By Dan Harkins
DEBARY - Sandra Wilson, the director for the three-year-old Gateway Center for the Arts, was gliding around the 18,000-square-foot building one recent afternoon like her organization had finally arrived.
Representatives from historical societies throughout West Volusia had just finished spending two days setting up local historical displays to coincide with a sneak peek at the Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibition called Journey Stories that was set up in the center's exhibit hall. Now they were all mingling around and telling their stories, talking about how this event had finally put the fledgling center on the map.
"Who else is going to bring the Smithsonian to DeBary?" Ms. Wilson bragged. "It's an excellent opportunity with the way West Volusia is often neglected. But people still need to know we're here. We're still getting people in here after 3-1/2 years and they still don't know what it is."
Local residents like Dave Smith thought displays like this would go a long way toward ending that anonymity.
"The great thing about this is that a town as small as this can land an exhibit as big as this," Mr. Smith said as he perused the Smithsonian exhibition, which attempts to tell the story of how Americans came to be where they are today. "It says something about the city."
With the local displays lining the center's auditorium, local historians were busy telling their own local stories that tied their towns into that larger picture being provided by the Smithsonian.
"What this display does is it celebrates the journey from way back when to now," said Ken Webster, a member of the DeBary Historical Society. "The trials and tribulations, the hard effort that it took to get us here."
The local displays attempted to tie in local history with the bigger picture. Mr. Webster was chatting up passersby about city founder Frederick DeBary, who not only ran a prominent steamboat and railroad franchise but also a successful rum and champagne business.
"DeBary Hall was just a playground for his hussies," Mr. Webster noted, "and all this is part of the tour we give every week."
Bob LaFleur, a local historian from Orange City's John Knox Village, was at the sneak peek with his wife, Joan, who was dressed as an early town pioneer from the Stillman family. He wore a bowler's hat to fit in.
He said he can't remember ever having a chance to get together with this many historic preservationists in one place from West Volusia.
"This is the first time something like this has ever happened," he said. "Most of us don't even know each other, and that is wrong."
The local exhibitions will remain on the walls until Oct. 8, but the Smithsonian display runs from the grand opening at 4 to 9 p.m. Sept. 8 until Oct. 13.
The center, at 880 U.S. 17/92 in DeBary, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and is closed on Sunday.