Owned by the State of Florida and managed by the County of Volusia, DeBary Hall was built in 1871 and restored in the 1990's. This Italianate style hunting retreat tells its story through period rooms and impressive exhibits focusing on the history of the St. Johns River.
DeBary Hall Historic Site is an important part of the St. Johns River country and the central Florida community with goals to preserve and interpret artifacts, photos and archaeological materials relating to the St. Johns River history. The site is dedicated to providing visitors with the history of the St. Johns River area through educational experiences such as guided museum tours including permanent and temporary exhibits, special events, family programming, and outreach efforts.
With the knowledge that the public has many choices in Florida, we strive to attract people to visit our site and encourage return visits. By diversifying the site with the addition of a spring-to-spring trailhead with a picnic pavillion, and a visitor's center complete with gift shop and theater, DeBary Hall is much more than a museum. At DeBary Hall, visitors can view award winning exhibits such as , "Improving Paradise: DeBary Hall and the Taming of the Florida Frontier", and "DeBary Hall; the Virtual Experience" and with the addition of the Visitor's Center, visitors can enjoy a ride film entitled "Into Tropical Florida; A trip upon the St. Johns River".
DeBary Hall was built as the winter retreat of European-born wine merchant, Frederick deBary. He chose the St. Johns country as the home of his grand hunting estate. Beginning in the 1870s, this New York businessman acquired lands near Lake Monroe, to built a large hunting lodge as his vacation home. Here, deBary tried his hand at orange growing and commercial steamboating. We know from old photos, artifacts, and oral history sources that the estate had some features of a working farm and that it employed many local workers. When deBary’s last American heir died in 1941, the retreat had grown to more than 6,000 acres with many outbuildings. Today’s historic site is a little smaller—ten acres. But it still includes the 8,000-square-foot main house, stables and other structures, plus artifacts from a kind of working farm. DeBary Hall also offers glimpses of larger things: America’s long romance with Florida, a nineteenth-century tourism boom, orange fever, and steamboating on the St. Johns. And since local African-American and white workers kept the estate going year-round, their lives are central to the storytelling here.
DeBary Hall was enjoyed by the deBary family for 70 years until the death of deBary’s last American heir in 1941. The property was sold and the house changed hands a number of times before it was given to the State of Florida. Under the supervision of the State of Florida, DeBary Hall was used by the United Federation of the Arts and later as the DeBary Senior Center. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
In July of 1990, The County of Volusia entered into a lease agreement with the State of Florida to open DeBary Hall as a historic museum and park. In 1991, with grants from the Florida division of historical resources, Volusia County began a much needed restoration. The hunting estate took ten years to renovate to its current beauty and was opened to the public in March of 2001 as a "Historic Site".
DeBary Hall's history relates to its stated mission by retaining and restoring the historic character and image of another period in American history by weaving a thread of consistency through renovation, beautification, and historic preservation. To promote the St. Johns River as a vital center of commerce and culture reflecting a "people friendly" environment and to maintain DeBary Hall as the heart of this community utilizing the story of one family's achievements into a vibrant pattern through the tapestry of Florida's history.
Frederick DeBary, a wine importer for Mumms Champaign, built DeBary Hall in 1871 as his hunting retreat along the St. John’s River in Central Florida. The area offered various leisure activities such as swimming in the local springs, fishing, and hunting quail, deer, and alligator. DeBary turned his leisure site into a profitable enterprise when he planted over 10,000 acres of citrus trees and began a steamboat company for trade up the St. John’s River to Jacksonville. The DeBary’s used the hall as their family winter retreat until 1941, when the last American DeBary died suddenly without an heir.
The 1870s and 1880s were lively times in the St. Johns River country. After the Civil War, outsiders flocked to interior Florida for several reasons: health, sightseeing, hunting, orange growing, and speculation. The DeBary’s fit some of these patterns. As was common during this period, Frederick DeBary planted some of his Florida lands in orange groves. And, when Jacob Brock went bankrupt and died, DeBary soon tried steam boating- eventually adding vessels of his own to the St. Johns older plainer steamers. Presumably, he knew the tastes of Northern travelers and grasped the need for new boats to handle and exploding freight trade on the river. In short, from about 1880 to 1895, the DeBary estate’s managers and workers grew and shipped oranges. And from the mid-1870s to 1889, the family owned steamboats. Not needing these ventures for income, the DeBarys abandoned both when killer freezes, railroad competition and other factors made getting out seem prudent.
Though only occupied a portion of the year, the citrus and steam boating enterprises continued throughout the year run by servants and residents from the town of Garfield, a local African-American community. The area’s black population once was large, and local people helped operate the DeBary estate, laboring in agriculture, in sport hunting, and in skilled jobs that have yet to be researched.
While the DeBarys tried their hand at business ventures, the large home was primarily used as their hunting and winter retreat. The area attracted many guests, and those that stayed at DeBary required a personal invitation. Several additions and renovations were made to the house to accommodate the numerous guests. The additions include a second dinning room, a wrap-around porch, two extra bathrooms, and three extra guest bedrooms. The Florida springs, hunting, and warm climate appealed to people across the nation.
This site on the St. Johns River traces the development of life in a Florida riverside community through the period of the passage of the Internal Improvement Act and other legislation like it, which had the greatest effect in the years after the Civil War and before WWI. Before our modern highways system, Florida relied on steamboats to move people and goods. Local workers relied on the DeBary Hall estate as a working farm for much of their income, growing and packing citrus and shipping cotton from the DeBary Estate via the deBary Merchant's Line. DeBary Hall occupies an important niche in Central Florida History.