The swans of Lake Eola might seem like they have always ruled the downtown kingdom—they even have boats in their honor. Quite honestly, the only time they do not seem in total control of their fiefdom is during their annual swan health roundup, or, their personal check up with a veterinarian. The story of Orlando’s “beloved” swans, however, begins at Lake Lucerne.
Once a very scenic place to have a home, long before 408 and Orange Avenue’s encroachment, Lake Lucerne was home to a man by the name of Charles Lord. Lord moved to this community in 1885 and was nostalgic for the many swans he had seen on the Thames River in his native land of England.
The story told claims that in 1910, he imported two pairs of swans to be placed near his home: one white pair and one black. Express delivery for these four avian companions costed just $95.05.
Unfortunately, tragedy was the lot of the black swans — the white birds assaulted them so furiously that they were removed to another lake to save their lives. Soon after, the black female was killed by a dog, and the male died at the hands of a mischievous boy!
The white swans, Billy and Sallie, had a rather romantic life, spawning many young bevies of cygnets (batches of babies). Every day, Billy would take his turn sitting on their nest, keeping the eggs warm so that sweet Sallie could take a cruise around the lake to feed and to stretch her legs.
One day, Sallie grew tired of waiting on Billy and left early for her daily indulgence. It seems that Sallie’s neglect of their home enraged Billy so that he grabbed her by the neck and drowned her. Thus his nickname, Billy Bluebeard, known in French folklore as having a habit of murdering his wives. Sallie was not Billy’s only victim. Countless children and car tires were assaulted regularly by this feathered fiend.
Some may say karma caught up with Billy when his next mate, Mary, left him for another swan. Billy was no match for the much younger Charlie and after being beat several times, Billy was exiled to another lake where he lived until he passed away… some say of old age… most agree he died of homesickness and a broken heart.
It is believed that Billy died at the ripe old age of 78 in 1933. Rather than the big bird being put to rest, he was stuffed by a taxidermist for the foyer of the aptly-named W.H. Swan & Co. dry goods store located on Church Street.
Today, Billy lives in the collection of our museum. His story is one of rough-and-tumble pioneer life, suitable for an Orlando founding father.
Pam Schwartz is the chief curator at the Orange County Regional History Center.