It was actually the St Johns River that brought wealthy New York wine merchant, Frederick DeBary, to the area in the early 1870s. He arrived by steamboat, like most early visitors, and he was specifically looking for somewhere to build a winter home and hunting estate in order to escape the New York winters. He initially invested in 400 acres of land on the shores of Lake Monroe where the estate stands today.
Once he had completed the 8,000 square foot DeBary Hall in 1871, he entertained family and friends with the sports of the day – fishing, horse riding, shooting wild game (mainly quail), and hunting “varmint”. His guests included President Grant, President Cleveland and European royalty.
Ever the entrepreneur, he planted orange trees on the estate, had a sugar mill on the east bank of DeBary Creek and ran a fleet of commercial steam boats on the river for a time as the tourist boom in Florida continued. The DeBary Merchants Line eventually had 13 steamboats including a side-wheeler named “Frederick DeBary” after him.
After his death in 1898, the estate stayed in the hands of various members of the DeBary family until 1946.
Tours of DeBary Hall
On arrival, walk through the wrought iron gateway and up the short driveway to the house. The island in the center of the driveway has an enormous cycad, a King Sago Palm, planted in the year 1900.
Historic tours of the house are offered throughout the day so you should not have long to wait. There are also daily ecological tours as the 10-acre estate is a bird and nature sanctuary. Tea Time Tours can also be prebooked for groups with tea tasting as part of the two-hour visit.
Your guide will take you through the various period rooms on both floors of the house, highlighting the antique furnishings and describing life as it would have been in Victorian times for the family. After taking a tour of the restored house, which takes about 30-45 minutes, you can then explore the outbuildings in the grounds. There is an old icehouse, a worker’s cottage and a display of restored carriages.
One of the old buildings has been converted into a Visitor Centre with an excellent exhibit about the history of the St Johns River, which incidentally is the only river in Florida to flow from south to north. The exhibition has old photographs of DeBary Hall with its African American workers, landscaped gardens and beautiful fountain. There is an informative film in the Imagidome Theater depicting a “virtual” steamboat ride, complete with rocking wave motion. The exhibits show how the river played an important role in making Florida accessible to visitors prior to the railroad being built.
Finally, walk the two-mile Spring-to-Spring Trail around the estate, which starts at the pavilion. This is part of a 26-mile trail linking small communities between DeLeon Springs and Deltona.
DeBary Hall is closed on Sunday mornings and all day on Monday. The well-stocked Gift Shop is worth a visit as it is filled with books and unusual Victorian-themed gifts.
You may want to checkout my book about great days out in Central Florida from the Villages, available from Amazon.com
or download the ebook version here
Days Out in Central Florida from The Villages