10 Who Made a Difference

By Randy Noles

Winter Park residents, from those who originally settled the area to those who recently relocated, have always tended to be passionate about their community and involved in making it an even better place to live, work and raise families. So it was a daunting task to select just 10 people whose impact was most profoundly felt. Only those who were still living were automatically excluded from consideration. Otherwise, there were no restrictions and plenty of suggestions. Several iconic Winter Parkers were obvious choices and their inclusion was assured. Still, dozens upon dozens of others were legitimate contenders. Winter Park Magazine, in consultation with local historians Steve and Gayle Rajtar and members of the Winter Park Historical Association, finally managed to come to a consensus. The 10 selectees are shown, in no particular order, on the following pages. Is this list the final word? Hardly. The selection process was, by its very nature, subjective, and strong cases were made for multiple candidates. It is indisputable, however, that each of these local luminaries helped to shape modern Winter Park, and in doing so truly made a difference.

The Pioneer


David Mizell Jr. (1808-1884). Mizell and his family moved to the area in 1858 from Alachua County, making them the first non-Native American residents in what was to become Winter Park. He built a cabin on a homestead between present-day Lakes Osceola, Mizell, Berry and Virginia, and called the area Lake View. The Mizells grew cotton and raised horses, cattle, hogs, turkeys and goats. Mizell became politically influential, serving on the Orange County Commission and in the state Legislature. His eldest son, David W. Mizell, became the first sheriff of Orange County and was killed in the line of duty. Another son, John, became Orange County Judge and was elected to the first Board of Aldermen for the Town of Winter Park in 1887.

The Mentor


Wilson Phelps (1821- Unknown). Phelps, a Chicago businessman-turned-citrus-grower who toured the area in 1874, purchased most of the land where the Mizells had lived and much more east of Lake Osceola. In addition to his citrus ventures, Phelps sold lots to fellow Chicagoans and played a key role in encouraging Loring Chase and Oliver Chapman to move forward when they sought his advice regarding the wisdom of turning the largely unsettled area into a posh winter resort. Phelps, acting as a one-man chamber of commerce, provided a strong letter of endorsement and all the data he could compile in a four-page, hand-written letter that is arguably the “big bang” of Winter Park’s creation. Certainly, it provided the basis for Chapman and Chase’s subsequent promotional materials. That seminal document is reproduced for the first time in its entirely elsewhere in this issue of Winter Park Magazine.

The Visionaries


Loring A. Chase (1839-1906) and Oliver Chapman (1851-1936). Chase, a real-estate broker from Chicago, moved to the area for his health in 1881. Enchanted by the lakes and woods, he believed he had found an ideal place to develop a winter resort catering to wealthy Northerners. He shared his idea with Chapman, a Massachusetts importer of luxury goods, and the two bought about 600 acres of what would become Winter Park. They commissioned a well-conceived town plan and soon began advertising heavily and selling lots to “Northern men of means.” In 1885, Chase bought out Chapman’s interest for $40,000 and the partnership was dissolved. Chapman, who feared his health was failing, returned to Massachusetts and enjoyed another 51 years of life, outlasting his former partner by decades. Although the Chase-Chapman team was short-lived, its significance is incalculable for Winter Park. The two clearly had complementary strengths and, at the outset at least, needed one another to accomplish the daunting task of starting a New England town in the Florida wilderness.

The Booster


William C. Comstock (1847-1924). Comstock, a grain merchant from Chicago, moved to the area in 1872 and 10 years later built a home, dubbed Eastbank, on the eastern shore of Lake Osceola where Wilson Phelps’ home had stood. Today, Eastbank is the oldest home in Winter Park. A former president of the Chicago Board of Trade, Comstock encouraged other wealthy Chicagoans to join him in Central Florida. He was a director of the Winter Park Land Company and, in 1923, was elected first president of the newly organized Winter Park Chamber of Commerce. Comstock was involved in virtually every community cause, donating heavily to Rollins College and serving as a charter member of its Board of Trustees. It is said that Comstock’s enthusiasm and commitment kept other trustees from closing the college during hard times. Less laudably, in 1893 Comstock led the effort to de-annex Hannibal Square, populated exclusively by African Americans, from the town limits.

The Clergyman


Edward P. Hooker (1834-1904). Hooker, a Congregationalist minister, came to Winter Park from Massachusetts in 1882 to oversee the establishment of a local church, now the First Congregational Church of Winter Park. Following Lucy Cross’ 1884 presentation to the Florida Congregational Association proposing that a college be built in the state, Hooker was asked to prepare a paper on the subject to be presented at the 1885 annual meeting. The presentation was, according to contemporary accounts, stirring and effective. When the association decided that a college was indeed needed, Hooker, despite an obvious vested interest, was selected as one of five committee members receiving proposals from competing communities. When Winter Park was selected, Hooker was named Rollins College’s first president.

The Educator


Lucy Cross (1839-1927). Cross had already founded the Daytona Institute for Young Women when she proposed that a liberal-arts college be built in Florida “for the education of the South, in the South” at the 1884 meeting of the Florida Congregational Association. Her proposal, presented on her behalf by a minister from Daytona, was a major factor in the denomination’s decision to build such an institution and to choose a location via a competition, which was ultimately won by Winter Park. Today, Cross is known as “The Mother of Rollins College,” which is ironic since she strongly pressed the association to select Daytona. Once the decision was made, however, Cross supported it strongly and clearly deserves credit for bringing the issue of higher education in Florida to the forefront.

The Benefactor


Alonzo W. Rollins (1832-1887). Rollins, a Chicago industrialist and seasonal resident of Winter Park, never attended college. But he was instrumental in founding one, contributing $50,000 — a huge sum at the time — to the local effort to win a competition sponsored by the Florida Congregational Association, which had decided that it would build a college somewhere in the state. That generous gift pushed Winter Park’s inducement to $114,180, far more than was offered by Jacksonville, Daytona, Mount Dora or Orange City and enough to ensure that the local bid far surpassed those of competing communities. The institution was named in its primary benefactor’s honor, although he died after attending only two meetings of the Board of Trustees.

The Activist


Gus C. Henderson (1865-1917). In 1886, Henderson, a charismatic African American traveling salesman, moved from Lake City to Hannibal Square. There he founded a printing company and, two years later, a weekly newspaper, the Winter Park Advocate. The Advocate, one of only two black-owned papers in the state, was read by both black and white residents. Henderson was also a politically active Republican, writing that “all we ever received came from the Republicans, and if that party never does any more special good for me, I shall die a Republican.” He quickly became involved in local issues and was a strong supporter of incorporation. In 1887, when an incorporation vote was scheduled at Ergood’s Hall, he rallied west side registered voters to violate curfew and attend. Without Henderson’s efforts, it is no sure bet that incorporation would have passed, at least not then. And it is a virtual certainty that if it had passed, Hannibal Square would not have been included in the town limits. Two years after incorporation, Henderson moved to Orlando where he published The Christian Recorder and later The Recorder.

The Philanthropist


Charles H. Morse (1833-1921). By 1904, Morse was Winter Park’s largest landowner, having acquired much of the property that had been platted for homes and businesses from the estate of Francis Knowles, which had acquired it via foreclosure from the Winter Park Company. Morse, a multimillionaire when such a fortune was almost unimaginable, formed the Winter Park Land Company and deeded Central Park to the city with the stipulation that it could never be developed. He anonymously helped to fund construction of Winter Park’s first town hall and leased land to the Winter Park Country Club, which he helped organize, for $1 a year. Morse’s philanthropy also quietly benefited the Winter Park Women’s Club, Rollins College and numerous other organizations. The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, founded by his granddaughter, Jeanette Genius McKean, and her husband, Hugh, is named in his honor.

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