Take a stroll through Downtown DeLand with Stanton O’Neal, and you’ll never look at the town in the same way again.
Instead of the Museum of Art – DeLand at the corner of Woodland Boulevard and New York Avenue, you’ll see the livery stable that burned to the ground on Sept. 27, 1886, along with 22 other buildings in the massive blaze generally referred to as the Wilcox Saloon Fire.
Or, you might see the F.W. Woolworth store there, instead, where one of the nation’s early sit-ins was staged in the 1960s by young Black residents protesting the lunch counter’s whites-only service policy.
When you walk by artist Courtney Canova’s World War II mural on the south side of that building, you’ll recall that the DeLand Municipal Airport was converted during World War II into a training facility for dive-bomber pilots who could fly the recently developed Douglas SBD Dauntless — aka Scout Bomber Douglas, but also sometimes nicknamed “silent but deadly” — the airplane that many would argue changed the course of the war.
“For the rest of the war, some of the country’s best pilots were trained in DeLand,” O’Neal will say.
At 20 or so other stops during your stroll, O’Neal will tell you a lot more history, too. Retired after teaching — wait for it — American history at DeLand High School for 37 years, O’Neal now leads groups on their choice of six tours involving DeLand’s three historic districts: the northwest residential neighborhood, the Stetson University campus, and Downtown.
After being introduced to the walking history tour concept in Louisville, Kentucky, where he had taken temporary work grading advanced-placement exams, O’Neal at first thought DeLand wouldn’t have enough history to make a sufficiently interesting tour.
“Wow, was I wrong,” O’Neal says now. “I’ve had to cut stuff. I can’t get it all in.”
His vision for the tours and the necessary research simmered for years. The COVID-19 pandemic — which forced us into outdoor activities — finally sparked the launch.
Some of the tours are highlighted by O’Neal’s singing of historically appropriate songs and accompanying himself on guitar.
He’ll stop in Artisan Alley to gesture to the Old Jail next door, the site of the last legal public hanging in Florida in 1927, where Charles Brown died as many of the town’s residents — including children who had been released from school for the occasion — watched.
You may have heard the story of Brown’s hanging, but did you know that it almost didn’t happen? Florida had an electric chair by then, and a law had been passed requiring court-ordered executions to use it.
But Brown’s attorney — as a stalling tactic in a long series of stalling tactics — argued all the way to the Florida Supreme Court that, since Brown’s crime had occurred before the electric-chair law was passed, Brown could still be hanged.
The court’s last-minute ruling, along with long-delayed death sentence, gave Sheriff Ed Stone four days to get a scaffolding of green lumber built from scratch.the state’s anxiousness to carry out the
The hastily built contraption did its job. Two to three minutes after the hanging, O’Neal said, Sheriff Stone cut the noose from Brown’s neck and handed it to Brown’s father.
Not all of O’Neal’s stories are about fire, war and other forms of tragedy. He tells, too, how a DeLand man, Bert Fish, helped bring about victory and an end to World War II.
Fish, an Indiana native who had gotten his law degree at Stetson University and was by then an enterprising DeLand lawyer, had contributed $5,000 to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential campaign — a small fortune in 1932 — that resulted in Fish being named campaign chairman for Florida. After Roosevelt won, Fish served as the president’s minister to Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The timing could not have been better. In 1939, when massive stores of oil were discovered in Saudi Arabia, Fish was on the scene to negotiate a deal that gave a U.S. company the exclusive right to buy the oil for years hence.
“How much longer would that war have gone on if Hitler and Japan had had all the oil they wanted?” O’Neal asks.
O’Neal sprinkles his tours with plugs for the West Volusia Historical Society’s tours, and those offered by Robin and Larry French’s Great Tasting Tours, among others.
“I don’t really feel like we’re competing,” he said.
He tells how DeLand overcame its various challenges. For example, perhaps you’ve heard people puzzle over how we will get people from the SunRail station to Downtown DeLand, once the station is built west of town.
It’s not a new problem. DeLand once faced the same need to get people from the St. Johns River into town. The enterprising owner of the Bond Lumber Co. solved it by building a narrow-gauge railroad to make the 5-mile trip there and back.
O’Neal also shares good news about the founder of the town that was first called Persimmon Hollow.
A consummate promotor who arrived here in 1876, Henry A. DeLand had lured fellow Northerners to buy land in Persimmon Hollow by guaranteeing their satisfaction with the purchase.
When the freezes of 1894-95 killed 95 percent of Florida’s citrus statewide and destroyed those newcomers’ prospects of prospering in citrus farming, DeLand made good on his guarantee, although he had to return North and work two years in his family’s baking-soda business to do it, O’Neal said.
It’s a great contrast to the ruthlessness of the many less-honest Florida land-sellers of the time, O’Neal explains, and an enduring point of pride for the city of DeLand today.
Want to go?
Find the schedule for Walking DeLand Tours or sign up for a tour by calling Stanton O’Neal at 386-747-3581, or visiting his website, walkingdelandtours.com.