By Hilda McCarter
A recent article in the Deland Beacon newspaper evoked memories for those who knew the Jungle Den, in Astor, Florida, in earlier days. It was known by many around Florida for its laid-back atmosphere and impressive fishing tales and in some years, a good restaurant to enjoy excellent seafood. This was true in the 60s and 70s, when this author first became aware of Astor. The owner of the Jungle Den in those years was Oscar Ormond. Since that period, a succession of owners attempted to bring Jungle Den up to date but their efforts were in vain as this landmark fell into disrepair. Called by the Beacon as a once-vibrant resort and fish camp, it now is defined as “an unsightly mess”.
Jungle Den today - Beacon photo
Jungle Den as it was. - internet photo
St. Johns River from Astor Bluff 1990s
For those who know some of the history of this landmark along the famous St. Johns River, this represents another effort to develop an area of Florida, better known to those who can travel the river, along with the rural back roads in the middle of the state.
From the website of Florida Back Roads Travel, we learn that Astor is an unincorporated village on State Road 40 as it crosses the St. Johns River. It is on the west bank in Lake County. Astor has a large network of man made canals that provide access to the river for its many fishing oriented residents. The entire area called Astor is within the boundaries of the Ocala National Forest. Now the Jungle Den settlement is along the east bank -in Volusia County - and officially known as Volusia. Primarily because folks on both sides of the river at this point get their mail from the Post Office in Astor, both sides are identified as the same town.
Volusia Landing; Dillard House in distance - date unknown.
Douglas Fish house at Volusia Bar 1920
Steamer Osceola leaving Astor Landing 1920
All images are from the West Volusia Historical Society Photo Archives unless otherwise noted.
The official website of the town of Astor lists further historical information. The development of this area began in 1874 when William B. Astor,, Jr. bought 12,000 acres of land along the river and named it Manhattan. Astor was a descendent of John Jacob Astor, America’s first multi-millionaire. William Astor made efforts to develop the area, building a small hotel, a school, church, Post Office, along with other buildings to attract tourists traveling by steamboat. Astor’s wife, a New Yorker as well, apparently rejected the area and didn’t reside there long. When William Astor died in 1892, the residents renamed the town Astor.
Astor’s children inherited the Florida land but having no interest in developing it, they soon sold the properties. The advance of the railroad through this part of the state soon caused the demise of steamboat travel on the St. Johns and the town went into a decline. It was not until 1926 that a bridge across the river at this point was built, connecting the two parts of the small settlement called Astor. When a new bridge was constructed in 1978, the bridge keeper’s house, which sat atop the old bridge, was moved east on SR 40 to the Pioneer Settlement to join other historic buildings nestled around the old Barberville School. A field trip to the settlement will offer more information about the area including Astor in the early days.
The website of Astor, Florida, also gives more detail of earlier days there. In 1596, Don Pedro Menendez, when exploring the area, described the river here to be full of “goodly fish”. Botanist John Bartram and his son visited the same spot as Menendez to study flora and fauna of the St. Johns, describing it as a true “garden of Eden”.
Early settlers included the Dillard family in 1860-70. The patriarch, Barney Dillard, reportedly told stories of his colorful life to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings which she used as the basis of her novel, The Yearling. Legend has it that Barney or one of his descendants, tied himself to a massive oak tree near his property on the east side of the river to prevent the highway department from taking it down to widen the road. The Dillard oak still stands!
Astor Bridge 1930s
Gator hunters on Lake George 1890s
Volusia/Astor ferry passengers - date unknown
Astor serves as a gateway into northwest Volusia County since a route takes southbound travelers from I-75 through Ocala into Astor to cross the St. Johns on SR 40. This leads straight to Ormond Beach but a turn south onto U. S. 17 leads into the north end of DeLand. Some in DeLand know the area for the Blackwater Inn, a riverside restaurant just across the bridge on SR 40. Those growing up in DeLand and the surrounding area, know the Astor area for the boat ramps which provide access to Lake George and the famous Silver Glen. Remains of jetties and an old light house in the lake are relics of the steamboat days there and fishermen of the area no doubt have tales of their favorite fishing spots.
So now the Beacon headline bears news of hope of new life for the Jungle Den, and perhaps for the whole of Astor. A central Florida developer has purchased the property with the aim to revamp the 89-acre site, involving demolition and then redevelopment. This will include 21 acres being set aside in a conservation easement. It’s intriguing to imagine what early settlers and developers would think if they could return when the newest development is complete. When newcomers add to the plethora of fish tales connected to this idyllic spot, its fame will surely grow.
Astor Schoolhouse 1900s
Hilda McCarter and her husband Bill were winter residents of the Jungle Den Villa condominiums, just south of the Jungle Den fish camp from 1995 to 2002. They enjoyed the convenience of easy access to boating and fishing, along with others, most of whom were winter residents from a variety of states. Bill discovered he had a distant relative in Astor, Lela Gustafson, whose family came to Astor in 1917. Through Lela, the McCarters learned much of the history of this charming area and were introduced to many of the local folks. Credit should be given to the late Bill Hawkins, Hilda’s brother, who lured the McCarters to Astor in the ’60s after he, a resident of south Florida, discovered it with some fishing friends.