Mount Dora, Florida, is a survivor: Founded as a small outpost in the lakes region of central Florida in 1874, it grew—as did many Southern towns—with the coming of the railroad in 1887. By 1891 a citrus packing house was founded at Mount Dora, but the local citrus industry suffered badly from severe freezes in both 1894 and 1895, freezes that changed the landscape of Floridian citrus production greatly, forcing growers to reconsider how viable citrus crops actually were (or were not) north of Orlando. Counties as far north as Marion and Alachua had well-established citrus groves and entire small towns built around this industry, but after these devastating freezes and later freezes equally severe in the 1910’s, most serious citrus production migrated to the area around Avon Park, south of Orange County.
Mount Dora was no different: the citrus business wasn’t a lasting one for this city; however, tourism flourished built on the foundation of the railroad and the initial money that citrus and other food crops garnered. By the 1930’s, President Calvin Coolidge and captains of industry Henry Ford and Thomas Edison had vacationed at the Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora. Further into the twentieth century, tourism fell off somewhat, but in recent years it has picked up again as antique shops, innovative restaurants, and the beautiful landscape draw tourists in once again.
Mount Dora’s success is not surprising, really, considering that this whole area is known for an odd kind of combination of ambition and luck: The nearby city of Tavares across Lake Dora was founded by railroad magnate Alexander St. Clair-Abrams and designed as a planned city with the intention of its becoming the capital of Florida. This never came to pass, however, but Tavares did become the county seat of Lake County since the grand infrastructure necessary for a seat of government was designed into the layout of the lakeside town. Lake Dora itself is one of the larger and more splendid of the many—and I repeat, many—lakes in Lake County. If you fly south from most anywhere in the US to Orlando, on a clear day you’ll be taken by the sheer number of lakes in this region as you fly over and before you encounter the more metropolitan Orlando itself.
A combination of light industry, healthcare, and agriculture sustain this area today, but tourism is increasingly a player in the regional economy. With the vast Ocala National Forest to the north and Orlando a decent distance to the south, the local lakes are a key attraction. For Mount Dora, however, the overall theme is a bit more genteel than its neighboring cities: more than outdoorsy eco-tourism, Mount Dora has continued to cater to the type of wealthy, older patrons the city’s early days of tourism first developed, with a charming tea-room, the historic Lakeside Inn, and numerous antique shops, coffee-shops, and boutiques. The effect is akin to finding something a bit like a slice of Charleston or Savannah in the midst of Florida’s lake country. Due to its small scale, though, Mount Dora doesn’t even have the hustle that Savannah or Saint Augustine honestly have on account of their tourist trade, so it’s really a perfect, rather quiet, vacation spot for those seeking such.
The history of Mount Dora is, beyond the rise and fall of the citrus industry, a rather unique one: The city, though small and somewhat isolated in the early twentieth century prior to Orlando’s massive growth, became pioneered in racial equality and education with its Milner-Rosenwald Academy—a school for African-American children established with money from Julius Rosenwald, a scion of industry in Chicago who funded such schools, and the Rev. Duncan Milner, a local minister. Rosenwald was the president of Sears, Roebuck, and Co. and involved in other successful business ventures and saw a need for better education for people of color, especially in the American South. As Mount Dora was small yet more developed than many rural towns, it was a perfect place where this type of progressive effort was appreciated, even a century ago.
Very aware of the role history plays in its attraction to visitors, Mount Dora has placed a high emphasis on historic preservation and restoration of downtown buildings, such as the old Atlantic Coast Line railroad depot which now houses city’s Chamber of Commerce. The Winsor Rose Tea Room, founded by Richard and Christine Annis, was established in 1991 and quickly became a regional institution and a destination that brings visitors from Orlando and elsewhere for day trips to Mount Dora. Serving traditional English fare including high tea—a rare find indeed in central Florida—the Winsor Rose is unique. Options for coffee are just as good as those for tea, with the One Flight Up coffee shop, offering not only great coffee and sweets but a balcony with good views of the heart of the town, while the Mount Dora Confectionery sells candy and ice cream—between all these places for sweet treats, one must assume the dentists of Mount Dora also are doing a good business.
Perhaps the most intriguing attraction though of Mount Dora is its tiny—but fully functional—lighthouse. Located at Grantham Point Park on Lake Dora, the lighthouse was constructed in 1988 not as a tourist attraction per se but as an actual aid to navigation. Local boaters had complained that finding their way after dark from Tavares to Mount Dora on Lake Dora was somewhat difficult as there were enough homes with lights all along the shore that the actual location of the boat ramp at Mount Dora was not easy to discern. So the lighthouse was built to provide a means for them to locate their destination. Today, the lighthouse is a beloved symbol of the town and the small lake-front park is a favorite for visitors who are not even mariners. And there are sometimes more than one fascinating light in the park: on some weekend nights, a group of poi-spinners from around central Florida come to the park and put on an amazing show of breath-taking fire-spinning—it is not to be missed!