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West Orange Times & Observer Tuesday, Sep. 2, 2014 7 years ago

Refashioning a playland

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by: Tony Judnich

Leafy vines dangle over the tiled words “West Orange Country Club” on a brick and concrete archway.

Nearby, Spanish moss-laden oaks exude gentility at the entrance to a gravel road, but a locked gate prevents uninvited vehicles from traveling farther west.

This scene — about half a mile south of Colonial Drive and west of the intersection of Avalon Road (County Road 545) and Coscester Street — gives a modern glimpse at the historic Tucker Ranch and original West Orange Country Club. Florida’s Turnpike to the north and the John’s Lake Pointe subdivision to the south also serve as reminders that much has changed.

But Winter Garden officials have a vision to bring the 210-acre property back to glory, in the form of the city’s largest park. It could welcome some visitors as early as next year.

“It’s unbelievable out there,” City Manager Mike Bollhoefer said. “It’s beautiful.”

Winter Garden Recreation Director Jay Conn agreed.

“We’re really excited,” he said. “It’ll offer a lot of passive, nature-based activities that we don’t have at our other parks.”

A fascinating past

The original West Orange Country Club, featuring an 18-hole golf course and a two-story clubhouse, opened in 1915 at the future park site, 100 Avalon Road. Charles F. Mather-Smith, a retired paper manufacturer from Chicago, and his wife, Grace, started the club after finding the Orlando Country Club “a bit too tame for their big-city tastes,” according to records at the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation’s History Research Center.

Another historical source notes that Grace Mather-Smith was inspired to open the West Orange club after being shunned by the Orlando club’s members.

“Local residents considered the Mather-Smiths the most flamboyant couple in Central Florida,” a Research Center document stated. “Stories of lavish parties and orchestras brought in from Chicago for special occasions are legendary. For 10 years, legislators, judges, lawyers, politicians and the well-to-do came and went through the arched entrance gate.”

While running the club, the Mather-Smiths lived on an Oakland estate that fronted Lake Apopka. Their oldest daughter, Gracy Mary, married Bruce Cabot, “the actor who rescued Fay Wray from the clutches of King Kong in the original “King Kong” movie,” according to Research Center information.

Unfortunately, the Mather-Smiths’ magnificent country club days ended in 1924, when three years of heavy rain caused the adjacent John’s Lake to rise and flood the property, destroying the golf course and other parts of the site.

Also, according to Research Center records:

• Charles Mather-Smith died in 1941. That same year, Charles Mann “Pete” Tucker, a cattleman and meat market/grocery storeowner in Oakland, acquired the country club property, named it Tucker and Son Ranch, and used it to raise cattle and grow citrus.

• During World War II, the U.S. government used the site to test radars. The post-war clubhouse briefly was used as a nightclub, and in 1950, Tucker had the then-dilapidated building demolished.

• Grace Mather-Smith died in 1962. She and Charles Mather-Smith are buried in Oakland Cemetery.

• In 1968, Tucker’s son, Charles Thurmon Tucker, opened a campground called Tucker’s Ranch on the ranch property.

Today, the arched “gateway and the foundations of the clubhouse are the last surviving remnants of the club,” Heritage Foundation Director Kay Cappleman said.

The archway is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The property also contains the former, concrete-block home of the Tucker family.

Big park plans

The park site consists of 63 upland and 147 wetland acres, according to city of Winter Garden records. The site includes 7,300 linear feet of shoreline along John’s Lake, which extends into Lake County.

In 2011, the city purchased the property from Tucker Ranch LLC for $2.1 million and annexed it into Winter Garden from the Tildenville area of unincorporated Orange County. The city later was reimbursed $840,252 of the total cost via a grant from the Florida Communities Trust, as well as $200,000 of the total from a federal grant administered by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Last February, the city received another $200,000 grant, also administered by the state DEP, to help pay for developing the park. That money has been used to improve the entry road, build a storm water pond and make other drainage improvements, and pay for monthly mowing on various parts of the site, Conn said.

He said the next batch of tasks includes clearing non-native plants from under an oak canopy for a group campground, building a playground, restrooms and parking areas, and installing interpretive signs along hiking trails and next to the remnants of the clubhouse.

The non-native plants could be removed in time for the campground to open sometime in 2015, Bollhoefer said. It will stand on the site of the old Tucker campground. Nearby is an active bald eagle’s nest.

“The park will take several years to develop, based on funding,” Conn said. “It’s going to be a resource-based park that eventually will have an environmental education center.”

Plans also call for installing a canoe/kayak launch southwest of the campground and next to a water-filled, former borrow pit that is connected to John’s Lake. Fill from the pit was used to help build Florida’s Turnpike.

Other park amenities could include fishing docks, an observation platform and a boardwalk. The former Tucker house might be used as a park caretaker’s residence, and an adjacent pasture might be used to grow profitable produce.

“To fully develop the park, it’s hard to say, but it could cost anywhere from $1 to $2 million in additional dollars to get it done,” Bollhoefer said. “We expect a lot of the cost going forward to come from recreational impact-fee money.”

The city’s property purchase agreement with the Tucker family stipulated that “Tucker” be included in the name of the new park, and that the historic archway stay on site. The park’s name hasn’t been finalized, but city officials are considering using “Tucker Ranch Heritage Park.”

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