Quiet Lake Helen

By: Herb Hiller

A visit to Lake Helen is a trip into the past - no super markets, loud cars, or crowded streets here.

Honking horns were the loudest noise one day in Lake Helen as Tony Troy, who built old-looking houses, drove around town. His wife had hung a sign on the back of his car that said "It's my 40th birthday. Honk."

Next loudest may have been the fellow along Lake Harlan furiously shooing away the pair of muscovy ducks that had plopped themselves down on his bird feeder.

Even though it's only 45 minutes northeast of Orlando and half that southwest of Daytona Beach, Lake Helen isn't just quiet. It's unassuming.

Lake Helen, with a population of about 2,700, sits so close by I-4 in west Volusia County that you might think the passing whirr of 18-wheelers would shake its cocoon loose. Yet the only franchise in town may be a Marathon station with a Kangaroo. There are no billboards and only a regular old market, nothing super about it.

The main way through Lake Helen is along a designated Volusia County Scenic Road. Half the roughly two-mile-by-two-mile town is left in undeveloped woods and the core of the built-up area constitutes a National Register Historic District.

A while back cars were driving fast up Lakeview, a main street, to get from nearby Deltona to I-4. That stopped when a new road was paved east of town. Soon after, locals on horseback started showing up on Lakeview again.

Horseback riding is no cowboy affectation in Lake Helen. People have been riding horseback here since before the town's founding in 1888. Partly it's a way to get around, same as walking or riding a bicycle. Partly it's to get to the equestrian park which, along with a multi-acre recreation area, occupies four square blocks in the middle of town. Golf carts have also become popular transportation.

Nearby is the old two-story elementary school smartly repainted and trimmed, now used as an enlarged city hall. City hall is also where the town safe sits in a bathroom that makes it mighty hard to use the facilities. Fortunately there's another not so pre-empted.

During the town's heyday, Lake Helen, named by founder Henry DeLand for his daughter, was an important center of timbering, brick manufacture and citrus. Fires and freezes ended Lake Helen's prosperity. Fire in 1933 also took out the beloved Harlan Hotel (named for DeLand's son) after which tourism never recovered either.

However, that heyday-endowed town remains with its lovely Queen Anne and post-Victorian homes. Even today, people say if you stand on Euclid Avenue beside Hopkins Hall (the old library, now a community center that's available for weddings), a look down the west side of the avenue still shows the town much as it was.

You can equally capture that sense of yesteryear by hiking a woodland trail from the south bank of Lake Macy through woods thick with oaks, pines and palms. Get back here and you can momentarily imagine what it must have been like in the 1870s when George Colby hiked from Blue Springs landing on the St. Johns River east to the lake that bears his name. There he felt divinely guided to establish the spiritual camp now known as Cassadaga.

Visitors explore Blue Springs in Orange Park, Gemini Springs in DeBary, the Stetson University campus in DeLand and, of course, Cassadaga.

About the most exciting thing you can do in Lake Helen, locals will tell you, is lose your car keys. Otherwise, they advise you to bring a good book. This place is real good for anybody who doesn't need honking horns – except occasionally.

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