When Herb Piper was a young engineer living in Satellite Beach in the 1960s, he would join family members on weekend expeditions to a nearby fish camp owned by a relative's friend. Piper could never have guessed that some 50 years later he'd be welcoming visitors to the historic home of that camp owner: Harry P. Leu.
Now Piper volunteers at Orlando's Harry P. Leu Gardens as a docent at the Leu House Museum, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Beginning as a farmhouse in 1888, the home grew over the years through four owners, the last of which were Harry and Mary Jane Leu. It's a great platform for telling fascinating stories from the sweep of Central Florida's past.
From sheriff to self-made millionaire
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Leu Gardens occupies one of Central Florida's most historic properties. Its first owners, David William and Angeline Mizell, arrived in the area in 1858. After David Mizell became Orange County's sheriff and was killed in an ambush in 1870, he was buried in a family plot on the land, in Orlando's first Masonic funeral.
By the time the Leus acquired the property in 1936, Harry Leu was one of the city's best-known residents.
A self-made man in the Horatio Alger style, he built one of the largest supply businesses in Florida. Harry P. Leu Inc. sold everything from fence material to firefighting equipment — engines, pumps, motors, all kinds of metal building supplies and every kind of hardware imaginable.
Florida's growing industries — railroads, sawmills, citrus growers, turpentine distillers, phosphate miners — needed the parts and equipment that Leu had to sell.
Harry had been a hard worker even as a boy. During high-school days at St. Joseph's Academy, he began his days at 2:30 a.m. to be ready for his part-time job at Hyer's Livery Stable.
After graduation, he took off for New York to study bookkeeping but returned to Orlando when he was just 20 to work for Cain-O'Berry Boiler Co. That was in 1904. By the mid-1920s, Leu had become the company's owner and renamed the business Harry P. Leu Inc.
By 1932, his prominence in Orlando was such that his Pennsylvania wedding to Mary Jane Schmidli was reported on the front page of the morning newspaper, under the headline "Harry Is Wed, Thereby Proving 'They All Fall Sooner or Later.' "
Leu, who was 48 and had never married, "has for years been considered the most perennial in the Orlando colony of perennial bachelors," according to the writer, who joked that shock about Leu's wedding was so great that Orlandoans "were literally knocked off their feet when the news burned up telephone wires."
The saga of the Leus' courtship is one of Herb Piper's favorite stories to tell visitors to the Leu House. There are other great tales, featuring the polo-playing second owner of the property, Duncan Pell, and his beautiful young wife, Helen, who went on to become a silent movie star — and, of course, the slaying of Sheriff David Mizell in 1870. Mizell remains the only Orange County sheriff to be killed in the line of duty.
Piper's stories aren't just good yarns. Along with his wife, Bobbe, he's an accomplished researcher with a passion for accuracy. He's delved into the property's history, including what turned out to be a perplexing question: In addition to Sheriff Mizell, how many folks are actually buried in the cemetery at Leu Gardens, and who and where are they?
Learn about historic cemetery
On Saturday, April 27, Piper will teach a class on the historic Mizell cemetery, drawing on recent in-depth research. It's from 10 a.m. to noon and includes a visit to the cemetery. The tuition is $8 for Leu Gardens members and $14 for others.
Participants must register before the class; call 407-246-3621 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Harry P. Leu Gardens offers classes in horticulture, landscaping, fine arts, and other topics, including history, all year round for children and adults.