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Astor Florida is located north of Orlando Florida between Silver Springs and Daytona Beach along Highway 40 on the St Johns
River and Lake George. Astor Florida is a small Florida Vacation community, where fishing, boating, & hunting dominate the
activities on the St Johns River. Astor Florida is home to many tourists and Winter visitors for a quiet Florida vacation.

 
Astor Florida History
 

While Exploring the St. John's River in early 1596, Don Pedro Menendez made the following notes into his diary: "We found the third village of the savages on the West bank, halfway between a very big lake and a smaller one farther up stream on a likable spot in the shade of formidable trees. The river seems to be full of goodly fish, and the  forest inhabited by all kinds of birds and beasts, the meat of which is quite tasty."

The royal botanist John Bartram and his son visited the same spot in 1765 to study the flora and the fauna of the St. John's. Upon discovering a trading post named Spalding's Upper Store, they decided to stay several weeks. In his subsequent book "TRAVELS", William Bartram devoted 72 pages to describing the area in vivid and colorful detail, such as "this blessed land where the gods have amassed into one heap all the flowering plants, birds, fish and other wildlife of two continents in order to turn  the rushing streams, the silent lake shores and the awe-abiding woodlands of this mysterious land into a true garden of eden."

This "likable spot of goodly fish", this "garden of Eden" is today called ASTOR and is still here for those who thirst for the unspoiled wilderness. The water of the St. John's rolling relentlessly along the evergreen shores of silent hammocks dotted with dreamy ponds and spellbound creeks are still harboring the famous prize-winning fish, the cautious bobcats, playful otters, clumsy black bears, shy wild turkeys and the rare Florida panthers. The slender osprey is Astor's mascot bird, but standing on the shoreline you can see hundreds of egret's, herons and water turkeys. You can watch the majestic flight of the bald eagle and enjoy flowers of many colors year round.

Surrounded by the huge Ocala National Forest, and settled into the restless onyx-band of our great river, Astor is indeed the precious jewel of Central Florida one has to see just once never to forget it again.

The Presbyterian Church of Astor was formed on September 10, 1916, and the congregation had their early meetings in the schoolhouse.
A foundation for a church building was laid in 1917, but construction was delayed because of a materials shortage caused by World War I.   It was finally dedicated on April 20, 1919. The congregation dissolved in 1950.

A Baptist mission was started in Astor in 1948 by Stetson ministry student, Earl Joiner. The congregation bought the old building in 1953 for $500 and became a separate church in 1963. The present sanctuary was built in 1982.

On the east bank was a fort known as Ft. Barnwell, Ft. Columbia and Ft. Call, near the settlement of Volusia. This was the county seat of Mosquito County from 1824 until 1843. Near here passed the William Bartram Trail, the route taken by the famed naturalist in May and June of 1774 while he classified flora and fauna of the area. Near here was the Volusia Military Cemetery, situated near Forts Volusia and Call. Next to this site was the Methodist Episcopal Church, built with pine poles in 1845 within the enclosure of Fort Call.

Union army veteran E. E. Ropes of Milton, Massachusetts, moved to Florida and served as postmaster of Volusia from 1868 to 1870. He bought this landing and erected a log cabin on it. He served as the first Worshipful Master of the Volusia Lodge #77 in 1874, the oldest Masonic lodge in Volusia County.

Barney Dillard, Sr., came to Salt Springs in 1866, and later moved to Astor with his family. He is reputed to have told stories to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, which she used as the basis of her book, The Yearling. He discovered the early Spanish mission on the east side of the river known as San Salvador de Mayaca built in 1657, and the fort Antonio de Anacape built in 1680.

Dillard also traced the routes of the Spanish trails that covered the state from east to west: One that connected St. Augustine, DeLeon Springs and Titusville, the Black Bear Trail to Pensacola, and the Dragoon Trail south through Lake County.

The Volusia Museum was the property of Lillian Dillard Gibson, local historian and one of fifteen Dillard children who drew lots to determine which portion of the land on the east bank  of the river they would inherit from their father. On hers, she established not only a home but also a museum containing artifacts found in local Indian mounds, early documents and photographs, and memorabilia from pioneer life along the St. Johns River.

 
Astor Florida Old Bridge
 

The first bridge across the St. Johns River was opened in 1926.  At the same time, the road was paved from Ocala to Astor to Barberville. It was a draw bridge with a covered part and a house for a bridge tender on the west bank. The first tender was the former ferry operator, McQueen Johnson.
While he was on duty in the middle of the bridge he was shot in the back, and fell across the very middle of the bridge, with his head in Lake County and his feet in Volusia County. Both counties refused to claim jurisdiction and the murder was never investigated. The new bridge was built in 1978. The bridge house was moved away in 1980.

In 1763, James Spalding and Roger Kelsell established two trading posts on the St. Johns River. Their "upper store" was located in Astor, with the "lower store" south of Palatka. Spalding chose the Astor site because it was at the crossing of three Indian trails coming here from the southwest, west and northwest. The location was also used by several Indian villages for launching their canoes when fishing or hunting parties wanted to explore the river. In 1769, Gov. James Grant promised Spalding to make a town out of his upper store. He didn't keep that promise. In 1774, Indians ransacked the store and the storekeepers fled to Shell Isle. When Spalding closed the store, the chiefs agreed to pay for the damage. By 1776, William Panton was in business with Spalding.
Later, Mr. Forbes succeeded Panton and Mr. Leslie succeeded Spalding in the business. The site was later the location of Fort Butler, a crude log stockade and barracks erected in 1838.  It was designed to protect the river. A post office was established at the fort in 1839. The fort was abandoned in 1843 for health reasons.

William Astor, the grandson of John Jacob Astor, bought 12,905.93 acres on the river from the Moses Levy estate. With his partners, William S. Boyd and Richard McLaughlin, a 12,000-acre town site was laid out and named Manhattan. Lots were 20 acres and square, surrounded by roads on all sides. The downtown section had normal size city lots. Buildings included a nondenominational church, schoolhouse, and free cemetery. William Astor built the Astor Hotel in 1878. It included a post office and Clyde Line steamship agency office. The town was renamed Astor in 1884.

 
Astor House Hotel at Astor Florida
 

William Astor died in April 25, 1892, and John Jacob Astor IV inherited the land. When he died on April 15, 1912, on the Titanic, the land became the property of son William Vincent Astor, who was not interested in it. He sold it in 1916 to the Duluth Land Company and it was marketed largely to
Finnish immigrants in Minnesota.

In 1928, the Astor Hotel burned, and the town declined as a commercial center. Although most sources claim that the Spalding store was located here on the west side of the river, Barney Dillard remembered it as being on the  east side, near the store he bought in 1866. There  is no conclusive evidence supporting either contention.


In 1878, a railroad was built from Astor Landing to Lake Eustis, and Manhattan became a booming town. J. H. Caldwell was the station master. The dock adjoined the railroad depot. The railroad was liquidated in 1931, and the depot was replaced by the Boat House.

Martin Hendrickson, a real estate broker for the Duluth Land Company, and his wife, Saimi, built the Manhattan Hotel here. It was later called the Railroad Hotel. It burned down in 1925.  The town's second landing dock was located up river, next to the packing house. This was the previous location of Moses Levy's sugar processing plant, and before that the
Huertas estate.

In 1819, Moses E. Levy purchased a huge tract of land from Spain. He became a citizen of the U.S. on March 23, 1822, and the U.S. courts recognized his purchases. He established two settlements-Pilgrimage, south of today's Gainesville, and Hope Hill. Levy established plantations at both locations, and cleared a road to connect the two, crossing the Ocklawaha River by ferry at Orange Springs. He had hoped to create a new Israel for the persecuted Jews of Europe.

Here, he raised oranges and indigo, and had a mansion on a hill which later became Astor Park. In 1838, the mansion was burned down by Indians. Moses Levy moved to Virginia, where he died in 1854.


The first permanent residents in this community were William Stokes Boyd, James P. Doss, J. H. Caldwell, and A. L. Smith. Doss had come here in 1882 to manage the Astor estate, and built his two-story frame home here.  It had been modernized in later years and became the home of the Wass de Czege family in 1952.

Lake Schermerhorn was named in 1875 after William Astor's wife, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor.

The Shelley family had their house here, before Mr. Komula built the Forest Tavern. This later became the Forest Tavern.

The cemetery was established in 1885 when William B. Astor donated the land for it. The oldest gravestone is that of H. B. Sanders, who died in 1886. Charles and Anna Gustafson arrived in Astor in 1917 and settled in this house, later owned by son Albert.

A post office was established at Ft. Butler on June 23, 1847, and renamed Volusia on January 2, 1858. In 1923, a development known as National Gardens sprang up, and the post office was renamed that on August 30, 1924. That post office was discontinued on March 31, 1956. The Astor post office moved into this building in 1975, having previously been located in what is now a real estate office, and before that in a corner of the grocery store.


The first school in Astor opened on September 7, 1885. A two-story schoolhouse was built a half block south of here in about 1918 of heart pine, painted white with black trim around the windows. It had two classrooms downstairs and an auditorium upstairs. It served grades one through eight.
The school closed in 1943, and since then children on the west bank are bused to Paisley and Umatilla. The schoolhouse was sold to the Baptists, who utilized it as a mission with Deland ministerial students conducting the services.

ASTOR COMMUNITY CENTER - CONTRIBUTED BY:  Geza Wass de Czege ON 04-06-09

Astor Community Center, it was started by my stepmother, Elizabeth Wass de Czege and several other women, in 1952, where several families of the community would get together to organize dinners, dances, guest speakers, community meetings, as well as our boy scout meetings. Our troop was called the Astor Monsters. My father, Albert Wass de Czege, was the scoutmaster, and my stepmother, whom we affectionately called Bebe, made the flag for the troop, which I still have in our family archives. These activities continued until 1956, when we moved to Gainesville, where my Dad took a position as a foreign language professor at the University of Florida.

In addition to starting the community club, Bebe and Dad started a community News Paper called the "Astor News". Dad was the editor, Bebe did the typing, and we brothers went around the neighborhood collecting the news from everyone. We had news about hunting, fishing, who came to visit who, who had babies, etc., while Dad wrote more substantial news concerning community activities, political issues, community gossip, feuds between families, and interesting editorial about the Astor monster, moonshine and monkey fishing. I also have some of these newspapers in our archives.

Bebe and Dad also started the Transylvanian Restaurant is Astor, just up the road from the old post office. This was a realty office in most recent years, before it burned. Part of the old building is still standing. We boys waited tables while Bebe cooked and Dad seated guests and took the orders. The restaurant closed after about three years, and Bebe took on a teaching position at an elementary school in Fort McCoy and Dad taught math at a military academy near Deland.

Astor was certainly an interesting place to grow up as a kid back in the 1950s.

Sincerely,

Geza Wass de Czege

 
Lake George Lighthouse on St Johns River

Lake County History

The region of Central Florida that is now known as Lake County has been inhabited for thousands of years. For the same reasons that still bring people to this area, namely mild weather, excellent growing conditions, and an abundance of fish and game, the Timucuan Indians called this region home.

Evidence of their presence is throughout Lake County. In fact, there are more than 1000 identified archeological sites in Lake County, as recognized by the state.

In 1562 a French Huguenot colony was established at the present site of Astor on the St. Johns River. The entire colony was wiped out by the Spanish is 1566.

During the late 1560's the Spanish established a system of missions throughout the Lake County area with the goal of converting the Indians to Catholicism. What they accomplished, instead was to massacre uncooperative villages and spread European diseases to the rest.

By 1763 when James Spalding established a trading post at Astor, there were few Indians left in the area.

British Royal botanist, William Bartram came to the area to study the "flora and fauna." He made the first sighting of a royal palm tree in North America in Lake County in 1774.

During the Revolutionary War all of Florida belonged to the British and residents were loyal to that country. A few white hunters and traders lived in Lake County, along with runaway slaves and Freedmen who found hiding in the scrub to be very effective means of evading the Slave Hunters.

In 1782, Spain re-occupied Florida and began awarding large tracts of land to reward favors. In 1819 Moses Levy received such a land grant from the Spanish. He established a plantation along the St. Johns River in Lake County, which was to be a settlement for oppressed European Jews. He was the father of David Levy, who later changed his name to "Yulee." Mr. Yulee was Florida's first senator after it acquired its statehood. During the first Seminole Indian War, the Seminole Indians burned the plantation to the ground.

Forts were built throughout the county, known then as Mosquito County, to defend the settlers against the Seminole Indians. In 1823, at the Treaty of Moultie Creek, the Seminoles were ordered to live in a reservation, most of
which was in Lake County.

At the close of the Seminole War in 1842, Congress passed the Armed Occupation Act. It offered 160 acres to any man who would bear arms to protect the area against potential renewed hostilities, if he would build a habitable dwelling, live on the property for five years and cultivate at least five acres of his homestead. Many men accepted the challenge and joined the blacks already engaged in farming here.

Towns grew and vanished. Other towns took their places.  When the Civil War started in 1861, there were several large plantations and many small farms in Lake County. Florida became one of the states to secede from the Union. The Statute of April 1862 forced most white males between the ages of 18 and 35 into involuntary service to the Confederacy. By September of that year the age limit was increased to 45 and soon 17-year-old young men were conscripted. This left only women and their slaves to run the plantations and farms.  Even at that, Lake County has able to provide beef and other provisions to the army. The people left at home simply "went without."

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, another homesteading act was in place, again offering 160 acres of land to settlers who would live on the land for five years and improve it. Soldiers, both Rebel and Yankee were eager to get on with their lives. The attractive Homesteading Act offered a fresh start and many men took advantage of the opportunity and came to Lake County to make their homes.

In July 1887, Lake County became a county. It was carved from Orange and Sumter counties. The courthouse, known as the Pioneer Building was dedicated in 1889.

Contracts were let for the construction of the first hard surface roads in Lake County in 1915. Prior to that most transportation was on the waterways with special hybrid steam/paddlewheel boats. An elaborate system of railroads was also developed.

A militia group was established during the Spanish-American War. It was called the 'Leesburg Rifles" and were ready to bravely defend our country.

Many young Lake County men enlisted in the Armed Services of this and other countries during the First World War. Others stayed at home and served in the Home Guard. World War II took many Lake County men to war. Again, a Home Guard was established which combed the evening skies for enemy planes. The civilian effort was strong in support of the war. Lake County was famous for the number of war bonds sold here and scrap metal collected. In fact, the first war bond sold in the United States was sold in Leesburg. Lake County was the site of a Prisoner of War camp during the Second World War, as well.

Early industry consisted of reliance on the land: farming, citrus growing, lumber, turpentine, etc. All of this to some degree or another relied on the weather and time and time again big freezes killed not only crops and citrus, but also hopes and dreams. Back-to-back freezes in 1894 and 1895 devastated large and small farms alike. Some farmers replanted and others settled here, making their living at farming. Lake County was known worldwide for its record crops of peaches, tomatoes, watermelon, ferns, and, of course, citrus. Other industries moved into Lake County and the economy grew.

Lake County's history is rich and diverse. It sparkles with the ingenuity of its' people. Colorful stories abound.  Today, as in the past, Lake County is a pleasant place to live and work.

MORE ASTOR FLORIDA HISTORY-THE TOWN THAT DIED TWICE... AND LIVES AGAIN...

Astor, a little town with a big name, is like the proverbial cat with many lives. It has thrived, died twice and lives again - all in a period of 150 years.

This is not to say that the community on the St. Johns River, between Lakes Dexter and George in Lake County, Florida, has become a thriving metropolis. But it has been experiencing a second rebirth as a sportsman's mecca. Ultra-modern fishing camps have sprung up everywhere and real estate, far out in the woods, is being sold.

Today's tourists see little to indicate that this was once the site of ambitious dreams of two financial giants - Moses Levy, of a distinguished Portuguese-Jewish family, and William Astor, grandson of John Jacob Astor who came from Germany in 1784 with 50 cents in his pocket an died at 82 worth $30 million dollars.

Yet even the money and power of these pioneers of this picturesque community, couldn't hurry or change the destiny of the hunting and  fishing grounds of the fierce Timucuan Indians and later the Seminoles.

In modern day parlance, we would call Moses Levy the pioneer developer of present day Astor. It was he who braved the terrors of malaria, wild beasts and pillaging Indians to establish a colony for oppressed Jews from Europe.

But since the settlement received its name and experienced its greatest prosperity during the Astor regime, the story of Astor should probably be told in reverse.

William Astor purchased the Moses Levy tract of around 80,000 acres along the St. Johns River in 1874. At that time the vast acreage with its virgin forests and dark swamplands had lain idle for nearly three decades, with little evidence of Moses Levy's ill-fated colony.

No doubt the hunting, fishing and excellent water routes appealed to the new owner. He must have felt also that here was an opportunity to add to his already huge fortune, for soon after the purchase, he started an extensive building program. Hotels, including Astor House, wharves and warehouses were built, a railroad purchased, a telegraph office opened.

Some historians suggest, however, that William Astor developed Astor like Ferncliff (his famous estate on the Hudson River) as an escape from his wife's endless round of social formalities on Fifth Avenue.  Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, acknowledged queen of society and leader of the exclusive Four Hundred, clutched the scepter tightly.

William scorned the social whirl that surrounded his wife, and he also detested the office-bound life of his brother, John Jacob Astor III. Whenever he tired of Ferncliff, he stole away on his yacht, the Ambassadress, to spend the winters in Jacksonville and his thriving new town of Astor. On these trips, he practically lived aboard his yacht even when it was in port, since he disliked hotels.

The story goes that one day the yacht Ambassadress--the largest yacht afloat at the time--got stuck on the bar at the mouth of the St. Johns and Astor engaged the Mabey and Oyster Bay tugs to tow her off. He complained bitterly that the bill was exorbitant, but he finally paid it. However, he determined to have personal satisfaction, so he brought his own tug, the Seth Low, into the harbor and ordered it to tow all vessels in and out free of charge. This arrangement naturally upset the towing business.

Dr. L'Engle, owner of the tugs which had extricated the Ambassadress, decided the best thing he could do was to buy the offending boat.  Astor agreed to the sale but insisted that he go to New York for it. This L'Engle did. When the transaction was closed, Astor wrote across the bill, "Dog eat dog".

William Astor liked fair play and, although negligent in many ways and things, he gave generously to all community projects in his new settlement. He donated the first church, and also aided in the building of the schoolhouse. Both buildings are still standing. The church is still in use and the schoolhouse is now used  for a church youth group.

The steamboat era reached its peak on the St. Johns by that time. The Debary, Baya and Clyde lines brought in mail, freight and tourists to the settlements along the river. The Palmetto and the Astor homes were listed in a Clyde Line pamphlet as the two hotels at Astor, with rates of $2 per day.

William Astor's railroad later known as the St. Johns and Lake Eustis Line, ran from Astor to the "Great Lakes Region" of Florida--touching Lakes Eustis, Dora, Harris and Griffin. For a time it earned an eight per cent dividend. The boat from Jacksonville to Astor connected with the train inland as far West as Leesburg.

One of the early settlers in this area, J. G. Cade, remembered that when he arrived as a lad of 11 with his parents from Kentucky in 1884, "Astor was so crowded that it was impossible to find lodging for that night. It took the incoming boat several hours to unload and reload for its return trip".

With a successful railroad and booming community, Astor now turned his attention to growing citrus. He was among the first capitalists to subject himself to a squirt in the eye from the juicy grapefruit. He liked it so well that he added it to the breakfast table of the local Astor House and to the Astoria, later the Waldorf-Astoria, in New York.

The popular Astor House also served such delicacies as broiled quail, baked duck, venison, bear steak and broiled bass, attracting many and millionaires from the North. Friends of the Astors also built small Winter cottages in the community.

Persons of lesser means came, too -- some seeking health, others to establish permanent homes. There were two general stores in Astor in the late 1890's, one on each side of the river, which had to be crossed either by rowboat or ferry.

In these mercantile establishments, you could buy groceries of all kinds, tobacco, snuff, firearms, harnesses, calomel, quinine, calico and brogan shoes. "At the rear of the stores stood three wooden barrels with faucets," Mr. Cade remembered. "One contained liquor, one vinegar and one cane syrup - all sold by the gallon. You had to furnish your own container and, furthermore, drink your $1 per gallon liquor at home," the old gentleman chuckled. "Often," he added, "no money passed over the counter. The proprietors took anything you had or raised on your place in trade -- sometimes a hen and a few chicks, a dozen eggs, fruit, as well as alligator, cow and deer hides."

On William Astor's death in 1894, most of the estate went to his son, John Jacob Astor IV, who was an inventor, capitalist and lieutenant colonel during the Spanish-American War. In contrast to this father, John Jacob was a stickler for method and often rewrote a telegram to save a dime. During his ownership, some of the pine timber was leased for turpentine.

John Jacob Astor perished in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and his Florida property went to his son, William Vincent Astor.

But with the coming of the railroad, now a part of the ACL, through the Central and Western part of the state in 1885, and Flagler's railroad to Florida's East Coast in the late 1890's the prosperity of Astor was doomed. Thus, steamboat travel declined, hotels were torn down and tourists went elsewhere.

After the disastrous freeze of 1894-95 and the later abandonment of the St. Johns and Lake Eustis Railroad, many of the residents left for greener pastures. A few, including the Barney Dillard family, remained in the ghost town. They had faith in the future of their community and believed it would prosper again.

Their faith paid off. In recent years, newcomers have opened up ultramodern fishing camps, motels, service stations and restaurants to cater to the ever-increasing business.

Because of its name, Astor will always be associated with the Astor clan. But its history is incomplete without the dramatic story of its original owner, Moses Levy. Moses' father was at one time a high-ranking aide to the Sultan of Morocco but fled to Gibraltar following the Sultan's downfall. Here Moses was reared. In his early twenties, he immigrated to St. Thomas Island, where he married. David Levy was born June 12, 1810. (It is said that David Levy adopted the family Moorish title "Yulee" when he became Florida's first Senator after statehood, though it took a special act of the Florida Legislature.)

When David was six, Moses moved to Havana where he amassed a considerable fortune in the lumber business. While there he learned of negotiations for the purchase of Florida from Spain. He visualized the brilliant future for so promising a country and dreamed of a refuge and religious community for his oppressed people.

With this in mind, he visited the United States in 1819, placed his two sons in college, later obtained American citizenship and purchased large tracts of land, including a part of the Arrendondo Spanish Land Grant in Alachua and what is now Lake County.

In 1822 he built a plantation home called Hope Hill at the then present day Astor. He raised sugar cane (said to be the first imported to this (country) and built a sugar processing plant. He also imported fruits and seeds from Southern France and cultivated them.

He made several trips to Europe to induce oppressed Jews and others to settle on his lands, and only a few came. But the project soon failed, because the land was too wild and inhospitable for people accustomed only to the cities of the Old World.

With the destruction of his plantations during the Seminole War, and beset with litigation in connection with his many land purchases, Moses finally gave up and went to Virginia, where he died in 1854.

Although these two outstanding men, Moses Levy and William Astor, failed to make a thriving port and city out of Astor during their lifetimes, they helped to plant the seeds of tourism in that area, as well as in the rest of the state.

 

 





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