Two buildings on Stetson University’s campus pictured sometime in the early 1900s. In the foreground is DeLand Hall, named for the city’s founding father, Henry DeLand, and in the background is Stetson Hall, named for John B., who donated a significant amount of money to the school.

Editor’s note: Although readers will enjoy this entry on its own, the previous installment of Karen Ryder’s Better Country Beyond detailing Stetson University namesake John B. Stetson’s origins and journey to Florida can be found HERE.

Just as an aura of pageantry surrounded the comings and goings of the wealthy Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Astors of New York City, the same could be said about John B. Stetson as he went about his activities in DeLand.

Karen Ryder
Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of our feature Better Country Beyond, with excerpts from DeLandite Karen Ryder’s, pictured, book about the early days of the founding of the city of DeLand. The Beacon is indebted to Donna Jean Flood, a DeLand financial adviser with Edward Jones, for the idea for this series, part of our ongoing West Volusia Memories series by community writers. You’re invited to share your memories of West Volusia’s past, for this history series. Send 600 words or so to

Stetson had his private carriage brought down from Philadelphia each year by steamboat. It was a large and shiny black conveyance with brass lanterns that was pulled by a matched team of four horses.

Every Sunday morning, the family, dressed in their finest clothing, would climb in and arrange themselves on the seats. The carriage then proceeded along the streets to the Baptist church while onlookers gawked at the sight.

However, as was also seen with the Rockefellers, Stetson’s contributions to the city of DeLand would prove far more substantial than just taking the role of a local celebrity. His beneficence was first demonstrated by his rescue of the floundering DeLand College.

The college had always operated with a large budget deficit, which Henry DeLand, one of the college’s trustees, unfailingly covered at his own expense. Henry DeLand also spent large sums advertising the school, not only in Florida but throughout the country, just as he did the town. As a result of capitalizing all of these endeavors, and the losses he experienced during the freeze of 1886, his finances had been tapped out.

With that source of funds becoming unsustainable, news of the arrival of John B. Stetson, already known as a generous educational philanthropist, offered the trustees renewed hope for the college’s survival. All their conversations were focused on a big dream — “What if this man… could be led to see the possibilities of this school?”

The trustees commenced a “wining and dining” campaign to woo the famous hatter to their cause, and Helen DeLand records one such instance where a huge party was held for Stetson at Lake Helen’s Harlan Hotel.

The college’s attempts to gain Stetson’s financial support met with more success than they ever envisioned.

Within the first year of his 1886 arrival in town, a second campus building was erected called Stetson Hall in honor of its largest contributor. The first floor had offices, a dining room and kitchen, and living quarters for the president. The second and third floors held rooms for students and teachers, with a wall dividing the men from the women. With such an arrangement, Stetson Hall became the state of Florida’s first coed dormitory.

From 1886 on, John B. Stetson’s ongoing support of DeLand University was responsible in large part for keeping the school’s operations running smoothly. Throughout the remainder of the decade, he willingly met any financial needs whenever they arose. Whether it was pianos for the music school, grass for the campus lawns, the latest science equipment for the labs, or furniture for any of the buildings, university officials needed only ask and Stetson came through with the funds.

Stetson’s support for the university also included his full participation in campus life. This man, who had no formal scholastic training, came to the campus nearly every day during his winter residency in the city to offer advice to both college officials and students.

From time to time, Stetson would lavishly entertain the entire faculty at his grand mansion. He also loved socializing with students. One notable example occurred each year when oranges were in season.

Even though John B. Stetson was primarily known for his namesake hat company, the DeLand-based capitalist was involved in other endeavors, too, like the orange groves he owned, pictured with workers picking the fruit.

Stetson had cartloads of the fruit hauled from his groves to the campus, where he would distribute them personally, and often held orange-eating contests for the male students only, since such frolic was considered “too indelicate” for ladies to take part in.

As a result of all the support he gave the university, everyone was in agreement when, in 1889, DeLand University trustees officially changed its name to John B. Stetson University, as Henry A. DeLand requested over Stetson’s protests.

Building up

By the early 1890s, there were many new buildings being erected on campus. With the construction of Chaudoin Hall, funded jointly by hatmaker John B. Stetson and shoemaker Calvin Sampson, the school could now provide separate buildings for male and female residents.

The central portion of what was intended to be the campus’s grand showpiece building was completed at this time also. It was named Elizabeth Hall in honor of Stetson’s wife, and he had it designed to resemble Independence Hall in his hometown of Philadelphia.

When completed, no other educational building in Florida could compete with its grandeur, and Stetson University was regarded as the finest institution of its type south of Nashville, Tennessee.

John B. Stetson offered considerable support to the City of DeLand as well as the university. The most significant object of his beneficence was a much-needed public works project.

Despite all the progress that had been made in the city, one quite basic necessity was still lacking — only a single privately owned well, located between West Indiana and West Rich avenues, supplied water to downtown businesses and the few residences that were closest to those buildings. Yet even for those fortunate homeowners, the water was only piped as far as their yards and not directly into their houses.

In the late ’80s, two different franchises had been given for the construction of a private waterworks, but each had failed. Finally, in 1893, with the help of John B. Stetson, the City decided to erect its own facility. A building was constructed to house both a steam-powered centrifugal pump and a 50,000-gallon holding tank. This setup proved adequate to supply the town with this much-needed service.

After the big freeze, John B. Stetson did his part to help the city of DeLand’s continued prosperity.

In 1896, he bought from Joseph and Lucy Parce the 10-acre tract of land on which the Parceland Hotel stood. This hotel had served the town well as a boardinghouse/inn for 18 years, and Stetson, as usual, had even bigger plans in mind.

Hoping to attract more wealthy winter visitors and to accommodate the parents of visiting Stetson University students, he extensively remodeled and expanded the hotel. Over several summer hiatuses, more floors and wings and towers were added, along with luxurious appointments.

John B. Stetson named his establishment the College Arms Hotel, a name that linked the hotel with the university. Images of both institutions are depicted in the hotel’s coat of arms-style emblem.

COLLEGE ARMS — Pictured is the College Arms Hotel circa the 1890s.

Of all the boardinghouses and hotels built in the city of DeLand for winter visitors, none was more impressive than this structure that eventually reached five stories in height and boasted an elevator, steam heat, and electric lights.

As a further convenience for the guests, a railroad spur delivered them directly from the downtown train depot to the hotel’s east side.

Thus the grounds now housed DeLand’s third railroad depot, which could accommodate both passengers and freight.

In 1910 and 1918 respectively, a golf course and a country club would be added. The hotel would stand as a landmark of the city until 1955 when it was razed to build the Bert Fish Memorial Hospital. (Today this site is occupied by the new Volusia County Courthouse at 101 N. Alabama Ave.)

A life well-lived

On Feb. 18, 1906, Stetson died at his winter home in DeLand after having been frail for several years.

He had arisen that morning and gone to his bathroom, where a servant heard him fall. After being carried to his bed, Stetson remained conscious for only a short time. He died that afternoon, and his body was taken to his Philadelphia home for burial. Medical authorities wrote that he had succumbed to “apoplexy,” a cerebral vascular accident commonly known today as a “stroke.”

Stetson’s widow, Elizabeth, already accustomed to reigning like royalty in high social circles, officially became the real thing in 1908 when she married Comte Alexis de Santa Eulalia of Portugal, one of that country’s consuls to the United States.

Elizabeth Stetson in 1925

When the Old Settlers’ Society met just a few days later, on Feb. 22, 1906, the great benefactor’s death was foremost in everyone’s mind.

Judge Isaac Stewart spoke to the group of Stetson’s devotion to the university and “his love for DeLand and his interest in her welfare.” Eber Bond spoke next and referred “very feelingly” to Mr. Stetson as the minutes note.

The entire gathering was imbued with a deep sense of “sorrow and parting” at this loss, not just to his family and his many friends, but also to the university and the city, and all agreed that “another milestone has been passed in the history of the Old Settlers’ Association.”


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