History of Mount Dora

Mount Dora is situated in a county that has 1400 named lakes and its elevation of 184 feet above sea level qualifies it as a Mount in the State of Florida. At one time citrus was the major industry in the area, with a great deal shipped from Mount Dora.

  • 1846
  • Lake Dora is named for Dora Ann Drawdy. She and her husband homesteaded two miles south of Mount Dora.
  • 1874
  • David M. Simpson, his wife and two children were the first to homestead in what is now Mount Dora.
  • 1880
  • The town's first name was Royellou, named after three children of Postmaster R.C. Tremain: Roy, Ella and Louis.
  • 1882
  • The first school in Mount Dora was established.
  • 1883
  • The town was renamed Mount Dora.
  • 1886
  • Mount Dora's first newspaper was published, a copy of which is on display in the Royellou Museum in town. There were 174 residents in the community.
  • 1887
  • The first railroad service through Mount Dora began and by 1915 there were two passenger trains daily in each direction.
  • 1893
  • The Donnelly House was built. It is now the home of Mount Dora Lodge 238 F. & A.M.
  • 1910
  • The town of Mount Dora was incorporated and J.P. Donnelly was elected the First Mayor.
  • 1915
  • The railroad depot was built. It is now owned by the Chamber of Commerce, housing the offices and visitor center.
  • 1924
  • Donnelly Park was created in the center of the city on land obtained from J.P. Donnelly for $45,000.
  • 1930
  • President Calvin Coolidge and his wife spent the month of February vacationing at the Lakeside Inn.

The Donnelly House and J.P. Donnelly

The Donnelly House, which stands on Donnelly Street across from Donnelly Park, was built in 1893. On the property was a beautiful big barn at the northwest corner and a tenant house south of that. It had a commanding view of Lake Dora and the town.

In 1879 a young Pittsburgh bachelor named John Phillip Donnelly came to Florida, and "just before sundown came over a hill on what is now Highland Street and the wonderful, glorious Lake Dora burst upon my vision. The sight swept me off my feet. I stood on the spot and feasted my eyes on the lake for half an hour." Mr. Donnelly, along with other young men, roomed in a home owned by Mrs. Annie McDonald Stone, formerly of Toledo, Ohio. The Stones owned a great deal of the downtown area of Mount Dora. John Donnelly and Annie Stone were married in 1881 and settled here in Mount Dora. The Stone Homestead included a major portion of the area which is now the central part of the city. They donated to the lots upon which were built the first two churches, the fire department, and some acreage for a cemetery.

Although the Donnelly's never had children of their own, Annie's daughter Nellie married and had three children. By 1893 the family fortunes had risen to the point where they were able to build the big house which still stands. It was laughingly called J. P.'s "gingerbread house."

Mr. Donnelly was undoubtedly one of Mount Dora's most successful promoters. He bought land for practically nothing and always sold it for a profit. He was also interested in citrus, especially the growing of tangerines. He was one of the organizers of the Mount Dora Yacht Club and in 1910 was elected Mount Dora's first mayor.

In 1924 J. P. Donnelly, pressed by the ladies of the Woman's Club, agreed to sell what is now Annie E. Donnelly Park for the sum of $45,000 provided that the park be named in honor of his deceased wife. He had the two-story Donnelly building constructed on the corner of Donnelly and 5th about 1920.

Mr. Donnelly died in 1930 and the whole town turned out to honor his memory.

Old Donnelly House

Today the Donnelly House is owned by the Masonic Lodge. It is open to the public only on special occasions.

Old Mount Dora Depot

Old Mount Dora DepotSitting trackside at the corner of Third and Alexander, the 35x93 foot depot is no longer a stop in the train's schedule but it remains the hub of community activities and growth in the life of Mount Dora, as it has for the last 100 years.

Completed in 1915 at a cost of $8,223, the combination freight and passenger depot was the realization of a dream held by city fathers from the earliest days of settlement.

As the current offices of the Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce it continues to fulfill its destiny of attracting and welcoming visitors, residents and businesses to this city known as the "New England of the South".

According to the 1886 issue of "The Mount Dora Voice," the town's earliest newspaper, there were 174 residents here and access was difficult because the area had "neither railroad or steamboat connections to the outside world." J.P. Donnelly, a leading real estate developer of the time, was quoted by the paper's editor as stating the town had two general stores, one drug store, a carriage factory, three hotels, and two churches. All had been accomplished in three years-and he concluded, there would be a "broad-gauge railroad by next July".

Tracks through Mount Dora were constructed by the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railway as a 29.5 mile branch from Sanford, Sylvan Lake, Paola, Cassia and Sorrento, into Mount Dora and then on to Tavares. Started late in 1886 under a charter issued to the Sanford and Lake Eustis Railroad Company, the line opened in February 1887. It was operated by the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railway as the Lake Eustis Division.

A small, earlier station was replaced by the present structure following plans submitted by Atlantic Coast Line Railroad's Office of Engineers, Wilmington, NC, in October 1914. Construction was completed the following year.

According to ACL time tables dated November 1915, there were two passenger trains daily in each direction. By 1922 the traffic level was four "mixed" trains (those with mail and freight and passenger cars all on the same train) daily.

Passenger trains continued their service through Mount Dora until the summer of 1950, bringing many visitors to the Lakeside Inn, the depot's closest neighbor.

In 1930 President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge came to Mount Dora, spending the month of February at the Lakeside Inn. This focused national attention on Mount Dora.

Located in a county that has 1400 named lakes, and with an elevation of 184 feet above sea level, the name "Land of Lakes and Hills" was coined by early promoters of Mount Dora, and a picture depicting a bass was adopted for advertising of the town.

Citrus was shipped by train to all parts of the country, wrapped in tissue paper and bearing the bass symbol, and a message offering to send a free brochure of information about the area, included by Robert N. White, secretary of the Commercial Club. White was also secretary of the Board of Trade, forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1923.

Housed in various places until 1973, permanent offices were secured when the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad agreed to lease the depot the Chamber of Commerce for $1.00 per year.

Plans were set in motion to renovate the building with the City of Mount Dora contributing the first $7,500. The amount was matched from Chamber of Commerce funds and by individual donations. Other than a $12,000 contribution by the Winter Park Federal Saving and Loan Association toward renovation of the Baggage Room all other moneys needed for restoration were raised by community efforts through flea markets, travel tours, card parties, and individual donations, and completed by the Mount Dora Community Trust in 2013. The renovation was completed in time for the Mount Dora Train Depot's 100th year anniversary.

Today Mount Dora Depot

Preservation of the high-ceilinged depot in its original form had been the goal of officers and directors of the Chamber of Commerce, with the railroad agent's office, ticket counter and waiting room now occupied by the Chamber staff. A community meeting room call "The Baggage Room" replaced the original freight warehouse. Other than painting, replacement of warehouse doors with colonial doors and windows, and the additions of shutters, paved parking lot and landscaping, the exterior has early flavors. Constructed of wooden siding, the building blends beautifully with the New England theme of the town, with the traditional Mount Dora lamp posts used in strategic locations.

Artifacts left by the railroad company are delightful conversation pieces and include the original agent's desk, a tariff sheet desk and bookcase, and old telephone with earphones, and old safe and signal lamps. A baggage cart and semaphore signal lend atmosphere outside.

Antiques and modern equipment have been donated by many of the members of the Chamber, giving a warm and home appeal to the depot. Carpeting replaces the rare wooden floors, and wood paneling hides the smoke-stained walls. The potbellied stoves gave way to central heat and air conditioning; a kitchen and new restrooms were added.

Unlike big-city Chambers, the Mount Dora Chamber of Commerce caters to visitors and members on a neighbor-to-neighbor basis, and continues to be a memorable focal point for community activities, as much as it was in the days of wood-fueled steam engines and starry-eyed pioneers.

Story by Lou Cooper
Executive Vice President - Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce
March 1980 and revised 2015

History of the Lakeside Inn

Old Lakeside Inn Many people walk past the Lakeside Inn without realizing the historical significance of it. It is not just another big hotel. The Lakeside Inn is a building that has played an important role in Mount Dora from the very time it was founded.

The Lakeside Inn was built at a time when only sixteen families lived in Mount Dora (within a mile of the landing). A colonel of the Civil War, James M. Alexander, along with John P Donnelly, and Colonel John A. MacDonald, built the inn between 1882-1883. The Lakeside Inn was called the Alexander House in those days. It was not as big as it is now. In fact, the Alexander House, which was open only for the winter, was a two-story building with ten rooms.

In the late 1800's a ten room hotel was considered big. It was sufficient because Mount Dora did not get as many visitors as it does today. No wonder, getting to Mount Dora was difficult. A visitor from Tennessee would have to take a boat down the St, Johns River to Mellonville on Lake Monroe, and then take a wagon train to the eastern shore of Lake Dora.

Many local travelers would take steamboats to Mount Dora. The A.J. Lane was one steamboat that made trips though out the Lake Harris circuit. Rowboats were also popular. By 1887 the railroad stopped at Mount Dora. With the railroad more and more people began to visit and settle in Mount Dora. The population began to grow by leaps and bounds.

Visitors that stayed at the Alexander House were glad they came. Mount Dora was a very beautiful place in the late 1800's. Guests were fascinated by the variety of wildlife, like the 200 different species of birds. Fishing was a popular pastime for guests of the inn: Lake Dora was filled with bass and catfish. Other events included quail and snake hunting.

By 1884 the hotel was managed by Byron M. Bruce. In 1893, Alexander, Donnelly and MacDonald sold the Alexander House to Emma Boone, she changed the name of the "Alexander House" to the "Lake House". In 1903 Emma Boone married George D. Thayer who took over as manager. In 1908 the Thayer's built the Gate House, a three story main building, the dining room and kitchen area. In 1910 Thayer built the Sunset Cottage.

The real heyday of the Lake House was in the 1920's. It began to serve as the center of town and the base from most of Mount Dora's social functions, including the annual sailing regatta (now the oldest in the state). Over the years the Lake House has been visited by many celebrities, corporation executives, college presidents, and writers. Many of the famous visitors eventually moved to Mount Dora and bought homes.

During the winter season it was common to hear music of the pre-Jazz age. The Lake House was not a place frequently visited by Flappers or lovers of Jazz and the Big Band music of the roaring twenties. Instead, it was a place where wealthy, cultivated older folks came to lawn bowl and Sunday night musicals and play Bridge.

The former president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, visited the Lake House in 1930. He dedicated the newly completed additions of the Lake House known as the Gables (1928) and Terrace (1930). In a gesture of good will his wife Grace planted a pine tree at the community center, as the entire world fixed their attention on the small, romantic town of Mount Dora.

Over the years, the Lakeside Inn has had many changes in ownership, but the Edgerton's stand out as the owners most closely associated with it. In 1901 the Edgerton's, like many families, came to Mount Dora on a vacation. They like Mount Dora and the Lakeside Inn so much that they continued to come every winter after that. In 1919 Charles Edgerton bought "the Log Cabin" a house just south of the main building, for a winter home.

NEW Lakeside Inn

In 1924 when the Lake House got into financial trouble, Charles Edgerton and a group of investors bought it. In 1933 Mr. Edgerton, Fred W. Wentworth and 100 stockholders changed the name of the Lake House to the Lakeside Inn. IN 1935 Charles made his son Richard the manager. Richard eventually became the owner and manager. He used to operate a New England inn during the summer and then bring his entire staff to the lakeside for the winter. Richard managed and owned the Lakeside until 1980 when he sold it to Lee's Inn Associate. The associates changed the name of the Lakeside Inn to Lee's Inn.

In 1984 The Management Development Group of Orlando and Horizon Builders of Winter Park acquired Lee's Inn. They closed the Inn for the winter, spent nearly four million dollars restoring it and then re-established the name "Lakeside Inn". The Lakeside Inn now has 87 rooms and operates as a full service, luxury hotel. Visitors to the Lakeside Inn can play tennis, swim, play shuffleboard and like always boat and fish on beautiful Lake Dora.

So remember, the Lakeside Inn is not just another big hotel. It is a building that has played an important part in the history of Mount Dora. Since the 1880's when only sixteen families lived in Mount Dora, the original building has stood here. Over the years it has grown and expanded but it has remained one of the major attractions. Overall, the Lakeside Inn is one of the most historically significant buildings in Mount Dora. It is one of the only five Florida lodges named "A Historic Hotel of America", by the Trust for Historic Preservation. It is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

William Figner, Historian
Mount Dora Historical Society

History of the Old City Jail

Old City Jail On December 5, 1922, J.P. Donnelly deeded to the town of Mount Dora a piece of property on which should be constructed a suitable building to house and care for firefighting apparatus with the provision that, "in the event said property was no longer used for such purpose for a lengthy period of time, said land would revert to the grantor and his heirs and assigns". The town was given a year to construct the building. This was completed in 1923. The first fire engine as the late Mr. O. M. Simpson recalled it, was a two wheeled affair with a hose and using manpower. This was later replaced by a whole series of fire engines.

Since Saturday night in Mount Dora was like Saturday night in any other small town even in Prohibition days, there were usually two or three drunks in need of care. So the five cells and bathroom were added to the rear of the firehouse. On the roof was the fire siren which was sounded each noon, as well as when there was a fire.

In April of 1941, the new firehouse was built on Fourth Avenue between Donnelly and Alexander. With the removal of the engines, there was space to add the four larger cells in the front, each containing a toilet and washbasin, as well as the usual iron double bunks. The balance of the space became the police station.

During Mayor J.E. Fortner's term of office, from 1945 to 1949, the building was remodeled to permit the installation of public toilets. The two small rooms which are now the museum office and storage room were formerly the restrooms, with the doors opening on the alley.

The jail remained in use until the new police and fire-fighting complex was completed in July of 1969. It then became the sign shop for the traffic department of the police force.

In 1977 the Donnelly estate sought the return of the property as stipulated in the original deed. Hearing of this, the Mount Dora Historical Society approached both the trustees of the estate and the City, requesting permission to turn the little building into a museum, an objective the society had been working for, for many years. The plan proved acceptable to both parties and the Mount Dora Historical Society took possession in the early summer of 1978. The Royellou Museum was officially open by Mayor Margaret Lofroos during the annual Fourth of July celebration in 1979.

Mount Dora Historical Society

Mount Dora Middle School - Milner Rosenwald Academy

Here's some info on the Milner Rosenwald Academy building. It is located at 1560 Highland Street. The City owns it now, and leases it to Lake County Headstart program.

Milner Rosenwald Academy The building was built in 1925-26 with money raised by the African American community, especially under the leadership of Mamie Lee Gilbert and Lula Butler. They got grants also from the Julius Rosenwald Fund (Chicago foundation which gave seed money to help build schools for Black children in the South) and from the Rev. Duncan Chambers Milner, a wonderful and much revered senior citizen of Mount Dora, from 1916 until his death in 1928. He was deeply concerned with the well-being of the Black citizens of Mount Dora. Construction money also came from public school funds.

When enrollment grew a new school built up on Grant Street. It took the same name, and for a time it had the early grades and the original building had the upper grades, through 8th grade. Any Black child who wanted to go to high school had to find his/her own transportation to the Black high school in Eustis. Around 1962 the new Milner Rosenwald school was expanded and all grades were moved there. The old building, on Highland was put to other uses.

In 1971, when segregation finally ended, the new Milner Rosenwald Academy's name was changed to Mount Dora Middle School and served kids without regard to color. But the name Milner Rosenwald Academy -- which had won the affection of the Black community - disappeared from our history except as a memory.

As Brenda said today at the luncheon, the Northeast Black History Committee is now applying for a Florida State Historic Marker for the original Milner Rosenwald Academy building on Highland. We are looking for information from anyone who remembers going to the school there. Soon we'll be sending you more information about it.

The History of Mount Dora's City Hall

One of the most impressive city halls in Florida graces the top of the hill at 5th and Baker, in downtown Mount Dora. And, as we attend meetings on the second floor in the Council Room, we wonder how long the City Fathers have been meeting there… and where they met before.

Let us go back to the old Town Hall that was built in 1904 on the corner of 4th and 5th Avenues on the east side of Donnelly Street. It was built almost entirely by volunteer labor from materials paid for out of public donations, and was the cultural center of town until 1922 when it was badly damaged by fire that destroyed much of the block.

Naturally, it was in the Town Hall that the first city election took place in 1910 and here that the Town Council met until 1914. For some reason the council met for a couple of months in a room at James Simpson's packing house (SW corner of Donnelly and 3rd Avenue), before moving to the Educational Hall (built in 1912 on the SE corner of Tremain and 5th Avenue), now Potter, Clement, Lowery and Duncan Law Offices. The Council met there for 10 years before moving to meet for the next five years in the room adjacent to the Post Office, which was then on 5th next to the theater.

This brings us up to 1929 and the present location of City Hall. It was here in the 1880's that the Reverend Guller built a "large box of a house" which was used as a hotel and called the Guller House. The Gullers sold it in 1889. The property changed hands several times before 1920 when Mr. Enoch Tompkins bought and remodeled it, adding the beautiful columns to give it a colonial look. As a matter of fact, it became known as the Colonial Inn. It again changed hands several times until 1929 when the City leased the property for $1,000 a year before buying it for $15,000 in 1931.

Mount Dora City Hall

The Mayor, City Council and various city departments conducted city business there until 1963 when it was removed to make way for a new City Hall. Brandon Wald, architect, designed the exterior as nearly like the old building as was practical, but changed the interior to more nearly meet the requirements of a growing city.

The same 1920 pillars grace the entrance of the building, which was dedicated at an impressive ceremony on April 3, 1964. Mayor Jessie Wilmott and other Mount Dora officials were joined by Governor Farris Bryant to make the occasion one to remember. Overlooking Donnelly Park and lovely downtown Mount Dora City Hall takes its place in history.

Abby Jo S. Land,
Mount Dora Historical Society - May 1980

Palm Island and the Mount Dora Lighthouse

PALM ISLAND PARK Completed in April 1986, is one the finest nature attraction of Central Florida. Located on 12 acres of beautifully forested wetland, just three blocks from downtown Mount Dora, PALM ISLAND boasts the longest nature boardwalk along a lake in the state. Several hundred people per day have visited the park since its opening.

The park's ten picnic areas, mulched nature trails and boardwalk along Lake Dora were constructed in less than two years with funds from the Florida Department of Natural Resources. The park, owned and maintained by the City of Mount Dora, is open daily from 7:30 to 1/2 hour after sunset, and is free of charge.

During a day spent on the boardwalk a visitor may see alligators, otters, herons, ospreys, coots, ducks, anhinga's, gallinules, eagles, woodpeckers, squirrels and raccoons. Cypress, oaks, maples, and palms provide delightful woodland.

Palm Island Park

Mount Dora Light HousePORT OF MOUNT DORA and LIGHTHOUSE The 35-foot lighthouse was dedicated on March 25, 1988. Built of bricks covered with stucco, the lighthouse stands sentry over the Port of Mount Dora. Its 750-watt photocell powers a blue pulsesator sending out a guiding light to all boaters navigating Lake Dora after dusk. Civic clubs and citizens raised the $3,000 needed and soon the lighthouse was reality.

LIGHTHOUSE WALK enables residents and visitors to walk from the downtown area of the city to PALM ISLAND on a wide, concrete walk. This, too, was constructed with funds from the citizens and many hours of labor from the City of Mount Dora Public Works Department.

Light House on Lake

Directions: Leaving the Depot, home of the Chamber of Commerce, go east on Third or Fourth Avenues to Donnelly Street, turn right. After crossing the railroad tracks turn left on Charles Street and pick up sidewalk on right hand side of street near the Mount Dora Lawn Bowling Association.