By Mike Miller Updated March 14, 2023
Sanford sometimes gets overlooked in the sprawl of the metropolitan Orlando area, but it is a unique old town on Lake Monroe about 22 miles north of downtown Orlando.
Lake Monroe is one of the wide lakes that are part of the long St. Johns River system that extends all the way north to Jacksonville and the Atlantic Ocean.
The lake has always marked the upstream limit of major navigation on the St Johns.
Sanford experienced major flooding along its waterfront on Lake Monroe in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in September 2022.
Steamers from Jacksonville and points north had to stop in Sanford or Enterprise on the opposite shore of Lake Monroe because the river gets too shallow as you continue upstream.
Because of its location at the head of navigation of this major river, Sanford was known in the very early days as the"Historic Waterfront Gateway City".
The first residents of the area were ancient Native American tribes. After them, the Seminoles arrived in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
During the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the Seminoles burned Palatka, a town on the St Johns River north of Sanford.
The United States Army built Camp Monroe on the south shore of Lake Monroe as a defensive measure.
In 1837 the Seminoles attacked Camp Monroe and the only American casualty was Captain Charles Mellon.
The name of the camp was changed to Fort Mellon and the town that grew up around it was known as Mellonville.
The Army built a road from the fort whose route is still in use in Sanford. It's currently known as Mellonville Avenue.
The area began to grow after the Seminole Wars when it was safe for settlers to set up homes and farms. Orange groves were planted and an orange packing plant was built in 1869.
A year later General Henry Shelton Sanford bought more than 12,000 acres west of Mellonville and laid out a new town he called Sanford.
The first permanent residents of Sanford included many Swedes who were brought in as indentured servants and did the hard work of clearing the land and planting citrus groves.
By 1883, Sanford annexed Mellonville and began to prosper as railroads came to town to supplement the river traffic.
One new railroad connected Sanford to Tampa; another ran north to Jacksonville.
The town was now on the map and this was reinforced in 1883 when President Chester A. Arthur spent a week vacationing in Sanford.
Like many other Florida settlements, Sanford had its growing pains. It was almost totally destroyed by fire in 1887 and the fire was followed by a yellow fever epidemic.
The crowning blow was the destruction of the citrus industry by the Great Freeze of 1894 and 1895. Farmers adapted by turning their groveland into celery farms.
The first celery was planted in 1896 and the celery crops were abundant and became the major industry in town.
When I first came to Florida in 1960, Sanford was known as "The Celery City" and retained that official nickname until 1974.
The industry is still immortalized in the names of some local streets and business establishments along with the many new subdivisions along Celery Road.
The City of Sanford today is a modern city with marinas and parks on a bustling waterfront and a downtown area that has been renovated and turned into a vibrant district with many shops and restaurants.
Its residential neighborhoods are shaded by ancient oaks draped in Spanish Moss. Sanford has a strong sense of community and a distinctive identity in busy Central Florida.
The old Naval Air Station from the World War Two era was converted many years ago into Sanford Airport and has since evolved into Orlando Sanford International Airport.
This airport is a major arrival and destination alternative to Orlando International Airport to the south and offers a direct flight to and from many domestic and foreign locations.
The Amtrak auto train route also begins in Sanford where you can put your car on the train and travel north to Lorton, Virginia.
Interstate 4 is on the west side of town and offers a quick jump to Orlando or Daytona Beach.
Many historic commercial buildings and homes in Sanford have been carefully preserved.
An exception is the old Mayfair Hotel which was built in 1925 and became the Sanford Naval Academy in the 1960s and 1970s.
The building then became the home of New Tribes Mission, a missionary group.
Now they are gone and the building is currently vacant. It is on the south shore of Lake Monroe and is starting to show signs of deterioration.
I hope someone comes up with a way of saving it and putting it to good use again. If not, you can probably expect to see a new condominium on the site.
Many people consider it to be one of the most haunted places in Florida.
The marinas along the downtown Sanford waterfront are home to many pleasure boats and also have tour boats for hire.
They also have an excursion type boats that resemble a paddle wheel riverboat that will take you sightseeing or on a dinner cruise.
Another great experience is to visit the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens. It is located on 166 acres on the west side of Sanford.
The entrance to the zoo is on West Seminole Boulevard, a long drive with a multi-use trail along the pristine waterfront of Lake Monroe.
Our Facebook page has more than 125,161 followers who love off the beaten path Florida: towns, tourist attractions, maps, lodging, food, festivals, scenic road trips, day trips, history, culture, nostalgia, and more. We post articles every day. Please check it out and if you like it, we would appreciate a "like" from you.
By Mike Miller, Copyright 2009-2023
Florida Back Roads Travel is not affiliated with or endorsed by Backroads, a California-based tour operator which arranges and conducts travel programs throughout the world.