Canoe on historic Dupree Gardens lagoon...
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War Wilts Dupree Gardens
by Carol Jeffares Hedman, The Tampa Tribune (Nov. 1, 2002)

There was no big, talking mouse. The place didn't have a twisting, looping roller coaster.

But for a brief time in the 1940s, 25 acres of lush flora in central Pasco County drew tourists from around the country as one of the first roadside attractions in the state.

Called Dupree Gardens, it began as a pastime for J. William Dupree.

The Tampa attorney was injured in a car accident in 1933 that left him recuperating for an extended period. He retreated to the 900 acres he had bought for hunting in Pasco County.

Located east of what was then State Road 5, now U.S. 41, and Ehren Cutoff, Dupree built a log cabin and spent his days planting an exotic garden of flowers, fruit trees and palms.

The gardens were so beautiful that Dupree’s friends persuaded him to open the property to the public.

Billed as the “Blossom Center of Florida,” Dupree Gardens opened Dec. 1, 1940.

The gardens had a lodge, complete with a gift shop and tearoom.

Electric-powered glass-bottom boats floated around Dupree Lake fronting the lodge.

Dupree Gardens was an immediate success.

Some 42,000 tourists visited the first year. It was no wonder with rave reviews like that by Jacksonville journalist MacDonald Bryan, who wrote in the Florida Times-Union on March 22, 1942:

“Snapdragons, poppies; pansies and iris; violets, sweet alyssum and candytuft; calendulas, delphinium and narcissus - great medallions of them on the evergreen carpets of grass - all these are there with their yearly vindication of the sweet promise of new life and new hope.

“In richer bloom, too, are the thousands of azaleas. Their colors range from the soft tones to the flamboyant. Great magnolias, orchid trees, redbud and dogwood have put on their fanciest garbs in obeisance to spring. Bold flame vines make dramatic splashes of color as they climb skyward to the topmost branches of towering palms. Chaste Easter lilies and callas march along the borders of paths, and waxy camellias top, it would seem, every stem of giant bouquet-like bushes.

“Dupree Gardens are 25 acres of a fresh source of joy to lovers of horticulture. Interlinking trails play their part in the skillful blending carried out under the direction of J. W. Dupree, the Tampa attorney, whose love of flowers caused him to create this beauty spot on his 900-acre estate.”

War Brings Cutbacks

Visitors, many service men and women, from throughout the nation thronged to see the gardens during the tourist season Nov. 15 to May 1.

But timing was bad for Dupree Gardens.

World War II brought gas and tire rationing, restricting tourist traffic. Dupree unsuccessfully attempted to organize bus tours from Tampa.

And in compliance with wartime regulations, the gardens had to make cutbacks. The kitchen and gift shop were closed in 1943. Then the electric-powered boats on the lake were stopped.

The final blow came when the government issued a ban on unnecessary private travel.

Dupree posted what had become a familiar sign: “Closed for the Duration.”

But Dupree kept up his gardens and they even played a part in the war effort in 1944.

That Oct. 3, National Airlines marked its inaugural daily direct air service between Tampa and New York City with a 14-passenger Lockheed Lodestar making the six-hour and 20-minute trip carrying a humidor of Havana cigars for New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. The plane also carried camellia blooms from Dupree Gardens that were auctioned for the war effort.

The blossoms made headlines when airline president Ted Baker won the bid with a pledge of $250,000 in war bonds.

The blossoms, displayed on black velvet backgrounds, were said to have amazed florists on Park, Madison and Fifth avenues who found it “inconceivable that Florida could offer fully matured camellias in this season.”

Dupree Gardens was reopened for a brief time in 1946, mostly for civic events and private family gatherings.

Dupree sold the property in the early 1950s, with some of it developed as home sites and a parcel that included Dupree Lake opened as a nudist camp. Some 400 acres were citrus groves.

The lodge was converted into a private residence. The tearoom burned in 1995.

And the native lime rock ticket booth stood for years as the only reminder of the once-popular attraction.

Although the site was listed in the 1992 edition of Historic Places of Pasco County, compiled by members of the Pasco County Historical Preservation Committee, a marker designating the location wasn't erected until earlier this year.

In August, a developer announced plans to build about 1,100 homes, plus some commercial space, on 471 acres that includes the Dupree Gardens site.

Beazer Homes plans to save the ticket booth as part of a nature preserve. Some of the original flora still grows on the property, and plans are to use the name and history of Dupree Gardens in marketing.
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.' "

Dupree Gardens
Known as “The Blossom Center of Florida,” Dupree Gardens became a strong rival to Winter Haven’s Cypress Gardens.
by Robert H. Brown from his website (1997)

Long before today’s major theme parks, Florida abounded with dozens of extravagant garden attractions that commonly drew tourists to our beautiful Sunshine State.

Opening in 1936, Dick Pope’s Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven was the first of many that prospered from the abundant seasonal fragrances and blooms of a public garden.

From there, Pope set into motion a trend that seemed to explode across the state and eventually reached Pasco County with the opening of the famous Dupree Gardens.

Located inside a beautiful estate in Central Pasco, 17 miles north of Tampa and southeast of U.S. 41 and today’s Ehren Cutoff Road, the 25-acre Dupree Gardens was the brainchild of prominent Tampa attorney James “William” Dupree.

Dupree was born in Louisiana on July 22, 1897, and after completing law school he moved to Tampa where he opened a successful law practice and settled into a nice home on Bayshore Boulevard.

In May 1933, Dupree started buying land in Central Pasco which he intended to use as a hunting retreat. In total, he acquired 900 acres including property purchased from the former Aripeka Sawmills, who previously operated mills at Fivay near Hudson.

Here, Dupree had a log cabin hunting lodge built to overlook one of several lakes on the property.

According to Historic Places of Pasco County, it was also in 1933 when J. William Dupree sustained serious injuries in an auto accident. So serious that he was forced to leave his Tampa law practice and even hired an in-home nurse, Wilhelmia Davis, and a house man and chauffeur, Herbert Carrington, to help manage his affairs.

Unable to practice law, Dupree turned his attentions to his 900-acre Pasco County estate where he worked to transform the 25-acres surrounding his lodge into a magnificent garden.

For the next few years, Dupree engaged in planting thousands of flowering trees and plants from all over the world, while taking advantage of the cypress swamps by laying paths and walkways through the lush jungle like setting.

He often invited his Tampa friends and colleagues to partake in the natural planted beauty of his retreat and it was this circle of friends who encouraged Dupree to open his gardens to the public.

With a bit more work, he turned his private garden estate into a popular public attraction. Electric-power boats were added to the newly named Dupree Lake, which fronted his hunting lodge, and he even converted that lodge into a gift shop and restaurant for guests, and added a tea room to the grounds.

Years in the making, it wasn’t until December 1, 1940, when the Dupree Gardens attraction finally opened to the public, well after the start of World War II. The opening events were so prominently marked that the occasion was reported in newspapers across our nation, including the Wall Street Journal.

Dupree then went to work promoting his garden attraction. In 1941, he became a member of the Florida Publicity and Public Relations Association - an enterprising group comprised of men and women devoted to attracting and entertaining tourists or who represented firms interested in the welfare and advancement of tourism in Florida.

He also advertised his attraction in newspapers throughout the state. One such ad appeared in Drew Field Echoes to attract the enlisted stationed at Drew Field in Tampa.

Deemed as the “Blossom Center of Florida,” Dupree’s garden was an immediate success.

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., as many as 30,000 visitors from all over the country came to see the gardens during the annual December 15 to April 15 season - including many servicemen and women.

Along with dozens of other Florida attractions Dupree Gardens was soon added to the lengthy list of AAA approved places to see and before long was receiving regular bus tours.

With the 1942 season rations of gas and tires caused an extensive decrease in the annual visitors to the gardens. According to the Okeechobee News, this was a main topic of discussion among members of the Florida Publicity and Public Relations Association.

At the start of the 1943 season, Dupree made the difficult decision to close the gift shop and restaurant and the electric boats were docked - posted signs read “Closed for the duration.”

While closed to the public, Dupree still maintained his garden and a public interest. On October 3, 1944, camellia blooms from the gardens were placed aboard a Lockheed Lodestar which inaugurated daily direct air service between Tampa and New York.

Meant for auction towards the war effort, the flowers created such a sensation that airline president Ted Baker placed the winning bid by pledging to buy $250,000 in war bonds.

The war finally over, Dupree Gardens reopened to the public in 1946 but never witnessed the visitors it had in years past. Over the next 10 years, Dupree welcomed numerous civic groups and private family gatherings but regular tours eventually waned.

As early as 1951, Dupree started selling portions of his 900-acre estate including property sold to Connor & Sons for use as a cattle ranch and another 400-acres which became the orange grove of T & W Groves.

In 1956, newspapers, such as the Sarasota Herald, still showed Dupree Gardens as an attraction in Pasco County, but this would be one of the last mentions of the gardens in news print.

Soon after, the 25-acres containing the attraction were developed into home sites. A portion was sold to the Island Group who established a small nudist camp on Dupree Lake. A portion went to the development of Dupree Gardens Estates neighborhood.

After the liquidation of his garden property, on May 10, 1959, founder J. William Dupree passed away and was laid to rest at the Myrtle Hill Memorial Cemetery in Tampa.

Today, all that physically remains of his once popular garden attraction are a few subtle features that are often overlooked, including the old ticket booth located on Ehren Cutoff Road, now incorporated into the recent development of the Dupree Lakes subdivision.

Another prominent feature from the garden days is the rustic log lodge, now a privately owned home on Mary Jane Lane. The small lane passing through the heart of the former attraction still bears evidence of the gardens - lined with various planted oaks, palms, cypress, and leafy vines that now seem to grow wild.

Aside from these few features, Dupree’s mark is still evident throughout our community and through such names as Dupree Gardens Estates, Dupree Lake, Dupree Drive, and Mary Jane Lane - the latter the name of his daughter.
The Historic Places of Pasco County - Dupree Gardens
by James J. Horgan, Alice F. Hall, and Edward J. Herrmann (1992)

J. William Dupree, a prominent Tampa attorney with a penchant for gardening, developed a 25-acre "Blossom Center of Florida" on this site, which flourished as a major tourist attraction during World War II.

After injuries sustained in an auto accident kept him from his profession for an extended period, Dupree began to develop an ever-expanding garden on his 900-acre country estate near Ehren. At the encouragement of his friends, he decided to open part of his beauty spot to the public. It would have been hard to find poorer timing for the venture, for it was 1941 and the eve of war.

Dupree Gardens was a feature-rich attraction: the lodge had a gift shop and restaurant, and electric-powered boats skimmed the lake that fronted the lodge. Visitors thronged to see the gardens - as many as 30,000, many of them servicemen and women - from throughout the nation during the annual November 15 to May 1 season.

With America’s growing involvement in World War II, however, Dupree Gardens was affected. Gas and tire rationing restricted tourist traffic. Dupree attempted to organize bus tours from Tampa, but there was not enough business. In compliance with wartime regulations things had to be cut back. In 1943, the kitchen and gift shop were closed, and then the electric boat trips were eliminated. Finally government officials issued a ban on unnecessary private travel and Dupree posted signs reading: "Closed for the Duration."

The gardens did play a role in the inauguration of daily direct air service between Tampa and New York City by National Airlines on October 3, 1944. The 14-passenger Lockheed Lodestar which made the six-hour-and-20-minute trip carried not only a humidor of fine Havana cigars for New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, but also camellia blooms from Dupree Gardens, which were to be auctioned for the war effort. The flowers created a sensation when airline president Ted Baker placed the winning bid for them by pledging to buy $250,000.00 in war bonds.

Florists on Park, Madison, and Fifth Avenues were amazed with the quality of the blossoms, finding it "inconceivable that Florida could offer fully-matured camellias in this season." Newspapers reported that the flowers were displayed on black velvet backgrounds for maximum impact and appropriately credited to Dupree Gardens.

The Dupree Gardens lodge still stands and is the residence of the current owner, Fran Hendrix; the rest of the former estate has been developed into houses. The only external reminder of the once magnificent attraction is the old native-rock ticket booth.