Many towns and cities in Central Florida and across the nation move forward in time with little thought or regard for their roots. With each road expansion, strip mall, and new housing development, their history disappears.

But in Apopka, when it comes to history, no matter the growth and changes, it is a city that remembers.

Take a look at the bronze statue of longtime mayor John Land standing tall and watching over City Hall. Apopka founding fathers like Ustler, Welch, and Gladden are memorialized as street names all across the four corners of the city. And consider the public outcry when the historic Highland Manor was threatened to be taken out of the plans for the City Center project.

Apopka not only remembers its history but fights for it when necessary.

The latest milestone involves a tornado, an elementary school, sycamore trees, and a 13-year-old boy who would later become Apopka’s fire chief. Go back in time with me 100 years ago to a small town in Central Florida that’s about to suffer possibly its most devastating storm in history.

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It was a cold January evening when a Category F2 tornado with winds estimated to be between 113-157 miles per hour slammed into the little town of Apopka in the Year of our Lord 1918.

Although no one was killed, there were 10 injuries to people due to the tornado. 35 homes were hit, and a total of $125,000 worth of damage was reported to the city, which would equate to about $1.9 million by 2018 standards.

According to reports, there were no structures left standing.

“The tornado was preceded by a severe electrical and thunderstorm, which commenced about 7 p.m. and lasted until midnight,” wrote the Tampa Tribune. “The tornado came up from the south. It was a “twister” and its path was a line of destruction. Everything in the track of the storm went down. Buildings were demolished and railway cars blown into ditches. Among the houses destroyed were the White residence, the Seaboard depot, Eldridge livery stable, Miss Howard’s residence, Judge Weatherbee’s residence, the schoolhouse, B.F. Wilson’s store and home, and many other buildings. Some can be repaired. That there was no loss of life is considered marvelous.” 

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And 100 years later, Apopka remembered the devastating event and celebrated the progress made since.

On Thursday, January 11th, students at Apopka Elementary School gathered to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the infamous 1918 tornado, which wiped out the school, much of downtown Apopka, and a sycamore tree planted by the PB Sheppard family.

 “This event is all about history,” Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer told the students. “Apopka is a very historic city and there are a lot of stories to tell. Today is about maintaining our history and keeping its origins intact.”

Apopka Fire Chief Chuck Carnesale is a student of Apopka history and told the students a story about that infamous day.

“One of my favorite things is the sycamore tree at City Hall,” said Carnesale. I can see it through the window of my office at the Fire Department. On Arbor Day in 1900 PB Sheppard, who was a City Commissioner in Apopka, planted two sycamore trees, but on January 11th, 1918…100 years ago today, it looked like fire in the sky. Thunder, lightning, and sheets of rain poured down on the town… and then there was a loud sound…it was the tornado. The school, which was where City Hall is now, was flipped upside down. Much of the town was destroyed, and one of the sycamore trees was lost, but the other survived.”

In 1918 the Apopka Union School was located on the current City Hall property. Apopka Elementary was moved in the late 1960’s to its current location at the corner of Old Dixie Highway and what is now known as Vick Road. 

Then Carnesale projected his audience all the way to 1984 to bring the story full circle.

“34 years years ago a 13-year-old boy and his mom stopped at the Main Street McDonalds,” he said. “The mom looked across the street and told her son to look at that amazing sycamore tree. The boy instead saw a fire truck. That 13-year-old boy was me, and I asked my mom to take me across the street to see the fire truck. I ended up signing up for the Apopka Fire Department Explorer program… so indirectly that tree is the reason I am the Fire Chief.”

During the ceremony students from each grade read poetry about the event, and members of the school choir sang a song. They closed the ceremony by planting another sycamore tree on the school’s property near the front of the school to take the place of the one that fell in 1918.

The plaque next to the tree reads:

“On January 11th, 1918, a tornado destroyed the Apopka Union School and one of two symbolic sycamore trees that bordered the property adjacent to what is now City Hall. 

 On January 11th, 2018, a new sycamore tree was planted at Apopka Elementary School to commemorate its link to the rich history of Apopka public schools spanning more than 100 years.”

Just another reminder that Apopka never forgets its history.

 

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