In the Gardens

Sarah Elwell Champa and Joseph "Joey" Champa got married at the wedding chapel in Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens last November.

The mayor knows all about it.

But then so do some newlyweds.

"Sugar Mill Gardens is one of the true hidden gems of our community,” Port Orange Mayor Don Burnette said. “It is a truly amazing natural setting, hidden in the heart of our city.

The mayor lives close by, so he has ridden his bicycle there and taken his sons there, too.

“It means different things to different people, but you can't leave there without a feeling of what it must have been like to live in the early days of Port Orange in the 19th century,” he said. “It is a beautiful piece of our history that is worthy of preserving so that it can be enjoyed for generations to come."

Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens at 950 Old Sugar Mill Road in Port Orange is a botanical garden developed and maintained by the Botanical Gardens of Volusia Inc., a nonprofit organization with no salaried employees. It features a 19th-century sugar factory; part of the former Dunlawton Plantation.

The property was donated in 1963 to the County of Volusia by J. Saxton Lloyd and operated since April 1988 by the non-profit Botanical Gardens group.

“The gardens provide an inexpensive, wholesome family environment where you can stroll through trails, view the sugar mill and statues of dinosaurs from an early theme park, watch butterflies, and learn more about flora and fauna native to Florida,” the gardens' website states.

Finding painted rocks by local artists is also a favorite activity.

What is not so obvious is weddings and other events can be there for a nominal fee.

Newlyweds Sarah and Joseph “Joey” Champa couldn’t be happier about selecting Sugar Mill Gardens for their Nov. 16 wedding.

“We both picked it because we grew up in Port Orange and we love being around nature and wanted our whole day to be around what we love and the people we love,” Ms. Champa said.

At the encouragement of hair customer Terry Montgomery, who volunteers there (Ms. Champa is a hair specialist with the Painted Lily Salon in Port Orange), she went to Sugar Mill Gardens and saw a sign posted for an upcoming wedding and thought she would research further for her own big day.

“It’s very reasonable,” she said. “I met with them, talked to them, and we set the date. I like to support a local area and not spend a fortune. (Volunteers) made sure everything was perfect for the whole day. It was everything we ever could have imagined. I’m glad we found that.”

The Champa bridal party consisted of five bridesmaids, five groomsmen, two flower girls and a ring bearer. Flowers were provided by Brenda’s Bloomers, the company her aunt owns in Maine. Joey Champa works for the Utilities Commission of New Smyrna Beach.

Terry and Barbara Montgomery who live in South Daytona both volunteer for Sugar Mill Gardens along with a dozen other volunteers.

“We take care of whatever needs to be done around the yard,” Mr. Montgomery said. “We’ve been doing it for a couple of years now. A lot of the volunteers have been doing it for a long time, 10 years or more. Everybody enjoys doing it. I’m a retired horticulturist/ landscaper and my wife and I have a lot of gardening experience. We like doing that kind of thing and it’s a great bunch of people.

“The wedding chapel is one of the nice features. It’s a nice venue for people having a wedding. We do weddings almost every weekend,” he said. “People are really very conscientious and respectful of the place.”

Another volunteer, Miriam Smith, stated in an email that Nature’s Chapel is a small, intimate, open-air chapel formed by overhanging trees and with permanent seating. The fee to use it is $300, but it is limited to 50 people because of parking restrictions. The fee helps support the gardens and is very appreciated. Payments can be made and contracts signed Wednesday and Saturday mornings, which are volunteer days.

There is a lot of history at the Gardens. The former sugar cane plantation was destroyed in the Second Seminole War and is now the site of sugar mill ruins. Part of it is the former Bongo Land, an amusement park with dinosaurs, some of which are still standing. There is a Confederate Oak with history from the Civil War.

Admission to the gardens is free and there is no paid staff.

For more information, visit or email

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