden.  The three-story building was said to be the safest and most advanced hotel of its time, with the first fire sprinkler system.  The hotel also has an Otis elevator, one of the first in the area. Otis elevators, originally developed in the 1850s, are famous worldwide for their reliability.  They have been used in the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building. The Edgewater Hotel has an elevator operator. Their job is to manually open and close the elevator gate and turn a crank to get you to the proper floor.  Today the Otis elevator in the Edgewater remains unchanged from its 1920’s beginnings and is in perfect working order. The hotel was popular in the 1930s with fishermen. It was even advertised in Field and Stream Magazine. Each floor of the hotel had a sink for cleaning fish and a refrigerator for storing them.  Bass in Lake Apopka were so plentiful that you could catch a day’s limit in no time. Archive photos show strings of fish, end to end, a long clothesline of fish! After the lake became polluted and fishing declined there were soldiers from WWII to fill the hotel rooms. Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the hotel was a second home for workers traveling to a nearby future attraction.  They were creating the little known Walt Disney World. A few years later the hotel closed. It was vacant from 1973 to 2003. After extensive remodeling, it reopened as the bed and breakfast which is what it is today. There are several restaurants on the ground floor and rooms on the upper floors. Guests can come inside and feel as if they have stepped back in time—- into the 1920’s splendor of a bygone era, but with modern conveniences tastefully worked in.

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Another landmark in Winter Garden is the Garden Theatre.  It was built in 1935 as a single screen cinema. As television became popular the walk-in cinemas lost their appeal.  The Garden closed its doors in 1963. The property was later purchased by a tractor supply house. There are archive photos showing the old theater lobby used as a big storage room.  The floor was changed to concrete to hold rows of farm equipment and machinery. The Garden was later refurbished and reopened in 2008 as a theater again. It is now a cultural center showing various plays and movies.  It is used as a gathering place for educational events.

Winter Garden could not be where it is today without the farmers.  It could not have developed as far along if not for that tractor supply house that once used the Garden Theater for storage.  Farming was not new. It had been around in Orange County since the 1800s. The rich muck land around Lake Apopka was ideal for vegetables and the citrus groves were developing.   In the early 1900s, a man named Hoyle Pounds started a Ford dealership. He had cars downstairs and worked on tractors upstairs. He was encouraged to have a few tractors for sale and later found he sold more tractors than cars.  He convinced farmers to switch from mules to tractors. Later he developed a rubber tractor tire and patented it. His tires replaced the metal wheels that were on tractors of the day. The tractors with metal wheels were tearing up the newly paved streets of Winter Garden.  Hoyle Pounds had a great imagination and could always come up with a new way to adapt his equipment to a farmer’s need. A room in the Heritage Museum is devoted to him. He is in both the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame and the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame. In the 1940’s he was the largest tractor dealership in the southeast United States.  The 1926 Pounds Motor Company Building still stands in Winter Garden today. The farm equipment business actively operates, run by 4th generation members of this famous Pound’s family.

If you come on the weekend there is a special treat!  Every Saturday of the year there is a Farmer’s Market in Winter Garden.  It is held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Don’t think small ordinary farmer’s market. You will be amazed by the variety of arts, crafts, specialty foods, baked goods, and wonderful produce.  Dog-friendly too. Much of the produce is displayed and sold under the shade of a brick pavilion that matches much of the town’s historic look. Whatever you might be looking for, I think Winter Garden will certainly please!

Places of Interest in Winter Garden:

The Heritage Museum is open from 1 pm – 5 pm.   Every Day. Donations welcome.
The Railroad Museum is open from 1 pm -5 pm.   Every Day. Donations welcome.
The Historical Research Center, & Visitor’s Center
Open Mon.-Fri.   11 am- 5 pm
Sat.  9 am – 5pm
Sun. 11am- 5pm

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