March 1, 2016

LOCAL TALENT: Gary McKechnie — Pages from the past

2.3 min read| Published On: March 1st, 2016|

By Leigh Neely

LOCAL TALENT: Gary McKechnie — Pages from the past

2.3 min read| Published On: March 1st, 2016|

The bright yellow cottage on McDonald Street in Mount Dora is the Coconut Cottage Inn, a delightful bed and breakfast owned by husband-and-wife innkeepers Gary McKechnie and Nancy Howell. As innkeepers, they have studied the history of Mount Dora and love to regale guests with tales of how this special town is able to retain its historical ambiance while embracing all the modern amenities. Now they’ve taken it a step further and published a book, “A Brief History of Mount Dora.”

“Jim Clark is the editor of Orlando magazine, and he has written a couple of books for the History Press,” Gary said. “He said we knew so much about Mount Dora history we should be able to write this book in two weeks.”

Several months later, Gary and Nancy were still heavily involved in research and verifying facts. “You can’t just write it down and not fact-check it. You have to put it in order and verify it,” Gary said. “Then you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s only 1950.”

Their hard work paid off, however, and “A Brief History of Mount Dora” came out in January.

The two are well known in the area due to their extensive community work, and both thought they had a good grasp of local legends.

“You can live around here a long time and think you know it,” Nancy said. “Having a bed and breakfast, we talk to people all the time about local history. We moved here in 1992 and have been on the boards of the chamber of commerce and Lake County tourism.”

After learning more than they knew they could ever use in one book, Gary and Nancy faced the next obstacle. “We looked through archives of historical papers, read microfiche, and read numerous books,” Gary said. “How do you decide what’s important?”

They began to focus their research. “When we’d see things that came up again and again, we’d know that was important,” Gary said. “We also found we could use a lot for filler stuff, little bites of history and pictures of people who came to town like Calvin Coolidge’s wife, Grace, who planted a tree beside the community building.”

Nancy was especially intrigued by Anna Stone Donnelly’s story. “You always hear stories of Dora Ann Drawdy, but Annie Stone Donnelly played a big part in the town’s history, too.”

The intrepid pioneer moved to Mount Dora in 1875 as the young wife of William Stone. She came with her parents who hoped the change of scenery would help their daughter’s troubled marriage. Though the couple had a son, William had repeatedly left Annie while they lived in Georgia. When he permanently abandoned her, the judge who granted her divorce also granted her the property.

“J.P. Donnelly borrowed money to buy the land beside Annie’s property,” Nancy said. “They’re neighbors living close to each other and romance ensues, and they married. She not only became his wife, but she also became his business partner. She also had her land paid off before she married him. I found her extremely fascinating.”

J.P. built the beautiful Queen Ann-style house for her that’s now called The Donnelly House, a town landmark near Fifth Avenue. J.P. eventually became the first mayor and in 1924, sold the town the land that became Annie Donnelly Park.

“A Brief History of Mount Dora” is available on Amazon, as well as at Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million.

PHOTO: Fred Lopez // LOCATION: One Flight Up Café, Mount Dora

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About the Author: Leigh Neely

Leigh Neely began her writing career with a weekly newspaper in the Florida panhandle, where she not only did the writing, but delivered the papers to the post office and dispensers. She has been writing ever since for a variety of newspapers and magazines from New Jersey to Leesburg. With her writing partner, Jan Powell, Leigh has published two novels as Neely Powell.

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