Did you know that the first building Thomas Edison ever personally wired for electricity is just a hop, skip and 40-minute car ride away from Orlando? That’s just one of many pieces of hidden American history waiting for you to share with your older children at Stetson Mansion in DeLand.
A perfect spot for homeschoolers or children with a particular interest in the past, this winter home of John B. Stetson and his third wife, Elizabeth, stands three stories high and boasts more than 8,500 square feet of living space. He’s remembered for creating his “Boss of the Plains” hat, a wide-brimmed hat made from waterproof pelts. We know it today as the “cowboy hat”; this original version became known simply as a Stetson. He’s known locally for endowing what would become his namesake university, Stetson, also in DeLand.
Overall, Stetson was a fascinating, forward-thinking man, especially by Victorian standards, treating his employees and their families with dignity and respect. He paid fare wages to his factory workers and never called his house staff “servants.” He helped those who lived near his factories obtain health care, sometimes free of charge, and helped his workers obtain below-market rate loans.
But back to the mansion, the story of which is just as fascinating (if not more so) than Mr. Stetson himself.
Known as Florida’s first luxury home, the Stetsons built this mansion in 1886 to spend winters away from Pennsylvania. President Grover Cleveland visited the mansion, as did King Edward VII (as prince of Wales) and the Astors, Mellons, Vanderbilts and Carnegies. After the death of Mr. Stetson and the departure of his wife, the mansion changed owners frequently through the years, with various attempts at restoration with varying degrees of success. That was until real-estate investors JT Thompson and Michael Solari came long and undertook what ultimately become a life’s mission (and possibly obsession if you ask JT). With the help of hundreds of sponsors, the couple have renovated the mansion in a style that preserves the past while incorporating modern conveniences. You see, the couple actually live here part-time, but open the entire home up for tours.
Here’s a sampling of what you’ll see at Stetson Mansion (forgive the photography, indoor shooting is not my forte):
My favorite bits on the tour were surprise modifications by Michael: a secret walk-in closet created from a house staff bedroom and a tiny, unexpected bathroom built inside the closet of a guest room.
If you go: First of all, leave the wee littles one at home. Can you imagine the horror of your little angel being the first to break the 127-year-old glass? Read all about the history of Stetson Mansion beforehand. I’m sure your tour guide will share much of this, especially if you are lucky enough to have owner JT Thompson take you through. He’ll share behind-the-scenes secrets (like why the floors slant and how he found the schoolhouse’s original curtain rods). And read all about the work JT and Michael have done to return the house to grandeur. If you want to be really wowed, plan your visit around Christmas, when the owners deck the halls with $50,000 worth of decorations. Cost: Tours start at $20 for adults, $15 for students (to age 22). Grand tours are $30 and $20, respectively. Group discounts are available. Reservations are required for all tours. See more on pricing here. Address: 1031 Camphor Lane, DeLand. Contact: 386-383-3408 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
DISCLAIMER: I received a free VIP tour for two as well as a beautiful recycled bottle cap necklace from DeLand artist Magdaphanalia. I also received a gift bag that included Healthy Soul flip-flops, a free wrap from Savvy Wraps, Yaupon Asi Tea, a $500 gift certificate for video services by Edson Pacheco and more. I was not obligated financially to blog about Stetson Mansion, but chose to do so because I was thoroughly impressed.