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Historic Dupree Gardens - Published Articles

Faded Roadside Attraction Dupree Gardens to Vanish
By James Thorner, The St. Petersburg Times (Sep. 6, 2002)

LAND O'LAKES -- A smattering of bamboo, the stray trunks of magnolia and dogwood trees, a roofless limestone ticket booth: Little remains of Dupree Gardens, among the Tampa Bay area's top roadside tourist attractions in the 1940s.

A victim of World War II gas rationing and changing American tastes more inclined to thrill rides and oddball attractions, Dupree Gardens mostly vanished among housing developments, a nudist resort and orange groves.

A further change to the property is in store. In 2004, a Tampa company called Beazer Land Development plans to subdivide part of the original garden grounds into the first of more than 1,000 homes.

In good news for old-time Pasco County residents who enjoyed the gardens in their youth, Beazer plans to save the ticket booth as part of a nature preserve on the property.

Other traces of the park, mostly old trees and shrubs, survive near streets such as Dupree Drive, Eden Lane and Mary Jane Lane southeast of U.S. 41 and Ehren Cutoff.

Even Busch Gardens employees are known to have made excursions to Land O'Lakes to find specimens for the Tampa theme park.

"I wish the gardens could still be there. But if you drive through it you can see it. The plants are still there. Nobody ripped them out," said amateur Pasco County historian Eddie Herrmann, who visited the gardens as a boy in the early 1940s.

Before the big interstates, Walt Disney World and high-speed air travel, Florida sold itself as a Southern Garden of Eden. The result was a string of garden theme parks that showed off the state's subtropical flora to motorists.

State Road 60 had Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales and Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven. St. Petersburg had its Sunken Gardens. In the rural communities that would merge to become Land O'Lakes, it was Dupree Gardens.

In the 1930s, Tampa attorney J. Williams Dupree bought 900 acres in Pasco east of what was called State Road 5, now U.S. 41.

Hurt in a car crash, Dupree recuperated by planting an exotic garden of flowers, fruit trees and palms on his Pasco estate. On Dec. 1, 1940, on the advice of friends, he opened it to the public.

Dupree advertised as the "blossom center of Florida," 25 acres of flowers "set to music." He rigged palm trees on the property with speakers that played music of Schubert, Brahms, Bach and other classical composers.

A Florida Times-Union story from 1942 described a lush spectrum of flowers hugging interlinking trails: azaleas, orchids, lilies, camellias, poppies, snapdragons, candytuft, magnolias.

Quiet, glass-bottomed electric boats glided across Dupree Lake. Rustic bridges crossed waterways. A gift shop and restaurant catered to visitors in a season that ran from Nov. 15 to May 1.

"It had flowers all over the place, just a remarkably beautiful place, probably the prettiest place I had ever been up to that point," Herrmann said.

At its peak, Dupree drew 30,000 visitors a year. Then came Pearl Harbor. Gas and tire rationing squeezed car travel. Dupree tried to boost business through bus tours from Tampa. But in 1943, he was forced to close the gift shop and restaurant.

The attraction lingered until the early 1950s, but Herrmann assumes by that point it no longer opened regularly. The public, expecting more in the era of television and fond of the air conditioning that had been scarce before World War II, shunned roadside gardens. Some survived by juicing up their offerings with colorfully plumed birds, reptiles and water-skiing bathing beauties.

The Dupree property eventually split among various owners. The Island Group bought a piece to start a nudist camp on Dupree Lake. An even bigger chunk became the Dupree Gardens Estates neighborhood. The rest ended up as a 400-acre orchard owned by T & W Groves.

Those with keen eyes can glimpse the old ticket booth, an small rectangular building of rough mortared limestone, squatting under trees off Ehren Cutoff. Two other buildings from the garden days, the rustic log lodge and guest house are now privately owned homes on Mary Jane Lane.

As the heart of the former gardens, Mary Jane remains shrouded in oak, palm and cypress, leafy vines running amok.

The Woolf family, owners of the lodge, keeps memorabilia from the gardens. They have the lodge's original piano, still covered in cypress bark in keeping with Dupree's "mock-primitive style."

A final building, the nearby "tea room" on Dupree Drive, burned to the ground in 1995, killing a woman who lived there since shortly after the gardens closed.

Herrmann and other historically minded Pasco residents dedicated a roadside plaque to Dupree Gardens in April. Attending was Mary Conover, Dupree's daughter; and Herbert Carrington, his former chauffeur, now more than 100 years old.

Herrmann invited Conover to tour what was left of her father's attraction on Mary Jane Lane. But she wasn't up to it.

"She said, 'I remember it the way it was,' " Herrmann said. " 'I remember when it was beautiful.' "

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