ORMOND BEACH -- A hundred years ago, car racing got its start here when two automobile pioneers, Ransom E. Olds and Alexander Winton, squared off on Ormond's hard-packed beach sands.
Auto racing long ago moved to a banked speedway 5 miles south in Daytona Beach, but for three decades Ormond's broad beach was the Valhalla of automobile races. All the greats of racing competed here, from Barney Oldfield and the Stanley brothers of Stanley Steamer days to Eddie Rickenbacker and Sir Malcolm Campbell.
Records were set and broken almost every year, from a once-amazing 68 mph in 1903 to almost 300 mph in 1935.
Today Ormond Beach is a quiet resort town of 36,000 on Florida's Atlantic coast, midway between Jacksonville and Cape Canaveral. It is much less frenetic than neighboring Daytona Beach, yet it's close enough that visitors and residents alike can enjoy Daytona's many attractions.
While auto races are no longer held here, Ormond Beach's heritage as the birthplace of speed remains very much alive. Every year, dozens of antique-car owners gather for festivals celebrating Ormond's glittering past, and reminders of the glory days of racing abound.
About 200 antique cars paraded over Thanksgiving in the 46th annual Birthplace of Speed fete, and many of them will return Jan. 30-31 for a new annual event, a sequel to the 100 Years of Racing festival that took place last March. Time trials, racing on the beach and a parade are planned.
Until a few years ago, several early race cars were on display at the Birthplace of Speed Museum, which was housed in the classic old firehouse. But when the local fire department reclaimed the structure, most of its contents went to Daytona USA, the museum at Daytona Beach's famed International Speedway.
Hotels, condos and private homes line the broad beach where auto pioneers once raced their cars, but several historic markers in the beachfront Birthplace of Speed Park tell the racing story. Full-size replicas of the two cars that took part in that famous first race in 1903 were installed in the park earlier this year, but they're out for refurbishing until March. Driving is still permitted on the beach, by the way, but the speed limit is 10 mph and you have to pay a $5 fee.
Ormond Beach's reputation, however, doesn't rest totally on auto racing. It became a popular winter resort in the late 1800s when Henry Flagler brought tourists down to his Ormond Hotel, one of the largest wooden hotels ever built.
One of the hotel's seasonal residents was Flagler's partner, John D. Rockefeller Sr., who liked Ormond so much that he bought a house -- the Casements, now open to the public.
Rockefeller's presence lured other rich industrialists to the Ormond Hotel, among them the Astors, Goulds and Vanderbilts, as well as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Duke of Windsor, Will Rogers and Al Capone. The latter was rumored to have hidden $100,000 there, but when the hotel was torn down in 1992, no cash was found. All that remains of the hotel now is its red-roofed cupola, mounted in the adjacent Fortunato Park.
Rockefeller's home stands across the street. The Casements is a city cultural center, but visitors can tour its rooms, which have been furnished with items reflective of Rockefeller's era. Only a few of the industrialist's possessions remain in the home -- his desk, samples of his stationery and his high-backed beach chair. Rockefeller died at The Casements in 1937.
Don Bostrum, now 86, lived near Rockefeller as a child and remembers him well.
"John D. was truly a wonderful man. He loved children and liked to 'borrow' them for his Christmas party," he says. Photos of Rockefeller's Christmas parties, which became legendary, are hung in The Casements.
Bostrum volunteers at the Ormond Beach Historical Society, housed in the former home of Billy Macdonald, who came from New York's Astor and Plaza hotels in the 1920s to manage the tearoom at the Ormond Hotel, then opened his own restaurant. His Billy's Tap Room, which has won the Daytona Beach News-Journal award as "best all-around restaurant" in Volusia and Flagler counties for four straight years, is filled with memorabilia from the city's glory days.
Other sites of interest in Ormond Beach include the Ormond Memorial Art Museum, which has a lovely garden with nature trails, fish ponds, fountains and a waterfall; The Loop, a 22-mile route that runs along the beach and then through a tunnel of old-growth oaks; and Tomoka State Park, with an interesting museum, nature trails and two rivers filled with fish.
For more information, contact the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-544-0415, or see daytonabeach.com.
Ormond Beach: The pace slows at the 'Birthplace of Speed'
Ormond Beach (Daytona Beach Chamber of Commerce)