Updated: Oct 31, 2022
DeBary Hall in the 1890’s (Florida Memory Image Number N044348)
If you were to take a drive down Dirksen Drive in DeBary Florida, you would find a quiet winding road flanked by large oaks. The surrounding neighborhood is filled with ranch style homes common in Florida and certainly nothing unusual for this part of Volusia County.
Unless you happen to spot the inconspicuous sign directing you down Mansion Boulevard, where a road lined with old fashioned streetlamps leads to a grand plantation house set high on a hill. It's a sight so out of place you are instantly transported to a time when steamboats ruled the St. Johns and fortunes were gained and lost with the changing tide.
Walk up the front steps, and you might never guess how the story behind this house fits into the long memory of Volusia County or how tragic it is to tell.
DeBary Hall was built in 1871 by Frederick de Bary, a wine importer for Mumms Champagne. He purchased land on high ground overlooking the north shore of Lake Monroe. This area was located in Enterprise, the County of seat of Volusia at the time. The previous owner was Elijah Watson, who sold the land to Oliver and Amanda Arnett… who, in turn, sold the land to de Bary.
Drawing of DeBary Hall, 1885 — Florida Memory Image Number RC10551
In its day this grand estate had some of the most modern amenities along the St. Johns River. The extravagant 8,000 square foot home included an elevator, running water, wall-fed electricity and a wired call system. It also boasted a lightning protection system that covered the roof.
DeBary Hall was a winter home and hunting lodge for the de Bary family and friends. Frederick was known as tremendous host and spared no expense for the comfort of his guests. He even added extra rooms to the house to accommodate more party goers with ease. Some of his famous visitors included Presidents Grant and Cleveland, European royalty and General William Tecumseh Sherman.
Always an entrepreneur, de Bary purchased large tracts of land along Lake Monroe. This also included an area known as ‘Old Enterprise’, where a large shell midden once existed. The Grove’s Orange Midden or the “Enterprise Midden,” was one of many along the St. Johns River. These discarded food piles contained the shell remains of Paleo-Indians who inhabited Florida thousands of years ago. Yet, research has shown these deposits were much more then discarded food. Ancient Floridians believed shells were sacred gateways to the underworld. Many middens like the one at Old Enterprise functioned as a burial ground for at least part of its history. Unfortunately, the Enterprise Midden was carted off to pave local roads, including the orange groves at DeBary Hall.
In addition to planting oranges de Bary built a packing house and invested in a steamboat line. The successful DeBary Merchants Line ran steamboats from Jacksonville to Enterprise. At the height of its success de Bary had 13 ships making runs along the river.
Post card showing the Fredrick DeBary Steamship on the St. Johns
It seemed his success in Florida was endless. We could imagine him sitting on the balcony at DeBary Hall, sipping tea and looking over the grounds. In his day, the landscape would have included a clear view all the way to Lake Monroe.
View of DeBary grounds from the top balcony of DeBary Hall 1880’s
(Florida Memory Image Number N029051)
In the winter of 1894–95, tragedy struck the state as two hard freezes decimated the Florida citrus industry. The de Bary orange groves were completely destroyed, and he never again attempted to replant. Instead, he re-focused on his steamboats. However, steam boating along the St. Johns was already in decline as the faster railroad made its way through the state.
Frederick de Bary died of a stroke in December 1898. His son (Adolphe) and daughter (Eugenie) inherited his entire fortune and DeBary Hall. Eugenie moved to Germany with her husband Baron Hugo Von Mauch.
Adolphe de Bary took over his father’s importing firm and the DeBary Merchant Line. Sadly, Adolphe outlived all four of his children. When he died 1928, DeBary Hall passed to his grandchildren Leonie de Bary Lyon and Adolphe de Bary Lyon.
Leonie and Adolphe also tragically died young. Adolphe DeBary Lyon graduated in 1935 from Harvard College. On September 19, 1937, he went to a party with a group of friends. As the party left a young woman began to cross a street and did not notice a car driving towards her. Adolphe rushed in front of the car and pushed the young woman out of the way. He was struck and killed instantly. He was only twenty-three years old.
Adolphe's death left Leonie the sole heir of DeBary Hall with her husband, Benjamin Brewster, a childhood friend. Leonie was very fond of DeBary Hall and made renovations to it. She added a tennis court, new flooring, and a larger bathroom with a walk-in shower. Leonie and her husband were also flight enthusiasts and constructed a runway and an airplane hangar on the property.
On May 9, 1941, Leonie and Benjamin planned to fly from Long Island to Philadelphia. The couple ignored poor weather advisories and their plane crashed into the side of a mountain, killing them both. Leonie was thirty-one and had no children.
After the couple’s death there was little interest from remaining family members in Europe to inherit the estate. In 1967 the State of Florida purchased DeBary Hall and leased it over the years to several different organizations. But slowly the hall fell into disrepair and it was eventually abandoned.
For 20 years DeBary Hall sat silent and decaying until finally it was leased to the County of Volusia. A massive restoration project began to bring the hall back to its original splendor. Today DeBary Hall functions a museum and learning center. They offer tours, lecture series, host local and private events.
DeBary Hall as it looks today (From their official website)
DeBary Hall is renowned as being haunted and there are plenty of personal accounts to go around. Don Valente, an area supervisor for Volusia County parks and recreation once claimed to have felt a presence in the house during one of his visits. “Just walking inside has an eeriness to it. One time I went through the house with nobody there, and the doors opened by themselves, or they closed — and I mean slammed. And this was on a calm day.’’
Tour guides for DeBary Hall also tell similar tales of doors opening and closing by themselves. Tales of footsteps on the second floor or ghostly spirits peering out at them from windows.
There are also reports of guests seeing figures walking the grounds dressed in little to no clothing. Perhaps the spirits of ancient Floridians, displaced with the Old Enterprise shell mound?
In his book Haunting Sunshine, Jack Powell recounts a tale from a Canadian writer who once asked permission to spend the night at DeBary Hall. “Although her request was denied she managed to sneak on the grounds to spend the night on the porch. Late that night she woke to a faint vibration within the floor beneath her. A loud moan sounded from within a few feet of her. She turned to look, and saw a ‘pale, fleet movement through the window, gone before I could define it.’”
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, anyone who visits DeBary Hall can attest to the powerful effect the house has on its guests. The estate’s aging memory reminds us of a slower time when fortune and tragedy reined in extremes, and how tightly it holds to a small part of old Florida that is fading away.
You can visit DeBary Hall for a tour 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Contact for rental information by calling: 386–668–3840 or visit their website.
Powell, Jack. Haunting Sunshine. Pineapple Press Inc, 2001. Don’t Believe In Ghosts? A Visit To Debary Hall Could Change Your Mind, By Bo Poertner. The Sentinel Staff, October 24, 1997.