- Orange County
- Year Founded: 1903
- Founded by: A.B. Newton, J.L. Dillard
When the Orange Belt Railway came through Central Florida in 1886, people discovered that the fertile soil on the south shore of Lake Apopka, coupled with mild temperatures and the railroad, made this area perfect for farming. Settlers constructed the first depot in 1893, naming the stop “Winter Garden” in honor of the year-round growing opportunities here. Entrepreneurs soon followed, opening shops alongside the tracks. Soon a second rail line, the Tavares & Gulf, arrived. As more and more boxcars of produce were shipped out of the two downtown train stations, the new city flourished.
In the 1920s, highways and affordable automobiles brought tourists to Florida. Winter Garden attracted fishermen who heard of the “large-mouth bass capital” known as Lake Apopka. In 1927, local businessmen pooled their resources and built the three-story, state-of-the-art Edgewater Hotel. It and Trailer City, a lakeside campground constructed with WPA funds, attracted lots of tin-can tourists.
During World War II farmers increasingly abandoned row crops in favor of citrus because the government was purchasing large quantities of the vitamin-C-laden juice to accompany soldiers overseas. After the war, citrus production received an even greater boost with the invention of better tasting, frozen concentrated orange juice. Winter Garden’s juice plant pumped out lots of the popular frozen product and the city grew alongside the world-wide demand.
While the first half of the 20th century was filled with promise, the promise collapsed in the century’s second half. Years of effluents dumped into Lake Apopka from sewage treatment and citrus processing plants, as well as fertilizers and pesticides from vegetable farming, caused a dramatic decline in water quality killing the infamous bass population. In addition, new shopping centers and malls lured shoppers away from downtown stores, and highways replaced railroad transportation until both of the city’s train stations closed. Historic downtown stood empty and idle.
Still, miles and miles of orange trees continued to flourish in West Orange, even after the 1971 opening of nearby Walt Disney World. That soon changed too. In 1983, Central Florida experienced the first of three devastating freezes within the decade, killing orange trees throughout the area. With each freeze, more and more farmers sold their valuable land to developers, moving their groves further south where temperatures were warmer and land was cheap. Winter Garden’s citrus-based economy died.
Thankfully, the abandoned railroad line that runs through the heart of historic downtown became the West Orange Trail in 1994. Coupled with an extensive streetscape beautification project in 2003, the popularity of the bike trail steadily increased. Today, approximately 50,000 visitors use it monthly. New restaurants and shops, the Heritage Museum, the Central Florida Railroad Museum, the re-opened Edgewater Hotel, and the Garden Theatre occupy the once-empty historic buildings. Today, visitors are attracted to these old brick buildings and the nostalgic feel of our “charming little city with a juicy past.”
Story of City’s Founding
Incorporated in 1903, Winter Garden got its name from the fact that a tomato seed from a sawmill worker’s lunch sprouted and grew in the winter season. Situated on the southern shore of Lake Apopka, which later became known as the large-mouth bass capital, both fishing and farming especially citrus farming were what drew the early settlers and tourists to the town. The Orange Belt Railroad and later a second rail line, the Tavares and Gulf, brought new settlers to the small city and transported boxcars full of vegetables and citrus to northern markets. Pioneers Arthur Bullar (A.B.) Newton and James Layfette (JL.) Dillard envisioned and guided the fledgling city, constructing many of its first brick buildings, opening businesses, incorporating the city, and serving politically in local, county, and state government.
Little Known Facts
- Orange County’s 22-mile long West Orange Trail travels through the heart of Winter Garden’s historic downtown and attracts approximately 50,000 visitors each month. The trail will eventually become a part of the 200-mile planned regional connection, known as the Central Florida Loop.
- Winter Garden was the winter training location of the Chattanooga Lookouts Baseball Team during the 1930s and 40s.
- The north shore marshland of Lake Apopka, drained during World War II to increase vegetable production, has been restored to marshland again and attracts thousands of bird species, making it a world-renown attraction for bird watchers.
- Winter Garden businessman Hoyle Pounds patented a number of inventions related to farm equipment. His most noted invention was the rubber tractor tire patented in 1928 and created because the old metal wheels caused considerable damage to newly paved roads. Pounds Motor Company was recognized as the largest tractor dealership east of the Mississippi during most of the last century. Farmers from across the state came to purchase and service their equipment there.
- Plant Street through Historic Winter Garden has recently been added to the Green Mountain Scenic Byway.
- A portion of the proposed 18-mile multi-use trail spanning the 20,000-acre Lake Apopka North Shore Restoration Area opened on the east side of the lake, beginning at Magnolia Park.
- Winter Garden was the world’s largest shipping point for citrus in the 1940s and 50s.
Name: Garden Theatre
Location: 160 West Plant Street
Historical Significance: Opened in 1935, the restored movie theatre features Mediterranean Revival styling and an auditorium made to look like a Spanish courtyard, complete with Romeo and Juliet balconies and stars in the ceiling. Today, the theater acts as a performing arts center bringing cultural performances to historic downtown.
Name: National Register Historic Business District
Location: Plant and Main Streets
Historical Significance: Historic buildings bounded by Woodland, Tremaine, Henderson, and Lakeview Streets offer tangible evidence of the rich heritage of the city’s past.
Name: Winter Garden Heritage Museum
Location: 1 North Main Street
Historical Significance: Located in the 1918 Atlantic Coast Line Depot in historic downtown, the museum features a large collection of local citrus labels, a citrus packing house replica, an audio kiosk detailing the area’s citrus history, Native American artifacts, photographs and memorabilia of the area dating from pioneer settlement to the present, and an exhibit on Lake Apopka. Just outside the museum stands a 1943 Cheshire caboose and a 1950s fire truck, and old tractors and equipment used in the local citrus industry.
Name: Central Florida Railroad Museum
Location: 101 South Boyd Street
Historical Significance: Located in the 1913 Tavares and Gulf Railroad depot, the museum contains an extensive private collection of local, state, and national railroad memorabilia and photographs, including a significant collection of dining car china and silverware, a 1938 Fairmont motor car, a velocipede hand car, and a Clinchfield Railroad caboose.
Name: Edgewater Hotel
Location: 99 West Plant Street
Historical Significance: The three-story Masonry Vernacular hotel originally opened in 1927 to visiting fishermen coming to discover the large-mouth bass capital known as Lake Apopka. The hotel closed its doors in 1968 and lay dormant for approximately 25 years before being purchased in 1995 and undergoing an eight-year restoration. It opened as a bed-and-breakfast in 2003.
Name: National Register Historic Residential District
Location: North Lakeview and Highland Streets
Historical Significance: Historic homes displaying Frame Vernacular, Bungalow, Prairie, and Craftsmen styling provide insight into the lives of the city’s early families.
Name: Newton Park on Lake Apopka
Location: 31 West Garden Avenue
Historical Significance: The lakeside park that includes two recreational halls, a boat ramp, fishing dock, two boat marinas, swimming pool, playground, and Trailer City, was constructed with WPA funding during the Great Depression under the guidance of Mayor George Walker. The park attracted tourists who came to fish in the large-mouth bass capital known as Lake Apopka.