William John Howey was born on January 19, 1876 in Odin, Illinois. He began selling insurance at 16-years-old and by 1900 began developing land and towns for the railroad in Oklahoma. He opened the Howey Motor Car Company in Kansas City in 1903, and after making seven Howey Cars, closed his business. At age 31, he bought a large tract of land in Mexico and tried his hand at selling pineapple plantations, but the Mexican Revolution forced him out.
It was in 1908 when Howey found himself in Winter Haven, Florida where he perfected his citrus farming and sales program techniques. He believed that if he took raw land and controlled its development into mature citrus groves, he could guarantee investors a successful enterprise while making a profit on each step of citrus cultivation. In 1914, he began buying land for $8 to $10 per acre and later sold them at $800 to $2000 per acre, cleared and planted with 48 citrus trees per acre. Howey also offered a no-risk guarantee: if the buyer signed up for Howey’s company to maintain the land as well but the land didn’t turn a profit with a set amount of time, he would buy back the land for the original cost plus interest.
Buyers flocked to the town, many considering him Florida’s greatest citrus developer. In 1917, he built the “Bougainvillea”, a two-story frame boarding house across from the future site of the Howey Mansion, to house the visiting investors. By 1920, he had amassed nearly 60,000 raw acres for his “City Inevitable,” but the Bougainvillea burned to the ground that year. He set up temporary housing in “Tent City” on the same location and opened the Floridan Hotel at the south end of town in 1924, and it soon became the social hub of the community. The Floridan Hotel would later become a victim to “the bomb”, an economic boom that occurred in parts of Florida where movie production companies would pay cities to blow up buildings for their movies; it was blown up in 1994 for Hulk Hogan’s “Thunder in Paradise”.
The Florida Land Boom tripled Howey’s enterprises and the “Town of Howey” was incorporated on May 8, 1925. In 1927, the name was officially changed to Howey-in-the-Hills to reflect the location of the town in an area of rolling hills which he dubbed “The Florida Alps”. In 1927, construction of his mansion was completed; a 20-room, 7,200 square foot mansion at the cost of $250,000, around $3.2 million after inflation. To celebrate, he hosted the entire New York Civic Opera Company of 100 artists, drawing a crowd of 15,000 arriving in 4,000 automobiles to the free outdoor performance.
Howey died of a heart attack on June 7, 1938 at the age of 62. His wife, Mary Grace Hastings, lived in the Howey mansion until her death on December 18, 1981 and was laid to rest in the family mausoleum on the mansion grounds along with William and their daughter Lois.
Today, the mansion sits vacant and the story of how it came to be is one too common. The current owner, Marvel Zona, purchased the home in 1984 for around $400,000 along with her husband Jack. In 1996, the property was in trust to Marvel’s name. With her husband in failing health, she took a $347,000 reverse mortgage which would pay her a fixed income for life. Her Husband passed away in 2000.
Over the years, Zona opened the mansion to public tours with the profits going to charity. In 2003, she approached Lake County officials with the idea of turning the home into a museum, but it was not eligible for state historic preservation grant funds due to the fact that it was privately owned.
In 2005, Zona was approached by would-be buyers who convinced her that the reverse mortgage was a bad deal. If she took a $1.2 million loan, leverage by a mansion she owned in North Carolina, she could pay off the mortgage and would make the mansion easier to sell. In 2006, she agreed to a $1.2 million adjustable rate mortgage with a starting interest rate of 1.25%. The rate would later rise monthly to a rate of 9.95%. Though her income was a mere $1000 per month, her monthly payments were $3,200 for the next 30 years. Within two years, she lost the mansion the North Carolina and the Howey mansion was put into foreclosure.
Many potential buyers have made offers on the home but none can really afford it. Zona’s lawyer suspects the parties who have the house tied up would settle for no less than $2 million. In addition, estimates for the repairs to the house along with the installation of central air conditioning would cost an additional $1.5 million.
Police have been called to the property multiple times whenever residents suspect vandals of entering the home, but so far most of the people caught there have been photographers or history buffs looking to get a glimpse of the mansion.