Thursday, March 7, 2019

Sara Whitner of Fort Reid

Sara Whitner of Fort Reid

150,000! That’s the best-guess estimate of the current number of Metro-Orlando hotel rooms, second only, so they say, to Las Vegas, NV. Scattered from Sanford in the north to Kissimmee in the south, central Florida’s hospitality industry is indeed massive. And of all these many rooms, have you ever wondered: “where were the first hotel rooms?” Fact is, there’s no better time to find the answer to this question than during Women’s History Month! Two women established the first-ever free standing hotel south of Lake Monroe – or to define more specifically today – Metro Disney World!

Sarah Jane (Church) Whitner (1820-1881)
Portrait courtesy Whitner-Chase families of Sanford, FL

Fact is, if you are even a tad-bit curious about where the first central Florida hotel rooms might have been located, or what exactly that first hotel has to do with Women’s History Month, you cannot say that you don’t like history.

One or two boarding houses (aka Airbnb’s of today), existed prior to 1869. The first-ever “free standing hotel” hotel was constructed in Orange County at the small want-to-be town of FORT REID, a village founded circa 1856 about a mile east of Sanford, FL of today. Two decades had to pass before Sanford would come on the scene, and two more before the town of Sanford swallowed up the village of Fort Reid.

Neither Lake, Osceola nor Seminole Counties existed when the first hotel opened at Fort Reid (County lines of today need to be completely ignored to appreciate the first days of central Florida). Fort Reid’s hotel was truly historic in its day, for it was designed, conceived and managed by two women during a time in history when females were discouraged from entering the business world.

Central Florida’s hospitality industry was founded in 1869 by two extraordinary women! Few 19th century central Florida occurrences are as easy to prove as the statement you just now read. But rather than take my word for it, read the following quote from a deed recorded in Orange County on the 26th day of November, 1869: “Benjamin F. Whitner, as Trustee for his wife Sarah J. Whitner and for Mary Ellen Randolph, wife of William M. Randolph of New Orleans in the State of Louisiana, have formed a co-partnership for the purpose of creating, furnishing and conducting on the premises hereinafter described a Hotel to be known as the Alaha Chaco or Orange House Hotel.

The agreement went on to specify the hotel’s location, a 43 acre parcel known then as “Woodruff Place.”  Historic Woodruff Place, together with the survey points mentioned in the deed, places the 43 acre orange grove and hotel at what is today the south side of 25th St. at Mellonville Avenue. The 1838 Fort Mellon to Fort Gatlin Road is today Mellonville Avenue.  The Orange House property bordered Mellonville Avenue to the east, Sanford & Indian River Railroad’s track on the west (still existing today), and the present day Orlando-Sanford Airport on the south.

When the Orange House Hotel opened in 1869, the main north-south artery for most points south of Lake Monroe was a dirt trail, Mellonville Avenue, which reached all the way south to Orlando, where it became Main Street through the village, and then continued south to Fort Gatlin and Kissimmee.

“ALAHA CHACO Hotel:” said a headline of a Florida Peninsular newspaper article dated March 5, 1870, played host to a group of individuals planning to build a railroad from Mellonville to Tampa, an idea whose time had not yet come as of 1870. Fort Reid was to be a major Orange County town in 1870, but Henry Sanford’s nearby town would soon mean that the Orange House Hotel was located on the wrong road to Orlando.

A second road south to Orlando would move further west, to pass through new towns of Longwood and Snowville (Altamonte). As a result, fewer and fewer travelers passed through Mellonville and Fort Reid. Alaha Chaco’s pending fate was reported in a Will Wallace Harney article of September, 1876: “Orange House at Fort Reid, a large, commodious hotel built by the late Judge Randolph, was sold in settlement of the estate.”

Historians have written a lot through the years about Mary Ellen (Pitts) Randolph, wife of the celebrated lawyer from New Orleans, William M. Randolph, and of the Orange House Hotel for which William Randolph is said to have built. But my blog today will spotlight Mary’s partner, Sarah Jane (Church) Whitner, a lady who tended to stay below the media’s radar, yet a remarkable frontierswomen worthy of mention.
Before I get others in an uproar, I should clarify: The property upon which the hotel was built was acquired by Matthew R. Marks, William M. Randolph, and Benjamin F. Whitner. The wives of Randolph and Whitner established the hotel on that property.


“His daughters were famous for their beauty and their kindness,” says a family history of the daughters of Dr. Alonzo & Sarah Jane (Tripp) Church. And one of their beautiful daughters, Sarah Jane (Church), was born October 21, 1820 at Athens, GA. At the time of Sarah’s birth her father, Reverend Dr. Alonzo Church, was President of Franklin College (now University of Georgia).

Daughter Sarah married Benjamin F. Whitner II on the 7th of January, 1840 at Athens, GA. Two years later, Benjamin Whitner II arrived at central Florida to begin mapping a total of 540 square miles of Mosquito County, land that is today South Orange County. While Benjamin was in central Florida surveying, Sarah was living on the old Whitner homestead at Madison, Florida. But during the 1850s, her husband also began to buy land in Orange County.

Then came the Civil War and a touching sympathy letter written by Sarah (Church) Whitner. Dated May 27, 1864 at “Prairie Acre,” Florida, her letter was addressed to Mary Martha (Smith) Reid at Richmond, Virginia. In her letter, Sarah extended her heartfelt condolences for the loss of Mary’s son, Raymond J. Reid, who died May 7th of injuries he had incurred in the war.

Benjamin F. Whitner III served alongside Mary Reid’s son in Virginia. Sara’s son had enlisted in Florida’s 8th Infantry, one Florida unit that suffered terribly during the war. (As stated in my book, CitrusLAND: Curse of Florida’s Paradise, “At least 5,000 Florida soldiers were dead by the spring of 1865 as a result of campaigning.”)

Mary Martha Reid had been a Floridian, but she went to Virginia to be near her son, a Florida Infantryman in the Civil War. Mary was instrumental in founding a Florida hospital at Virginia for treating and caring for the sons of Florida wounded in the War. A widow, Mary Martha Reid had been married to Territorial Governor Robert R. Reid, the very man Fort Reid of Orange County, now Seminole County, had been named for.

Nearly a year after Sarah (Church) Whitner wrote that letter of sympathy to Mary Reid in Virginia, her son Benjamin III, was captured at Virginia’s Sailors Creek, remaining a prisoner until War’s end.

Sarah's son, Benjamin F. Whitner III, was allowed to return home to Florida in May of 1865. By May 1870, Sarah Jane (Church) Whitner was co-managing the Orange House Hotel at Fort Reid, the town built around the 1840s fortress Reid, an Army encampment named for the husband of Mary Martha Reid. (Orlando, FL of 1870 was still a 4 acre courthouse village, surrounded by 113 acres owned by Robert R. Reid, half-brother of the then deceased son of Mary Martha Reid.)

Sarah (Church) Whitner laid to rest her husband of 41 years in 1881. At the time of his death, Surveyor Benjamin F. Whitner was a resident of Silver Lake, southeast of Fort Reid. Sarah survived her husband by nine years, being laid to rest beside her husband on December 13, 1890.

Orange House Hotel had been closed near 15 years by the time of Sarah’s death, but the 43 acre historic orange grove was still worked by the Randolph family. The land served too as the personal residence of Benjamin M. & Fannie (Randolph) Robinson. Florida’s great freeze of 1894-94 wiped out the nearly 50 year old grove. Fire soon after destroyed the quarter-century old abandoned hotel. Fort Reid’s history became disarrayed, with historians convinced the place was Fort Reed. The real history of Fort Reid blurred.

1890 Fort Reid (Reed). Orange House was at top, residence in 1890 of B. M. Robinson; B. F. Whitner III residence at bottom near Silver Lake. (1887 SFRR Brochure: “The Orange House, now the residence of B. M. Robinson, stands on the site, surrounded by a noble orange grove. The building was constructed in 1870 and was the first hotel south of Palatka.”)

Sarah Jane (Church) Whitner however had accomplished what was likely the one thing most important of all to her – a proud central Florida family that endured the test of time. And while they may think of themselves as Sanford folk, the real Church-Whitner central Florida heritage is centered on a fortress, rescued by a soldier who stayed, built a town named for the fortress, and watched as a new neighbor from the Panhandle built the first free standing hotel in all of today’s Orange, Osceola and Seminole Counties.

Whitner’s Silver Lake is one of 303 historic lakes profiled in my latest book, as is nearby Lake Onoro – or some today might argue – Lake Onora!

ORLANDO LAKES: Homesteaders & Namesakes, an encyclopedia of central Florida lakes. From Eustis to Sanford and Kissimmee, all roads of long, long ago led to Orlando!

Now available at Winter Garden Heritage Foundation and I invite you to check out ORLANDO LAKES: Homesteaders & Namesakes. You can do so simply by clicking on the convenient link below:

NEXT FRIDAY: The Extraordinary Lavinia of Orlando
CitrusLANDFL is celebrating central Florida’s amazing women during

Want to know more?
CitrusLAND: Curse of Florida’s Paradise (2016)
First Road to Orlando (2015)
Beyond Gatlin: A History of South Orange County (2017)

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