Wilcox Saloon Plaque, 1886
Wilcox Saloon was a saloon in downtown DeLand that burnt down in the fire of 1886. In 1886, DeLand was a small community of 1,000 people. While few records exist of the life of Wilcox Saloon, it was most likely the center of community life. The fire, which decimated much of downtown, cost $72,000 in 1886 (or almost $2 million today), and was most likely started by a wayward cigar. After the fire, the streetscape of downtown DeLand was permanently changed. While downtown DeLand was once predominantly built of pine, post-fire DeLand passed ordinances requiring brick buildings and outlawing saloons.
Backstory and Context
During the 1700’s and into the 1800’s, saloons acted as a meeting place for the people of the town. The Wilcox Saloon located in early DeLand was no different. The saloon, as did many saloons in frontier towns, served as de facto post office, courtroom, trading post, union hall, and a number of other functions.
In 1883, DeLand Academy (now known as Stetson University) had opened, the citrus industry was booming, and downtown was buzzing with activity. The population was on the rise and many businesses were opening and thriving.
It was late one September night in the year 1886 and suddenly the darkness was lit by flames poking up from over twenty buildings in the downtown area. Where did it start? The Wilcox Saloon, ignited by an unattended cigar that had been dropped on the floor. All the buildings of that time were constructed of wood, making them a fire’s best friend. By the time the sun was out and the fire had been extinguished, over twenty-two buildings had been burn to the ground, taking thirty-three businesses and causing $72,000 in damages, or approximately $2 million adjusted for inflation. As Helen Parce DeLand wrote in her journal, “They hung wet blankets from the verandahs, then enveloped themselves in blankets ... they went up and down to a tank on the roof for water which they kept pouring on the flames whenever they blazed up. As the men became exhausted, others took their places, until the fire sank into ashes.” Ordinances were passed that discouraged any more wood buildings to be built, strictly brick. One of the biggest changes was that there were to be no more saloons in the city of DeLand.
Since then, downtown DeLand has been rebuilt (with brick) and the Wilcox Saloon has been replaced with a bar known as The Abbey. There is a plaque on the wall near the area where the actual Wilcox Saloon stood. It states:
"The Great Fire" occurred late at night on Sept. 27, 1886. It is thought to have started from a smouldering cigar igniting the sawdust on the floor of the Wilcox Saloon in this block. The buildings, constructed of pine, were instantly engulfed. The town had only two small chemical wagons and the water from tanks and cisterns to fight the blaze. Fire swept both sides of the Boulevard and by morning twenty-two buildings and thirty-three stores were in ashes. The city passed two ordinances: no future wood-frame buildings and no more saloons in downtown DeLand. The latter decree was lifted when prohibition was repealed in the 1930s.”.
After the fire, town rebounded quickly, even replacing the nearby community of Enterprise as the county seat in 1888.
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