From green space to houses and commerce
Editor’s note: We’re grateful to Andre Jansons for his memories of DeBary’s changes over the past five decades. If you have memories of West Volusia past, you’re invited to email about 600 words to firstname.lastname@example.org.
It seems like only yesterday, but my family moved to DeBary some 57 years ago, and I am considered an “old-timer.” DeBary and West Volusia have changed so much since we first settled here shortly after I finished high school.
When we first came down here from the bustling and noisy big city (New York), DeBary was so different: quiet, covered with green forests and dirt roads and, above all, teeming with wildlife.
I remember so many birds of different colors and different songs, little brown rabbits gathered in people’s yards, strange creatures never before seen, like anteaters, and beautiful white cranes that lived in the lagoon just down the road and, in the evenings, majestically flew over our house, calling out loudly.
My favorites were families of quails seen tippy-toeing across the roads, Mama in front, followed by her little ones.
Yes, there were many snakes, too. Now there are so few that the kids in the neighborhood know them by name — like Roger, the black garden snake, who moves about from one yard to another.
When we first came down here, Deltona and Interstate 4 didn’t exist. We would go swimming in springs that are now in the largest city in the county, and in lakes surrounded by woods that looked like something out of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
We and the kids would trudge through a clearing in the woods to watch how I-4 was being built, much like the little bears who sometimes peered out from the woods between DeBary and DeLand, and from wooded patches near the east coast, where workmen were forever repairing the Speedway.
The bears seemed to wonder what those human folk were doing.
Driving from DeBary to DeLand on the beautiful tree-lined two-lane U.S. Highway 17-92 took only 15 minutes. (Orange City residents, do you remember?)
DeBary was such a friendly place then — mostly retired people. We were the only family in the neighborhood with kids. When we went for walks, the old folks would come out of their yards offering us homegrown oranges.
Yes, the kids were a little rambunctious sometimes, like little Karin, who’d pretend she was a bird and climb into the neighbor’s birdbath, and the other kids, who sometimes took oranges from the neighbors’ yards. We taught them not to do that, and they behaved after that.
When we first came down, things were pretty tough. We had no furniture. I slept on the floor. There were no jobs. Mom and Sis finally got a job at DeBary Manor, but had to hike for a couple of miles to get there, as we had no car.
On the topic of the lack of jobs in DeBary in the early days, the driver of the little bus I rode to school every day worked a 12-hour shift, six days a week. Yet he was paid only 50 cents an hour, on which he had to support his family.
At the time, the minimum wage in New York, where I got my first job as a delivery boy at the age of 15, was $1.25 an hour.
We didn’t have a lawn mower. Once when the grass had grown so high, we lost little Karin. Mom, who was a tough woman from the old country and not a stranger to life’s difficulties, got down on her hands and knees and cut the entire yard — with scissors!
There were good things, too. A local minister, the Rev. Hardin, kindly helped me get to school when the little bus that ran back and forth to DeLand wasn’t running.
Those days at Stetson University and here in DeBary were the happiest days of my life. Mom, me and the kids took daily walks around town. When you met people, they always smiled and said hello.
When the house was built, my sister moved down here with the kids, while I stayed in New York with Mom to finish high school.
When we first moved down here, I was afraid of how I would adjust to a totally different culture, where everyone addressed each other as “Y’all,” but when I got off the Greyhound bus, the owner of a small gas station nearby, Mr. Beondi, came up to us, smiled and said in his typical Brooklyn accent, “Can I help youse?”
I felt right at home, but was still a bit flustered on my first day at Stetson. I didn’t realize until the end of the day that I had been running around all day, registering and attending classes with all the sales tickets still hanging on my nice new suit.
If you ever felt sorry for yourself when your boss admonished you, remember Sen. Everett Dirksen, leader of the Republicans in the Senate and one of the most powerful people in the country. He had a summer home here.
Our neighbors were close friends of his, and when he came to visit them, he parked his Lincoln on our lawn and, slightly hunched, moved along their driveway. His much-shorter wife, Louella, walked behind him, poking him in the back and saying, “Move along, Everett, move along.” Even he had a boss.
DeBary (and West Volusia) have changed so much. I hope we will maintain our small-town atmosphere, and as people flee the bustling busy cities to the south, we will not be too demanding and change our community to what we left in the first place.
I hope that, while change will come, we will keep DeBary a small, friendly, green town.
— Born in Germany, Jansons came to the U.S. at the age of 1, accompanied by his mother and sister, refugees from Latvia who had endured both Soviet and Nazi occupations and World War II. By education, Jansons is a historian, and he taught history for several years as an adjunct professor. Largely, however, he made his career as a librarian. His last library job before retiring was at Bethune- Cookman University.