Florida Backyard History: Debary Hall

By Holly Giles | Florida

debary hall historic site

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Debary Hall

“We are called the best-hidden gem in Volusia County for Florida history!” said Betty, our tour guide at Debary Hall. A friend and I, along with our four children decided to take a tour of this historic home to learn some Florida history. This particular gem actually sits right within my own neighborhood.
I talk a lot about getting out into your community through parks. Parks can also be in the form of historic homes that have such rich history it will astound you. I want to share with you what we learned about Florida history today that can be a springboard to a full-on unit study of history beginning in 1868 up to the present day.
Debary Hall was owned by Fredrick Debary of Europe. He came from a wealthy family and became a distributor of Mums Champagne in America. His daughter had what we might call asthma today, and he wanted her to be in a better climate during the winter months.  He was told of this new and wild Frontier called Florida, where the weather was tropical like the islands.
Debary came for a visit on a steamboat up the St. Johns River, he had found a new paradise for a winter hunting lodge, Debary Hall.  The lodge he built is over  8,000 square feet, eleven bedrooms and servants quarters situated on 400 acres looking out at the river.
This grand home employed many area workers and had an operating orange grove, which was the largest producer of oranges for many years. This was also a working hunting camp for the rich and famous to visit and be taken out on hunts.
Our tour began as we boarded a steamship with a movie that put us back in time, complete with a moving floor like we were really on the boat!! It was fascinating with stories of guests, family members and the ultimate
sale of the home after the last heir died in a plane crash in 1941. The plan was to create a grand subdivision in the 1950s and parceled out in 1/2 acre plots to begin Debary Village.
It went bankrupt a few years in and the project along with the mansion was abandoned.  In 1996 my husband and I moved to the sleepy town of Debary. Our neighborhood is a mish-mash of planned ranch homes and then a variety of owner builds that span the next twenty years. I learned that Debary Hall, which I would walk past, was being restored by the county and preserved as a park and museum.  It was not until I had children and began homeschooling that my interest peaked into this beauty. 
I have learned that when history becomes personal, the interest and curiosity of it can soar.  My boys and I learned today that every major event in history has left its mark in our area if we look for it.  We love our town, it has roots to us and therefore my children take a bit more interest in where they grew up.
What about you? What hidden gem is right around the corner, that you may walk or drive past often yet not give a second thought?  Could it be the next great history study for your children? A connection to the past that gets them excited about learning more?
As a coincidence, That evening after the mansion tour, we went to a lecture with my inlaws in the next little town on the history of steamboats on the St. Johns River. The boys were not exactly thrilled to be in a room full of “older” people for a lesson on old boats since they had already had a Florida history lesson today.
However, it all tied in with what we had learned earlier in the day at Debary Hall. The boys would perk up their ears and give me looks as in they knew what this guy was talking about. They “got” it. It was all related. It was making sense. The pieces were fitting together.
This is a real education for all, not just for homeschoolers.
Our history shapes our future. Learning from the past, those who lived and learned without the vast technology of today, were pioneers of invention and necessity. It laid the groundwork for the luxuries we take for granted today. When children and adults can grasp that and see the connection, it all has a new meaning.
What I did notice from today’s events is that all the people who are trying to preserve, educate and pass on history, are older. They will not be around for the next generation. We must take up the responsibility to pass it on.
My challenge to you this school year is to visit at least two historical venues. Read about the event, share what you have learned with others. Create excitement to keep it going. Head down a rabbit trail of historical fiction, movies and interactive events that will make an impression beyond the pages of a textbook.
Maybe we will meet up one day, you and I, when our kids are grown and a new season of life begins for us.  I just may be the docent you meet when you come to visit Debary Hall for a tour. I will be working to ignite excitement about Florida history for a future generation.
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P.S. If you have my book, Blaze New Trails

There are other ideas on how to find these locations where you live and how to make the most of your visit.


About the Author

Holly Giles is a wife, mother, and storyteller. As an author and Florida Master Naturalist, she writes about heritage homemaking skills, motherhood, and why Florida offers the best hidden natural gems to explore as a family.

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