Most folks know a little something about the name Stetson. Many recognize the name as belonging to a particular style of hat. Many Floridians are also aware of Stetson University, one of the state’s premier institutions of higher learning. But how are these things connected? To answer that question, we need to take a look at the early history of DeLand, Florida.
The settlement went by the name “Persimmon Hollow” for a number of years, owing to the large number of persimmon trees that grew wild in the area. In March 1876, baking powder manufacturer Henry Addison DeLand of New York and his brother-in-law O.P. Terry, traveled south to visit this as-yet undeveloped piece of Florida. Terry had bought up acreage around Persimmon Hollow to start an orange grove.
DeLand was impressed with what he saw. The only way to easily reach Persimmon Hollow at that time was by steamboat, but that could be changed. The terrain, he believed, was highly favorable for agriculture. DeLand and Terry set out to build up a large citrus growing operation, with a new town as the center of activity.
DeLand returned to Persimmon Hollow in October 1876, ready to get to work. Area residents voted in December to name the new town “DeLand” in his honor. A post office was established in 1877, and the town was officially incorporated in 1882.
Henry DeLand’s vision for the town revolved around the citrus industry, but he also gave considerable attention to education and culture. In 1884, he contributed $10,000 to construct DeLand Academy, which was chartered in 1887 by the Legislature as DeLand University. DeLand and the original trustees hoped the school would put their town on the map as “the Athens of Florida,” a real nucleus of higher education in the state.
DeLand faithfully supported his namesake university, providing equipment and extra money to cover its deficits. DeLand’s own finances, however, took a turn for the worse in 1886. That year, Florida suffered a serious freeze that destroyed much of the orange crop in the area around DeLand and Volusia County. Henry DeLand had always told the people who purchased land from him that he would buy the land back if they were unsatisfied with it. After the freeze, a number of orange growers asked DeLand to make good on his offer and, true to his word, he did.
This, of course, was a detrimental blow to DeLand’s personal fortune, and he was essentially ruined. Rather than start over in Florida, Henry DeLand returned to New York and resumed his earlier career as a baking powder manufacturer.
Meanwhile, DeLand University needed a benefactor. That’s where John B. Stetson enters the story. Stetson, who had created a very large and successful hat business in Philadelphia by this time, had spent time in Central Florida and became acquainted with John F. Forbes, president of DeLand University. Stetson contributed a significant amount of funding to the school, and was a founding member of the Board of Trustees. In 1889 he became president of the board.
The Trustees began thinking of renaming the university in honor of its sustaining donor. Stetson declined the honor at first, arguing that Henry DeLand’s contributions in founding the school and nurturing it in its early years earned him the honor. The Trustees insisted, however, and so the school became known as the John B. Stetson University from 1889 onward. Since 1951, “Stetson University” has been the official title for most purposes.
Another nod to Stetson’s influence can be found in its athletic teams, which are known as the “Hatters.”
You can find a wealth of images relating to the history of Florida’s institutions of higher learning on Florida Memory. Visit the Florida Photographic Collection and search for your favorite school!