Biography of a Town

By Randy Noles

Chronological History of Winter Park, by Claire Leavitt MacDowell, was published in 1950. It is, as the name implies, a year by year account of events in and around Winter Park from the time the Spanish ceded Florida to the United States in 1819 through the middle of the 20th century.

No context or commentary is offered, and no distinction is drawn between the silly and the significant. An ice-cream social is treated as seriously as a mayoral race or a bond issue. Yet, the book is a must-read for any Winter Parker.

I recently reviewed my dog-eared copy when researching new inductees into the Winter Park Hall of Fame, which now occupies the Chapman Room at Winter Park City Hall. (It will move to the new Library and Events Center when that’s built.)

As usual, I just couldn’t put MacDowell’s relentlessly factual magnum opus down. The terseness of her prose — though prose is perhaps not the right word — creates mystery and raises questions.

For example, MacDowell transcribes a 1909 letter sent by local boosters W.C. Temple, W.C. Comstock and E.H. Brewer, along with Rollins College President  W.F. Blackman, to various pillars of the community:

You are invited to meet us and a few other gentlemen at Dr. Blackman’s office in Carnegie Hall, on Saturday, March 6, at 3 p.m. to consider the following questions: First, what is the matter with Winter Park? Second, what can be done to promote the interests of the town?

The meeting results in formation of the Board of Trade, the precursor to the Chamber of Commerce. But MacDowell fails to elaborate on the impetus for the oddly harsh call to action.

“What is the matter with Winter Park?” Did something happen — or fail to happen — that incited or annoyed these prominent movers and shakers?

The Board of Trade pops up time and again in MacDowell’s book, perhaps most notably in 1920, when the group led a fly eradication campaign.

MacDowell reports that “Corbett Dodd caught and destroyed 2,200 flies during the year and won a pair of shoes contributed by Mayor Schultz.” She also refers to a “crematorium” for flies at town hall, where citizens are paid 15 cents per 100 insects delivered.

The years roll by. Businesses are started or sold. Schools are built. Roads are bricked or paved. There are births, marriages and deaths. The Winter Park Telephone Company announces that the operator can no longer be expected to know you, and whomever you’re calling, by name. “Winter Park is no longer a small town,” subscribers are scolded. “And therefore we must discontinue small town methods and practices.”

There are clubs for every interest. There are churches for every faith. In its workmanlike account of the events comprising daily life, Chronological History of Winter Park brings to mind Grover’s Corners in Our Town.

In the play, when Emily Webb asks the Stage Manager if anyone truly understands the value of life, even the seemingly mundane moments, he responds, “No. The saints and poets, maybe — they do some.”

Maybe Claire Leavitt MacDowell did, too. In her meticulous manner, she manages to paint a strangely poignant portrait of a quintessential small American town; one that surely Thornton Wilder would have recognized and appreciated.

Of course, MacDowell’s perspective is that of a well-to-do white clubwoman. Issues of race — which were significant at various times in the city’s history — aren’t glossed over. They simply aren’t mentioned.

Nonetheless, everyone who has ever written about Winter Park history consults this priceless tome, dry and deadpan as it is.

I don’t know anything about MacDowell, except that in 1954 she wrote a biography of her late husband called Two Ears of Corn by Way of a Chemical Kettle. Charles MacDowell, a fertilizer magnate, appears to have been a confident of President Wilson’s.

That book just went on my wish list.

Randy Noles

Share This Post