By Erika Webb
Take a paralegal with a penchant for old stuff, such as a "Hitchcock phone." Try to squelch her curiosity. Threaten to pave over history.
She won't be daunted. She'll write a book.
Sandra Walters and her husband, Roy, moved to Stone Island in unincorporated Enterprise in 2001. They were tired of the crowds, congestion and concrete in Orlando. They wanted to live on the water and keep their boat easily accessible.
What happened hearkens fond memories of Nancy Drew mystery books.
Only this was real.
Ms. Walters, who said she doesn't particularly like mysteries, traveled along Lakeshore Drive on her way to and from Interstate 4 during the time her home was being built.
Her attention was drawn to a piece of property thick with "old Florida" shrubs, live oaks, magnolia and cypress trees that had been there for centuries. She saw a structure back there, too.
"I saw this old, ratty-looking thing back there," she said "Old houses have always intrigued me."
So she poked around on the property, wondering why, who and how.
The Story of Thornby, "a non-fiction account of local history and politics," is what came out of Ms. Walters' excursion onto that tangled, rundown property situated on the shores of Lake Monroe.
But she didn't merely sit down at her computer and explore history. She became part of it.
And any good historic account includes battles.
In 2000, concerned residents of Enterprise formed a non-profit preservation group and called it The Enterprise Preservation Society.
Their concerns stemmed from rapid development happening all around their small community. They didn't want strip malls, parking lots and condominiums erasing the area's rich history.
Established in 1841, Enterprise, like most river-bank villages in the steamboat era, was once a boomtown itself.
But its roots go even deeper.
University of Florida researchers have found evidence of a native settlement along the lake 6,200 years before present time, according to the website, oldenterprise.org.
Ms. Walters said the grassroots group, Friends of Thornby, organized in 2001, "sprang out of the Enterprise Preservation Society," which she said, "can't get too political because it's a registered non-profit."
She and others had figured out things were destined to get political.
By then Ms. Walters had explored the 40 acres of pristine woodlands and wetlands, 1,000 feet of which stretched along the lakefront. She had seen the Notice of Public Hearing sign portending a change in land use, from residential to commercial, and she had talked to people in the area. One had spent time at Thornby as a child. Another revealed an Indian midden remained there. Someone else told her there was a bald eagle's nest on the property.
Her lengthy career as a paralegal taught her facts, not emotions, lead to effective rulings. In the group's view, an effective ruling would be to preserve nature and history.
"It helped to understand how facts are all important," Ms. Walters said.
The ensuing nine-year battle with local governments, including Volusia County and the City of Deltona, started with 13 people, not one of who had ever gone toe-to-toe with officials over anything like this.
"You see articles about how this group's fighting this and that group's fighting that. We were learning along the way," Ms. Walters said. "Except for the planners who helped along the way, we were really seat of the pants."
Thornby was at one time owned by a wealthy doctor from New York. The modest house and surrounding land were a winter refuge for his family. Eventually it became the home of Doris Faber, a caretaker for the doctor's wife.
Talking to Ms. Walters, one gets the impression that Ms. Faber's memory compelled the group to fight nearly as much as the stoic trees had.
Ms. Walters said Doris Faber became a local legend as she kept house at Thornby. She was tasked with getting it ready for the family when they wanted to visit. That left a lot of unattended hours in between.
"She wasn't a saint but she was a down-home, good-old-girl, very religious and always cooked on a wood-stove," Ms. Walters said. "She had a daycare, a petting zoo and informally adopted one or two children to live there with her."
Following Ms. Faber's death in 1989, Ms. Walters said the Thornby heirs decided it was time to do what they wanted to do.
What they wanted to do was annex the land into Deltona for development -- condos, a shopping center and other brick and mortar moneymakers.
The details are in the book, but the group did endless homework and attended countless meetings.
Both council and commission were repeatedly divided, but the Friends of Thornby managed to gain a majority ruling for preservation in the end.
"I was in the fight, and there was so much paperwork involved with saving Thornby and having it be what it is today," Ms. Walters said.
Nothing about the book-writing process was fun, she said, until the end when she felt "relief."
The book, now in its third printing, is available at area book stores, including Family Book Shop and The Muse in DeLand as well as at the West Volusia Historical Society and online at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and thestoryofthornby.com.
Ms. Walters has done presentations for the Daughters of the American Revolution, West Volusia Historical Society, American Businesswomen's Association and she's been invited to be part of the Lake Helen Author's Fair March 9.
"If I had just said, oh, nice park, and walked away it would've nagged at me forever that I didn't tell the story of what we did," she said. "I always thought I'd like to be a writer. Thornby got me to do that."
So, like any good story the book has villains and heroes. It has arson. It has hurricanes, "political chicanery" and even "nasty T-shirts." Also, like any good story, it has a happy ending. Ms. Walters said she has even found a soft spot in her heart for one elected official in particular, sort of.
Another hallmark of a good read are lessons we carry away. The Story of Thornby contains tips for other groups who seek to preserve, in addition to grander lessons about working through opposition and listening. Sometimes, when we really listen, we learn from things we deem disposable, like trees and voices of the past, as they echo through people who aren't ready to let them go.
"I wrote this book because so many people see and enjoy Thornby Park, who don't know how it came to be there," Ms. Walters said. "I wanted people to understand how it's there and what it took. Every time I drive by that park I think, I can't believe we did this."