Flourishing in Winter Park, amid homes, businesses and academic environments, is Mead Botanical Garden. This garden, dedicated in 1940, began as about 50 acres of upland hammocks and lower wetlands, with streams, lakes and ponds.
Theodore L. Mead is a world-renowned horticulturist who grew orchids and developed new varieties of caladiums, rare ferns, bromeliads, and other plants. After his death in 1936, two of his friends, Jack Connery, who T.L. Mead had met as an Eagle Scout, and Dr. Edwin Grover, philanthropist, civic leader and Professor of Books at Rollins College, sought a location not only to house Mead’s orchids, but also to develop a botanical garden in his name and memory. A sizable area bordering Pennsylvania Avenue, in which Howell Creek connects Lake Sue and Lake Virginia, seemed ideal. This lush habitat hosted an abundance of wildlife, including herons and egrets nesting around Lake Lillian, as well as small waterfalls created by a nine-foot drop between the two lakes in this pristine, wild expanse.
The community wasted no time in expressing approval of Mr. Connery’s and Dr. Grover’s endeavor. Donations of land collectively comprising the park’s acreage were made by the following individuals: Senator Walter Rose, Winter Park Mayer James Treat, Mr. and Mrs R.F. Leedy, and Mary Bartels. Orange County donated an unused clay pit, an abandoned Winter Park city property. Building the park began with a $62,170 Works Progress Administration project grant for labor.
Howell Creek was deepened and widened, and the wetland was drained, making it possible to cut three miles of trails, and to plant the beautiful azaleas we still enjoy today. Projects included leveling high ground to plant grass and designating a nursery area to supply future plantings of caladiums, cherries, azaleas and original plant collections from Mead.
Cabbage palms provided the first fence posts and logs for the two gatehouses. Two greenhouses were added for Mr. Mead’s extensive orchid collection and buildings for the garden superintendents and caretakers were built.
January 14, 1940 marked the dedication of the new Mead Botanical Garden. Many senators and representatives, including Senator Walter Rose of the Florida Legislature, attended. Dr. Grover, President of the Garden and Master of Ceremonies, honored numerous volunteers, including Winter Park Garden Club President Mrs. Raymond Stevens and Florida Federation of Garden Clubs President Mrs. Henry M. Griffin. Dr. Hamilton Holt, then President of Rollins College, also participated in the ceremonies. The garden’s gala opening drew a large crowd and hearty welcome. Flower shows and other outdoor events soon followed.
On March 31, 1953, the garden was given to the City of Winter Park with the continuing deed restriction that it be maintained as a botanical garden.
The Winter Park Garden Club has been meeting in the Garden for over 50 years. Members continued volunteer efforts, leading to the construction of a beautiful outdoor amphitheater, built in the shade of towering oak trees, and dedicated in 1959. This outdoor theater became the site for fashion shows, weddings and other social events, including a series of concerts conducted by the Florida Symphony Orchestra in 1967.
In 1977, Orange County Public Schools and the Junior League instituted an environmental awareness program for sixth graders (eventually fifth graders). The children followed the trails and learned through hands-on experience about the plants and wild animals of Mead Garden. This program continued until 2009, with over 5,000 public school students coming through the garden each year. The program was one of the last painful cuts in the Public School budget.
Other groups also sought this relationship with the unique natural setting in Mead Botanical Garden. Rotary, Boy and Girl Scouts and the Youth Conservation Corps have assisted with community activities to clean and restore the garden. The Youth Conservation Corps constructed a floating boardwalk through the marsh and helped rebuild the greenhouse.
In 1982, City of Winter Park crews began work to maintain the garden. Two years later, the Red Pepper Garden Club installed a large billboard map with directions for visitors. These efforts were not enough however, and by 1988, Mead Garden had fallen into disrepair. Winter Park residents organized to restore their park, and Mayor David Johnston appointed a fifteen-member Mead Garden task force. The Orlando Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects assisted the group with a master plan to revitalize the garden. The plan provided for the needs of the park, including beautification, upkeep, conservation and management.
The Mead Garden Preservation Association, Inc. was formed in 1991 to continue the work of the task force. In 1993, two new boardwalks were built, followed by bike and walking paths. Other improvements included parking, re-bricking the road entrance, fencing, picnic tables, new restrooms, and shelter.
In 2003, the Friends of Mead Garden formed a new partnership with the city to focus on restoring and enhancing the garden. Building upon the past, and responding to a renewed civic awareness of environmental issues, the group, led by Beverly Lassiter, Linda Keen and Carol Hille, took a new look at possibilities in the green haven that is called Mead Garden.
After an extensive master plan development process, the plan by PBS&J was accepted in 2007. The Friends of Mead Garden sponsored the first Duck Derby that same year. The Ducks havereturned every year since 2009 for re-runs (or re-swims), much to the delight of hundreds of families.
Presently, the City of Winter Park’s Parks and Recreation Department maintains Mead Garden on a day-to-day basis. However, many individuals (notably Alice Mikkleson and Rene Kelley), volunteer organizations such as the Florida Native Plant Society, Winter Park Rotary, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, The Geneva School, various church groups and the Winter Park Garden Club have participated in cleanup workdays and special projects for garden enhancements.
In 2008, the City decided to move the city maintenance facilities out of the garden. Funded in 2009, the work to move out was completed in 2011, and the maintenance building was repurposed as the Discovery Barn. That same year saw the beginning of the Young Naturalist Summer Camp program and the revitalization of the Greenhouse and Legacy Garden. In 2012, The Grove Performance Pavilion opened with a holiday concert by the Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra. Future plans for the Garden include the clean-up of Alice’s Pond and the restoration of Lake Lillian and its surrounding wetlands.