Snaps from the Past: The curious water cures of Lake Estelle

In 1908 on the west shores of Lake Estelle, in an old farmhouse shaded by ancient cypress and longleaf pines, in the then community of Formosa, Florida Sanitarium opened its doors. Patients were treated according to “the Battle Creek plan” created by Dr. Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan, and, yes, of cereal fame.

Popular at the turn of the century, the treatment included a “water cure.” It also prescribed plenty of rest, sunshine, fresh air, mild exercise and healthy food — all ideally suited for Central Florida. Primarily prescribed for patients suffering tuberculosis, it formed the basis for most patients’ care. Florida Sanitarium — “The San” — was immediately successful and became the nucleus of today’s Florida Hospital system.

“Taking the waters” of Florida was long regarded a popular treatment for maladies for which there was no known cure. Many who came for treatment in the early days stayed and made a life in Orlando.

I like to imagine College Park — and really all the surrounding “Park” neighborhoods — in pioneer days. It is no surprise that the primary recreation of early settlers (and we city dwellers of today) involved sun and water! Thankfully, Orlando has always offered opportunities to “take the waters” with beautiful lakes and nearby rivers.

Back in 1930, the Orlando Jaycees led an effort to open a public solarium, and a plan was accepted to build one on Lake Ivanhoe. The solarium would later be promoted for “scientific, health giving” sunbathing. In particular, nude sunbathing.

Yes, you read that right. Nude sunbathing — in College Park!

Before the groundbreaking, the Orlando Utilities Commission power plant and water treatment facilities were also along Lake Ivanhoe, which was Orlando’s chief source of water. Commission chairman Dr. Edward Gaston, feeling the location of the solarium would lead to swimming and boating in the lake, fought the Jaycee’s plans; he feared these activities would pollute the water.

At the very last minute, literally, with the bulldozers in place, the project was shut down.

Jimmy Milligan, president of the Jaycees, feverishly worked with other members to find a solution. They did so when state senator and Orlando developer Walter Rose (for whom Rose Isle is named) deeded a small parcel of land on the east shore of Lake Estelle to build the solarium in 1934.

Built with federal funds and named The Solarium on Lake Estelle, it opened in December of that year when O.P. Swope, regional chairman of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, presented the building to S. J. Sligh, chairman of Orange County’s commissioners, who turned it over to the Orlando Jaycees.

History records there was, in fact, nude sunbathing, with separate women’s and men’s facilities provided. The charge for sunbathing was 25 cents. By 1935 The Solarium was the first location in Orlando’s history to have its airspace banned from planes flying within 1,000 feet — to keep curious pilots from flying too close and taking photos.

When the Andrews Causeway (now called Mills Avenue or U.S. Highway 17-92) opened, crossing Lake Estelle, The Solarium lost popularity. It eventually closed in1956.

Looking at a map, it’s easy to understand the role water plays in the history of Orlando simply based on its abundance.

The Howell Branch watershed, for instance, begins right here in College Park. Its basin spans over 20 square miles starting in Spring Lake. It includes Lake Adair, Lake Dot, Lake Concord, Lake Ivanhoe, Park Lake, Lake Highland, Lake Formosa, Lake Winyah, Lake Estelle, Lake Sue and beyond before it flows into the Econlockhatchee and eventually the St. Johns River. It crosses natural divides and includes a river, three canals and 66 lakes altogether.

Although we have managed to reengineer many of the canals and the lakes to make way for progress, I think water remains our most precious and powerful natural resource — quite capable of washing away maladies and making a little history!

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