If asked to list what they know about Gotha, Florida, most people can quickly come up with Nehrling Gardens, Camp Ithiel, Yellow Dog Eats, Woodlawn Funeral Home & Memorial Park, and several residential subdivisions. To many, that’s about it.
Some might even know the significance of the Nehrling property and how Hempel Avenue got its name.
But for others, such as Kathleen Klare, the town is a goldmine of history that began in 1876 and was home to many interesting and wealthy northerners who traveled to Central Florida in the winters and helped put Gotha on the map.
Klare’s family dates back more than a century in Gotha, when her ancestors arrived in 1911; and she was born and raised in the small West Orange County community.
“When I was young, I didn’t appreciate it because not much happened, but when you live in the cities over the years, like Manhattan; Boston; and Washington, D.C., you really appreciate community,” Klare said.
Her interest in local history — coupled with her career as an architectural interior designer that had her managing projects the size of the Brooklyn Bridge — led her to embark on a yearslong search for any information and photos pertaining to Gotha and its past.
“I liked large projects; I didn’t do a lot of projects, I worked on large ones,” Klare said. “I think because of always dealing with a lot of detail, I think that’s one of the reasons I was able to segue into something like this.”
The result of her research and determination is “The New Colony of Gotha, 1876-1950: Place-Making in Pioneer Central Florida,” a 350-page paperback history of Gotha that contains 230 photographs, images and maps.
“My goal was never to make any money on this,” she said. “It was to preserve the community. I didn’t start out thinking I was going to write a book. I wrote a chapter for the church, the Lutheran Church (in Gotha). … And then I got very involved. I was a director of the Nehrling Society, and one of the things was to put together the archives, and that put me right into the history.”
'THIS IS THE REALITY'
What clinched her interest was when she discovered a letter written by Dr. Henry Nehrling’s wife about Klare’s grandfather.
“That kind of leaped off the page,” she said. “These are real people; they aren’t just in books.”
To discover bits of information became the thrill of the hunt, she said.
The book is divided into two parts: “1876-1904: The German Colony of Gotha and the First Pioneers” and “1900-1950: The Gotha Community.” Twelve chapters break up the history into categories that start with the Central Florida German-European colony’s origins and continue through the golden age of Free Thought, the community’s development with a dependency on citrus farming, the start of a German church in 1886, Nehrling and Palm Cottage Gardens, the area’s forgotten cemeteries, notable winter residents, the mid-1920s growth, the Julian and Margaret Nally years at Palm Cottage Gardens, and the community’s two active US. military depots during World War II.
“I stopped after the war because I didn’t think there were a lot of big things to write about,” Klare said. “We had tactical Army and air tactical training units in Gotha during the war. I wrote about that … because a lot of people like to say we were a POW camp, which is not the truth. I’m killing the rumors about the POW camps.”
She suspects the incorrect story began circulating because of the Gotha Ordnance Depots, one of which was located near where Yellow Dog Eats is today.
“There were times in the war they needed additional help, especially laundry,” Klare said. All the guys are gone, so the hotels and hospitals were in very bad shape as far as laundries were concerned. So they used … the POWS from the (camp at the) Orlando Air Force base.”
The prisoners of war were brought to Gotha daily to handle the large volume of laundry, she said. At the same time, the American soldiers were learning how to bake bread on the front line, she added.
“This is the reality,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of research to state what they were doing.”
THE EARLIEST RESIDENTS
Discovering the first residence of Gotha was like a treasure hunt. She did massive amounts of deed searches and referenced properties by maps. She contacted historical societies, museums and libraries, and researched timelines on old businesses.
“Someone sent me an article, and it’s like a clue and you take that clue and see where it goes,” she said. “You just keep Googling. … It was a lot of work, but I loved it.”
She discovered savvy marketing caught the attention of businessmen in the North, and Gotha became the winter home or permanent home of folks such as Theodore Ahrens, a Victorian plumbing manufacturer; Adolphe Meinecke, a collector, a founder and trustee of Milwaukee Public Museum, and owner of Meinecke Toy Company; and John Hauenstein, a beer factory owner from Minnesota.
Charles Kouene was another major player in the settling of Gotha. Klare said his creation of the American Turner society in 1885 was perhaps the single greatest influence on the Gotha colony’s early development.
Kouene met Hempel, who was of the other secular movement, the Freethinkers, and the two made an instant connection. The book goes into detail about each of these movements and their impacts on Gotha.
By 1885, there were 99 residents in Gotha. One chapter is devoted to many of these families and how they found their way to Central Florida.
Klare chronicles the businesses and churches and organizations that built upon the original German foundation and created the beloved community that stands today.
SEARCHING FOR THE DETAILS
Klare was able to speak with several descendants of the first settlers, as well as folks whose families played a role in Gotha’s history. She spoke with Grace M. Cooper, whose husband helped build the tent camps. Her biggest “find,” perhaps, was meeting Frances Hamm, the 100-year-old granddaughter of Franz Barthel, an expert plant cultivator.
In the mid 1880s, Barthel was helping new residents organize their citrus groves and, more importantly, assisted Nehrling in putting together his famous gardens.
“Everything changed after the freezes of 1894 and 1895,” Klare said. “Hempel was promising property to build citrus groves so people would have something, an income, so a lot of people were attracted and invested up to 80 acres. … Hempel bought 1,000 acres and was helping them to develop on it. People were coming to Gotha and were knowledgeable about setting up groves. (After the freezes) people walked right out of their houses, left their food on the tables, left everything, because they had invested everything in citrus as their income. They went back north essentially. They lost everything.”
The next decades were devoted to rebuilding the community.
“I’ve always considered this a niche book, because if you say to anybody ‘Gotha,’ they don’t even know where it is,” Klare said. “I was trying to appeal, not to a big market, but I wanted it basically for Gotha residents and for historians. … My interest was preservation of this community because most of the communities around here only have citrus history. Because Gotha was an international colony, it brought a lot of different talent, and I didn’t know until I started researching it.”
Now that the book is finally finished, what’s next for Klare?
Although she’s proud of helping get the seven double-sided “Historic Gotha” signs erected that give a brief history of the community, she wants to go bigger and hopes to get a sign put up with even more information and a photograph.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” she said.
Another project she would like to see come to fruition is a history trail in Gotha that includes information markers at each stop.