Mount Dora’s Chautauqua Brand

Trees come back into the political conversation at council’s March 15 meeting. Now more than ever we need a walk in the woods

Mount Dora’s reputation as the idyllic small town—“the New England of the South”—blends rural charm with an arts community into a unique experience hard to find anywhere else in Central Florida.

Trees are so rooted in Mount Dora’s identity that one takes up a third of the city’s logo. And removing a tree can overthrow a council, as we saw last year.

That brand gets attention again on Tuesday night when council considers a $30,000 grant request to help get its tree program underway. Combined with $50,000 already in the budget, the funds will pay for an extensive inventory of the city’s urban canopy to assess its health and lay the groundwork for a comprehensive tree program that will last for decades to come.

Other matters are pressing—on Tuesday night, council also decides on a significant rate hike for water and wastewater utilities, as well as chooses its next city attorney—and yet this item is significant because Mount Dora’s environment affects everything else the city struggles over.

How did we achieve this green brand? Mount Dora started as an agricultural community in the middle decades of the 19th century, and might have stayed so had not the Sanford and Lake Eustis Railway been built in 1885, and Mount Dora became the site of the Southern Florida Chautauqua in 1886.

Chautauqua first began on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in New York State in 1974, an educational summer camp offering performers, lecturers, and religious and civic adult education.  What better classroom than the great outdoors?

From that, many independent (or “daughter”) Chautauquas quickly spread around the country, settling at an attractive semi-rural location a short distance from an established town with a rail station. The first Chautauqua in Florida was in 1885 in DeFuniak Springs up in the Panhandle. It was so popular that soon after a site was sought for a Chautauqua in the Central Florida region.

In 1886, Dr. W.F. Henry gave 10 acres of land just south of Lake Gertrude (approximately where 11th Avenue intersects with Old 441) to the South Florida Chautauqua Sunday School Assembly of Mount Dora. The assembly divided up the parcel and sold individual lots to families “to promote the religious and intellectual welfare of the people of Florida and other states and to remain nondenominational.” (Already we have a northern idea selling itself to future Northern residents.)

Proceeds from the sale of the lots went toward building a 1,500-seat auditorium which had a huge stage, dirt floor and row upon row of wooden benches. By then Mount Dora had three hotels, and a fourth—the Hotel Chautauqua—was built in 1887 as visitors flocked from around the area for the 10 day event. (They could also rent tents.)  The Sanford train made an extra stop on its way to Tavares to accommodate travelers to the event (the Doodlebug still travels that route), the steamboat Dolphin made trips across Lake Dora from Mount Dora to the site and back many times a day.

The South Florida Chautauqua Sunday School Assembly of Mount Dorain 1886
The South Florida Chautauqua Sunday School Assembly of Mount Dorain 1886

It was the equivalent of a Disney vacation back then, drawing residents from the area and from up north to a weeklong cultural affair in a pine forest nestled on the shore of Lake Gertrude.  For $1.50—free, if you could prove you were broke— you got 10 days of what back then settled for popular “entertainment” in a rural setting (the 19th century equivalent of a home entertainment system in your suburban slice of paradise.) At least it was a reprieve from the hard-tackle realities of village life those days.

There was something for everyone in the family —Sunday school for the kids, a chance for teenagers to take a walk in the woods with a member of the opposite sex, lectures on topics as varied as “Womanhood in Shakespeare” and “The Farmers of Palestine.” Both women and men could lecture, and if that wasn’t abnormal enough for the day, whites and blacks could both attend. Shades of New England!

As if to find a Southern balance, in 1895 resident Emma Sadler staged “The Sham Battle of the Blue and the Grey.” In it confederate veterans played roles on both sides of what was locally called “The War of Northern Aggression,” reenacting a battle with bugles, war-whoops and blank ammo. (Central Floridians still savor such entertainments at Renniger’s during the annual reenactment of the fictional Battle of Townsend’s Plantation.)

Mount Dora’s full festival clout was packed into a ten-day spring Chautauqua which was staged every year until the winter of 1894-5, when two successive monster freezes killed off the area’s orange industry (and all other agriculture, for that matter). It damaged the local economy so badly that many folks who had invested their life savings into groves had nothing to do but pack up, leave everything they couldn’t take with them and buggy out of town without looking back.

Somehow the South Florida Chautauqua struggled on (Mrs. Orin Sadler of Mount Dora worked valiantly to find lecturers and entertainers for the annual event). A fire in 1905 burned down the auditorium, Chautauqua hotel and adjacent pine forest. A big tent was acquired to the assemblies could continue, but finally in 1910 the programs came to an end. The area grew over to resemble a jungle, and stayed that way until the mid-1920s when George Malone started selling lots on the Chautauqua property for home that eventually became Sylvan Shores.

The 19th-century cultural fare offered at Chautauquas were finally disrupted by the early 20th century entertainments of radio and silent pictures. News of the world on the radio made lectures about the world less engaging. Reenactments of the Civil War by the locals couldn’t hold a candle to the spectacle of “Birth of A Nation.”

As Mount Dora grew up, so did the natural brand that started with Chautauqua. Things were less idyllic. There were no more integrated events in Mount Dora, and in the 1920s Mount Dora’s black residents downtown were forcibly removed to live in East Town so that their land could be sold to build hotels for wealthy northern winter visitors.

And so the Chautauqua ideal of rural cultural utopia for the many morphed into the winter retreat for the wealthy few. Mount Dora became a resort town, with boating by day on Lake Dora and dancing in the great hall of the Lakeside Inn, its windows wide to the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms unfurling from the recovered groves.

Ex-president Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace famously visited the Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora in 1930, staying in a room overlooking Lake Dora. Grace was photographed helping to plant a silver cypress tree to commemorate the opening of the Mount Dora Community Center. (Cal, a shy guy, spent the day in Winter Haven.)

Mount Dora street scene, 1930s
Mount Dora street scene, 1930s

But then came the Depression and World War II, and like the years after the Great Freeze, Mount Dora went into another hibernation. When it emerged, the wealthy winter utopia had evolved into sunny suburb for the white middle class, a tiny slice of Florida sold to every wide-eyed transplant looking to escape cold weather and state taxes.

And yet, the spirit of Chautauqua—part John Muir, part Teddy Roosevelt, who once called Chautauqua “the most American thing in America”—could still be found in this city’s love of its oak trees, in a canopy of green with the swaying beards of ant moss. The city’s founding fathers planted oaks all over town in the 1890s, and they grew immensely and majestically until they grew old. When the city in 1992 declared its intent to tear down some of these trees before they came crashing down on the street, incensed citizens turned out in mass before council. “Not one oak shall be removed!” someone shouted. Six months later, the Great Storm of 1993 felled just about all of them, destroying or damaging close to two thousand other trees.

A former publisher of the Mount Dora Topic once told me that while he intellectually understood the necessity of taking down old and infirm oak trees, he grieved watching every one come down. ”Something from my childhood can’t stand to watch it happen,” he said.

04 IMG_2590

The downtown greenscape received considerable attention during the recent 3-year construction project. The plan, passed several councils back (when Mayor Girone was a representative), called for the removal of fifteen aged laurel oaks and the planting of a number of palm trees as well as nine new live oaks. Although 20 public meetings had been conducted giving the community advance word of the city’s plans, it wasn’t until the 21st that the angry citizens showed up. It was too late to do much by then—some of the palms had been in the ground for two years, and a “re-oaking” action by the city would involve stretching the construction project out still further and delay other much-needed work downtown (like addressing its chronic parking woes and focusing on the 5th Avenue corridor).

The public outcry did lead Pastue to look toward a more dedicated tree program. He added $15,000 to the electric utilities budget for tree maintenance and recommended expanding the budget by $50,000 for something more comprehensive. In a memo to council in September, he urged them to act.

Mount Dora has not had a comprehensive urban forestry program that addresses electric utility system reliability, safety in a broad sense, and aesthetics which are significant elements of such a program. It does take some time to build a new program with funding being the biggest challenge.

Council approved the funding, but after the November elections when Pastue brought the matter back to council to begin the initial work of performing a tree inventory, talk of forming the tree committee before significant decisions about the tree plan were made ended up tabling any further work.

With all of the other developments in city business, the tree committee has been pushed back a good ways. (The initial recommendation was to have it up and running by Dec.15).

Pastue’s last day with the city is March 15, and council is moving forward with a plan to create a tree committee with responsibility for the city’s urban forest. At least, that might be the plan, though there may be more of an effort to “re-green” downtown, meaning replacing the palm trees planted during the recent streetscaping project with oaks.

On the March 15 agenda is a resolution to adopt an application for a $30,000 from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Customer Service (the state agency which administers the National Urban and Community Forestry Grant Program) to conduct a detailed inventory of trees in the public right-of-way and in public places, conduct community education workshops, aid in the development of a City Tree Committee and help facilitate development of a comprehensive urban forest plan.

Mount Dora street scene, 2016
Mount Dora street scene, 2016

To be eligible for the grant, applicants have to offer a 50% local funding match; Mount Dora’s $50,000 budget exceeds this considerably, but Pastue says that the additional funding goes a long way to helping grants get approved.

The deadline for the grant application is March 31, and, if approved, the monies would become available for the 2016 fiscal year beginning this fall. Council would have to decide whether to carry forward its current $50,000 funding or budget anew in the fall.

When Eustis developed its tree program in 2007, it applied for and received a similar grant to conduct the inventory and make the recommendations for its urban forest program. Eustis council agreed to a 10-year tree care and replacement program initially budged at $1.8 million. (Annual expenditures, however, have been about half of that.)

Their tree committee began over protests from citizens about the removal of some very old and hazardous oaks on Center Street. Jim Thorsen, a Eustis citizen who had worked for the state’s forestry division, volunteered for the committee and ended up being hired as the city’s forester.  He says that citizens of Eustis have been overwhelmingly supportive of the plan, and the city is now looking at renewing the 10-year plan. According to Thorsen, it’s a long job.  “An urban canopy is something that takes decades to cultivate,” he says. ” Trees we plant today won’t reach their full potential for 30, 50 or even 100 years.” (See “Mount Dora Has A Neighbor With a Good Tree Plan.“)

While Mount Dora may be looking at a comprehensive tree plan for the first time, its has a long and rich history of earth-friendliness. Arbor Day celebrations have been a regular fixture in the city for decades,  and since 1988 the city has enjoyed Tree City status for its commitment to tree care through ordinances and budget. Mount Dora’s Friends of the Environment has a tree donation program, Lakes and Hills Garden Club provides a variety of volunteer conservation and horticulture services, the city celebrates an annual Earth Day festival, and proceeds from the annual Plant and Garden Fair go to local horticultural projects.

Mount Dora Plant and Garden Fair
Mount Dora Plant and Garden Fair

Back in December when Pastue brought up $50,000 budget to address tree issues—urging council to let staff proceed in hiring an arborist to perform the inventory and make recommendations for a plan—Laurie Tillett was quick to point out that citizen tree committee would need to be in place first. If that still is council’s will, they could approve making the grant application request and move forward with creating the committee, holding off until the fall to start the inventory process. Then again, she and Mark Slaby (who is also a big advocate for some form of tree program—his website is a veritable forest of oak trees in which he stands) may want to get boots on the ground now.

It won’t be known until the inventory is completed and the general health of the city’s urban forest is assessed that the cost for an ongoing care and replacement program can be determined, but it will be a fresh chunk of change. According to forest science, a healthy canopy should have no species with greater than 10% representation. If Mount Dora is species-heavy—probably with laurel oaks—the decision to diversify may result in some aesthetic arguments.

And then there’s downtown. There seems political will to do something about those palm trees planted in the streetscape part of the construction project. The wisdom of that has been in question since. Critics say Mount Dora now looks more like West Palm Beach—a South Florida town—than the quaint New England village of old. Is that our brand?

Of course, true fidelity to our region would proscribe pines for downtown, that being the truly native tree of this town, as Seminole Indians were the original human residents. Then came the U.S. Army and the Seminoles were sent packing on the Trail of Tears. When our settlers moved in, the “first” Mount Dorans, the pines were everywhere. The sighing wind of Chautauqua was fanned by those pines: but they were soon enough cut down for Mount Dora development and all of those stately progenitor oaks were planted. Our local ambiance is deeply hybrid.

Humanity’s pact with nature is also arbitrary. We concede only so much. This is nowhere more true than in Florida, where immense lengths are taken to modify the fierce Florida weather to make it more habitable—air conditioning, pools, refrigerated orange juice. (Miami, considered by developers to be a $2 trillion-dollar-plum, is spending half a billion dollars to keep the city’s feet out of rising seawater).

Mount Dora does have some lovely green spaces. The city’s Parks and Recreation department tends some 200 acres of parks that range and coordinates 34 outdoor events every year. In Mount Dora, you don’t have to walk far to get to the wild side of Florida.

Gilbert Park playground
Gilbert Park playground

But the very notion of idyll is much under revision. In his book After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, Jedediah Purdy writes that in our day, science has finally accept the inexorable influence of humanity upon nature by calling our age the Anthropocene. Nature is governed by humans: we control its destiny depending on what we billow into the sky and flush into the oceans and pump from the ground.

As Mount Dora’s brand has evolved, so to our present vision of nature has passed through a series of prior ones. First was the providential vision of settlers, where nature was something God gave white European. Then the Romantic vision where nature is the keeper of spiritual values;  after that the utilitarian vision where empowered elites conserved nature for the greatest benefit. In the 1960s came  the ecological vision of complex interdependent systems. As how we’ve seen nature has changed, so has what we value in it: as bounty of harvest and mount of awe,  a factory of forests or a table at which we are invited to partake (if we mind our manners).

Now we have a nature that is inescapably altered; we live in dying garden. There is no escape from that; the Sierras are right next to Smokey Mountains clearcut for mining in our imagination; tourists come to Florida to soak in tropical paradise drinking bottled water from the state’s vanishing aquifer, fish for bass in polluted Lake Apopka, reading daily news in the paper about fracking in Florida and Miami awash.

What is called for in the Anthropocene, Purdy writes, is an evolved imagination of nature—and a politics guided by that vision.

Losing nature need not mean losing the value of the living world, but it will mean engaging it differently. It may mean learning to find beauty in ordinary places, not just wonder in wild ones. It may mean treasuring places that are irremediably damaged, learning to prize what is neither pure nor natural, but just is—the always imperfect joint product of human powers and the natural world. All of this will require a vocabulary, an ethics, an aesthetics, and a politics, for a time when the meaning of nature is ultimately a human question. And since it is a question we must answer together, it should—but not necessarily will—receive a democratic answer.

How we find this nature requires a willingness to work with what is, to accept what has evolved. Mount Dora’s brand is Chautauqua plus Sylvan Shores, Grantham Point plus Loch Leven. Pine Forest Cemetery and the unnamed abandoned black cemetery next to the Country Club. It’s  Old Mount Dora and New Mount Dora, downtown and the Innovation District, greening trees and big concrete wastewater pipes lined along SR-46.

This imaginary exercise must take root in our politics. How we act now will affect the ambience of this town for decades to come.

Once laurel oaks they live past their 30-year maturity, they become brittle and hollow. This one fell on Highland Avenue last when a car was driving by. Photo: Chris Otremba
Once laurel oaks they live past their maturity, they become brittle and hollow. This one fell on Highland Avenue last when a car was driving by. Photo: Chris Otremba

Hopefully our sense of the city’s brand isn’t limited to downtown. As long as which trees are planted downtown dominate the conversation, we can’t get to the challenge of what to do about the city’s aging, ailing canopy, with trees too tall for utility lines and trees crashing down on traffic. We can’t stop the Big Storms from coming our way, but we can go to far greater lengths to protect against them. We can work toward a diverse urban canopy free of invasive species and hedged against blight.

The South Florida Chautauqua is still here; it lives and breathes in our “New England of the South” brand. But our walk in the woods and the education we are in need of is very different now. We live apart from nature at our peril. It is wary of us. Our improvement and education has a long ways to go. We have to go a lot deeper into those woods.

We can’t leave home and we mustn’t abandon our city. The sunny suburb is an indifferent, unengaged one. The window of opportunity is fleeting. Environmental crises now hitting the state are occurring under the wrong Governor’s watch. What Mount Dora needs to do with its brand is at a crucial juncture with massive development looming at its eastern border and questions about how to make downtown prosper through re-greening and waterfront development.

When he was running for office, Mark Slaby declared in a blog post that the $50,000 that had been budgeted for trees was the result of a citizen protest his campaign was now representing. Speaking for that metaphorical wind, he said “we have to start the process of making the treescape a larger part of our culture.” He then declared that citizens together have to take up that work, “because I am not anxious to just spend a bunch of money without getting the support of the community.”

He then suggested a walk in the woods—Mount Dora’s urban woods, from one end of the city to the other. He suggests that we see what’s there—taking note of power lines and other obstructions above and utility lines below that might inhibit planting trees (he favors live oaks, but understands the danger of monoculture).  He says that citizens can help with that inventory and along with businesses possibly contributing something extra for greater overall results.

It’s not really an original idea—much of it comes from the established Federal template of urban forest planning, and it hardly mentions the critical role of city staff in any urban forest plan (giving credit where it’s due has been difficult for this greenhorn council)—but it’s still an inspiring one, and we hope that these thoughts expressed before the election will inform the ones Slaby brings to council on Tuesday night. Hopefully it will do a better job of acknowledging the importance of professional direction, especially by a trained arborist, in developing the plan. (Distrust of professional staff is a leitmotif in this council, and in this case that distrust could be traced back to the presentation by an arborist hired by the city last year in defense of the downtown streetscape plan that seemed tone-deaf and ignorant of citizens zealous for their oaks.)

If this becomes another battle-front between the will of council and the work of staff—attempting to grant more authority to citizen committees—it may be more arguable at present, but it runs the risk of what always happens with citizen initiatives: inspired up front and something then left to government to handle.

Government is a combination of professional staff and elected officials who work to carry out the will of the people. That will is the wind in the sails of a ship that staff maintains and council steers (and the city attorney ensures to keep off the rocks). Policy through ordinances is how lasting work gets done.

Our politics needs to be informed by the realities of the Anthropocene—but thankfully Mount Dora has evolved Chautauqua to mediate that work. There is no longer any purely natural world—only spaces we have encroached upon or somewhat changed.  We live a quickly warming world, poles melting, South Florida submerging, species disappearing under a dread tide of our making. Shall we find shelter from that storm, build a new gated Catacombs? No: Chautauqua says This Is Our World, warts and all, and our place is in the middle of that reality. And politics makes the education of Chautauqua a year-round event.

Trees are entering our political conversation, conserving what we can before the kudzu of development takes over. What does an Anthropocene Chautauqua say?  Walk together in these woods. A tree committee should be a way to encounter this city’s trees at a depth never attempted; a chance to legislate through ordinance that the green community is an essential part of ours.

That is how Mount Dora’s brand can evolve.

Trees may unite the community where no other issue can; they are what literally weaves our neighborhoods together. Most citizens of this city do not care for local politics. But they might care enough about the green spaces of this town—not just in parks but in their own front yard—to become involved, perhaps for the first time.

The visible evidence of a rapidly-changing environment may be what it takes to galvanize our state’s politics, our national politics, even the global political conversation. What is at stake is not only our families’ futures, but our city as well.

09 IMG_6366

David Cohea, Writer