Information is scarce about the town founder’s wife
Most town scandals managed to make their way into DeLand’s historical record, but there is one glaring omission in all the letters and oral history accountings of the city’s beginnings, and that is the absence of nearly all mention of Sarah Parce DeLand, wife of the founder of the city.
A single line on the back of a photograph of the Parce family on the grounds of the Parceland Hotel is the sole reference that includes a woman who is identified as Sarah.
Even Helen DeLand’s book on the city’s history contains not a single mention of her mother.
In the portions of the Parce family genealogical records that Helen DeLand wrote, she discusses in extensive detail her widowed grandmother, Betsey Parce, who lived for many years with Helen and her family in their Fairport, New York, residence. Of her mother, however, there are only two brief mentions.
In one of these, Helen has been unwilling to apologize to her grandmother for some unnamed childhood “lack of courtesy.”
Rather than attempting to shame her daughter into compliance, Sarah uses a more thoughtful parenting approach and tells her daughter, “When I look at your grandmother’s hands, I wonder at all the work they have done for me.”
This response evidently had its desired effect, as it caused Helen to recall for herself the many ways her grandmother had been an actively devoted supporter to her.
Despite being in her 80s (and old enough to have memories of seeing “mourning bands on men’s sleeves at the time of George Washington’s death”), Betsey started her busy day at 5 o’clock each morning when she made “little round fried cakes for me. She darned great holes in my stockings. … She knit me mittens with gay borders and little bows.”
The other reference Helen makes to her mother in the Parce family genealogy is a five-word snippet tacked at the end of a sentence, again about her grandmother.
Helen states that Betsey had to leave their home and go to live with another one of her daughters, Henry DeLand’s brother Daniel’s widow, Minerva Parce DeLand, also of Fairport, “when my mother’s health failed.”
The work on the Fairport house that Helen composed also alludes to her mother’s ill health as being the reason Sarah had to “give up the care of the house and family” to one of her husband Henry DeLand’s older sisters, Eliza Marring.
So what actually is known about the apparently hush-hush nature of Sarah Parce DeLand’s “failed health”?
The only documented facts to be found in the West Volusia Historical Society’s archives are from a May 1885 court action where a judge in Monroe County, New York, declared Sarah to be “legally insane.”
Later that month, there is a second mention of her in the court records where a judge acquitted Sarah from any interest in lands owned by her husband.
In that same document, Joseph Parce was appointed as “special guardian” for his sister Sarah. Since any mention of insanity carried an even greater stigma in that day than it does now, Helen’s silence regarding her mother can now be viewed as a means of protecting the family’s privacy.
In the 19th century, “insanity” was a catchall diagnosis applied to a vastly diverse number of mental dysfunctions that today might be labeled as types of such disorders as schizophrenia, depressive psychosis or dementia.
In the 21st century, the word has completely disappeared from the medical and psychiatric lexicon and is reserved for legal determinations of an alleged criminal’s ability to understand the rightness or wrongness of his or her actions.
Given the combined effect of scant detail in the historical record and the evolution of psychiatric diagnosis over the intervening years, it is difficult for contemporary readers to gain much understanding about the nature of Sarah’s condition.
Because her “insanity” was deemed severe enough that she needed to have a legal guardian appointed, all that can be said is that her mental impairments were of a chronic nature and not expected to remit over time.
— Ryder and her husband, Bob Wetton, live in DeLand and are active members of the West Volusia Historical Society. For information about obtaining a copy of her book Better Country Beyond, call the Historical Society at 386-740- 6813, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. All proceeds from the sale of this book go to the West Volusia Historical Society’s Bill Dreggors Fund, which helps finance the printing of books about West Volusia history.