By Erika Webb
At one point during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, there was a three-hour wait to get into The Old Spanish Sugar Mill at DeLeon Springs State Park.
With people visiting from all over the world, it's not surprising.
"They wait that long to cook their own food?" might ask the uninitiated.
"Absolutely" will say anyone who's had the pancake experience.
Owner Patty Schwarze said her family has owned the waterside restaurant in the park since 1961.
"It's really not that busy today," she said on New Year's Day, as one young man wielding a fishing pole tried to squeeze between well-occupied tables to sit with his large party.
All things being relative.
"It was busier last week and now it will slow down a little bit until (Speed Weeks) and Bike Week," Ms. Schwarze said.
Fall and the early morning hours are quietest at the park and restaurant, which is open every day except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"If they come at eight when we open on weekends and holidays or at nine when we open during the week, it's the quieter time of day this time of year," Ms. Schwarze said. "Fall is also a quiet time in state parks, a good time to visit. All parks are quieter."
Once holiday travelers return home, the customer demographics change, she explained.
"Rather than lots from out of town now, we have lots of retirees spending a portion of their winter in Florida and making it part of their outings with friends to come to the park and the restaurant," she explained.
As Ms. Schwarze predicted, the start of the three-day, for many, Martin Luther King Jr., holiday weekend saw the restaurant packed with locals and out-of-towners.
Cars in the parking lot had license plates from New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, Maine, North Carolina and various counties of Florida.
Dave and Marilyn Wood of Himrod, N.Y., spend their winters in Cocoa Beach. They sat at a corner table with a view of the water while enjoying warmth from a constantly-stoked fire in the brick fireplace.
"Himrod is in the Finger Lakes," Mr. Wood said. "It's smaller than here by all means."
It was their first visit to the Sugar Mill.
"A friend from New York told us about it. A friend of theirs' here told them about it," Mr. Wood said, adding, "We're enjoying it very much."
Mrs. Wood nodded in agreement.
Before they left, the Woods struck up a lively conversation with Elizabeth and Adeel Bukhari who were seated at the table next to them.
Since both couples were visiting from New York, they discussed how they were happy to be thawing out in the Sunshine State.
The Bukharis were celebrating their 11th wedding anniversary over pancakes. Mrs. Bukhari, who is from DeLand, said they travel to Volusia each year from New York City where they live and work in the fashion photography industry. They always make it a point to visit the Sugar Mill.
"We got pancake mixes here to give to guests at our wedding," Mrs. Bukhari recalled. "We tried to give out of town guests different things from around town."
"We have two packages left and we're saving them," she added.
The construction date of the old mill is the subject of debate, according to www.planetdeland.com/sugarmill.
A chimney original to the site displays a DAR plaque with the year 1570 affixed to it, but Florida historians and archaeologists have stated evidence suggests the sugar mill was built in the 1800s.
What is known is that it was used to crush sugar cane under power of the 16 to 18 million gallons of water flowing from the spring daily. The mill's 100-foot undershot, or steam, water wheel serves as the focal point of many photographs these days.
The mill was destroyed during the Second Seminole War (1835-42) and again during the fighting of the Civil War when the mill was being used to grind corn for the confederate troops, according to the website, and was scheduled for destruction again in 1961.
Ms. Schwarze's father, Peter, was a fifth generation grist miller who, after discovering a treasure in the old mill, arranged to lease it and relocated to Florida from Ohio with his wife, Marjorie, and young daughter, Patty.
He restored the building, creating a gristmill of his own design -- an electrically powered adjustable under runner mill with small French buhr stones -- and began grinding flour there.
The restaurant and bakery, featured "the perfect setting," put his flour to good use, the website states.
Ms. Schwarze took over the restaurant in 1980. She never planned to.
"It was a great place to grow up," Ms. Schwarze said. "I didn't work here at all. I just hung out and played. I didn't grow up with any intention of working here, nor was I expected to. The further away I got, the more I realized what a unique place it is, just the most remarkable spot on the planet."
Only recently she started buying stone-ground wheat, rye and corn.
"We ground until about five or six years ago," she said. "With the big ethanol push, we couldn't get grain. Farmers were growing fuel-producing corn so we started buying from other sources."
The greenest lettuce leaves, nearly as big as plates, ripe red, juicy tomatoes and fresh crunchy cucumbers invite the inquiry: Who grows this stuff?
It all comes from Ernie's Produce in DeLand.
"He treats us very well," Ms. Schwarze said. "We try so hard to support local. It's always been that way."
The bacon, however, comes from Wisconsin. It draws raves from customers who tend to order extra.
"A purveyor helped us find it. We kept asking for better bacon, better bacon and he helped us find it," Ms. Schwarze said.
Each table is equipped with a griddle and customers receive pitchers of homemade pancake batter (both a stone ground mixture of five different flours and an unbleached white) to pour onto the griddle for pancakes.
Blueberries, bananas, peanut butter, pecans, chocolate chips, apples or apple sauce may be ordered to customize. Also available are sausage, bacon, ham, eggs, homemade breads and an assortment of other treats to accompany the pancakes.
Breakfast and other menu options are served until 4 p.m. daily. The restaurant and gift shop, which features handcrafted jewelry and a wide variety of souvenirs, close at 5.
Post meal calorie burning and sightseeing opportunities also are provided. Canoe, kayak, boat and spring pool tubes are available for rent at the Sugar Mill.
The Sugar Mill's loyal following pleases Ms. Schwarze, who said generations of families maintain traditions visiting the griddle house for holidays and other special occasions. She's amazed and touched that her labor of love is equally appreciated by locals and out-of-town visitors.
"It's ironic, but when you operate a business like this, and it's going well and people are just so delighted to be here and you're providing an income for so many families, it's a great feeling," she said.