In the Beginning Up one coast of Florida and down the other, Jacob W. Wilbur, a Brookline, Massachusetts real estate dealer, traveled in search of a place where he and a few New England friends might spend the winter away from the icy blasts, which sweeps in across Boston Harbor. After searching both coasts Jacob Wilbur bought 64 acres of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Halifax River on the South Peninsula. He said he considered it “the loveliest in the state.”
Today made up of about 1,075 acres, and roughly a mile long, Wilbur remains an unincorporated settlement directed by the Wilbur Improvement Association.
Wilbur’s original purchase was from Sarah R. McConnell, a pioneer resident, whose deed traced back to 1889 when the state sold it for taxes of $6.35 and $4.86. Later purchases gave Wilbur more than 500 acres lying between what now is Marcelle Street and a point 500 feet south of Major Street.
The area included high rolling dunes facing the sea, and gently sloping ground lying beside the placid waters of the river. There also were some ancient live oaks, tall palmettos, and wind twisted cedars. Oyster beds grew in the river and no less a naturalist than Audubon had commented on the plentiful variety of fish as well as birds found in the area
In March 1913, a year after Jacob Wilbur’s purchase, Ernest Branch, a civil engineer who later became a resident, surveyed the area. Lots were then sold with the understanding no dwelling were to be built for less than 800 square feet and all were to be set back 15 feet from the street.
Rubie Gould Cross was the first to suggest the name Wilbur-by-the-Sea. Miss Cross, who was the sister of Mrs. E.W. Branch, the wife of the Civil Engineer who surveyed the area, wrote four poems about Wilbur. One poem, Wilbur-by-the-Sea, can be sung to the tune of Jingle Bells, and another entitled, Our Wilbur Home, to the tune of Home Sweet Home.
Wide shell roads with sidewalks and adjacent flowerbeds were constructed. A triangular piece of ground at the junction of Toronita Avenue and Riverside Drive was designated the “town center” and here a flag-pole was erected so that the Stars and Stripes could be flown on every fine day in the year.
Also in 1913, by the edge of the Halifax River and at the foot of Toronita Avenue, Mr. Wilbur build a pavilion to serve as an office for the Wilbur Land Co., a barber shop, a rest room and a meeting place for the residents of Wilbur-by-the-Sea, and which he called the Toronita Club. A wooden landing stage was added for the use of the boats. They went out to fish in launches that sailed to New Smyrna, Ponce Park, and to Dayton Beach. In those days the river was open from Ormond Beach to Ponce Inlet and the mangrove islands had not formed into an almost continuous reef separating the Wilbur Channel from the Intercostals Waterway. One such island in the Halifax River to the northwest of the club house was designated a bird sanctuary under the protection of the U.S. Government, and although it has ceased to be an island and can not be circumnavigated, that portion of the reef between the limits of Club’s property still remains a preserve for wild birds such as herons and egrets.
An imposing hotel of 50 bedrooms, each unit with a bath, represented an investment of $150,000. The building was erected on the northwest corner of Ocean Blvd. (now South Atlantic Avenue) and Toronita Avenue. The hotel was named Toronita and became the social center of the community.
Many distinguished visitors came to the hotel as guest. They included the Gambles of Proctor and Gamble, and the Whites of White Sewing Machine. When the late Henry Segrave broke the World’s record for speed, Wilburites had a grandstand seat on their dunes as he flashed by. It was from the Toronita Hotel’s telephone that he cabled his record to England. In addition to the hotel there were various buildings for necessary facilities such as quarters for the help who were brought down each winter from the north; a laundry, large garage, stable for riding horses, carriage shed and a water tower with a big tank. The tank was fed from artesian wells and also supplied water for the entire colony.
In a large building on Cardinal Dr., which housed the hotel help, was a big bell to be rung as an alert in emergencies. There was also a barbershop in the building, open only during the brief winter season, January through March. A road scraper, dump wagon, fire truck with extinguishers, lantern, hose and hatchets were kept handy in a building near the hotel tennis courts. At the corner of Cardinal and Toronita was a store where general commodities could be purchased (anything from a bottle of ink to fishhooks and bathing caps). A tiny Post Office provided a general delivery window and some boxes.
Some 25 cottages were built in Wilbur during the early years. Five additional cottages took care of the “overflow” guest from the hotel. Mr. Wilbur, his wife and their only daughter, Ruth then in her early teens, lived in a “bungalow” on Riverside Dr. (now Peninsula Dr.). Ruth played the harp and often entertained guest at the hotel “parlor” for an after dinner concert.
Hotel guest as well as “cottagers” came principally from New England. They arrived at Port Orange via the Florida East Coast Railroad, then rattled over the old wood toll bridge from Port Orange to the peninsula and drove down the narrow, oyster shell river road to Wilbur. The river road then was the only road in the area and it included “turnouts” in case two cars should need to pass.
The first meeting for the purpose of forming an Improvement Association at Wilbur was held February 5, 1915. Dues were set at $3.00 annually. It was the cottagers who organized March 29, 1916 the Wilbur Improvement Social Helpers. A Victrola and records were purchased for use at the Club dances. Later, a water cooler was purchased for the club.
The Good Times Once a week the residents dined at the hotel with a social hour afterward. Every Thursday there was a card party. There were lavish and sedate teas, boating parties on the river, tennis tournaments, croquet and walks along the dune edged beach to collect shells. Residents and hotel guest got together for trips to Daytona for golf, theater and shopping. They could go in Mr. Wilbur’s launch, which made both a morning and afternoon trip or by a black high-wheeled bus, which charged 10 cents each way. They also could drive their cars or a team along the river road to the inlet, or on the wide beach they could “jaunt up to town.”
Mr. Wilbur entertained cottagers and hotel guest with boating parties. His boathouse by now was a community clubhouse. A borrowing library occupied a corner of the clubhouse and the comfortable chairs there were almost always occupied.
Hard Times Hit Wilbur Wilbur by the Sea prospered until Mr. Wilbur’s death in Boston in March 1917. The season of that year was short and times were hard. Some of the cottages remained closed. Hotel guest were few and there was dissatisfaction among the help. World War I had caused turmoil and woe.
As Reported in Meeting Minutes In January 1918 in the context of discussions of incorporation, Mrs. Wilbur offered to donate the hotel, the garage, clubhouse, lighting plant, streetlights, post office, water works plant, streets and shell mound. However, the offer was deemed unacceptable in February 1918.
A devoted few of the Wilbur cottagers kept the clubhouse in repair, maintained the library and introduced bimonthly covered dish suppers which have continued to today
In March of 1922 dues were raised to $10.00 annually.
A burglary was committed in February 1924; the thief was caught but there was no mention in the records as to whether he survived or not.
Eventually Mr. Wilbur’s interests were purchased by the Wilbur Development Co., Inc. which later deeded the property to the Wilbur Investment and Sales Corp. headed by L. Holmes. Records show the Wilbur Improvement Association voted in1931 to assess each householder $25 to pay the corporation for water, street lighting and general care.
In 1932 it was discovered to the great consternation of the residents, the property was to be sold for taxes which had not been paid since 1926. Hastily, the association paid the taxes to the state and $100 to Mr. Holmes. He and his company thereupon deeded to the Wilbur Development co. as trustees of the Wilbur Improvement Association the land west of Riverside Dr. (now S. Peninsula Dr.), from Pelican (now Egret) to a point 100 feet south of the clubhouse, to by used for “park, recreation or other public purposes”, and the tax assessor declared the property tax exempt.
In March 1933 the annual dues were reduced to $7.50.
The Toronita Hotel burned around 1938, from a cause never officially ascertained. The service buildings burned a year or two later in a disastrous wind whipped brush fire, which also leveled the Wilbur home. The post office as such was abolished about 1930 in a government economy move. Residents then got their mail by Star Route delivery. The building, which once was the combined store and post office, was closed and later also burned.
With the demolition of the hotel’s central water plant, many residents installed their own artesian wells and still use them today. However most are connected to the Port Orange water system.
On February 21, 1949 a letter was sent to the county Commissioners, as follows: “Inasmuch as the river road between Wilbur-by-the-Sea and Dunlawton Avenue has been closed and inasmuch as the road was presumed to be a County road and has been continuously used by the public for many years, therefore, be it Resolved that, we as an organization of property owners and residents of Wilbur-by-the-Sea, call the attention of our County Commissioners to the fact that this road is now closed and ask them to take the necessary steps to have this road reopened so that the public can use it as it was originally intended.”
During the 1949/1950 season Dr. Bates said the County Commissioners admitted a mistake was probably made in closing the river road, and on March 3, 1950 they attempted to have owners of the land in question give it back to the County for use as a road, if not to have it appraised, purchase it and establish a right of way. It was further noted that this move was later to have failed. Also during the season, a resolution opposing the use of the Wilbur area for a Negro bathing beach was passed by the Executive Board on March 16th. A letter to Mr. Graham, Chairman of Volusia County commission, states in part: “While we recognize the good intentions of the Negro citizens in desiring to secure a section of the beach, we are unalterably opposed to any such bathing being provided within the Wilbur-by-the-Sea area.” In March 1950 the possibility of annexation into Port Orange was discussed and it was determined the residents were not interested. January 1952 water lines from Port Orange were installed.
During the 1953/1954 season it was determined that 125 people lived in Wilbur. Also, repairs to the west porch of the clubhouse were made with lumber from the old Price George Hotel. Peninsula Transit Co. asked to reduce fares on the buses, which ran from Toronita to Daytona at a cost of 40 cents.
On February 3, 1955 the Presbyterian Church was given permission to use the clubhouse for Sunday afternoon services. The Executive Board adopted a resolution in reply to a request from the South Peninsula Zoning Board that read as follows: Resolved that the area known as Wilbur-by-the-Sea be zoned for one family residential purposes only, with a minimum of 800 square feet of living quarters not including garages, porches, or storage space, and that such other and further safeguards for future development be established as the South Peninsula Zoning Commission deems best.
In 1956 the Wilbur Improvement Association was incorporated and obtained a quick claim deed, which included riparian rights, from the three living trustees of the dissolved Wilbur Development Co.; R. L. Smith, Mamie P. Smith and Ida Moseby.
During the 1960/1961 season Hurricane Donna blew all the shingles off one side of the roof.
During the 1964/1965 season more hurricane damage was sustained. Repairs to the pilings and porch were made.
During the 1967/1968 season County Commissioners agreed to pay cost of dredging the river. The fill was placed under the clubhouse.
In April of 1983 discussions began regarding restoration of the old Boathouse and discussions ensued regarding establishing a building fund for restoration as well as having Wilbur Boathouse recognized as an historic structure.
In good times and bad, the Wilbur Improvement Association continues to be concerned with civic affairs. There have been informal discussions and petitions to the county for roads, beach approaches, streetlights and adequate bus service. There has been a constant effort to maintain the area’s residential character. The clubhouse is a community center, which gives its members a “sense of belonging”, an assurance of friendship and a congenial meeting place.
After it’s near destruction the Volusia County Council and the Metropolitan Planning Organization approved a grant to completely restore the Wilbur Boathouse. Renovation to the historic 1500 square foot Boathouse began August 14, 2000 and was completed for its grand opening on December 1, 2001.
Inevitably, the passing years have reached out to make some changes in Wilbur, but Wilbur residents continue to show their devotion to the place established as a closely-knit community.