Mount Dora, Florida is the smallest of mountains. The little town, on the shores of Lake Dora, occupies a plateau only 184 feet above sea level. It was here, in early 1930, that a great man and his wife chose to spend a month shortly after leaving The White House. Calvin Coolidge became President of the United States in 1923 on the death in office of Warren Harding. Coolidge, like Mitt Romney, was a former Governor of Massachusetts and had been elected vice president in 1920. He was elected President in his own right in 1924 and chose to retire after one term. They called him “Silent Cal”. He never wasted words. Someone once told him that he’d made with a bet with a fellow who claimed that it was impossible to get more than two words out of Coolidge. “You lose” was Silent Cal’s response. Coolidge was a great believer in small government and low taxes. The complaint today is that half the nation pays no federal income taxes and that is seen as a bad thing. Under Coolidge, only the richest 2% paid federal income taxes and that was seen as a good thing. How can American expectations have changed so much in less than a century?
During his visit to Mount Dora, Coolidge stayed at The Lakeside Inn and participated in the dedication ceremony for one of its new buildings. Pat and I enjoyed lunch there in October 2012. I washed down my delicious beef bourguignon with Lakeside Red Ale, a satisfying brew manufactured by Budweiser exclusively for the inn. As we ate, we were entertained by seaplanes landing on Lake Dora, which is part of the Lake Harris chain of lakes – the largest body of fresh water in the state of Florida.
The Lakeside Inn is the oldest continuously operated hotel in the entire state. A group of elegant wooden structures spreads itself along the lakeside and contains 87 guest bedrooms, including the Coolidge Room. The hotel opened in 1883 with just ten rooms. Its development was assisted by the arrival in Mount Dora in 1886 of a passenger train service. Before that, guests traveled to the hotel by lake steamer from Jacksonville or by the logging train from Sanford to nearby Sorrento, where they would be met by horse and buggy.
Today there are alligators in abundance in Florida in general, and in the Lake Harris chain in particular. Estimates put their present total in the state at 1.25 million. In some places, there are so many that they have to be culled. This is very different from a few years ago when Florida alligators were in danger of extinction and when conservation measures had to be taken. Alligators are not too smart. A fully grown alligator can be up to 14 feet in length and may weigh over 200 pounds. Yet this powerful creature, with its mighty jaws, is controlled by the tiniest of brains weighing only two or three ounces! In its dealings with humans therefore, the alligator never relies on cunning. It is motivated purely by an instinct driven only by hunger and a sense of territory. If the human leaves the alligator in peace, the alligator is unlikely to seek the human out. As Pat and I sat on the verandah of The Lakeside Inn, we attempted to sight an alligator on the placid surface of Lake Dora. Surely we could see just one, if there are 1.25 million around? Alas, we saw nothing.
There are a variety of ways of seeing this quaint little town. A horse and buggy is available. Then there is a train running around the edge of the lake, on which passengers are served with a fine dinner. A popular tour involves the use of a Segway, which is a tiny moving platform with a wheel on either side. The passenger stands on the platform, moving at up to 12 mph, and needs to retain his or her balance. The vehicle is powered by an electric battery and is a recent invention which I had never seen before. In Mount Dora, groups of visitors traverse the gently sloping streets of the town on segways. Everyone wears a crash helmet and each group is led by a tour guide. When I glimpsed such a group, I became excited. I walk very slowly, but a segway would remove my need to walk. Instead I would be zipping around Mount Dora at the speed of a marathon runner. “I can do that”, I claimed with confidence. It was gently explained to me that someone aged 75 and weighing over 250 pound had no business to be riding on a segway. Losing one’s balance at 12 mph and hitting the deck at speed would be inevitable. My suggestion could only have been made by someone with an alligator sized brain. So they led me away, seated me on the hotel verandah, and fed me Lakeside Red Ale. As you will see from the photograph below, I am coping with my rejection as best I can.