Winter Garden's Rarely Told History

Austin Arthur Sits Down with Winter Garden Historian, Jim Crescitelli

You're an important person for Winter Garden’s preservation. Would you tell us how you got involved with this adventure?
I finished college in 1978 and was attracted to Florida. I came to Winter Park and explored. I was very curious about the area outside of Park Avenue, Disney, and Downtown Orlando. People would say, “You really don't want to go to West Orange County. It's very rural. They're different people.” I said, “Well, now you've given me reason to get in the car and go exploring…” and I did. It led to a fascination with the history of West Orange County.

How did Winter Garden get its name?
Farmers came here after the Three Seminole Wars, mainly from the Deep South in the mid-1800s. It wasn't until the two railroad lines finally came through by 1899 that downtown Winter Garden formed along Plant Street. There are stories of train workers spitting tomato seeds into the soil. When they returned a few weeks later, there were tomato plants! They would send postcards to their families telling them it's beautiful and not cold in the winter. They wrote, “You can have a garden in the winter!” Yeah, Winter Garden. We were a whole working community incorporated by 1908.

Downtown Winter Garden has buildings over 100 years old, including an old hotel that is still operating. Can you tell us about this?
Yes, in 1927 they built the Edgewater hotel to accommodate tourists coming to Lake Apopka, which was the Largemouth Bass Capital of the World at the time. The hotel had fish gutting sinks where you could clean your catch, then hand it to the cook to prepare for your dinner! That was the first project of the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation actually, to keep the Edgewater from being demolished. You can now stay in the Edgewater, it’s a bed and breakfast.

Winter Garden has a rich history but there were periods where it wasn't that way, can you tell us about that?
It's really a story of resurrection and renaissance, after the freezes of the 1980’s, nothing much was happening here. But people said, you know, this is our hometown. It should be alive. So in the early 1990’s they applied for grants with the Main Street Program. They did improvements downtown and some festivals. By 1994 the West Orange Trail came through and almost at once, tens of thousands of people started biking through. By 2003, they had landscaped the center and placed the Winter Garden Clock Tower and Centennial Plaza. It took a small group of people to spread the word to a larger group of people, that this town is worth saving and investing in… and it happened.

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