My Grandparent’s Florida Swampland

Among the many records of my grandfather, Jan and Eva Sajdak, that my father kept after my grandmother’s death, one of the most perplexing was a “Agreement for Warranty Deed from Hurban Colony Zellwood, Florida to Jan Sajdak.”

The contract from March of 1917 introduced the cast of characters who would star in a family mystery.

Hurban County, Zellwood, Florida

Whereas John Golosinec, representing the “Hurban Colony” has entered into an agreement with the Florida Fruit Products and Land Company, a corporation, for the purchase of certain lands belonging to said company and situated in Orange and Lake Counties, in the State of Florida, to which said agreement is hereby made, and

Whereas, It is stated in said agreement that said John Golosinec shall pay for said lands the sum of Twenty-seven thousand five hundred dollars . . . at a rate of Twenty Seven dollars and Fifty cents per acre . . .

And Whereas, Jan Sajdak desires to purchase 10 acres of said lands, now,
Therefore, this agreement entered into by and between John Golosinec, of the City of Chicago, County of Cook, State of Illinois . . . and Jan Sajdak . . .

Witnesseth: That the in consideration of the sum of Two Hundred Seventy-Five . . . to the party of the first part . . . agrees to make and deliver to the party of the second part, his heirs and assigns, sufficient warranty deed for lot or tract Section three (3), Block six (6), Lots thirty-four (34), Range twenty seven (27), Township nineteen (19) Orange County, Florida.

The characters:

  • John Golosinec, representing the “Hurban Colony”
  • The Florida Fruit Products and Land Company, a Delaware corporation
  • Zellwood, Florida
  • The Hurban Colony
  • And the land: Section three (3), Block six (6), Lots thirty-four (34), Range twenty seven (27), Township Nineteen (19) Orange County, Florida (actually recorded as Township 20)

I asked my father about the contract. He said he had asked his mother about the land, and that all she said was that “it didn’t work out.” My initial thought was “Great! my grandparent’s bought swampland in Florida!”

The story of the land became somewhat of an obsession. I chased down the Florida Fruit Products and Land Company. (Turns out they were a Delaware-based corporation that went bankrupt in 1936.) I searched for John Golosinec. (He was an attorney. He owned land and farmed in Florida. But returned to Chicago by 1930.) The Hurban Colony? I have found nothing.

I was convinced that my grandparents had been swindled.

Then, in pursuing the location of the property, I found that there was a registered deed filed in Orange County. (Orange County Records: Book 189 Page 315). With the help of Orange County Appraisers, I learned that the land on the deed (now known as part of parcel 10-20-27-0000-00-045) is located south of Round Lake, on Road Lake Road near Ondich Rd.

Ondich Road is likely named after a Slovak immigrant to Slavia, FL, Michael Ondich. Other settlers in Slavia were from various parts of Slovakia, but all of them emigrated to Pittsburg, met in a Lutheran/Slovak church there around 1909 and banded together to buy land in Florida a couple of years later. The area of their purchased land was named Slavia.

I still didn’t know what had happened, but there was a real property.

So, I started searching land records. There I found that Jan and Eva were not the only family members to buy land from the same people.

Those relatives were:

  • a witness at Grandparent’s wedding and likely Grandma’s 2nd Cousin, JAN RANIK, on 26 Oct 1914,
  • Grandma’s “distant” cousin ONDREJ BEHRO, on 26 Oct 1914,
  • Cousin and wedding witness: STEFAN SAJDAK (Went by Saydak), on 17 Feb 1916, and
  • My Grandfather: JAN SAJDAK, on 2 Mar 1917.

None of the four seemed to have ever done anything with the land. Only one, Stefan, ever seems to have lived in Florida. Stefan bought an existing home in a different area of Orlando in 1956, and died in Florida in 1967.

So, what had happened?

I have come across an August 1951 legal notice which, while not listing my grandfather specifically, does list the prior “owner” (Florida Fruit Products and Land Company), and the name of his “contact” in Chicago (John Golosinec). The land listed in the ad, if it didn’t include my grandfather’s land, included everything around it. The case was in the 9th Circuit of Florida, Chancery Number 23960, John Tiedtke v Francesca Wilson, et al, A Bill to Quiet Title. (Orlando Evening Star, 22 Aug 1951, p 15)

An order to “quiet title” would comprise a complaint that the ownership (title) of a parcel of land or other real property is defective in some fashion, typically where title to the property is ambiguous – for example, where it has been conveyed by a quit claim deed through which the previous owner disclaims all interest, but does not promise that good title is conveyed. It was difficult to know what may have happened. From the record, it seemed clear that John Golosinec and the Florida Fruit Products and Land Company had many dealings, passing property (sometimes the same property?) back and forth prior to 1951. With the “purchases” by other individuals, the title was likely very muddled.

Prior to 1951, in 1926, another legal notice listing the same properties sought an “order for constructive service” against Golosinec.

I could not find any records of the four cousins having sold their property. That led me to believe that Grandpa must have signed a quit claim deed back to Golosinec prior to his death in 1926. In 1926, John Golosinec made a large transfer of land back to the Florida Fruit Products and Land Company. That transfer likely included Grandpa’s land, though it is difficult to determine with certainty.

Why did they give up their claims?

Slavia and Grandpa's land

One theory: the land was “swampy.” (In the map, Slavia, a Slovak enclave in Florida, is highlighted in yellow, the area of Grandpa’s land is in red.)

In researching, I was able to talk to descendants of John Duda. Duda became a successful farmer in the Slavia, Florida community of Slovaks. Duda had come to Pittsburg, PA from Trencin in Slovakia, then to Florida. One member of the community in Florida described the land this way:

There was muck farming on the property by Lake Apopka.  That was the swamp land that was drained so that it could be farmed. It was fertile, black soil. That’s where my father and the Dudas and probably 50 other farmers used to grow produce.  All of that farm land was bought about 20 years ago by the government’s water management organization:  Saint Johns River Water Management. But that was 4 or so miles from ‘your’ property.

(Marjorie Grinnell, 10 Feb 2019)

So, it is possible that the Florida land was “mucky.” But the people I talked to in the area contend that land/soil near Round Lake Road is dry, sandy soil. There is a nursery about a mile from the land. In addition, there were ferneries around Round Rock Rd. In fact, John Golosinec himself returned to Florida as the officer of a corporation in Zellwood, FL to grow ferns in 1927. An article in the Orlando Sentinel described Golosinec:

The Golosinecs are not strangers in this community. Mr. John Golosinec has been active and financially interested in citrus groves and trucking at Zellwood for the past 16 years. He at present owns considerable acreage and eighteen acres of groves.

(Orlando Sentinel, 19 Mar 1927, p4)

A second explanation of what happened to the land is failure to pay taxes. It is possible that it was difficult to pay taxes in Florida, especially if the ownership lasted into the Great Depression. We know this was what likely happened to the land of Stefan Saydak. The Orlando Evening Star of 24 Jul 1937 published a legal notice that property would be sold at auction for failure to pay taxes. Stefan Saydak was listed. None of the other “cousins” was listed in the ad. A 1931 legal notice had listed a small parcel owned by Golosinec.

It may well have been, as I speculated earlier, that my grandfather gave up his claim through a quit claim deed to Golosinec. If so, the terms, date, and reason are lost. But the general economic condition of the family, including the medical bills, could have resulted in the need to liquidate the property. This, of course, would only explain one of four family’s reasons for selling.

A third explanation deals with the collapse of a land speculation bubble. The Roaring 20’s led to a large number of speculators who thought they could make quick money. Some used land as their vehicle. Florida experienced a “bubble” in land prices. The bubble burst in 1926. The weakness of this explanation is two-fold. One, the “boom” was largely a product of the post- World War I period and the twenties. Grandpa bought his land earlier than that. Two, the bubble largely covered south Florida, near the Everglades. The Zellwood land is north and central. The major strength of this explanation is the “bursting” which corresponds to a flurry of land transfers and legal notices in 1926.

What was the draw for the family to look for land in Florida?

Of course, there was a lot of talk about the land boom in Florida. Buying land in Florida could have provided “wealth” in potential farm land, as a warm weather haven, or as an investment. It is important to note that Florida was a “target” of Slovak immigrants.

The Slavia area was settled by Slovaks. While this area was largely developed by immigrants to Pittsburg, the Duda’s were from the State of Trencin in Slovakia. So were our grandparents, although about 2 hours by car north.

The Chicago area Slovaks also became interested in Florida. Jerrell Shofner reported, “About twenty Slovaks, members of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church, came from Chicago as laborers in 1911.  Many of them remained and some of their descendants still live in northwest Orange County.”  Despite the arrivals of these new settlers and several others who attempted to farm the muck-land, the Johnston-Elliot firm was unsuccessful.” (HISTORY OF APOPKA AND NORTHWEST ORANGE COUNTY FLORIDA by Jerrell H. Shofner; Copyright 1982, p. 93)

Our grandparents, of course moved to Cudahy, Wisconsin and to St. John Lutheran Church, and many of the Chicago “Sajdaks” attended the Trinity Slovak Lutheran Church. While they did not attend the Bethlehem Church, and there is little evidence that any of the “Sajdaks” ever farmed in Florida, it would be likely that some Bethlehem Slovaks talked with Trinity Slovaks. These contacts as well as others may have been served as a draw to Florida.

We do know, however, that the church connections were present. The chief connection was likely Rev. Jan Pelikan. Rev Pelikan was a native of Zariecie (Grandma listed him as her minister in Slovakia) and had served as pastor there before coming to Chicago in 1902. In Chicago, Pelikan was the pastor at St Peter and St Paul’s Lutheran Church, where many of our Chicago relatives attended. Additionally, his son Jaroslav Jan Pelikan was also a minister, living in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and then Chicago. His daughter Anna married an Ohio minister, Andrew Daniel. Finally, Anna’s obituary mentions her sister Bessie living in Slavia and Anna’s death and burial in Slavia.

And, of course, there could have been another “cousin” amongst the Slavia settlers.

What is also of interest is what has happened to the land now. Over the last decades, the land (very near the arrow point in the image below) has been part of a proposed development, Stoneybrook Hills, phase 3 — The Foothills of Mt. Dora.

The Foothills of Mt Dora Development
The Foothills of Mt Dora Development

On the books since 1991, the development has been fiercely opposed by Mount Dora and Tangerine residents who are concerned about its size, traffic and drain on water resources. Originally, the community was planned for only 477 homes. (Monica Scott. Orlando Sentinel, Dec 3, 2002) The 2002 plan called for 999 homes, 180,000 square feet of commercial space, an elementary-school site and park, recreational amenities and a possible golf course.

The development was still in public hearings as of 2015.

It is difficult without records to know exactly why the sale “did not work out.” But my grandfather likely did not buy swampland in Florida. The investigation will continue.