The City Observer July, 2012
The Story of Thornby
Lake Helen resident Betty O'Laughlin didn't plan to be part of a book when she spoke at a Deltona city commission hearing in 2004. After all, as a Sierra Club member, she was used to speaking out about inappropriate development at public hearings all over the county. What she didn't know then, was that the pristine piece of old Florida known as the historic Thornby property -- the subject of a planned land use change that would squeeze hundreds of condominiums onto its wet, wooded landscape -- was special.
In 2001, "Save Thornby" became the rallying cry that awoke and united the once-famous Central Florida community of Enterprise. As most West Volusians know, Enterprise on the St. Johns River was Volusia's first county seat. After the Civil War and into the early 20th century, Enterprise was a hub for steamship travel to and from Jacksonville and site of the prestigious Brock House Hotel. It was a prime winter destination for thousands of tourists, from regular folks to the rich and famous like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Grover Cleveland, who enjoyed its mineral springs, massive trees, sparkling lakeshore, hunting and fishing. When Enterprise lost the county seat to DeLand in the late 1800s, however, hard times began. Citrus freezes and the decline in river travel settled Enterprise into a sleepy existence. The once "Happy Little Town" on the north shore of Lake Monroe (as described by an 1891 Jacksonville newspaper) was off the radar screen for most -- but not for everyone.
Enterprise's rebirth as an involved, spirited town began in 2000, when the Thornby property,its heart both geographically and historically, was under threat. Its 40 waterfront acres had been owned by Dr. and Mrs. James H. Glass from Utica, NY, who enjoyed it as their winter home for many years. After their deaths, a local resident named Doris Faber, who had been much like a surrogate daughter, was allowed to stay on. "Miss Doris" as she was widely known, opened her home and heart to hundreds of local kids over the years. Raised in the Florida Methodist Orphanage, she loved people, especially children. In return, the kids got to be part of days at Thornby filled with animals, gardens, fruit trees, springs, ancient oaks and plenty of "tough love." It was a magical experience that many still recall fondly.
After Doris Faber's death, the heirs of Dr. and Mrs. Glass, who lived in the New Jersey area, wanted to sell the land and the 80-year old home; however, they decided that its county allowed land use of one residence per acre would not provide them with adequate profits from a potential developer. They hired a lawyer and began lobbying Volusia County to change the land use to a more intense build-out. When the county refused, the owners annexed the property into the city of Deltona in 2001.
Thus begins the next part of Thornby's story. When the "Friends of Thornby" grassroots group of Enterprise and Deltona residents took on the challenges of opposing a drastic land use change, we had no way of knowing that the struggle would consume nine years, 11 public hearings, and four elections. Along the way, we encountered arson, hurricanes and political chicanery. There were personal attacks against us, and elected officials who supported us, on websites and even on t-shirts.
The story of Thornby has a happy ending. Today, Thornby Park stands where we argued against strip shopping. Oak, cypress and magnolia, some estimated to be 300 years old, grace the land on which it was once proposed to hold 250 condos, a swimming pool and a clubhouse. The remains of an Indian midden and an old railroad spur dot the peaceful, green woods. And Betty O'Laughlin was one of hundreds of ordinary citizens whose efforts made it happen.
I wrote "The Story of Thornby" for several reasons: to prove that you CAN "fight city hall;" to document the "David and Goliath" story that led to Thornby Park; to provide tips for those who might face their own land-use battles; and to share our area's rich history with those who want to know more.
More details are on my website: www.thestoryofThornby.com, where the book can be purchased online. It's also available at The Muse Bookshop, Family Book Store, and the West Volusia Historical Society gift shop, all in DeLand and all listed on the website.
Sandra Walters, Enterprise, FL