Millions of tourists roll along I-4 between Daytona Beach and Orlando, but few of them turn off at DeLand unless they have real business there. It is too bad for DeLand is not a typical Central Florida community.
DeLand is actually the capital of Volusia, not Daytona Beach, and it is home to Florida’s oldest private college Stetson University. The blend of 3,000 students from all corners of the globe and county politics adds a lot of culture and art to the town.
While the fastest route off I-4 into downtown DeLand is exit FL 44 West, coming from Tampa, I prefer to exit I-4 at US27 north. It makes me realize that DeLand is close to the east bank of the St. Johns River, minutes from Blue Springs State Park, Hontoon State Park, and DeLeon Springs. Boating and kayaking are minutes from DeLand.
Coming from the south also shows off the diversity of interesting antique shops, restaurants, and general stores that fill Woodland Boulevard. When I had an online store selling Old Florida, DeLand was always a fun spot to shop.
The structure at 109 West Indiana (1875) is the oldest commercial building in Deland. Next door at 105 West Indiana is the Old Curiosity Shop, so named for a gift shop was housed here since its 1925 construction.
There are two landmark buildings you have to notice. The 1929 Volusia County Courthouse is an impressive sight with its Corinthian columns of Georgian pink marble covered by a copper dome. Deland has been the county seat since 1888 despite the rise of huge Daytona Beach and coastal towns.
The 1922 ATHENS THEATER designed by Floridian Murray S. King was saved from the wrecking ball by wise locals who knew the old vaudeville house was an architectural asset to the local arts scene.
Continue north from downtown DeLand after some shopping and food for there is more to see. At 137 West Michigan Avenue, just north of downtown, is the HENRY S. DELAND HOUSE MUSEUM (1886), a tribute to the town’s developer and promoter..
The building is ironically not the former home of the founding father of the city. DeLand sold the land to Arthur George Hamlin, the first attorney in the town. In 1893 Hamlin sold the house to JOHN B. STETSON, the hat manufacturer and benefactor to Stetson University. Stetson used the building to house faculty until it was finally bought by Dr. Charles Farris, a professor of Greek.
The museum also honors LUE GIM GONG, often called the Luther Burbank of Citrus. Gong developed many varieties of oranges and grapefruit which helped Florida become a great fruit exporter. He was a friend to DeLand and Stetson.
The focal point of the town is STETSON UNIVERSITY, founded in 1883 on a 175-acre historic campus north of downtown. Besides offering bachelor and masters degrees in a variety of fields, the 3,000 student university has Law Schools in St. Petersburg and Tampa. The campus is one of the most beautiful in Florida and since it is historic and compact, it is delightful to park and wander the campus.
A next door landmark is the JOHN STETSON MANSION (1886), designed by George T. Pearson in the Gothic Tudor cottage form. The tiny schoolhouse built to educate his kids stands in the back of the 8500 square foot house. Stetson provided the money and influence to attract students and scholars to this tiny Florida town and turn it into a cultural area.
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