The History Of DeLeon Springs, Florida

The unincorporated community of DeLeon Springs has a long and interesting history. Mayaca Indians used the local spring, now known as DeLeon Springs, as long as 6,000 years ago. In 1566 Pedro Menendez described his encounters with the Mayaca along the St. John’s River and in the vicinity of DeLeon Spring.  By the late 1600s,  the Mayaca Indians were no longer found in the area.


In 1779, Panton, Leslie and Company, a large British firm specializing in trade, received a British land grant of 500 acres that included the spring area.  Spain eventually regained control of the area and they too, offered land grants to citizens.  In the early 1800s, settlers built sugar and cotton plantations near what is now DeLeon Springs State Park.  Entrepreneurs came and tourism reigned, waned and regained its place once more.

The community of DeLeon Springs was predated by a community called Spring Garden.  In 1804 after the Panton firm left the area, William Williams received a Spanish land grant of just over 2,000 acres and named his property Spring Garden Plantation. 


Williams grew corn, cotton, and sugar cane, using enslaved Africans for labor needs at the plantation. A community began to flourish around the area of the plantation and the spring.  This attracted early settlers like the Hunters, and the Cliftons, who drove cattle from Georgia, and settled to raise livestock, cultivate the land and raise families.


William Williams left his Spring Garden property to his nephew and namesake William Williams.  The younger Williams was 16 years old when he inherited the Spring Garden property from his uncle, and he managed the farm until he joined the War in 1812. The younger William Williams sold the Spring Garden property in 1823 to Colonel Joseph Woodruff, who operated it as a plantation until he died in 1828. It was then sold to Colonel Orlando Rees in 1830.


In 1831, Rees, along with 90 slaves, constructed a sugar mill which was the first water-powered sugar mill in Florida.  During Rees’s ownership, the property was also planted with sugar cane, cotton and corn, as before under the elder William Williams.   Naturalist John J. Audubon visited with Rees for a few days at the plantation in 1831.  This is where Audubon is believed to have first seen and painted a limpkin.


In 1883, Robert C. and Elizabeth Strawn came from Illinois due to Elizabeth’s asthma and medical advice that she spend winters in the south.   Elizabeth enjoyed working outdoors and purchased five acres in Glenwood.  Hiring black workers to work alongside her, she planted orange trees.  She purchased five more acres each of the next two years, developing a 15 acre orange grove.  Their young son Theodore also participated.  He erected a tent across the train tracks near the current DeLeon Spring State Park entrance, packing oranges in barrels for sale. Soon after, he erected an enclosed, wooden "packing house" nearby and began shipping oranges north on the train, mainly to the Chicago area.  When the wooden structure burned down in 1921, Theodore built the Theodore Strawn Packing House, near the train tracks on Lake Winona Road.  Theodore used the latest technology of the time and built his new facility of ‘fireproof’ concrete and metal When Theodore died in 1925, his wife Candice continued to run the business.


The new packing house used unique conveyor belt systems to move oranges into crates marked for branded oranges he had developed: the “Intrinsic” the “Bob White” and the “Grown in Old Volusia”. Crates were then loaded onto rail cars for shipment to the north. The freezes of the mid-1980s forced the closing of the Strawn Packing House but remnants of some of the structures still stand today. 

During the 1880s, the local spring was named Ponce DeLeon Spring, for Juan Ponce de León, the early Spanish explorer to Florida, although there is no evidence he ever visited the spring. The spring area became a winter resort that attracted wealthy northerners and tourists alike, particularly after steamboats flourished and the railroads arrived.  In 1925 the Ponce DeLeon Hotel, known as “The Casino,” was built, overlooking the springhead. The word “casino” is of Italian origin and during that time the term referred to a place used for public meetings and social gatherings, not necessarily gambling.  “The Casino” included a superb restaurant that served what was considered to be ‘fancy fare’, such as locally raised beef steaks and freshly caught lobster.  These scrumptious meals were served to the most fashionable dining clientele of the age.


In 1890 the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church was organized as the first ‘Negro’ church on record, according to the Historical Records Survey.  The church remains active and vibrant today, serving the community of DeLeon Springs.  The Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church organized in the area known as Spring Garden in 1900. The church building served as a school for the African American children of DeLeon Springs.  The congregation eventually moved to their present location and their church still remains active and influential in the community today.


The famous DeSoto House Hotel, built in 1885 by U.M. Bennett as a fishing resort, stood at the site of what was lastly a Wells Fargo Bank.  It served not only sports fishermen but visiting presidents and wealthy travelers from the north and the pioneers who eventually settled in DeLeon Springs.  A blacksmith shop and livery stable located across from the DeSoto House served the needs of hotel clients and locals while the Fish and Lee General Store provided goods and services to the burgeoning community.


In 1912, Frederick N. Burt came from Buffalo, New York to try his hand at shaping the landscape for agriculture, housing and leisure enterprises. Burt purchased 1,000 acres and planned out areas for livestock breeding, agriculture and residential homes. A portion of the acreage was set aside as a ranch on which to build barns, a water tower and other structures, where he maintained his own livestock and horses, founding the Spring Garden Ranch, which eventually became a winter horse training facility in 1949. Today, Spring Garden Ranch, “Where Winners Winter”, is the largest standardbred horse training facility in North America where many original structures remain.  Horses and trainers come from all over the United States to practice during the winter months and usually head home in May.


Burt developed a then-unique community for the semi-retired to winter in, along Retta Street, a street he named for his wife. The development, called Burwyn Park, included upscale amenities such as paved sidewalks, a water system and even a community center for social occasions, all of which were innovative at the time.

When F. N. Burt couldn't persuade the owners of an attraction, built around the spring, to sell to him, he bought the adjacent property, drilled an artesian well and created “Burt's Park”, overlooking Spring Garden Lake. The owners of the DeLeon Spring attraction charged ten cents admission; Burt undercut them at five cents and Burt’s Park became the big attraction for the middle class.


In the 1920s, the Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church was no longer adequate to serve the needs of DeLeon Springs’ African American school children. In 1928, a group of African American residents, including teacher Carrie Malloy, approached the Volusia County School Board about building a new school, but they were turned away.  However, these determined residents approached F. N. Burt, who was by then a school trustee and respected leader, and he took up the mission to build the new “DeLeon Springs Colored School”. Burt donated the land and financed the construction, providing his own carpenters to build it. Additional funds were given by the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, which financed schools for African Americans in the South. The school was completed in 1929.  The Volusia County School Board eventually reimbursed Burt for half of his construction costs. 


The school was renamed the Malloy School in 1955 to honor Carrie Malloy's early efforts.  Due to integration, the school was closed in 1969. That same year, local African American leader Doris McWilliams, an educator who had attended the school in the 1940s, started a community center and Head Start Program there. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 and in 2017 a Florida Historical Marker was installed on the grounds of what is now the Malloy Head Start, funded in part by the DeLeon Springs Community Association, Inc.


In the 1940s, before the construction of U.S. Hwy. 17, the main south-north route through DeLeon Springs was northward from Glenwood along Grand Avenue, east down Retta Street, north on Commerce, west on Spring Street over to Ponce DeLeon Blvd., across the railroad tracks and north on what is now County Road 3 to Barberville.  The main street of DeLeon Springs was Commerce Street and the downtown of its time was bounded by Central Street, Reynolds Road and Spring Street. Contained within the two block downtown were bustling businesses such as Bedford Jones' General Store, a tearoom, the post office, and a meat market with lodging above.  A short order restaurant ran from the home of Jess and Suzy Yelvington,  where home-cooking was enjoyed by travelers and depended upon by the locals.  And Reynolds' Barber Shop kept the men of the community looking sharp and stylish. 


The DeLeon Springs School was built in 1886 at the corner of Central and Webb streets, serving also as a community center.  In 1937 a new school was built as a Works Progress Administration project, on five acres donated by F. N. Burt and located on what is now U.S. Hwy. 17.  The old  wood frame building was eventually demolished and a  much-needed fire station was built on the property in its place.  In 1954, the DeLeon Springs School burned down and a new school was constructed of concrete.


The McInnis family has lived in DeLeon Springs for over 100 years. Louise McInnis served at the newly built school as a teacher and as the principal, for 30 years.  She graduated from Stetson University in 1950 with a Master’s in Education.  Upon her retirement in 1971, DeLeon Springs Elementary School was renamed the Louise S. McInnis Elementary School.  Louise passed away at the age of 91 in 1991.  She was the last surviving charter member of the First Baptist Church of DeLeon Springs.  The First Baptist Church of DeLeon Springs recently celebrated their 100th anniversary, incorporating in 1921, and this congregation has a rich history of faithfully serving the community.


During the mid-20th century, DeLeon Springs was a natural destination for tourism.  Herbold's Tourist Colony located on what is now U.S. Hwy. 17, offered vacation cabins, a bathhouse, travel trailer parking and a restaurant, renowned for its home cooking.  The DeLeon Spring attraction offered animal exhibits, tropical gardens, canoe trails, and water ski shows, including the unique “Sunshine Sally” waterskiing elephant, followed by Queenie the waterskiing elephant in the 1960s.  In 1961 the Schwarze family established a German bakery there that eventually became the now-famous Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House.



1962 brought the 4-laning of U.S. Hwy. 17. This decision realigned the meandering roads,  away from the quaint, slow-paced drive, lined with local business.  While this reflected the ideas of the age and was designed to move goods quickly through the area via trucking, it destroyed the close knit business community on adjacent streets and lessened the small town charm of the community.


In 1964, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge was established to provide habitat for migrating birds. DeLeon Spring flows into Spring Garden Lake, along LWNWR where one can explore approximately 20,000 acres of lakes and marshes. LWNWR includes walking and biking trails, fishing, and hunting in season.  An observation tower offers opportunities to observe the diverse wildlife of the area.  LWNWR is home to the second largest pre-migration roost of swallow-tailed kites in the United States, making this a top birding destination for ornithologists, and bird lovers from throughout the world.


In 1967, Vo-LaSalle Farms was founded when Candice Strawn’s sons divided her estate after her death.  Son Chester Strawn named his farm property Vo-LaSalle Farms for Volusia County, Florida and LaSalle County, Illinois.  Chester's daughter Sylvia and her husband Bruce Crump came to work on the farm, along with their sons Roger and Steve Crump.  Steve Crump, his wife Kelly and their family continue the family citrus and farming tradition and still run Vo-LaSalle Farms today, with cherished employees who have been their for decades. Individuals and groups enjoy tours of the historic property, where the business has expanded.  Citrus is still grown and a wide variety of fruits and you-pick vegetables are available in season. The on-site 'Olde Florida' gift store offers newly-picked salads, farm fresh eggs of many varieties, and their refreshing, just-squeezed orange juice.

George Thofehrn was the owner of the private DeLeon Spring property and attraction in the 1970s when a campaign was mounted to have it, and the adjacent Burt’s Park property designated as a State Park.  Thanks to the tireless efforts and determination of local citizen Meg Johnson and the group she chaired, the entire property was purchased on June 2, 1982, with funds from Volusia County and the State of Florida and became DeLeon Springs State Park.  The spring produces up to 19 million gallons of water daily with a constant 72 degree water temperature and the Park offers hiking and biking trails, swimming, SCUBA opportunities, birding, canoe and kayak rentals, picnic and pavilion rental facilities, and of course the Fountain of Youth History and eco boat tours and Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant.


In 2008, the DeLeon Springs Merchant’s Association, was created by a group of local merchants, led by Don Malmborg, who wanted to see the DeLeon Springs downtown corridor improved. Hampered by continual code changes and a lack of modern water and wastewater infrastructure, key members of the group chose to broaden the focus to include the needs of the entire community.   In 2011, the DeLeon Springs Community Association, Inc. was formed and incorporated as a 501(c)(3) organization and adopted the motto: “Making DeLeon Springs A Better Place to Live, Work and Play”.  What began as a small core of volunteers, bloomed into a determined team of committed citizens, with a far broader mission that includes a wide range of citizens across the community, whose dedication drives  our efforts.


Early in our history, the DSCA, Inc. approached Volusia County about creating a District Overlay to define a 'downtown' area.  DSCA, Inc. hosted public meetings to accomplish this, and to eliminate split zoning along the U.S. Hwy. 17 corridor.  We worked with Volusia County and the FDEP to create two Brownfield Area Designations, named as “LEAD 1” and “LEAD 2” (Local Economic Advancement District).  This was an historic first for unincorporated Volusia County.


Our volunteers began an aggressive campaign  to prod the FDEP to move forward with the excavation of the largest underground fuel plume in the State, discovered under U.S. Hwy. 17 in the 1980s, in order to protect the health of our community, safeguard our water supply, and shield our beloved DeLeon Spring from further petroleum contamination.  This advocacy resulted in a four-phased excavation project that began on the west side, progressed to the east side, and finished with excavation under both north and south bound sections of U.S. Hwy. 17, costing over $14,000,000. This project was completed in 2014 and residual petroleum constituents continue to be treated and monitored to this day.


For over a decade, the DSCA, Inc. worked toward getting normal, business water and wastewater infrastructure in the 'downtown' area, which most communities take for granted.  These improvements include fire hydrants, which are so vital for the safety of our community.  Now, our drive to modernize the ‘downtown corridor’ with these critical water and wastewater services has become a reality! These essential  improvements will help protect the environmental health of our namesake DeLeon Spring, lessoning nitrogen pollution in the Spring.   Additionally, this business infrastructure will aid in our community's economic recovery  by providing new opportunities for business growth and jobs for our citizens, along with fire hydrants, considered standard equipment in most commercial areas.


Chuck Lennon Park is a 136-acre Volusia County park, named for DeLeon Springs resident Chuck Lennon, beloved for his "unselfish commitment to the betterment of the DeLeon Springs community and its youth".  The Park, adjacent to DeLeon Springs State Park, includes covered pavilions, playgrounds, soccer, football, baseball and softball fields, and tennis, basketball and racquet ball courts.  Tennis courts were recently refigured to provide new pickleball courts too.


Chuck Lennon Park is home to the top-ranked Chuck Lennon Mountain Biking Trail. This trail system is maintained by volunteers from the Florida Association of Single-Track Riders (FASTR) Biking Club.  These popular “destination trails” offer 11 miles of mountain biking fun, guaranteed to challenge the most experienced off-road mountain cyclists.


Volusia County Parks and Recreation has finalized the long-awaited Chuck Lennon Park Hiking Trail loop of just over one mile that offers views of a unique 'seep pool' area, sponsored by the DeLeon Springs Community Association, Inc.  


The completed DeLeon Springs Trail connects non-motorized users southward to the Spring to Spring Trail that is part of the overall River to Sea Loop.  A temporary traffic signal has been installed, in advance of the construction of a roundabout at the intersection of US Hwy. 17, Spring Garden Ave. and Spring Garden Ranch Rd., that will extend this trail east across US Hwy. 17 and northward to Lake Winona Rd.  When completed, the 260 mile River to Sea Loop SUNTrail will offer a non-motorized trail that loops from the St. Johns River to the Atlantic Ocean and back.

Volusia County is now expanding on the pickleball craze by refurbishing our  five-acre Hester Park's tennis court with a duel tennis court/pickleball court, in addition to the much-used basketball courts and softball/baseball field, adding value to this local favorite park.


For centuries, the unique community of DeLeon Springs has been a beautiful place to visit, explore and put down roots.  And it continues to be an exciting place, full of history, nature and wonder,  to discover and call home.