About This Episode
The History of Orlando Part Three covers the years from 1875 through 1879 – Orlando Florida’s Golden Age. Orlando Florida history at this time was marked by fires, freezes and fortunes made with the coming of the South Florida railroad.
If you would like to learn more about the fascinating history of Orlando, visit the Orange County Regional History Center in downtown Orlando.
Location: Orange County Regional History Center, 65 E Central Blvd, Orlando, FL 32801
Phone: (407) 836-8500
The end of the 19th century would bring some of the best, and some of the worst times to Orlando Florida. Orlando’s Golden Age between 1875 and 1895 were well underway. An optimistic vision of the future permeated through the citizens – some who had arrived from far away. By the time the Golden Age ended, some would leave disillusioned; while others would fight to stay right where they belonged. Our look back at the History of Orlando Florida continues next.
The arrival of the South Florida Railroad into Orlando marked the beginning of the town becoming a viable commercial center in Central Florida. Serving as Orange County Seat, the business of government and the business of commerce found a home. By the late 1800s the population of the entire county had blossomed to nearly 7000 residents. Some of the new citizens began trying their hand at growing citrus as the climate was favorable and the lure of turning orange into green was too tempting. But because there was no easy method to get the produce to market outside the area, the opportunity to make a living as a citrus grower had to wait until the steam whistle blew for the railroad’s inaugural trip from Sanford to Orlando on October 2nd, 1880. The arrival into Orlando must have been quite a celebration as it has been said that raucous passengers mounted a cannon on the rear car and would fire it off all along the route into Orlando.
Prior to the coming of the railroad, the entire business district consisted of a blacksmith shop, a livery stable, a few stores, and a hotel. Just a few years afterward, the downtown boasted of five sawmills churning out enough lumber to build 41 business establishments. The first real building boom was on.
In January 1884, a great fire which started at small grocery store marked the worst Downtown fire in Orlando’s history. Orlando’s tiny but able volunteer fire brigade was able to contain the blaze from destroying everything, but it would not be until July of 1885 that Orlando’s Hook and Ladder Company #1 received their first horse-drawn fire wagon! And it would take until 1899 that the town would purchase their first fire engine. The city would; however, recommend that all new commercial construction going forward, be made of brick.
The arrival of the railroad marked the decline of Orlando’s rough pioneer days. But the new mode of transportation meant more than just shipping products out to the rest of the country, it meant the rest of the country could get to Orlando. And so, it was, that outsiders from beyond just surrounding states began to migrate and make Orlando their home. The call to come to Orlando was overseas too, as residents of Europe came to seek their fortunes, many in the expanding citrus industry, and build enclaves of likeminded expatriates. Orlando had both English and German colonies develop in the early days in neighborhoods like Windemere and Gotha.
One of those Englishman who became an Orlando pioneer was Joseph Bumby. Bumby had not planned to settle in Orange County when he left his native England at age 30 with his wife and three children, their destination was Denver, Colorado. Stopping in Orlando to visit a relative before moving on, Joseph fell in love with Florida and decided to stay. He bought 160 acres east of what is now Summerlin Avenue, built a home and like so many others, planted an orange grove. Because Orlando was still mostly a cattle and farm town, Bumby saw an opportunity to supply ranchers and growers with supplies. He erected a wooden building on Church Street and sold hay, seed, grain, and fertilizer.
With the South Florida Railroad stopping in Orlando, Bumby’s store became the freight office. Because of his experience as a stationmaster in England, Bumby became Orlando’s first rail passenger and freight agent. The Bumby Hardware Store would grow into an Orange County institution over the next 80 years. The slogan, “Can’t find it? Go to Bumby’s” became a household phrase. The venerable store on Church street remained until 1966.
A South Florida Railroad travel brochure mentioned that the growth of Orlando was phenomenal given that there were no typical drivers of growth like oil, factories, or mines. Orlando adopted that sentiment and began to call itself, The Phenomenal City.
And what better way to celebrate the growing importance of this phenomenal city, but by building a brand-new county courthouse. The cornerstone was laid on January 15th, 1892. So important an affair was this, that schools were dismissed so the children could witness the ceremony. Joseph Bumby’s eight-year-old daughter Ada dropped a penny into a time-capsule placed into the cornerstone. The Victorian red brick courthouse featured an 80-foot clock tower that dominated the Orlando skyline for many years after.
Orlando in 1892 seemed so full of promise of the future. The railroad had brought with it a wave of new residents with optimistic dreams of an orange Florida sun shining bright in clear blue skies. Only a few years later, that sense of pride and possibility would be tested as the cold wind of reality would set in.
By the late 19th Century, Florida’s abundant citrus groves had extended into northern Florida, and the state was producing as much as six million boxes of fruit per year. Many of the citrus growers in the area had arrived from the North and from Europe, seeking warm weather and fortunes as small grove owners. Christmas Day in 1894 the temperature was in the 80s and all was well. There was no indication of the disaster that was about to come.
Three days later, a cold front from the northwest pushed a strong rainstorm with high winds through the area. On December 29, 1894, the temperature in Orlando reached a record low of 18 degrees. The season’s entire citrus crop was killed, while most of it still hung on the trees. Overnight, fortunes were wiped out.
Karl Abbott whose parents managed the San Juan Hotel, and where a citrus exchange was held, tells the story that, “by 2 p.m., the exchange was in an uproar. Prices had dropped to ‘no sale.’ Commission merchants were frantically trying to get out of options, and heated debates and fistfights started in the lobby. About 9 that night, a fine looking gray-haired man in a black frock coat and Stetson hat walked up the street in front of the hotel, looked at the thermometer, and groaned, ‘Oh, my God!’ and shot himself through the head.”
A few mom-and-pop growers, who had come to Orange County and invested all their savings in groves, moved back North in discouragement. Most, however, dug in their heels and hoped the next year would be better. Just six weeks later, it would only get worse.
January brought warm, wet weather, and mature trees started producing new growth. The layer of woody tissue just under the bark filled with sap as the wounded trees struggled to recover. The presence of so much liquid in the trees made them far more vulnerable to a second freeze.
On February 7th, 1895, the temperature dropped to 17 degrees. Witnesses said they heard what sounded like pistol shots when the sap froze and blew out the tree bark. The first freeze had killed the fruit. The second freeze killed the trees. Land values plummeted, and growers with mortgages were forced to sell at a loss. Of the eight banks in the county before the Great Freeze, only the First National Bank of Sanford survived.
Orlando was devastated because there was little diversification beyond agriculture back then, and citrus was the dominant crop. Never again would Orange County be so reliant on one industry for its survival.
The Phenomenal City had been tested. Cattle feuds, fires and freezes had all come and gone. A new century was dawning, and Orlando was moving forward. Some thought it was time for a fresh image. Orlando had become more sophisticated and it sought a new city motto. A contest was held, and several entries were considered: “The Queen City”, “The Magic City”, “The Health City”, “The Picturesque City.” Mrs. W.S. Branch, a poet, got it right and her entry has been the motto of Orlando – The City Beautiful – to this day. I mean really, who would not want to live in such a place? As it turned out, a lot of remarkable people in the new century would make Orlando their home.