Before 1880s - Native American Artifacts
The remains of early Florida inhabitants, possibly the Timucua tribes, were found all around the river in Villa City. The area had several Native American mounds which yielded animal bones and pottery chards. This shows a group of men excavating one of the many mounds Villa City. The man in the broad rimmed hat has been identified as C.C. Boyd.
Early 1880s - Archibald Gano's Millford
The area that would become Villa City, was first named "Millford" (with 2 "L"s), because of the ford across the river at the location of a local saw mill owned by Archibald Gano.
Notice the town of Millford north of the area of modern day Groveland.
Archibald Gano, already in the area, had built a dam on the Palatlakaha Creek to provide water power for his sawmill which provided the lumber for the early buildings in Millford and other settlements throughout what would become South Lake County.
c. 1880 - Archibald and Sallie Gano
1884 - The King of Villa City
George Thomas King, of Baltimore, Maryland, had served in the Union Navy aboard the USS Nipsic, and traveled up and down the east coast chasing Confederate blockade runners. (A history of George T. King's family is located at the bottom of this page.)
1863 - George T. King, at 17 years old, while serving for the Union Navy.
The USS Nipsic
1860s - Emma Desire Parlow - Wife of Gerorge T. King
After the war he worked as a salesman for the Colgate Soap Company, and again traveled from New York to Cuba.
In 1884, at the age of 38, George Thomas King was in need of a warmer place to live that would help relieve his rheumatism.
Colgate suggested that he work his southern sales territory from a central area, so he connected up with a government surveyor named H.P. Smith, in Palatka, Florida, and scouted out a suitable location to build a home.
The Palatlakaha Creek to the south was just what he was looking for.
It had an easily navigable river which led to several fresh spring water lakes.
The vast pine timberland forests were filled with wild game and Native American artifacts.
Overall, the area was attractive enough to bring in tourists and investors that were willing to take a chance at making money in the fruit business.
George T. King began buying up property all around the area. George King purchased 900 acres in Millford.
"He bought acreage then for $1.50."
- George Morgan King.
The people living in the area were friendly and helpful, and there was already Gano's sawmill operating on the creek.
George T. King platted out an area of 1 1/2 sq. miles in streets and blocks and lots, and named the five main lakes after his family members.
George stood on highest hill with a surveyor from Jacksonville and named the local lakes. He named the largest lake in front of him for Lucy, his sister-in-law who passed away just before the move from Baltimore to Florida. He named Lake Emma for his wife, Lake Desire for his daughter, and Lakes Morgan and Arthur for his sons. Other lakes in the area were later named for other settlers, including Lake Spencer and Hart Lake.
A Town by Any Other Name
One of the most important aspects of life in the Florida frontier was the ability to communicate with the outside world.
Unfortunately, much of the mail for Millford ended up in one of the other dozen or so Milfords (with one "L") in the country, even though the Florida Millford was the only one spelled with 2 L's.
Gano suggested that King rename the town. Since George T. King envisioned a city with elegant homes and gardens rivaling the villas on the Mediterranean, he selected the new name Villa City.
1885 - Building a City
In 1885, George and his family moved to Villa City from Baltimore, Maryland. They had been living in Jacksonville for six months, while awaiting construction of their home. His home became the first "villa", with barns and lavish gardens with pineapples galore.
House of George T. King
Desire King in front of King House
1880s - George T. King and Family Sitting on Porch
King House and Gardens over looking Lake Emma
1889 - King, Emma D. (Mother); Emma Desire (Daughter), Arthur Wight(Son); and George Morgan (Son) standing in King's Garden.
1889 - King, Emma D. (Mother); Emma Desire (Daughter), George Morgan (Son), Arthur Wight (Son). Sitting in King's Garden while reading a letter from George T. while he was on a sales trip for the Colgate Compnay.
Most of King's 20 acre home site was tilled and irrigated.
King laid out lavish gardens and fish ponds with their own fountains. The walkways in the gardens were lined with pineapples, which was the universal icon of hospitality. The pineapple would not become a commercially grown crop in Hawaii until at least 1886.
George planted lots of different crops, with a large selection of fruits, including: bananas, grapes, guavas, pineapples, prickly pear, and strawberries.
He brought in "muck", from a swampy area on the other side of Lake Emma, and planted bananas on top of the hill by the barn.
No one thought they would survive up on a hill, but they flourished in the rich soil.
There is still a banana patch on the river that are believed to be descendants of those original plants.
"My father (George T. King) knew little about agriculture, but he constantly experimented with existing soils and irrigation just to prove to himself those fruits would grow here... and we had beautiful roses around our home."
George Morgan King
King hired some of the local people to work in his gardens.
However, he soon ended up bringing in fifteen negro workers instead.
George complained that the local workers were "unsatisfactory" and required too much supervision.
Later his barn was mysteriously burned to the ground and the culprit turned out to be an ex-employee who was upset about being let go and replaced by a black man.
1885-1895 - Other Residents
By March of 1886, King had brought in master carpenter, William Washington Hart, who had been living in Polk City, to build most of the 35 homes which allured the affluent members of society from the North.
William W. Hart brought his wife, Henrietta Monette Raulerson, and their four children along and settled on what is now the northwest corner of Villa City Road and Simon Brown Road (named after his grand daughter, Daisy's, husband). He also brought along his father, William Isaiah Hart. His homestead included the south shore of what is still known as Hart Lake. They had four more children while living in Villa City.
A post office was opened in 1886 under the new name of Villa City and residents finally began receiving their mail directly. Emma Parlow King's brother, Franklin Parlow, acted as the first postmaster. His wife Lucy Sears Parlow, was the namesake of Lake Lucy. The post office was located in a room at Parlow's house.
Franklin Parlow sitting in the doorway of the Post Office room attached to his house.
A Letter addressed to (George) Morgan King, while attending Rollins College in Winter Park. The letter bears the stamp of Villa City.
In 1888, King hired his cousin F. A. Park, to draw a map which showed the boundaries and buildings of that year. Though he had no formal training as a draftsmen at the time, Park later graduated from MIT and became a first vice president and general manager of Singer Sewing Machine Company.
Arriving later was George T. King's mother-in-law Anne Lowe Parlow.
Anne Parlow sitting on the porch of her house that was located down the street from George and Emma's.
Anne Parlow at the King house with her granddaughter Desire.
During winter months of 1888, a Methodist Episcopal Church was built on Indiana Ave.
Seven denominations rotated worship at this church.
Around 1890, Emma's brother and well known photographer, George Parlow, of Rhode Island, moved to Villa City.
1872 - George Parlow's photograph of his sister Emma Parlow King.
Two of his most famous portraits were of President Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau.
This is the home of the first doctor in the area, Dr. Hood, his wife, and two young sons. They became instant friends of the King boys, and are written about many times in the diaries that have survived the years. The Hoods only stayed a year, until their son died of appendicitis.
This gentleman was Ambrose Spencer, a resident on a neighboring lake that was later named for him.
"Another story that my grandfather told was that Mr. Spencer was quite a drinking man, and his father sent him to Florida to sober up, which he did fairly well.
However the Villa City kids found out about his past and made sure everyone knew.
He fell off the wagon several times but finally dried out after the King boys went away to school in Winter Park."
- Howard King
The town grew quickly thanks to aggressive advertising and promises of fortunes to be made in fruit cultivation and mining of valuable minerals. Professor Richards, a geologist from MIT, came to Villa City to evaluate the local deposits of yellow ochre iron and the fine quality kaolin clay found on the river banks.
The tea cup below was made from kaolin taken from Villa City and sent to Europe for firing.
Reverend J. E. Round was one of the world's leading authorities on dead languages.
Henry Loy and Lancelot Loy were two English brothers who were brought to Villa City by William Newton.
Henry became a very successful lawyer.
"Lancelot received permission from my father (George T. King) to 'practice' his early sermons in the Villa City church and I was at the first one he ever preached."
- George Morgan King
Lancelot later returned to England and became an Episcopal minister.
In 1929, while in England, George M. King also saw Lancelot Loy preach his last sermon before retiring.
According to Morgan King, other familes that moved to Villa City were:
A Gator Story
"Before the dams were in place, it was possible to navigate the Palatlakaha from Lake Louise to Lake Harris.
The King boys decided that exploring the length of this river would be an undertaking worthy of proper equipment, and set about building a steamboat. This allowed the boys to carry passengers around and maybe shoot an occasional squirrel or turtle.
"No story about Florida pioneers is complete without a gator story. The children were fascinated with the reptiles. One of the letters sent from my grandfather at the time includes a cute story.
'Uncle Geo. has been having a fever for shooting 'gators' and has hit the one (that stays over to the muck bed most of the time now) on the head with a rifle ball several times but hasn't succeeded in killing it yet.
A week ago Mr. Westbrook set a hook with a bird on it but the bird disappeared and the 'gator' wasn't caught.
Yesterday Uncle Geo. went around the lake to the muck bed with papa's rifle but didn't see the gator but he saw a couple of skunks so he shot them and put one on the hook.'
"(The letter leaves off at probably the most memorable part of this story.)
"This sequence of pictures documents a memorable afternoon on the Palatlakaha. It begins with the two boys bravely defending themselves against a vicious gator big enough to swallow them whole.
"I wonder how the gator stayed in one place long enough for them to run home to get their Uncle George and his camera, bring him back to a place on the other side of the river for a good shot, set up the camera and bellows, get back in the boat and resume their attack.
"And with the victory comes the spoils, in this case a chance to get your picture taken riding on the back of a gator big enough to eat your little sister."
- Howard King
1890 - The Gano Mill Incident
Sometime around 1890, the residents of Villa City had grievence against Gano and his Sawmill.
Mr. Gano had dammed up the river to create a higher water level for his mill wheel.
The story goes that local residents upstream blamed Gano's dam for an unusually high water level that summer. So the neighbors gathered together, found some dynamite, and blew up the sawmill.
A couple of the men were arrested and tried for the crime, but were found not guilty. It turned out that several men on the jury had been part of the blasting crew.
The act may have all been for naught, as some claimed that the water level seemed higher after the dam was destroyed.
In 1891, after the incident, Archibald and his wife Sallie moved to Clermont, where they built a home and a tomato packing plant. Their Clermont home still stands today and is a shelter for women and children.
Archibald and Sallie Gano
1894-1895 - The Great Freeze
The winter of 1894 brought big changes to Villa City.
With its agriculture flourishing, the residents prepared for a typical Florida winter of occasional cold snaps and mild freezes, which helped sweeten the fruit and kill the pests in the groves.
What happened in the evening of Decemver 29, 1894 took them all by surprise. The temperatures dropped into the teens and stayed there all night. In the week following, the trees became stripped of their leaves. However, the damage was not bad enough to kill the trees.
In January, the temperatures rose back into the 70s and 80s for most of the month. The trees began to fill with sap when spring seemed to be at hand.
Then, on February 7, 1895, a massive "arctic express" from the north interrupted the warm humid weather. The air quickly dipped down to a freezing 12 degrees. The freezing temperatures started early in the day before the rain clouds had cleared, thus causing snow to fall quite hard and accumulate to depths of up to a quarter of an inch. The presence of snow was a very rare sight in the area and has never been repeated.
The temperatures dropped into the low teens at sunset and remained there all night, solidly freezing the sap in the trees.
This event in itself might not have been as disastrous as it seemed and spared the hardier trees, if they could have warmed slowly the next day. However, when the morning came with a bright sunshine, the temperature quickly rose up to 85 degrees and warmed the trees. The rapid thaw of the frozen sap caused the trunks of the trees to burst wide open with loud explosions.
Almost all of the citrus trees in the entire state were destroyed, as well as the vegetable crops and many farm animals. The devastation was agonizing to look upon. Ten years of hard labor were gone in a single day.
Dead Citrus Tree with Oranges scattered on the ground after a freeze.
Villa City quckly became one of Florida's many ghost towns.
Within a year, the population dropped from about 150 to only a few.
Some of its citizens returned to the North to remake their fortunes and others moved closer to nearby settlements.
The King family, with the exception of, Anne Parlow, George King's mother-in-law, picked up their things and moved back to Boston and New Bedford.
Those few who were determined enough to stay in Villa City survived mostly on wild game, fish, and their own gardens.
The experience encouraged what were already tight knit communities to continue to turn to each other for support.
The abandoned property of those who left to the North, were eventually seized by the state for delinquent taxes and the local people moved into the vacant houses. They took possession of the abandoned contents and eventually disassembled the houses and the lumber was repurposed for other homes and buildings in the area.
The last remaining building was the Gano house, a popular site for high school couples into the 1960s. It was torn down in 1968, making Villa City a true ghost town.
1962 - Gano House
Since the long leaf pine trees were not affected by the freeze, turpentine production became popular until the agricultural climate improved.
This is a turpentine still built on the shore of Lake Emma.
1930s-1940s - A Partial Comeback
During the 1930's and 1940's Villa City became known as a hunting and fishing paradise. The freshwater fishing was considered outstanding and the hunting exotic, which attracted people from all over America, Canada, and Europe on safaris to enjoy the abundant wildlife. Some purchased villas, while others preferred camping.
1995 - The Villa City Marker
The residents of Villa City erected this marker in 1995 on Lake Emma Road at the site of the King property to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great Freeze and the rise and fall of the little town of Villa City.
Descendents of Villa City Founders: Howard King (second from right)
1620 - King Family Origins
by Howard King
"Family history has been a fascination for the King family for many generations.
Most of the information I will present here was recorded by my great grandfather, Geo. Thomas King, the founder of Villa City, and my grandfather Geo. Morgan King.
We begin with John King and the pilgrims. As most of you know, the pilgrims sailed to America to escape religious persecution in 1620. These brave outcasts secured passage to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the New World aboard one of the many ships sailing the Atlantic at the time, the Mayflower. They agreed to send back anything of value they found to the ship's owner, a trader named Thomas Weston.
When they landed in Plymouth, they found a cold and meager existence constantly threatened by Indians. Half the pilgrims died in the first year. As a result, the returning ships brought nothing of value back to Weston.
Weston thought the pilgrims were self-serving and lazy, and so he sent his brother-in-law and a group of 60 men described as "the most rude and profane of the London waterfront" to Plymouth in 1622 aboard the Charity and the Swan, to motivate the pilgrims. These enforcers trampled the corn, ate the stored provisions, and created general havoc until the Pilgrim Council chased them away. They retreated north about 18 miles and settled in a village they named Wessagussett, which was later named Weymouth.
John King was not a pilgrim, but rather one of the Thomas Weston's enforcers, now known as John King of Weymouth. He was my 8th great-grandfather.
Later Kings on the family tree shared a passion of establishing new towns, including: Mt. Washington, Mass.; Cambridge, New York; Sharon, Conn.; and Villa City, Florida.
Geo. Thomas King was John King's 5th great grandson."
- Howard King
In 1898, George Thomas King and Emma (Parlow) King's son, George Morgan King, enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private and rose to command a regiment with the rank of Colonel during WW I. He was also an early student of Rollins College, which was established in 1885.
1890 - Excerpts from Villa City Promotional Booklet: "A Florida Home"
"Prof. J. Dorman Steele, the author of the well-known series of scientific text books, says: There are physically speaking, five Floridas, each unlike the others, ... When one is asked, 'How do you like Florida?' the cautious answer would be prefixed by another query, 'Which one?'"
"... We may either say there are three Floridas... or make a score of divisions, of which each would be found to differ from every other as much as one of the States of our Union usually differs from the adjoining ones."
"There are immense plains of irreclaimable swamp; ... rich hammocks whose vegetable growth is as dense as that of an East Indian jungle; ... 'flatwoods', valuable now only for the timber and grazing; there are, in the centre of the peninsula, hills five hundred feet high; ... there are large tracts of gently rolling land, ... which, with comparitively little cost, can be made the Paradise of fruit grower, as the hammock is the Paradise of the gardener."
"If one should say he had explored Florida, without having beheld the antiquated relics ... of St. Augustine, he would be laughed at. Let me whisper to the reader as a secret what every immigrant and tourist will soon know, that he who thinks he has seen the State without looking upon the natural beauties of the Palatlakaha Valley, makes a blunder vastly greater."
"As a specimen of this region, the reader is directed to Villa City, its central point of attraction, by the following letter from Rev. J. Emory Round, D.D., to a friend in Baltimore (May 10, 1888):
'Two months ago I reached this familiar spot, having stepped out of mid-winter weather in Baltimore into all the delights of a perfect spring. During the first two days of my visit, you were suffering all the discomforts of the unexampled blizzard, but your invalid friend, who was supposed last December to be in a rapid consumption, and whose life was thought to be measured by hours if not by minutes, was dividing the day between this porch and the surrounding garden, enjoying the open fire in the evening and early morning, more for its blaze than its warmth.
'I would I had the pen of a Scott or the brush of a Rembrandt, that I might paint for your eyes the scene now before me. If out mutual friend, H. Boltonn Jones [a famous Baltimore artist], would try his skill upon it, he would find a landscape worthy of his powers, and the millionaires of his native city would vie with each other in offering their thousands to secure the prize. As neither Scott, Rembrandt nor Jones is here, the pen of the amateur must do its best to supply the lack. He has one advantage to cheer him. He knows the picture cannot be overdrawn.
'Before me is a smooth downward slope, perhaps 800 feet long, extending from the porch where I write, to the waters of Lake Emma, 70 feet below the point of view. It is a beautiful, clear sheet of water. Its form is that of an ellipse, seven-eights of a mile long by three-fourths broad, though the perspective makes it seem much more eccentric than this.
'Beyond Lake Emma is Lake Lucy, much larger, ... From this porch it seems to have the form of a secong ellipse ... This is not its real shape at all, for the eye is deceived, partly by the perspective, and partly by two islands that are not at first recognized as such. The two lakes are separated by a narrow strip of green, through which the connecting channel flows, and by two sharp, triangular points of land on the right and left resoectively. The shape of these lakes, and their banks, seems as perfect as that of the artificial lakes that adorn our city parks, and when a closer view discloses slight irregularities, the favorable impression is deepened by the absence of everything like the stiffness of mathematical precision.
'The land is smoothly undualating, no sudden elevations nor depressions, as gentle in its rise and fall 'as if God's finger touched but did not press in making it,' sloping quite to the water's edge with not a sign of swamp...
'Excepting a few spots that have been cleared to make room for gardens and orange groves, the land is covered with a thin growth of pine, with a more or less liberal mixture of black oak, willow, oak, sweet gum, hickory, live oak, and other hard wood trees. As the latter are of a much lighter color than the pines that overtop them, especially in the freshness of early spring, and as the diffrence in hue between the various hardwood trees themselves is very marked, the contrast forms one of the indescribable glories of a Florida spring.
'All this is spread out before me at a single glance. Photographers have given us views of it wondrously beautiful, but they lack the coloring. H. Bolton Jones, if he were here, could supply this want, but he could only give one or two views, and they would be but approximate ones; while the scene now before me is only one of the countless changes of the Palatlakaha kaleidoscope.
[Contributors: Rev. J. Emory Round, Barbara Wyckoff, George Morgan King, Howard King, Simon Thomas Brown Jr., Jason Brown]