Four unassuming homes in Gotha date back to the early 1900s and still stand today as landmarks of one of the town’s early families.
Anybody who travels west along Gotha Road is bound to pass some buildings that stand as reminders of Gotha’s early history.
There’s the Gotha Community Center building — which served as Gotha’s third schoolhouse — that stands just after the bridge over Florida’s Turnpike. There’s the Lutheran church at the intersection of Gotha Road and Hempel Avenue, which was built by Presbyterians in 1913 and purchased by Lutherans in 1921.
Across church sits yellow dog eats, which was originally a boarding house in the 1880s, when Gotha served as a German colony. In 1908, it became a home, and in 1980s, it served as a country store, according to Gotha historian Kathleen Klare. Klare is a descendent of one of Gotha’s pioneer families; her grandfather is Henry A. Wilkening.
In addition to those three structures near Gotha Road are four homes that also stand as reminders of Gotha’s history, but you wouldn’t know it from their humble appearances. Three are hidden in plain sight along the north side of Gotha Road between Mill Street and Hempel Avenue. The fourth is located down Mill Street, tucked behind the other three homes. These four houses, at one point, served as a family homestead for Wilkening; his wife, Emma; and their three daughters, Esther, Rose and Gertrude.
SHOW OF LOVE
The two-story house at 9763 Gotha Road once belonged to Wilkening and his wife. The house next to it, at 9747 Gotha Road, once belonged to Gertrude, and the house next to that one, at 9739 Gotha Road, once belonged Rose. The house on 1156 Mill St. was once the home of Esther.
Although the three houses along Gotha Road no longer are owned by any of Wilkening’s descendants, the home tucked away on Mill Street is still in the family. Wilkening’s granddaughter, Louise Fischer Meador, lives there today. Her home once belonged to her mother, Esther.
“I was born in this house,” Meador said as she pointed to the room in which she was born.
Meador keeps her home as original as possible. A beam running through the middle of her home was made from a single pine tree sanded by her mother. The claw-foot bathtub in her bathroom is original, as well as the cabinets and sink in her kitchen. Although they have been painted over, the doors in her home also are original.
“All the doors — they were natural (wood) until about 15 years ago,” Meador said. “I had them painted to kind of lighten it up. It was very dark in here.”
Meador’s home is one of three houses Wilkening had built to entice his daughters to live near him. It’s also an example of Wilkening’s hard-working nature, benevolence and love for his family, Meador said.
“My grandfather wanted all of his girls here,” Meador said, adding that at one point, one daughter lived in Indiana and another in Ohio. “He wanted them all here, so he built the two-story house and moved there, and … the other daughters settled in the other two houses.
“He was not a very demonstrative person, but he had such warmth, such love for us — all of us,” she said. “You could tell it in his eyes. His eyes sparkled (when he was with) his family. He loved his family, but he didn’t say it … he showed it. He wanted his family here.”
THE TRIP SOUTH
The Wilkening family arrived to Gotha Nov. 11, 1911, without ever visiting it. They had packed everything they owned and left their farm in Kansas in search of greener pastures in Gotha.
“He had sold everything in Kansas and came by train,” Meador said.
At the time, Gotha was a German settlement established in 1885 by Henry A. Hempel. Wilkening, whose family roots trace back to the Hanover, Germany area, came to Gotha in 1911 to farm citrus. The daughters were just young children when they first arrived and only spoke German, but they eventually learned to speak English, Meador said.
When they first came to Gotha, Wilkening built the first family home on their citrus farm, which was the property that is now the site of the Tuscany Ridge subdivision, across the street from Gotha Middle School. In 1925, Wilkening built the first two homes for his daughters on Gotha Road. The home on Mill Street was built in 1926, and the two-story home was built in the 1940s, according to Klare.
“The Wilkening homes were built by my grandfather and Oscar Jernigan, one of the descendants of Aaron and Isaac Jernigan,” Klare said. “Orlando (was) originally named ‘Jernigan’ in the mid-1800s after these pioneer Central Florida settlers.
“In the ’20s, he bought a lot of property in Gotha,” she said. “At different times, not all at once, my grandfather probably owned about 500 acres in Orange County. It was bought and sold over the years.”
Klare is the daughter of Gertrude. She grew up in — and later sold — the home at 9747 Gotha Road. Although she no longer lives in Gotha, she has been researching the settlement’s history for a number of years. She was just 3 years old when Wilkening died at age 91.
In addition to the homes, Wilkening developed the northeast corner of Hempel Avenue and Gotha Road, building a garage and dry-goods store that both were later torn down for structural reasons. Around the mid-1920s, Wilkening established and owned Gotha Water Works, which provided water for parts of the settlement. Wilkening charged a small fee to help pay for the operation of the water services, Klare said.
“I would say that my grandfather had an entrepreneurial spirit,” Klare said. “He built … a garage, laid the first concrete sidewalks, and then he built a dry-goods store that had a soda fountain.”
Klare added Wilkening also was instrumental in buying the church from the Presbyterians in 1921 for the Lutheran congregation.
Although a generous man, Wilkening never bragged about his benevolence.
“They were all very staunch … Lutherans,” Meador said. “He didn’t believe in bragging. He thought it was against God’s law to brag. … He was a very devout Christian man.”
Klare added that his faith is what drew him to Gotha as well, and he also moved there for health reasons.
“He found that Gotha had a Lutheran Church and parochial school to educate his three daughters,” Klare said. She later added, “He was motivated to move to Gotha mainly because his doctor said he would not survive the Kansas Winters.