Better Country Beyond: DeBary Hall, Built by Champagne
A newcomer arrived in West Volusia from New York in 1868.
Samuel Frederick DeBary was born in Germany to a family of Belgian descent. In 1840, at the age of 25, DeBary had been sent to New York as the exclusive distributor of Mumms Champagne Co., one of the world’s leading distributors of the day.
DeBary was selling to what was then the virgin market of the newly wealthy class of merchants, manufacturers, and financiers residing in New York. Because luxury items were not yet mass-produced in the United States, a person’s social prestige was often measured by their consumption of European luxury items.
DeBary was therefore able to develop a thriving import business empire.
Although DeBary was not a true aristocrat, he quickly rose to prominence in wealthy New York society, and by the late 1860s was already a millionaire, living on Fifth Avenue among his socially prominent neighbors, including the Vanderbilts and Astor. He could well enjoy the fruits of his labor, and one of his favorite pastimes was to travel across the country in pursuit of his sporting hobbies.
Even before the Civil War, DeBary was a winter visitor and patron of the Brock House at Enterprise. He was drawn to Florida by advertisements for the hotel that appeared in many popular hunting and fishing guides of the day.
During one visit, DeBary purchased a 400-acre parcel with a large sugar cane plantation, flour mill, and orange grove, near the north shore of Lake Monroe. A vegetable farm, dairy herd, and wild game preserve were soon added, and a freshwater spring on the property was tapped, making DeBary’s holdings entirely self-sufficient.
In 1871, DeBary began building what would be the crowning achievement of his estate: a 20-room Italian-style “hunting lodge” he named DeBary Hall. Set in an oak grove on the highest point of the property, about 1 mile from the lake, it was the most luxurious abode the area had ever seen.
The seven-bedroom, two-story mansion, with wrap-around verandas on both levels, has been thoughtfully designed for lavish entertaining.
It had a large central hall and floor-to-ceiling windows 15 feet high. There were fireplaces in every room, and in the kitchen there was a huge iron stove and three coolers of almost walk-in proportions.
Other amenities were quickly added, such as stables, an ice house, and a spring-fed swimming pool, probably the first in Volusia County.
The hall served as an annual winter retreat for DeBary and his family and the large number of visitors he invited to join him during the mild Florida winters. Among his guests were personalities from all over Europe and the Americas.
The Wild Hunt
The most elaborate activities DeBary offered to these prominent visitors involved forays into the great outdoors. While fishing trips along the St. Johns River or New Smyrna Beach for surf casting were certain to impress, DeBary’s most famous amusements were the hunting excursions that took guests to neighborhoods densely forested areas of what are now the towns of DeBary and Deltone.
In 1945, an elderly black servant who had worked in his youth as a gardener at DeBary Hall, provided a first-person account of these expeditions.
He reported that DeBary left little chance to ensure that every hunter would be able to capture at least a few birds.
Throughout the year, the vegetation of the fields was carefully trimmed and grains of corn and millet were spread to ensure that an abundance of doves and bobwhite quail would take up residence.
A full team of feeders and caretakers have been expertly trained for their duties. Just before the hunt, additional quail from the DeBary Special Reserve were released into the fields.
Some have noted that it took a certain type of flamboyance for DeBary to turn acres of woods into a sanctuary for doomed birds.
The former gardener went on to describe the special routines that happened when the day of the big event arrived.
A sumptuous breakfast was prepared at 4:30 a.m. to give the group members time to dress in their most fashionable hunting clothes for a sunrise departure. DeBary’s stable and kennel provided many mounts and packs of dogs for hunters.
Non-hunting guests were taken in a horse and cart and served coffee, tea and biscuits while the others stalked their prey.
A number of servants called “threshers” were responsible for marching ahead of the hunters to chase the birds from the bushes.
On one occasion, while the young gardener was carrying out this task, a stray bullet from one of the hunter’s shotguns struck him in the left eye. The shooter apologized and paid the injured man $3, an unusually generous reward for a black servant in those days.
At the scene, the injury was deemed minor and the young man continued the hunt with only a slight blurring of vision which was expected to disappear shortly. Unfortunately, his condition worsened in the days following the accident and eventually caused him to lose sight in his eyes.
A large basket full of food was always placed among the guns and equipment of the mule-drawn supply wagons, as the firing forays lasted late into the afternoon.
After serving lunch in the fields, the servants packed up all the leftovers from the expedition, including the hunting bounty, and led everyone back to DeBary Hall to rest.
After a good siesta, guests take a dip in the spring-fed pool or stroll through the gardens and botanical gardens until dinner – a grand feast designed to cap off the day in style.
At DeBary’s enormous dining table, all the fresh game of the day’s hunt was spread among a host of other fine Continental-inspired dishes, and Mumms produce flowed in abundance. Most of the guests did not arrive in their soft beds until dawn.
The competition is getting fierce
In his later years, the rich foods and wines that DeBary indulged in left him portly and suffering from gout, and a manual elevator had to be installed in DeBary Hall to transport him up the stairs; Yet, in his heyday, DeBary had ambitious plans for himself and was far from just a wealthy, idle playboy.
During his visits to Florida, DeBary turned his Florida holdings into a highly profitable location. Over time, he acquired an additional 9,000 acres, where he planted orange groves and pecan trees.
A shrewd businessman, DeBary has developed major innovative practices in the citrus industry. For example, his Lake Monroe packing station was one of the first to sort oranges by passing the harvest through a gutter lined with holes of varying sizes.
DeBary crowned his achievements by founding his own line of steamboats on the Saint John River, where he had first commissioned boats solely for his private use.
However, locals soon began paying him to transport them, and the dogs and horses he carried, up and down the river on hunting expeditions.
In the 1870s, as Florida’s tourist trade doubled every year, DeBary also began ferrying winter visitors from the North. Because he realized the potential of these trends, DeBary decided to expand his private steam line for commercial use. Competition for steamboat tourist customers was to become fierce.
Jacob Brock’s line of steamboats was already well established and highly profitable when DeBary was just getting started.
In 1870, when dentist HD Bracy brought his family to Beresford, there were only two ships on the St. Johns — the Darlington and the Hattie, both of the Brock line.
However, DeBary spared no expense in his attempt to make his business competitive.
He added cabins on the upper decks and other accommodations to win over more travellers. Before long, DeBary was neck and neck with Brock vying for his share of the Florida tourism dollar.
Due in large part to the transportation convenience that the Brock/DeBary competition brought to the St. Johns steamboat service, a steady influx of permanent settlers arrived in the surrounding lands.
— Ryder and her husband, Bob Wetton, live at DeLand and are active members of West
Volusia Historical Society. For information on get a copy of his book Better Country Beyond that, call the Historical Society at 386-740-6813, or email [email protected]. All proceeds from the sale of this book go to the West Volusia Historical Society Bill Dreggors Fund, which helps finance the printing of books on History of Western Volusia.