By Susan Myers Mount Dora Buzz Historical Columnist
Historically, sunshine, warm weather, and outdoor recreational activities attracted many “snowbirds” from the north to spend winter in Mount Dora. Combine that with plenty of hotels, and Mount Dora was a haven for both wealthy and middle-class folks looking to escape the long winters of the frosty north.
In the 1920s, a group of business owners established the Commercial Club, which produced the first promotional booklet touting the benefits of Mount Dora. Included in the pamphlet were early marketing phrases describing Mount Dora as having "roads de luxe," "Fine Places to Live," and "Fisherman's Paradise." Enthusiastic visitors also spread the word to family and friends upon their return home. One such visitor, L.K. Markham, who spent two weeks at the Grandview Hotel, returned to Miami, Ohio, to write about his trip to the south in his local newspaper. In his glowing account, he stated, "Mount Dora is a beautiful town with paved streets, recreation center, tennis courts, shuffleboard, and good hotels. Boats with an outboard motor can be obtained for $1 per day, gasoline included."
In 1925 two winter visitors from Hartford, Connecticut, approached the City for approval to construct lawn bowling rinks near Lake Dora. Three years and 20 members later, three hard-packed sand lawn bowling rinks were completed.
In January of 1926, the Mount Dora Parks Board installed two shuffleboard courts in Donnelly Park. The Shuffleboard Club was organized with dues of $.35 per year and a membership of 20. By the 1930s, Mount Dora's number of winter visitors had steadily increased, and there was a need for more courts.
Lawn bowling and shuffleboard were major social activities in the small town, and intercity tournaments became popular. Both clubs required a larger building for equipment and social activities, as well as more courts. Per a Mount Dora Topic article dated September 6, 1934, Mount Dora increased its amenities with additional recreational facilities provided with Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) labor. A crew of fifty-five Mount Dora men worked on the enlargement of the lawn bowling courts, built a new croquet court and tennis court, and rebuilt the old court.
In 1937 more shuffleboard courts were added to Donnelly Park with $6000 of expenses shared between the Shuffleboard Club and the City. The following year in 1938, the City used grants from the Federal Work Progress Administration (WPA) to add seven more rinks and lights for night bowling for the Lawn Bowling Club. At the time, the lawn bowling rinks and shuffleboard courts were a hub for recreational and social activities in Mount Dora,
By the late 1950s, there were 22 shuffleboard courts in Donnelly Park, and the club’s membership exceeded 500. Four more lawn bowling rinks were added in 1963, bringing the total to 14, and increasing membership to 324.
Mount Dora's population grew from 1,613 in 1930 to 3,756 people by 1960, and both clubs were experiencing year-round activity. In the late 1980s, Donnelly Park underwent a renovation, and the number of shuffleboard players was dwindling. The town was split on whether to keep the shuffleboard courts in Donnelly Park or move them. Decades later, the remaining courts were replaced with pickleball courts.. In 2016 the Mount Dora Pickleball Society was established with 11 members, which quickly grew to 85. Increasingly popular nationwide, pickleball is now the sport of choice in Donnelly Park.
In recent years, Mount Dora Lawn Bowling Club regained some membership and is one of the largest affiliated clubs in the United States, with over 300 members. During tournaments, it’s common to see players dressed in white rolling the ball, known as a “bowl,” toward a target.
Nearly a century after downtown’s first amenities, the City of Mount Dora continues to seek options to expand its sports facilities for the health and entertainment of its residents and visitors.