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Central Florida History


A Central Florida legend: John A. MacDonald
Imagine the year is 1867, and YOU happen to be one of those courageous 19th Century pioneers who have decided to take up a Central Florida homestead. 160 acres, so YOU are told, will be yours for next to nothing, all YOU need do is select the parcel.

You soon learn the public land to choose from is scattered across 3,000 square miles of rugged wilderness. There are no trains to tour the region, nor scarcely a road. YOU will need to trek along one of only a few dirt trails, so-called roads leading inland to who knows where?

Enter John A. MacDonald, the one CitrusLAND businessman who, in 1867, knew where each of the trails led. Known in Lake County history for jump starting EUSTIS, MacDonald had conceived of his creative Central Florida land agency career while still living at MELLONVILLE.

A native of Canada, MacDonald began working as a Wisconsin woodsman up until the time of the Civil War. After peace returned to the States, he then found his way south to Florida, but discovered there were no jobs available. The self-taught land surveyor then invented a career: assisting others in locating choice homesteads.

John A. MacDonald wrote that a New York Tribune article, written by Horace Greeley, an editorial suggesting invalids go to Florida, brought him to the land of sunshine. The Northern climate had become ‘disagreeable with his health’. “
On landing at old Fort MELLON, on the south shore of the Lake Monroe, I came across the only sign of civilization - the small store building", said MacDonald, "of DOYLE & BRANTLEYA walk of less than two miles brought me to the celebrated SPEER Orange grove, then twenty-five years old.”

The Speer grove was located at Fort REID, on the old Fort Mellon to Fort GATLIN Road, a 28 mile dirt military trail that by the time of MacDonald’s arrival had become known as the ‘Public Road to ORLANDO.’ This one inland trail is the same trail I have dubbed, ‘The First Road to Orlando’.

The public road runs through the trees,” said MacDonald, “and the trees were loaded with fruit and nearly all in bloom,” adding, the sight “of an orange grove in all its glory of golden fruit and snowy blossoms, filling the air with its delightful aroma and delicate perfume, captivated me completely and shaped my plans through life.”

The question then became how to get customers? MacDonald concocted the idea of writing letters to editors, sending tantalizing missives to Northern newspapers, writing of the merits of basking in the warm Orange County Florida sunshine, while at the same time growing rich farming Florida oranges.

It wasn’t long before letters began arriving, inquiries from shivering folks up north, each asking how they too could own a slice of America’s 19th Century Paradise.
While awaiting customers, John A. MacDonald toured the countryside, setting sights on good locations for homesteaders. Happy customers, he thought, would bring referrals!

MacDonald assisted Henry S. SANFORD during the earliest days of building the town of SANFORD; guided Dr. J. N. BISHOP of Mississippi toward SYLVAN LAKE, and then became instrumental in developing Orange County’s ‘Great Lake’ Region, now part of Lake County, including such towns as TAVARES, EUSTIS, SORRENTO and points between.

ORANGE LAND, an 1883 publication sanctioned by Orange County Commissioners, included this of John A. Macdonald of EUSTIS, Orange County, Florida. The man has “done so much for the development of South Florida and Orange County in particular, that a description of the county and no mention of him would be like the play Hamlet with Hamlet left out. With a reputation National in its extent, for honesty, ability and promptness, he finds the calls upon him for information and services so vast and wide spread that he has been compelled to publish a new book, "Plain talk about Florida," mailed free for 25 cents, together with his map of Eustis”. The 1882 MacDonald’s pamphlet was referenced in the writing of this Blog.

Florida’s Great Freeze of 1894-95 was the culprit that sent many a Central Floridian packing, with MacDonald being among them. By the year 1900, John was working as a Civil Engineer at Dade County, participating in yet another new town development, the City of Coconut Grove

Born May 10, 1841, John Angus MacDonald died at Dade County, Florida on the 27 day of January, 1917. His wife of 52 years, Mary A. (DYER) MacDonald, born in 1849, died in 1928.

IT SIMPLY IS NOT POSSIBLE to portray accurately the story of Central Florida’s earliest days without telling of West Orange County’s first days. Founding families of OAKLAND, WINTER GARDEN and a forgotten neighboring town - once planned as a major railroad hub, today nothing more than a long-forgotten Ghost Town, will be my focus of a very special CitrusLAND Event.

Join me Friday, November 13, 2015, at the fabulous Winter Garden HistoryResearch & Education Center, Heller Hall, 21 East Plant Street, in historic downtown Winter Garden for a CitrusLAND presentation of the enchanting story of a time before the arrival of John A. MacDonald, that period of time that was the birth of AMERICA’S 19 Century PARADISE.



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