By Charles Nelson
Recently, a reader asked about the location of Valrico’s defunct Van Sant School. Thanks to a 1916 map of Valrico, the school’s location is certain: the southwest corner of Eucalyptus Ave. (today: Lumsden Ave.) and Valrico Rd. The one-room school welcomed students for only 10 years, from 1914 to 1923. Sadly, the white brick school building no longer exists. Yet, its history was significant in Valrico’s past.
The village of Valrico, called initially Long Pond, was settled before the Civil War. The little community boomed in the 1890s following railroad service, but an 1895 hard freeze encouraged many new settlers to leave. In 1910, the population had withered to less than 50.
By 1911-12, several well-to-do men, William Miller, J.B. Hamner and a few others, scoured Florida’s west coast, looking for a place to build their new community. They chose Valrico and soon constructed their large homes along Hopewell Rd. (now U.S. 60), reinvigorating the tiny hamlet. Among them was a former governor of Minnesota, Samuel R. Van Sant.
After an early career of building steamboats with his father on the Mississippi River, Van Sant entered public life in Minnesota. A staunch Republican, he served as speaker of the House and served two terms as governor of Minnesota from 1901 to 1905. He earned a reputation as a vigilant ‘trust-buster,’ fighting against railroad interests in his state.
After retirement, the Grand Army of the Republic, a national fraternal organization of Union Army veterans, elected Van Sant as their commander-in-chief. As commander, he was the first to tour the South and invite “boys in blue and boys in gray to sit around campfires together.”
In 1912, Van Sant bought land near Valrico, intending to establish grapefruit and orange groves. In 1914, he built an opulent home on Hopewell Rd. that he named the ‘Anchorage’ in memory of his steamboating days. He became fast friends with Judge Hamner, a former Confederate general. These two friends built their homes adjacent to one another.
These latest Valricans intended to build a new, more prosperous community. They established the Valrico Improvement Association that worked diligently to boost the new town by constructing a bank, a train depot and a community civic center. (Only the civic center building remains.) They also believed a new school was essential, but Hillsborough County balked, citing a lack of funds.
Undaunted, the residents themselves constructed a new schoolhouse, naming it the Van Sant School in honor of their neighbor, the former Minnesota governor.
After a month’s delay from heavy rains, the school opened its doors in October 1913. Ten children enrolled that first year. State school officials admired the one-room bungalow-style structure, calling it the best example of its type in Florida.
Attendance numbers at the school have been hard to come by, but it seems that the Van Sant School grew slowly. The county school board, always seeking to maximize its budget (then, as now), asked Brandon and Valrico citizens to approve a consolidation of the Van Sant School into the larger Brandon School. Valrico voters delayed their vote for a year to assess how well other mergers into Brandon had gone.
In 1922, voters in both districts approved the consolidation with 59 in favor and only two opposing votes. At the end of the Spring term in 1923, the school closed for good.
By October 1925, Van Sant had sold his Valrico home for $30,000 and was looking to move to Tampa. He continued to winter in Tampa, but on his way to Florida for the 1936 season, he died of heart failure in October, at the age of 92.
Many of the men who encouraged Valrico’s growth also left town. By 1929 and the stock market crash, their visions of a thriving Valrico community were over. The dreamers were gone.
What became of the school? Newspaper advertisements offered the school’s land for sale in 1923-1925. It’s not yet clear on when the building ceased to exist.