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Now browsing: Hometown News > News > Volusia County

Historical Society's Conrad Center is West Volusia history vault
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Posted: 2014 Aug 15 - 06:11

By Erika Webb

Do you ever just want to get lost?

If you've had enough of the beach, the rain, the heat and humidity or even those precious children who have more weeks of freedom than parents have energy, step away and take a trip back through time.

The Robert M. Conrad Research and Educational Center next to The Henry A. DeLand House Museum at 137 W. Michigan Ave. in DeLand is a treasure trove and trail to the roots of life in West Volusia County.

Cool, quiet and peaceful, the spacious center is an escape route from the daily grind. It's also incredibly entertaining.

Indexes containing cemetery information, birth, death and marriage certificates -- even detailed historical information on the area's churches fill the shelves.

A little known fact: the 1917 DeLand telephone book contained four pages.

On the front, W.D. Haynes Grocery advertised its new telephone number -- 400.

In the 1911 DeLand Directory, containing local business advertisements, First National Bank of DeLand proudly proclaimed its status as "the only national bank in Volusia County."

DeLand Electric, Power and Ice Co. advertised its offerings: "Lights Ice Power."

Dreka's Department Store noted its establishment year -- 1878, and promised: "Everything to Eat to Wear to Use."

Isn't this fun?

In 1973, the year the West Volusia Historical Society was founded, DeLand historian and author Louise Caccamise won the Volunteer of the Year award for setting up the archives upstairs in the DeLand House.

"We had these books scattered literally all over the place in the DeLand House," she said. "They were on shelves, the floor ... anyplace you might look you might find a book."

The retired librarian just couldn't abide that state of things.

"Looking back ... I don't remember, but I think I must have volunteered," she said, laughing.

In 1997 Hawtense Conrad, who is known for giving, giving and more giving, donated the funds for the new building to house the area's heirlooms.

"They were so generous," Ms. Caccamise said of the late Mr. and Mrs. Conrad.

Ms. Caccamise has organized all reading material and notebooks filled with photos using -- what else -- the Dewey Decimal System.

"There has been steady use of (the center) over the years," she said, "by people interested in DeLand, the history of it."

As part of the state's Viva Florida 500 celebration, Volusia County commissioned Eric Dusenbery of Cinderic Documentaries of DeLand to curate and document some of the aspects of Volusia waters through photography and oral history narratives.

"Volusia Waterways -- The Current of Change" has been on display in the Ocean Center's ECHO Gallery Beach since last year.

Mr. Dusenbery, now the museum's office manager, said he spent days in the Conrad Center researching in order to produce the exhibit.

"I used the resources here with the St. Johns riverboats, steamboats, anything to do with waterway transportation," he said.

WVHS DeLand House Museum Administrative Assistant Diane Kelso greets a variety of individuals who pass through the center's door.

"We have professors and students coming in," Ms. Kelso said. "And people on the museum tours come in."

"They get brochures to other parts of the area that we have here for tourists," she added, pointing to a large display behind her desk.

DeLand High School yearbooks, ranging in year from 1924 to 2008, also line the shelves.

Another little known fact: The Microbe Club was the first science club at DHS. Some of its members are pictured in the 1925 yearbook.

Stetson University's yearbook, The Hatter, is available for viewing as well; years range from 1929 to 2001.

Ms. Caccamise said there are several yearbooks from Southwestern Middle School. She pulled another one from the shelf -- The Knight, 1958. It was the yearbook for the Florida Military School, which was near the DeLand Airport.

"Locals tracing families come in and want to see the yearbooks," she said. "They ask a variety of questions."

There is a collection of books by former Stetson President Lincoln Hulley, for whom the old bell tower was named.

"When I was a student at Stetson I used to hear that chime and it was so beautiful," Ms. Caccamise recalled.

Next she pulled The Brock House Hotel register from the shelf. Handwritten inside were the names of many guests who stayed at the hotel in Enterprise on the St. Johns River between the years of 1876 and 1909.

Among them scrawled: "W.M. Rockefeller and wife ... Pa."

The town is difficult to discern. The year appears to be 1909, but "the" Bill Rockefeller died in 1906, according to a PBS timeline. That lingering question is one example of the many curiosities that might detain a person in the center for hours.

As Ms. Caccamise worked her way through the area's history, trying to organize it, she happened upon the handwritten minutes from meetings of a group of early settlers who met once each year in different homes.

Those, she deciphered and compiled in a book, The Minutes and Memorials of the Old Settlers of DeLand, Florida 1882-1926.

She is a patient soul.

There is a genealogy section of "families in DeLand as far back as they go," she said.

"We're not primarily genealogy but with the materials we have we can help people with genealogy," she explained. "That's the beauty of it."

The center has a large section on Florida history, Volusia County history and biographies of the area's earlier contributors as well as information on all local cities, towns, communities and sites.

"Most anything you name, we have one," Ms. Caccamise said of the area's books.

WVHS Vice President Mary Lou Peffer and Jackie Kersh, former chair of the Society's Old Building Restoration Workshops are spearheading an effort to reinstate the program, interviewing new people to further preserve history.

The docent-led, hour-long tours cost $5 but entry to the center for students, researchers and curiosity seekers is free.

Just be sure not to get too lost in time and dial 77 the next time your power is out. That number has long-since changed.

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