Chronological History of Winter Park, by Claire Leavitt MacDowell, was published in 1950. It is, as the name implies, a year-by-year (almost day-by-day) 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 first wrote about MacDowell’s magnum opus in 2017. But every so often, I want to remind readers that it exists. It’s no longer in print, but you can sometimes find used copies for sale online.
Or you can peruse it — but not check it out — at the Winter Park Library. I just read my copy again and yes, it’s a slog in some places. But the terseness of the prose — though “prose” is perhaps not the right descriptor — 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 Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary next year. But the scrupulous scribe fails to elaborate on the impetus behind such a 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 [William H.] 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.”
I doubt that MacDowell wrote her book to make any philosophical points. Yet, in her meticulous, minimalist manner, she describes what matters in a quintessential small American town; one that surely Thornton Wilder would have recognized and appreciated (especially with its aura of New England).
Of course, MacDowell’s perspective is that of a well-to-do white clubwoman. Issues of race — which rose to the surface at several crucial junctures 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 quirky compendium, dry and deadpan as it is.
In Our Town, when Emily — who has died in childbirth — ponders which day in her past she should choose to revisit, the Stage Manager advises: “Choose the least important day of your life. It will be important enough.”
Exactly! That’s the (probably unintended) message of Chronological History of Winter Park. There are no unimportant days — even if you’re just bounty hunting flies.
Emily finally comes to understand this when, as she prepares to return to the afterlife, she exclaims: “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute? I’m ready to go back. I should have listened to you. That’s all human beings are! Just blind people.”
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