The Archives is pleased to share this guest blog post by Dr. Paul Butler, the author of Orchids & Butterflies – the Life & Times of Theodore Mead. In this new biography, he gives readers a view of the personal life of Theodore Luqueer Mead, the scientist who inspired Mead Botanical Garden. Dr. Butler was recently awarded the Rhea Marsh and Dorothy Lockhart Smith Winter Park History Research Grant in recognition of this work.
Thank you, Dr. Butler, for sharing your research and insights with us!
One of the major collections in the Rollins Archives concerns letters, orchid memorabilia and other papers relating to the life of Theodore L. Mead, whose legacy garden is here in Winter Park. Mead was one of the most distinguished entomologists and horticulturists of his day (1852-1936) and his achievements in establishing a world-class butterfly collection and a host of horticultural breakthroughs that fundamentally changed the floriculture of Florida have been well documented – see for example his Wikipedia page. In my new book, Orchids & Butterflies – the Life & Times of Theodore Mead, I’ve offered for the first time insights into Mead the person–how he lived and what made him tick, using as a basis much of the Rollins archival material.
The incentive in writing the story of Mead came from my interest in horticulture, the discovery of Mead’s letters in the archives, and a chance encounter with a well-known Winter Park resident, Ken Murrah, performing a captivating historical reenactment of Theodore Mead. The historically accurate biography paints a vivid picture of what life was like as a Central Florida pioneer and citrus grower in the late 19th century. The documentation of most of Mead’s life is still in Central Florida but an important later component resides at Coalburg in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia, the ancestral home of his wife, Edith Edwards Mead. This was a treasure trove of photographs and letters that allowed documentation of the last twenty years of his life.
Edith Edwards Mead at Wait-A-Bit, the Meads’ home in Oviedo, circa 1902. (Photo: Courtesy of Winter Park History Center and Archives)
For Mead’s story, a “life and times” narrative seemed particularly appropriate. His lifetime achievements in entomology and horticulture were substantial and significant. As were his generosity of spirit and concern for others less fortunate than himself that endeared him to the communities in which he lived. The times in which he lived—the environmental, technological and cultural changes that took place during his eighty-year life—provided a fascinating backdrop to the narrative. He experienced the birth of photography and became an enthusiastic early adopter; he witnessed the harrowing death of his only child from scarlet fever, the scourge of juvenile mortality with at that time no known cure; and he became embroiled in the heated religious arguments that followed the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In this debate, from his own studies of environmentally-induced changes in butterfly variants, he took the side of Darwin and that brought him head-to-head in conflict with his evangelical mother.
Orchids & Butterflies is the story of the man who kept Florida a “Land of Flowers” – a hybridizer of plants more skillful than Luther Burbank. Edwin Grover, Professor of Books at Rollins College for many years, was of the opinion that there wasn’t a garden or public park anywhere in Florida that didn’t bear his mark in some form or another.
Mead’s horticultural legacy garden opened to the public in 1940, proclaiming itself as “Florida’s Finest Garden Spot.” Among the things to see and enjoy in this paradise of tropical plants were 5,000 orchids, rare plants, ferns, club mosses, cycads and palms. The garden had large plantings of azaleas, gardenias, camellias, daylilies, caladiums and roses, clumps of candy-striped ‘Mead-strain’ amaryllis, and a winding half mile trail bordering a creek complete with miniature waterfalls. Highway maps at the time, given out free to tourists, showed the Garden as the only sight worth seeing in the Greater Orlando area, together with Sanlando Springs.
Today it is a peaceful, natural oasis of calm that has largely returned to nature, but in some of the quiet corners of the Garden, near the main entrance, the curious-minded can stumble across some of the plants that Mead was famous for.
A Monarch butterfly at Mead Botanical Garden (Photo by Karen Klels, via Creative Commons, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/)
Dr. Butler’s book is available at Olin Library (call number QH31 .B88 O73 2016) and the Winter Park Public Library. It will also be available for purchase from local retailers.