Long before today’s major theme parks, Florida abounded with dozens of extravagant garden attractions that commonly drew tourists to our beautiful Sunshine State.
Opening in 1936, Dick Pope’s Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven was the first of many that prospered from the abundant seasonal fragrances and blooms of a public garden.
From there, Pope set into motion a trend that seemed to explode across the state and eventually reached Pasco County with the opening of the famous Dupree Gardens.
Located inside a beautiful estate in Central Pasco, 17 miles north of Tampa and southeast of U.S. 41 and today’s Ehren Cutoff Road, the 25-acre Dupree Gardens was the brainchild of prominent Tampa attorney James “William” Dupree.
Dupree was born in Louisiana on July 22, 1897, and after completing law school he moved to Tampa where he opened a successful law practice and settled into a nice home on Bayshore Boulevard.
In May 1933, Dupree started buying land in Central Pasco which he intended to use as a hunting retreat. In total, he acquired 900 acres including property purchased from the former Aripeka Sawmills, who previously operated mills at Fivay near Hudson.
Here, Dupree had a log cabin hunting lodge built to overlook one of several lakes on the property.
According to Historic Places of Pasco County, it was also in 1933 when J. William Dupree sustained serious injuries in an auto accident. So serious that he was forced to leave his Tampa law practice and even hired an in-home nurse, Wilhelmia Davis, and a house man and chauffeur, Herbert Carrington, to help manage his affairs.
Unable to practice law, Dupree turned his attentions to his 900-acre Pasco County estate where he worked to transform the 25-acres surrounding his lodge into a magnificent garden.
For the next few years, Dupree engaged in planting thousands of flowering trees and plants from all over the world, while taking advantage of the cypress swamps by laying paths and walkways through the lush jungle like setting.
He often invited his Tampa friends and colleagues to partake in the natural planted beauty of his retreat and it was this circle of friends who encouraged Dupree to open his gardens to the public.
With a bit more work, he turned his private garden estate into a popular public attraction. Electric-power boats were added to the newly named Dupree Lake, which fronted his hunting lodge, and he even converted that lodge into a gift shop and restaurant for guests, and added a tea room to the grounds.
Years in the making, it wasn’t until December 1, 1940, when the Dupree Gardens attraction finally opened to the public, well after the start of World War II. The opening events were so prominently marked that the occasion was reported in newspapers across our nation, including the Wall Street Journal.
Dupree then went to work promoting his garden attraction. In 1941, he became a member of the Florida Publicity and Public Relations Association - an enterprising group comprised of men and women devoted to attracting and entertaining tourists or who represented firms interested in the welfare and advancement of tourism in Florida.
He also advertised his attraction in newspapers throughout the state. One such ad appeared in Drew Field Echoes to attract the enlisted stationed at Drew Field in Tampa.
Deemed as the “Blossom Center of Florida,” Dupree’s garden was an immediate success.
Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., as many as 30,000 visitors from all over the country came to see the gardens during the annual December 15 to April 15 season - including many servicemen and women.
Along with dozens of other Florida attractions Dupree Gardens was soon added to the lengthy list of AAA approved places to see and before long was receiving regular bus tours.
With the 1942 season rations of gas and tires caused an extensive decrease in the annual visitors to the gardens. According to the Okeechobee News, this was a main topic of discussion among members of the Florida Publicity and Public Relations Association.
At the start of the 1943 season, Dupree made the difficult decision to close the gift shop and restaurant and the electric boats were docked - posted signs read “Closed for the duration.”
While closed to the public, Dupree still maintained his garden and a public interest. On October 3, 1944, camellia blooms from the gardens were placed aboard a Lockheed Lodestar which inaugurated daily direct air service between Tampa and New York.
Meant for auction towards the war effort, the flowers created such a sensation that airline president Ted Baker placed the winning bid by pledging to buy $250,000 in war bonds.
The war finally over, Dupree Gardens reopened to the public in 1946 but never witnessed the visitors it had in years past. Over the next 10 years, Dupree welcomed numerous civic groups and private family gatherings but regular tours eventually waned.
As early as 1951, Dupree started selling portions of his 900-acre estate including property sold to Connor & Sons for use as a cattle ranch and another 400-acres which became the orange grove of T & W Groves.
In 1956, newspapers, such as the Sarasota Herald, still showed Dupree Gardens as an attraction in Pasco County, but this would be one of the last mentions of the gardens in news print.
Soon after, the 25-acres containing the attraction were developed into home sites. A portion was sold to the Island Group who established a small nudist camp on Dupree Lake. A portion went to the development of Dupree Gardens Estates neighborhood.
After the liquidation of his garden property, on May 10, 1959, founder J. William Dupree passed away and was laid to rest at the Myrtle Hill Memorial Cemetery in Tampa.
Today, all that physically remains of his once popular garden attraction are a few subtle features that are often overlooked, including the old ticket booth located on Ehren Cutoff Road, now incorporated into the recent development of the Dupree Lakes subdivision.
Another prominent feature from the garden days is the rustic log lodge, now a privately owned home on Mary Jane Lane. The small lane passing through the heart of the former attraction still bears evidence of the gardens - lined with various planted oaks, palms, cypress, and leafy vines that now seem to grow wild.
Aside from these few features, Dupree’s mark is still evident throughout our community and through such names as Dupree Gardens Estates, Dupree Lake, Dupree Drive, and Mary Jane Lane - the latter the name of his daughter.