Less than an hour from Orlando where theme parks are the norm is one of Florida’s hidden gems and a perfect place for a day trip. Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens is a 10-acre mix of gardens, an old theme park and Florida history.
The Sugar Mill Plantation
The history of the plantation goes back to 1804, when it was part of a land grant before Florida even became a state. After passing through several hands, it was eventually purchased by Sarah Petty Anderson (Dunn) in 1832 under the name Dunlawton Plantation. For three years, sugar and molasses were produced here, until the Second Seminole War. Like many other mills in Florida, Dunlawton was burned to the ground. With no money to rebuild it, the property was abandoned, changed hands a couple more times and burned down again during the Third Seminole War. During the Civil War, Dunlawton was a camp for the St. John’s Rangers, in the Second Florida Cavalry who used the kettles for the “production of salt for food preservation and ammunition.”
Many of the old pieces of machinery used in the sugar making process are still in place, including a cane crusher, the boilers and kettles. The brick structures are now protected by a metal roof, although at one time in its history a wooden roof created an “enclosed” sugar factory.
Bongoland: A theme park before its time
Who would have thought the site of protected archaeological ruins would also one day turn into a tourist attraction? During the 1940s and ’50s, the property was transformed into Bongoland – an attraction that featured animals, an Indian village, a train to take visitors around the park and a series of dinosaurs created out of chicken wire and concrete. Oh, and Bongo — the baboon that lived on the grounds. Five of the original dinosaurs remain on the property and can be viewed during your walk around the park. Most of them are located near the Children’s Garden and remain an attraction in their own right. Unfortunately, the whole idea of theme parks didn’t catch on and Bongoland closed due to a lack of interest.
After Bongoland closed, the property sat neglected until it was bequeathed to Volusia County in 1963. An organization known as Botanical Gardens of Volusia, Inc. made a deal with the county and began leasing the property in 1985.
Besides the sugar mill and remnants of Bongoland, there are trails that meander through a variety of gardens and plant collections with beautiful views of native plants, azaleas, camelias, and magnolias. The gardens are open every day from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (except for Christmas and New Year’s Day). There is no admission fee, but donations are accepted. Dunlawton is located off Nova Road (Highway 5A) in Port Orange.
Doris Keeler is a freelance writer and blogger from Orlando who travels the state on weekends searching for people and places that represent “old Florida.” If you’re looking for things to do, or just want to see some of the unique things about the Sunshine State, visit her blog at FloridianaMagazine.com.