Mount Dora is a pretty lakeside community in central Florida to the northwest of Orlando and Altamonte Springs. Set beside the huge Lake Dora at an elevation of 144 feet (44 meters) is in indeed a mount in Floridian terms!
The picturesque town center has several wide interconnecting streets lined with quaint shops with bow-fronted windows, independent bakeries, tea rooms, gifts shops and restaurants. It is a real pleasure to browse around the town looking at antiques, gifts, knick-knacks and novelties along with local artwork.
History of Mount Dora
The town was settled originally in 1874 by David M. Simpson and his family. By 1880 there was a postmaster, Ross Tremain. The town became known as Mount Dora, after the lake, which incidentally had been named in 1846 after Dora Ann Drawdy who lived nearby.
As the town was on the steamer route it began to attract winter visitors, and the Alexander House Hotel opened in 1883 with 10 rooms. Originally the hotel was owned by some of the town fathers whose names can still be seen around Mount Dora today. Gentlemen visitors took part on snake hunts and fishing expeditions on the lake while the ladies had picnics including fresh orange juice, quite a novelty at the time.
Like much of Florida’s history, when the railroad arrived in 1887 it further stimulated the local economy and brought yet more tourists to the area for hunting, boating, fishing and sunny winter vacations. The railway ran right behind the hotel and visitors were met by the porter, who transported the trunks and luggage on his handcart. In the evenings guests sat out on the veranda enjoying the lake views from their rocking chairs.
Lakeside Inn, Mount Dora
The hotel was sold to Emma Boone in 1893 who renamed it Lake House and later changed the name to Lakeside Inn, which it is still known as today. By the 1920s the Lakeside Inn and Mount Dora were enjoying great prosperity, despite Prohibition. The Inn may have been a speak-easy and there is an interesting trap door at the lobby’s reception desk suggesting a less than tasteful past.
Orange groves flourished and the town had its own cannery with factories producing fertilizer and boxes for exporting the fruit. Unfortunately the big freeze of 1894 and 1895 killed the orange industry in this area, causing bankruptcy for many owners.
Lake Dora became a boating mecca and was soon hosting sailing regattas and boat shows, a tradition that continues to this day. Every March Mount Dora has an Antique Boat Show with around 150 old wooden vessels on display.
Such was the fame of Lake Dora and the Lakeside Inn that President Coolidge spent a month relaxing there in 1930 and he dedicated the new guest buildings to accompany the Olympic size swimming pool. Governors and senators were entertained there along with Thomas Edison when the Inn was under the ownership of Charles Egerton (1924-1979).
Present Day Mount Dora
The Lakeside Inn remains in business as one of the oldest wooden-built hotels in Florida with an unrivalled location for enjoying a meal in the historic restaurants or staying as a guest.
Many wealthy residents built winter homes and gracious Victorian mansions overlooking the lake which can still be seen today. Historic buildings of note include the three-story Queen Anne-style John P. Donnelly House, built for the first mayor of Mount Dora in 1893. It is located on Donnelly Avenue and has elegant white railed balconies, a hexagonal domed tower and beautiful window features. It is currently used as the Freemasons Lodge.
The Royellou Museum offers an interesting insight into local history and has free admission. You can also book a place on a guided Ghost Walk around Mount Dora after dark. The Mount Dora Center for the Arts is a popular community venue on 5th Avenue and has many exhibits by local artists. You may also want to visit the Antique Boat Museum on Clayton Street.
There is a pleasant jetty for watching beautiful sunsets over the lake, or take a seat on the terrace at Pisces Rising for an excellent meal of fresh fish.
The old railway still runs and offers dinner train trips through the Florida countryside in a self-propelled 1928 railway motorcar or one of the antique railway carriages pulled by restored engines.
Checkout my book about great days out in Central Florida from the Villages, available from Amazon.com
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Days Out in Central Florida from The Villages