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Orlando’s First Full-time City Surveyor: Donald R. Brant

I’m Donald R. Brant from Orlando, Florida. We moved here from Pittsburgh to Orlando in 1936. In 1936 that was during the Depression Days and my mother had a health problem when we lived in Pittsburgh and the doctor told her to either go to Florida or Arizona so we came to Florida in ’36. We came to Orlando. We were heading to Miami , but we came down Highway 1 to Indian River City which is near Titusville and came to Orlando. It was only a 9 foot wide brick road into Orlando. The area from Indian River City to Orlando or near Union Park area, it was kind of desolate, very desolate. Nothing but swamp, swamp, swamp. And when we got into Orlando it was like a paradise. Absolutely gorgeous….

LISTEN  PART I  (16:38)

 

Mr. Brant, Belle Isle, November 8, 2014

Did you go to school in Orlando?

I went to elementary school up in Pittsburgh, but I went to junior high school, senior high school here in Orlando.

What was a typical Sunday like?

A typical Sunday was very quiet because in those days you had the blue law here which prohibited any business from being open. So the only thing that was opened in those days was churches. They called it the blue law. And everything was real quiet. Of course I went to church half the day and the afternoon we just as we were kids we just romped around and played and had a good time. But you didn’t go to 7-11 store even a service station wasn’t open. It was very quiet. It was nice. I went to church in Orlando. A small church in Orlando. It was the Church of God. They were headquartered out of Tennessee. They were originally down on Parramore and Pine. Then they moved to build a church at South Orange… and that’s where we went to church until about 35 years ago. Then we went to Calvary Assembly of God in Winter Park.

Making house numbers from Orlando to Winter Haven

Really I was kind of the industrious type myself. Because there was a big family, eleven of us kids, mom and dad – big family – and to raise that big family you had to have more than one working. So I went out, and when I was going to Orlando High School at that time, I went out and made house numbers. Very few people, very few houses had house numbers on them at that time. And I went and picked up lumber at Thomas Lumber Company which is still in business today. And I asked them if I could have the scrap plywood and they said, “Yes.” So I went by there everyday and picked up the plywood. In the evenings after school I would cut out numbers with a coping saw with a little fine blade and made a palm tree that kind of leaned over the numbers and all the ones I made during the week. And I went on Saturday and I put them up for a quarter. Furnished the house numbers and put them up on the house for a quarter. And I come home Saturday evening, I’d come home with a big pocketful of quarters. Made more money than my dad did. And even to this day, that was 70 years ago, even to this day, there are a few of those numbers up on houses in College Park area.  So I spent most of the time working which I thoroughly enjoyed. Then after I made the house numbers, I run out of places to sell the numbers in Orlando because Orlando wasn’t all that large at that time. So I rode my bicycle to Sanford and sold houses to them and then I went on to Deland and sold house numbers. Of course, the highway, there was no traffic on the highway back then so I wasn’t afraid to ride a bike. And then I run out of places there to sell numbers so I went to Lakeland and Winter Haven and sold house numbers. I had quite a nice business. Then I run out of places all together to sell them. So then I worked in the evening at a print shop downtown: Tim Cox Florida Press and the Morse Printing Company on Court Street downtown right near the historical center. Then in 1939 I went and got a job in Cleveland, TN at the church publishing house. And I stayed up there only for about eight months and come back home because I was home sick. Really homesick.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Then I come back about a year later I joined the U.S. Corps of Engineers laying out the airport for trained pilots and so my first place was I worked out of Jacksonville. But my first place to work in the Corps of Engineers was Sarasota. What is now the international airport was Sarasota. I worked there and then I went over down to Venice, Florida. They had an Air Force Base there. Then went over to Avon Park Bombing Range and Base and worked there. Then after that I come back to Orlando and I worked at Orlando Air Force Base worked downtown airport, that was the air base. I worked there one year as a statistician, 1944. I kept statistical records of the base activity for one year and then they deactivated the base.

First Full-time Surveyor for the City of Orlando

Then right after that I joined the City of Orlando and worked there. I was the first surveyor the city had , full time employee. I worked there for 37 years til 1982. I retired from the City of Orlando and went to work for Orange County and worked 20 more years in engineering. During that time I done architectural designing while I was working for the City from 1947  to 1961. And I drew hundreds of houses which I still got some of the old originals at my house that some of them reach back to ’47, ‘48… and then I retired from Orange County in 2003.  So between the City and Orange County, I worked 57 years. And I worked six years other places I mentioned. So I worked 62 years all total. And I’m enjoying retirement. Now I do what I want to do.

When you first started surveying and you worked for the City of Orlando what were some of the projects?

Well, the City of Orlando when I started there in 1945, the City of Orlando, all the employees in the City of Orlando, including the police and fire department and all other was probably less than 400 people at that time. And I surveyed out, laid out streets. Then later on I was promoted up to inspection and construction on up to the time I retired. So most of your subdivisions around Orlando like Dover Shores all that big area most all those I’m responsible for laying out all those streets and even contracts for the construction of them. And I had inspectors. I had 23 inspectors that was out there on the jobs that had to see if the contractor had done the work properly. So it was a wonderful experience. Then when I went to work with Orange County I was in Highway Construction and some of the lawyer projects I had was John Young Parkway. Well, mainly, four lane projects, but there’s smaller projects, too….

Air Force Base

I was, of course, with the city I was most in on most of the initial subdivision growths and all that. So I was very much involved in that. [Did a lot of that come – was it during WWII?] During and after. [Because you had a lot of service people that came into the area?] Yes. When I was a statistician at the Air Force Base in Orlando I had a lot of generals come in there and they wanted, rather they come in the base and look at it all. They come in there and looked at the charts and graphs and seen what the base activity was by charts and graphs. Sometimes I had 4-5 generals in there at one time. So I got to see a lot of them. It was very exciting. When the generals come in there they would go through all the charts and activities through employee aircraft movements, base supplies, all those things. And the after that they’d sit there and talk for sometime, chit chat for an hour or more…. Very nice people. Down to earth people. Most of them were longtime career generals. They weren’t newcomers. They weren’t what you call “90 Day Wonders”. “90 Day Wonders” they called first and second lieutenants. That’s what they called them. The generals called them that. “90 Day Wonders.”

German Prisoners of War

It was a lot of fun. I passed a while with the Air Force Base there. They had the barracks all along, two story barracks all along Maguire Boulevard between Colonial and Robinson Street and reached from Maguire to Primrose. And they had a lot of German war prisoners there at that time. A lot of them. And most bases around they brought a lot of prisoners over from Europe, German war prisoners. And at one time we had over 300 here, German war prisoners. And the funny thing about it, they wore jumper suits with “PW” on the back – Prisoner of War. And they’d roam the base just like everybody else… they were just glad to be over here out of the war zone. I thought that was very unique, very unique. As a matter of fact, they designated the German War Prisoners to build my chart room. A lot of them are very skilled people. They built my chart room. They done a wonderful job.

LISTEN  PART  II  (18:14)

 

 
Married Life

Back in about ’39 my future wife lived down here on Boggy Creek Road south of Taft and that was really out in the country back then. And I used to ride my bicycle from Orlando down through Pine Castle into Taft down to Boggy Creek Road to court her. That was a long way from Orlando at that time – a lot of woods and everything. After a long while we got married in 1943… And her mother and dad still had the farm here in Taft. They sold that farm and they both died that was back in the 50’s. My wife she died in ’73. We were married 30 years at that time… How did you meet your wife? Through church. Most people back then they met at church. That’s how we met…

What was the house like where you lived? We lived where the Orange County Administration Building is right now on that site, on the Church Street side we lived in a duplex there. Right where that Orange County Building sits. We lived there for quite a while and then we bought a house on Grand Avenue and lived there for a number of years until we bought a house here in Orlando on Crystal Lake Drive and Pickfair Street right not very far from the area. And we lived there for 23 years and bought a house in Wedgewood Development near Conway Road and Michigan area. When you lived downtown did you walk to work? I had a car by then, but most of the time I left the car at home. I rode a bicycle. Did your wife work? Most of the time she worked taking care of the home….

Downtown Orlando

Now downtown Orlando in 1936, in my mind I can almost reconstruct downtown Orlando. It don’t look anywhere near like it does today. I remember on Orange Avenue between Church and South Street that area, that’s where all your grocery stores were. Your Piggly Wiggly stores, they were small ones though. Your All American, across the street on the other side was an A&P store. And most of all your grocery shopping was right down in that one block area. And also The Orlando Sentinel had a little tiny place, that’s where they started right there. About halfway between Church and Jackson Street and their press room would go back to Boone Street and the little street behind which don’t even exist today…. Where the CAN building is now on the corner of Jackson Street and Orange Avenue on Saturday nights that lot right in there they had oxens in there. Old fashioned oxens on that site. Of course, that was just a dirt area in there. Now they had one high ended grocery store up on north Orange was way up near Amelia and Orange Avenue. They had one kind of high ended store up there but that was way out.

WDBO Studio

I remember first going to WDBO studio which was the only station in Orlando at that time. There was no TV at that time. That was way back when we first came here. In the Fort Gatlin Hotel that was where the studios were and that hotel’s long been gone. I used to go in there and watch the broadcast. Back then the radio announcer Bill McBride, the first radio announcer he was pretty well running the whole thing and then later on the one that just died, Ben Aycrigge. Then, of course, Bob Opsahl later on. I knew all of them. In fact, Bob Opsahl went to our church for a number of years and Marla Weech.

The Fancy Downtown Hotels

It was a fancy hotel, kind of Spanish type, stucco building and it was a very pretty hotel. Of course, like so many of the hotels downtown in Orlando they tore down and made way for other buildings. I remember so well the old Wyoming Hotel, right near where the courthouse is now, the big tall courthouse. They tore it down. That was a very exclusive hotel. It was Wyoming. And then the old Tremont Hotel which was the real old one right across the street from the County Administration Building, that was really old. That was three stories high and each floor had a porch that went all the way around the building. Beautiful building. Well there was hotels all over the place they tore down. Orange Court Hotel. I could just name them one right after another…. Oh, the Lucerne Hotel right where they’re building the performing arts center now. Right on that site, way, way back used to be the Lucerne Hotel. They were all kind of fancy. Nice hotel…

Dave Starr

I remember Dave Starr, he was my friend. He was my old buddy. And I knew him when he first became sheriff I drew the plans for his house on Lake Ivanhoe at that time. And his home was down in Oakland, little town of Oakland, down near Winter Haven.  And when he retired I used to go out and visit him in Oakland… He was a nice guy. Really a nice guy. Very well thought of. I knew the sheriff before him I think was Jim Black…

LISTEN  PART III  (17:15)

 

“We don’t want you here Yankees…”

Let me tell you when we came, our family came here in ’36 that was before the service [military service], this area was very clannish, especially, not downtown Orlando as much, but Lockhart and those areas. They were very clannish. In fact one of the early places we settled was in Lockhart. And my brother and sister some of the younger ones they went to Lockhart School there and the railroad right behind it. After school they’d run my brother and sister down the railroad throwing ballast rock. You know the rock they use around railroads. They would throw those things yelling, “Get out of here. You’re Yankees. We don’t want you here, Yankees!” And then believe it or not my oldest sister she was old enough for marrying age. So she met a local boy there, one of the old families there and they got married. And once they got married then the whole community embraced us, every one of them. That was really something then we were part of them. Well we were part of the community at that time so we got along good. But up until that time we were not welcome….

Citrus

When we come to Florida there was no work here at that time except in the citrus industry. [My father] he finally got a job building crates to pack oranges. And that crate mill was right down on Garland Street. The crate mill was right down near the old fairgrounds at Livingston and Garland Street and it was owned by the Pounds Family out of Winter Garden which was a prominent family and they had citrus. And he worked there for 14 cents an hour. Of course back then 14 cents an hour was like $2.00-$3.00 an hour today…. But it was pretty hard there for a number of years. About the only thing we had to eat back then was just the little we made there. There used to be a big bakery on Marks Street just off of Orange Avenue which isn’t there any more. And my dad would take a car up there and back down in the loading well and fill it up with day old bread and cakes and all kind of things. He’d load it up and they charged him 50 cents and we’d bring it home. And between that and oranges and guavas and all that, that’s what we lived on you know. And we’d done okay. Guavas, oranges, all different types of citrus fruit that was plentiful. Nowadays you can’t find any of it….

Packing Houses

By the way, I started with the City of Orlando when it was in the old schoolhouse. It was on the corner of where the Suntrust Bank is now, on the corner of South and Orange Avenue. The big old schoolhouse there… And then I worked under my first supervisor was Pat Herndon which Herndon Airport is named after, the Executive Airport, he was my first boss. And then they built the city hall across the street which is the one they imploded to build the new one… But that old school, I remember there was a packing house along Boone Street there next to City Hall. Boone Street next to the railway. Big packing house there and it caught on fire one time and the flames come up and caught the City Hall on fire. And they put it out right quickly but I will never forget it. Everybody was running and jumping. It was old Manser, Manser Packing House. It was right along the railroad there. And that was a long time ago. But I remember packing houses. I remember a lot of packing houses around here.

Gentilly’s Packing House

I remember there was one big packing house, Gentilly’s Packing House right downtown Winter Park along Park Avenue where the park is now. Big packing house there. And I remember downtown Orlando there where the train station is right across was the  Jacob’s Packing House and out on west Robinson Street was the West Robinson Street Fruit Packing House. Oh, they were all over the place out around in the Winter Garden and Ocoee area. They were everywhere. But now you don’t hardly find a packing house anywhere except in Arcadia, Okeechobee those places. But, you know, it’s an odd thing though most packing houses burnt down for some reason. The coloring room where they put the fruit, you know they picked the fruit when it was green and they put it in coloring rooms so they would color it. When they ship it off to the north it was colored. But what they used in those coloring rooms was highly inflammable and I think that’s the reason why a lot of them burnt down. Most of your citrus they picked when it was just starting to turn yellow. But it wasn’t yellow yet. Most northerners don’t know that….

I worked with five mayors…

I was employed by Billy Beardall in 1945 and then next was J. Rolfe Davis and then Bob Carr and then Carl Langford and then Bill Frederick. I worked under five of them. And I retired under Frederick. And I got pictures of each one of the mayors giving me a citation and so forth….     

Interview: Donald Brant

Interviewer: Jane Tracy

Date: November 8, 2014

Place: Belle Isle’s 90th Anniversary Celebration in Belle Isle, Florida.

 

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