Updated: Oct 26
When the Harlan Hotel burned, everyone blamed the Halloween Boys for the fire. One year, the pranksters put a wagon on John McGill’s roof. Another year they locked a mule inside the old jail and filled the lock with resin. It was tradition to hide in the bushes near Blake Baptist Church and blow a siren until Preacher Holland came running out in his underwear to investigate. People said this time, they had gone too far, but according to witnesses on Halloween night, 1921, the boys had nothing to do with it. They were behind the Lake Helen bank, planning their tricks when someone yelled that the water tower behind the hotel was on fire. People tried to get ropes to pull the tower away from the hotel, but it was too late. The water tower collapsed onto the hotel roof, and Lake Helen residents could only watch as their beloved hotel was shallowed by flames.
When Henry DeLand first set eyes on the lake which would later be named for his daughter Helen, he saw potential for a picturesque town among the untouched waters and pines of Volusia County. A community of charming homes and orange groves around a lake for those who wanted to get away from the busy streets of DeLand's booming population. On Thanksgiving Day 1884, The Harlan House Hotel, (named for DeLand's son) a two-story lakefront establishment, opened its doors. The hotel attracted tourists from all over the country and became the buzzing social center of the community. There were card parties, dances, and masquerade balls. They played tennis, croquet, and rode horses. Boating and picnicking around the lake was a popular pastime. The hotel was always booked, forcing overflow into local boarding houses. Visitors slept in hallways and on top of pool tables when no rooms were available.
In 1886, the DeLeon Springs Courier ran a story about the editor’s visit to Lake Helen. 'We secured one of Charles Miller's best turnouts. The route took us out New York Avenue and it took only one hour to get to the great hotel.' The headline on this story read: 'The Gem City of Volusia.' This later lead to Lake Helen’s nickname, “The Gem of Florida”
In 1887, the railroad finally reached Lake Helen. In her book, Story of DeLand and Lake Helen Florida, Helen DeLand recalls her father’s buoyant display when he set his foot upon the rail line, removed his hat, and swung it through the air, yelling “Hurrah! Hurrah!”
But ultimately, it may have been the railroad that led to the downfall of the hotel. In 1895, Flagler’s rail line stretched across Florida and down to West Palm Beach, giving tourists easier access to his massive, gilded age resort, the Royal Poinciana Hotel. With more exotic locations open to northern visitors, business at smaller hotels like the Harlan began to decline. By 1920, the hotel didn’t have enough bookings to open for the season, and by 1921, it has burned.
“Things had a way of catching fire for the insurance money back then,” said Lewis Long, former Vice Mayor of Lake Helen and lifelong resident. He recalls his mother telling him how they watched the hotel burn from their front porch on Euclid Avenue. “Sure, they’d conduct investigations, but how could you prove it was arson back then? The insurance companies just had to pay out.”
The Harlan fire marked the beginning of rough times for Lake Helen. In the years that followed, the Great Depression saw the closing of the Lake Helen Bank and the Cassadaga Spiritual Camp lost its newly built hotel to tax collectors. Soon the area faded from the map as a tourist destination and was largely forgotten.
Today, Lake Helen and Cassadaga belong to a small group of communities still described as “Old Florida”. One could say they were spared from the tentacles of Flagler’s progress and industry. When other communities continued to grow and build, Lake Helen and Cassadaga remained frozen in time.
“On Halloween night you will still see large groups of children down every road; dressed in costumes, laughing and skipping from house to house. It’s the holidays that really showcase why Lake Helen is so special,” said Lake Helen City Commissioner Heather Rutledge, “We are a community that comes together in good times and bad and that’s never going to change.”
On October 18th the GEMs in Lake Helen sponsored a talk on the history and burning of the hotel. For more information, please visit the Lake Helen Historical Society's two museums in city hall and the GEM Station.
Special thank you to Marcalee Parrish for research help.
DeLand, Helen., (1928). Story of DeLand and Lake Helen Florida. Louis H. Waldon.
French, L., & Ste. Claire, D. (2018). Grand Hotels of West Volusia County. Arcadia Publishing.
Schneider, D., & Blackman, E. L. (2007). Lake Helen, the gem of Florida: The first 100 Years. Lake Helen League for Better Living.