My family arrived in DeLand in 1948, just in time for my enrollment as a first-grader at Wisconsin Avenue School, later to become Dempsie Brewster Elementary School in honor of its long-serving principal.
I spent all of my school years among friends whom I have now known almost all of my life. I was extremely fortunate in making lifelong friends in DeLand. Not only were my friends like family, but some of their parents were almost like parents to me.
Mick Aleno’s mother called me “her other son,” having three of her own. Tom Bevis’ and Sharon Bilderback’s parents often included me in family outings and events, which offered opportunities I might not otherwise have had. Mick and I were very close, each serving as best man in our respective weddings.
I remember when I was 12, telling my neighbor, who was a year older, that I couldn’t wait until I became a teenager so I could go to Teen Town.
Teen Town was Friday and Saturday nights at the town offices on the corner of North Florida and West New York avenues, chaperoned by Mrs. Sullivan. Pingpong, pool tables and a jukebox provided everything we needed, and the place was always crowded.
DeLand was a calm, pleasant place to live, as I remember it.
When I was about 13 or 14 years old, I sold peanuts and soft drinks for Chuck Aleno, who had the ballpark concessions. I would walk to and from the ballpark, about 2 miles each way, returning home long after dark. Sometimes after picking up bottles and peanut bags, it would be near midnight or later, but no one gave a thought to whether I might be assaulted and abused or worse. DeLand just wasn’t that kind of place.
MEMORIES MADE HERE — Wisconsin Avenue Elementary School, which was renamed in 1958 in honor of longtime Principal Dempsie Brewster is shown. In this image from the West Volusia Historical Society, the school on West Wisconsin Avenue in DeLand has two wings added to the original central structure.
HISTORIC SCHOOL — Another view of Wisconsin Avenue Elementary School. The original 21-room structure, built in 1921 at a cost of $92,000, is shown in an image from The Odyssey of an American School System, published in 2000 by Volusia County Schools. The building is still in use, as part of the Volusia County Schools Administrative Complex.
As we got older and with a greater sense of freedom and mobility, we ranged farther afield. DeLeon Springs was a popular destination. I wasn’t much of a swimmer and admit that I was somewhat hesitant about trying to dive into the water like my friends did.
Nevertheless, on one occasion when my friends all dove in without me, I blindly made an effort and discovered what they already knew: It wasn’t scary at all! Now all I had to do was learn how to swim!
During my junior and senior years, after school and on weekends, I worked as a soda jerk and short-order cook at DeLand Sundries (now a beauty parlor) on the corner of Rich Avenue and the Boulevard. There were about five or six of us boys who worked there, which helped to make the Sundries a very popular place. Every afternoon, it was crowded with teenagers.
There was an old “haunted house” on the edge of Lake Beresford off of Fatio Road in what I think was called the Stark Hammock.
It was always fun to go there with someone who had not been there before. The first one to arrive would enter and hide in a closet, behind a door or any place offering concealment and attempt to frighten the newcomer(s). Reactions from the girls were always shrieks, screams and, sometimes, wet pants!
Snipe hunting: Snipe hunting has long been a favorite sport for those seeking to pull a fast one on an uninitiated buddy … leaving him behind a bush in the middle of the night in a strange location with a croaker sack while the others go out to “drive the snipes to him,” sometimes for hours while they make themselves comfortable back at camp! This must be where the phrase “to be left holding the bag” comes from.
But there are such things as snipes, and hunting them can be quite an adventure. The common snipe is a bird about 4 inches long, weighing about 6 ounces and with beak, body and legs all about the same length, found in swampy and marshy areas.
Snipes feed on worms and such, picking their food out of the mud with their long beak. When startled, they appear to leap straight up in the air about 2 feet, squawk and fly away with very erratic maneuvers. The common belief was that one had to shoot before the squawk because you never knew where the bird was going.
After graduating from DeLand High School with the Class of 1960, I attended Daytona Beach Junior College (now Daytona State College) and worked at the Goodyear Service Store on West New York Avenue.
SNIPE HUNTING: I recall a snipe-hunting trip to the marsh/mud flats on the north side of Lake Monroe with Tom Bevis and Ted Hann, during Christmas vacation.
We were wearing waders to keep us dry and bundled up because the temperature was just above freezing. Snipes weren’t plentiful that day, but we made a valiant effort, trudging through countless mud slicks and shallow sloughs in search of the elusive bird.
After a while, I saw a rabbit scuttle into some brush; not long after, I saw another rabbit, and another. It became apparent that the rabbits were going to outnumber the snipe on this day, so we decided to turn to rabbit hunting.
After almost an entire day of slogging through mud, grass and bushes in icy temperatures, we ended up with 13 rabbits and only four snipes.
I don’t remember ever having been as cold as I felt that day, nor have I had any desire to go snipe hunting since.
SQUIRREL HUNTING: We also hunted squirrels in the swamps and in ferneries. I recall one trip to the swamps along the river near Highland Park dead river.
I got out of the boat, and slogged through the shallow water to the base of a huge cypress tree, where I took up station to look for squirrels. After a while, I looked down and saw the head of a large snake! I kept hoping it would go away, but I could see the ripples of the wake the snake was making … it was swimming directly toward me! Undaunted, I readied my weapon and blew the snake away … and watched the tip of a cypress knee float away in the current!
FISHING AND CAMPING: I often went camping with my friends. On one occasion, Tom Bevis and I went fishing on Lake Woodruff.
After a day of fishing, we looked for a place to camp but our intended spot was taken. We found a small island with barely enough dry land to throw a tarp over a crossbar, open at both ends. The mosquitoes were so big Tom swore he heard one suggest they take us to their nest, but another one was afraid the bigger ones would take us away from them.
Before going to sleep, we were rudely disturbed by a ferocious scream, which we decided must have been a panther, not nearby. A short while later, we heard the rustle and squawk of a large bird taking flight from a nearby tree.
I said, “Did you hear that?” Tom said, “Yeah, but I know what it was.” I said, “OK, but what scared it?” We were sure that if we looked out of the shelter we’d see big yellow eyes staring back at us! Needless to say, we didn’t sleep that night!
Around 1962, the government passed a $1.25-an-hour minimum-wage law, and I immediately got a 25-percent pay raise!
While working at the Goodyear store, I was once sent to repossess a washing machine and had to wait for the lady’s washing to finish so I could load the washer into the truck.
I had joined the Naval Reserve on my 17th birthday in 1959, and after three years and two associate degrees from DBJC, I qualified for and received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy.
I left DeLand in 1963 for the adventure of a lifetime.
As the years passed, I didn’t get back to DeLand very much, but I always knew it was home. It was where I was from, where my friends were, and where I wanted to return.
In retirement, I have been back numerous times to attend high-school reunions, to fish and just visit. I still think of DeLand as home, and although time has reduced my circle of friends, those remaining become dearer to me every day.
— As a child, Murrell spent winters with his family in DeLand, where the climate was thought to be beneficial for his father’s asthma. It helped, so the Murrells continued traveling from their Tennessee farm to DeLand each year until Douglas Murrell, the youngest, graduated from high school. After graduation from the Naval Academy, Douglas Murrell traveled the world, retiring from the Navy with the rank of commander in 1987. He worked in property management for a time, and retired fully in 1998. He and his wife now live near the beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.