Posted by: floridanature | January 22, 2009

Woodland Park: Florida Before Disney

Long before there was Disney World or Wet-n-Wild—even before Monkey Jungle and Cypress Gardens—there was Woodland Park.

It was developed in a place that was the counterpart to today’s Orlando— an interior town on the juncture of major transportation routes. These routes were rivers, and they predated the modern highway and railroad system that later helped settle the peninsula of Florida.

Woodland Park in its heyday

Woodland Park in its heyday

This town in the interior was called Sanford, and it prospered simply by being the last major settlement squarely on the shores of the St. Johns River to be serviced by large paddlewheel riverboats. It was the route snowbirds rode long before the turnpike and I-95 and airplanes took them to Orlando and Miami and Ft. Lauderdale.

This Sanford was 160 miles from the sea, in the buggy, soggy interior of the peninsula. Yet, it dreamed of greatness. It called itself “The Gateway to South Florida.” As it grew, it became “The City Substantial.” It was only natural it should host the prototypical tourist theme park in the state.

19th Century waterfront of Sanford

19th Century waterfront of Sanford

Sometime around 1880, a local farmer and entrepreneur named Victor Schmelz decided there was opportunity here for Florida tourism of the kind that went beyond sitting on the verandah and rocking the winter away. Schmelz bought a few acres of woody, swampy land near the shore of Lake Monroe, between Sanford and the mouth of the Wekiva River. Here, atop an Indian midden mound that rose several yards above the lower swamp, he built his tourism mecca. He named it for the natural setting, “Woodland Park.”

Woodland Park was promoted as “A Real Playground Where the Mound-Builders Lived.” The mound builders were Timucuan Indians who thrived here for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. They hunted deer and bear, fished for bass and gar, and gathered mussels from the shallow, clear waters. In ceremonies, they adorned themselves with eagle feathers and alligator teeth. Nature was their religion, and they communed with it. The pioneers who followed were rough-edged, exploitative, and fearful of the environment that had sustained the Timucua. The interior of Florida was frightful, in need of taming. Woodland Park was a light, ephemereal oasis in an otherwise hardscrabble existence.

Shell midden at Enterprise on Lake Monroe, circa Woodland Park era

Shell midden at Enterprise on Lake Monroe, circa Woodland Park era

This Woodland Park featured a large dance hall with a “self-playing orchestration” along with “see-saws, swings and other amusements.” The dance hall was built on stilts and stretched all the way out into Lake Monroe, long before that water body was bulkheaded as it is today.
At the heart of the theme park was its gigantic pool, fed by an artesian well. The pool, made of tabby walls, was emptied every night and filled every morning. In between, according to the advertising, “the sun and air thoroughly disinfect the empty basin.”

Around the edges of the pool were a toboggan slide and spring-boards and a diving stage that was almost 20 feet high. There were 46 dressing rooms. It cost five cents to get in. A club called “The Eagles” held their annual “Picnic and Fish Fry” here during one of the park’s last seasons in the early 1920’s. Some 1,200 people came, and according to a brochure, they were entertained “without over-crowding and everyone was happy.”

Old photos from the brochure at the Sanford Museum show an enchanted site of cypress and pine, moss-draped boughs above a tin-roofed gazebo trimmed with scalloped cornices. Visitors could have fun, but there were to be no shenanigans. “No rowdyism was allowed,” warned the brochure—””a fact well understood.” Men in suits and ties and hats stand about outside a white criss-cross wooden fence, under an entrance with “Woodland Park” spelled out in an archway of trimmed branches. Inside, kids in black old-fashioned neck-high swimsuits play in the pool; women in long dresses and large brimmed hats protectively watch them. In a state that was trying so hard to be grown up that it sometimes forgot to have fun, Woodland Park seemed an oasis of frivolity.

Wekiva Springs, late 1980's

Wekiva Springs, late 1880's

Today, Woodland Park is a non-place, as obscured from memory as the Timucua who helped build the midden that served as its foundation. There are no markers, no commemorative plaques. The local press, when it discusses tourism history, never mentions Woodland Park. It is as if it never existed.

It was a place that, for me, cried out to be re-discovered

After talking with a few oldtimers to get a vague sense of where the park use to be, I drive to the road nearest the site, not far from Lake Monroe. Once I get deep into the woods, a gurgling sound from the old spring will help guide me to the site, I am told. At the edge of the road, the woods descend into a wet, green swale of duckweed and ferns, punctuated with mahogany-colored cypress knees.

Although it is warm, I have on a long-sleeved shirt, jeans and boots. It is a good Florida swamp outfit, one to buffer briars that scratch the skin and tiny insects that welcome a good, fresh meal on the hoof. I pull out my compass and walk down into the swamp, ducking under swags of giant webs spun by golden orb spiders and stepping gingerly around cypress knees. Moss hangs heavy in the trees overhead, just like in the brochure. By myself back here, I feel somehow safe, more at home than I ever do on the busy highways of Florida.

It’s uncommon, even rare, to encounter venomous snakes in wetlands like this—and whenever you do, they try their best to get out of your way. Unless you are to trummel down directly onto them. I step gingerly today, watching leaves and sticks for any sign of movement. But all I see are little anoles, scampering.

After an hour of wandering, I am beginning to re-think this adventure. There is no gurgling from the woods to lead or assuage me, and my explorations seem nearly aimless. It is as hot as a sauna and my clothes are soaked with sweat.

Launch on Wekiva during this era

Launch on Wekiva during this era

Then I notice the low ground under me has begun to slope gradually upward. I look closely and see why: It is a mound full of thumb-nailed sized, bleached white shells. If the park was built where the “Mound Builders Once Live”, it must be somewhere atop this ever-rising midden under my feet.

Finally, in the distance, atop the highest elevation of the mound, I see two sides of the tabby-walled pool rise from the floor of the jungle, burnished with reddish lichens and dark algaes, like an old Spanish fort.

I walk up to the closest waist-high wall and run my hand along the top of it. I see the shells of the tabby are the ancient shells, collected by the founders of Woodland Park from the midden itself. On the ground nearby is a single slab of tin, a lone shard of the gazebo.

Of the rest, it has either been removed, rotted into humus in the warm, wet environment, or obscured under the backfill that supports the bulkhead. Many of the mounds in Florida had been hauled away in the 1930’s for use in drain fields for septic tanks. Perhaps the missing tabby walls went then, too.

Just to the south, the rusty pipe that once filled the pool with its artesian flow is broken off near the ground. I look down inside and see still water a few feet below, too tired to rise. It explains why I didn’t hear the sound of gurgling as I approached.

Florida’s hydrology has drastically changed in a century:. When rain falls on the hard pavements of progress, it doesn’t seep easily down into the earth as it once did to replenish wells like this. Local fields once covered with celery and winter vegetables are covered now with roads and culverts and a massive mall. The water that made Woodland Park what it was, that filled it anew every morning, has stopped flowing.
I stand here, inside one tabby wall, trying to imagine the pool, full of kids’ laughter and dreams. A small gopher tortoise ambles nearby, across the thin layer of cement that was once the floor of the pool, dodging the thick trees that now grow here.

The exuberance that once drove the park is vanished, gone to that same place as the spirit of the mound builders, swept away with the river itself. I wonder why things like this disappear so completely, and why.

History holds a few clues:
By the 1920’s, local farming was relocating to the newly-productive muck lands created by draining the Glades in South Florida. Steamboat-bound tourists were being funneled off to the coast by railroads and highways. The commerce of Sanford collapsed, its allure faded. Finally, the city itself claimed bankruptcy. It was all a one-two punch from which the “City Substantial” seems to have never been fully able to catch its breath.

Surely, it left little room for frivolity, for places that—even at a nickel—were whimsical luxuries. Somewhere in the midst of all this, Woodland Park bit the dust

I walk down off the mound, back through the woods. I look over my shoulder only once, when I think I hear a last long cry of joy from the playground where the mound builders once lived. It is a pileated woodpecker, high up in the mossy boughs, a bird that was here when the Timucua first colonized these woods. Its call is eternal, timeless, and full of the hope that transmutes itself over the centuries. It is a reminder that people and highways and prosperity and amusement parks come and go.

But—if we slow ourselves enough to listen— the cries of joy in the woods remain forever.

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Responses

  1. Those were the days. Very good post– I imagined that I was there with you. I have heard about this park but I had heard that it was around the present day location of the Sanford Zoo. Thanks again.

  2. Thanks, Patty. Glad you enjoyed the little story about Woodland Park. It is actually sited on zoo property west of the entrance road. There’s now a historic marker out near the road itself.


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