CITY SERIES: Mount Dora, America’s Festival City

Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style, July 2013 • Photos by Fred Lopez


A gaggle of Segway riders zips downhill along Mount Dora’s Fourth Avenue. “Whoa,” yells one of the women as she points and makes a sharp left onto Donnelly Street, the town’s main drag. The group effortlessly adjusts its direction on the two-wheeled devices that have become the latest rage for sightseeing as they head toward Mount Dora’s diminutive, yet functional lighthouse.

Mount_Dora_Donnelly_House03The lighthouse draws the attention of first-time visitors, as do the restaurants, festivals, art galleries, boutiques, and antique shops in what is inarguably Lake County’s most popular tourist destination. But scratch the surface, and you will find a commitment to preserving history and a civic pride that has made Mount Dora one of Florida’s most unique cities.

Mount Dora is distinctive, starting with its location. After all, how many Florida towns are set on a “mountain top?” Or at least that’s how it must have looked to early surveyors and settlers in the late 1840s. Although Mount Dora is only 184 feet above sea level (Sugarloaf Mountain in Clermont is higher at 312), the trek from the Fourth Avenue boat docks on Lake Dora up to Donnelly Street sure seems like mountain climbing on a hot day.

Like many small towns, Mount Dora has had its share of ups and downs over the years. However, the resiliency and creative spirit of its residents have always helped the city move forward. Their commitment to the arts and to historic preservation has created a gem of a city.

When government surveyors were working in the area from 1846 to 1849, they were probably in search of cool drinking water after trekking the area’s hills. They found respite and hospitality at the William and Dora Ann Drawdy home, where the young bride kindly shared the family’s rations. They were so impressed by Dora Ann’s generosity that they named the large lake two miles north of the family’s home after her. Lake Dora, at six miles long and nearly a mile wide, has been an iconic symbol for the town that grew up on its eastern edge.

It took awhile before Mount Dora indeed grew. In fact, the town’s population in 1900 was just 197 people. When it was incorporated in March 1910, only 371 people were living in the city proper. Like other parts of Florida in the early 1920s, Mount Dora experienced a building boom. By the 1970s, however, the city was somewhat dormant again until it became known as an arts community and one of Florida’s best festival cities. The festivals have brought in hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, especially during October’s annual bicycle festival and the nationally juried craft festival. Add to those the spring sailing regatta, another nationally juried arts festival, antiques fair, and music festival and it seems there are non-stop events year-round.

MtDora_AlleywayMount Dora’s charm exudes beyond the nationally known festivals and events, though. Days can be filled with shopping in the boutiques, browsing antiques, or visiting one of the downtown parks. Evenings give way to a relaxing vibe as the sun sets over Lake Dora, and the many restaurants and wine bars beckon visitors with chef-inspired menus, extensive wine lists, soft jazz, or other entertainment.

MDcommunity-bldg“We’re not done yet,” says special events coordinator Chris Carson, who also runs the historic Community Building. “The city has a great mission, not just in trying to preserve our history but also for planning the future.”

And the best is yet to come with a new “streetscape” about to be unveiled before the October festivals begin. Permanent pedestrian areas are being created along Fourth Avenue and Alexander Street all the way to the Lake Dora waterfront. The streetscape project also includes improvements to sidewalks and to Childs Park next to the Mount Dora Chamber of Commerce. The downtown will be more walkable, and the visual connection between the core downtown area and the Lake Dora waterfront will be stronger.

The downtown commercial area will experience some positive changes in coming months, yet residents remain very protective of their treasure. Last January, hundreds of residents expressed their opposition to allowing high-rise buildings near Lake Dora. They argued successfully before the city council that five-story buildings would destroy the quaint, charming downtown. Preservation and civic pride are still the hallmarks as the city embarks on its 21st century rebirth.

BY THE NUMBERS:

  • 12,534 Population in 2011 (Source: U.S. Census Bureau)
  • 47.9 Median resident age (Source: City-Data.com)
  • 2,098 Number of Segways rented in 2012 from Segways of Central Florida.
  • 10 Number of major festivals and events held annually
  • 250,000 Visitors expected for the 29th Annual Craft Fair, Oct. 26-27.
  • 540,000 Dog biscuits baked annually at Piglets Pantry, a Donnelly Street bakery for canines.
  • $160,000 Average home price in Mount Dora in 2012 (Source: City-Data.com)
  • $3.8 Million Cost of downtown streetscape project.

CITY OFFICIALS AT A GLANCE:

  • Mayor: Bob Thielhelm, Sr. (up for re-election)
  • Vice Mayor: Ryan Donovan
  • City Manager: Michael Quinn
  • Police Chief: Randy Scoggins (retires Dec. 2013)
  • Deputy Police Chief: John O’Grady (will replace Scoggins)
  • Fire Chief: Stephen “Skip” Kerkhof

Put on your walking shoes, or climb aboard a Segway, and rediscover some of Mount Dora’s enduring highlights.

A WINTER RETREAT
Mount Dora owes much of its early development to Alexander House, which opened in 1883 with 10 rooms. Northern residents often arrived by boat and stayed for months before returning home. By the late 1880s, tourists arrived by train, and in 1893, the hotel became The Lake House. It was renamed Lakeside Inn 10 years later. In 1930, President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge came for a five-week visit. Other famous guests included Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

MORE SCOTTISH TIES
Forres, Scotland, has been Mount Dora’s sister city since 1990. In November, Mount Dora will celebrate the partnership at the annual Night for the Scot fundraiser and will host its inaugural Scottish Highland Games.

HIGHWAY AROUND TOWN
Have you ever wondered why U.S. Highway 441 looks like a horseshoe around Mount Dora? Richard Edgerton, owner of the historic Lakeside Inn from 1935 to 1980, heard in the late 1950s that the highway was going to be re-routed right through the center of Mount Dora. “He was smart enough to realize it would destroy the town’s charm,” says Gary McKechnie, Mount Dora resident and author. “He did some ‘horse-trading’ in Tallahassee and was instrumental in getting the highway rerouted around Mount Dora instead of through it.”

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION
It’s just a coincidence but the 1981 movie Honky Tonk Freeway was about a small Florida town that was afraid a highway was going to bypass it. The satire by John Schlesinger was partially filmed in Mount Dora, where the buildings were painted pink for the movie. The most memorable scene of the movie (which only lasted about a week in theaters) was an Indian elephant named Bubbles who learned how to water ski on Lake Dora.

ALAS, ANOTHER FICTIONAL SETTING
The town of Fort Repose in the 1959 apocalyptic novel Alas, Babylon was based on Mount Dora. Written by Pat Frank, the book deals with the effects of nuclear war on a small town where residents refuse to leave. The book consistently ranks among Amazon’s Top 20 Science Fiction Short Stories list.

WALK DOWN MEMORY LANE
Poking around Mount Dora’s antique shops and Renninger’s Antique Center are enjoyable pastimes for many visitors. There are the traditional shops, and then there is Uncle Al’s Time Capsule. “Uncle Al” Wittnebert has filled his Fourth Avenue shop with Hollywood memories and collectibles that Baby Boomers can’t resist touching. Pick up a Roy Rogers lunchbox or an autographed Beatles picture. Or how about that Star Wars poster? After all, the fun part of antiquing is reminiscing about the things you broke or lost as a child and how they are now collectibles… and valuable.

AND SPEAKING OF TIME CAPSULES
Where will you be in March 2030? If you are near Mount Dora, you can see what a time capsule buried in Donnelly Park contains. The capsule will be opened to mark the 120th anniversary of the date the city was incorporated — March 25, 1910. City leaders and residents filled the 24-by-68-inch vault with photographs, flags, books, memorabilia, and personal messages during the city’s centennial celebrations in 2010.

PLANNING AHEAD
Despite hard economic times during the late 1920s, a group of citizens raised funds to build the Mount Dora Community Building, which opened in 1929 with a seat for every one of Mount Dora’s 800 residents. Architects of the Mediterranean Revival-style structure were already thinking about the future. They designed the building so that it could be expanded to the rear without spoiling the proportion. A $3.1 million expansion was completed in 2010, again with funds raised by citizens. The building serves as the city’s primary performance and meeting venue.

A CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION
The Mount Dora Yacht Club became the first inland waterways yacht club in Florida on October 11, 1913, when it received its charter signed by Governor Park Trammel. Today, the club has 95 members and will celebrate its 100th anniversary with a gala on Oct. 11th.

PARKS, PARKS, PARKS
Mount Dora is known as a festival city, but maybe it should be called a park city, too. With 12 major parks and eight minor ones, there is no shortage of green space. One of the newest highlights is a rebuilt boardwalk leading to Palm Island, an eight-acre nature preserve located at the end of Liberty Avenue.

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