Tourists and locals alike love to walk the beautiful tree lined campus of Stetson University. From
beautiful architecture, to a fine art museum, sports fields, and an amazing library, the campus is filled
with opportunities to explore.
The school, founded in 1883 and then known as the DeLand Academy,
opened using a lecture room at First Baptist Church as its first classroom. The next year DeLand Hall
opened. This building cost $4,000 and is now the oldest continuous academic use building in Florida.
In 1885 the DeLand Academy was renamed DeLand College and John F. Forbes was named college president. Under Forbes leadership, the college grew from less than 100 students to almost 300. He also oversaw a construction boom as Stetson Hall, Chaudoin Hall, Elizabeth Hall, Flagler Hall and the residence of the president were built.
Early on the school caught the attention of winter resident John B. Stetson. Stetson was a hat maker, following in the footsteps of his father Stephen. Having lived with cowboys on a western trip, Stetson returned to Philadelphia where he designed the “cowboy hat” and started his path to wealth and fame.
Stetson’s affiliation with the school started after Forbes began a conversation with the hat maker after it was learned Stetson had purchased land in the small town. Mr. Stetson was to eventually donate $3,500 toward the construction of what would become known as “Stetson Hall.”
Mr. Stetson continued to grow his influence on the school, being elected to the Board of Trustees in
1887 and President of the Board in 1889. The school was renamed in his honor that same year, John B.
Stetson University. The name was shortened to the familiar Stetson University in 1951.
Mr. Stetson would continue to live part of the year in DeLand at his mansion, now known as the Stetson Mansion, until passing away there in 1906. Stetson is buried in a mausoleum in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. An online memorial to Stetson may be found here. To the best
of my knowledge, there is no full-length biography on Mr. Stetson.
Fast forward about 100 years to a goal of then president Wendy Libby. Dr. Libby wanted to commemorate the university benefactor with a life size sculpture for all to see. This goal began to take shape with the financial support of Troy Templeton and his wife Sissy. World-renowned sculptor Erik Blome was selected to create the showpiece.
Blome is well known for his high profile, larger than life sculptures. Some of his more famous works
include the Chicago Blackhawks 75th anniversary sculpture outside the United Center, the 9/11
monument in Oak Lawn, Illinois, the Martin Luther King, Jr. statue in Milwaukee, and Rosa Parks in both
Montgomery, AL and Dallas, TX.
The first aim was to determine what the sculpture would look like. Drawings showing many different possible poses were created before the idea of a seated Stetson, doffing his hat, was agreed upon. Said Blome, “I went with that because it’s a really warm and welcoming kind of thing.” Libby and Templetons agreed.
In creating sculptures such as this, the subject is often created in a larger than life size. The goal Blome said is to make the subject “feel bigger and more powerful and more interesting” because often times “they sometimes look too diminutive.” The problem was nobody knew how tall Mr. Stetson was. Sue Ryan, the Betty Drees Johnson Dean of Library and Learning Technologies, along with Blome began to unravel the mystery. Using a group photo that included the hat maker, along with the height of several descendants, they estimated Mr. Stetson to have been six feet tall.
Ultimately, the John B. Stetson sculpture was created at 130 percent of actual height meaning if Stetson were standing, he would be roughly seven and a half feet tall. The final sculpture, including the bronze bench, weigh in at an impressive 1,600 pounds and were installed along Palm Court, near Elizabeth Hall, with the use of a forklift in August 2019 and a formal dedication was held over Friends and Family Weekend in October 2019.
Today, visitors can share a seat with the university’s namesake, take a selfie or two, and share their encounter with the world’s most famous hat maker.
Have you visited the sculpture and taken a selfie with Stetson? If so, share your image in the comments. We’d love to see it.
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Chicago Public Art
Lycan, Gilbert L. Stetson University: the First 100 Years. DeLand: Stetson University Press, 1983.