Thelma Cardwell escaped war-era England when she was a child and settled in the area with her aunt and uncle.
Among the furniture, knick knacks, artifacts, old photographs and clothing at the Port Orange Historical Trust, the most valuable source of Port Orange history is 90-year-old Thelma Cardwell.
Cardwell, who is celebrating her birthday on Oct. 20, sits at the main table of the museum at 740 Commonwealth Ave. each Thursday, recounting stories of school days at Port Orange Elementary, workdays at Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens, Halloween nights as a teenager and the time she and her husband spent managing a local funeral home.
Jennifer Gill, vice president of the historical trust, said Cardwell has a sweet temperament and is very ladylike, evidenced by the way she covers her mouth when she shares gossip or an unkind thought. She may struggle to walk, but others have to remind her to slow down. Her English accent still lingers, mixed with a distinct Southern drawl.
Cardwell was born in 1928 in England, where she lived until 1938 before her mother, Florence Worthington, sent her to live in Florida.
At the time, British civilians were evacuating the country during World War II to escape aerial bombings. Children were often placed in foster homes, hostels, schools and farms.
Cardwell was sent to live with her uncle and aunt, William and Ada Whitehead, who moved to Florida a few years prior and opened a bar in Edgewater. They eventually adopted her.
“No one really put it in my head what was happening,” Cardwell said. “They knew the Germans were coming sooner or later, so my mother put me on a ship. I was too dumb to know that I was going away from my family, and I wasn’t coming back.”
She traveled third class, but as a young child traveling alone, she was allowed to visit first class to see some of the amenities.
“I guess I was babied,” she said.
When the ship arrived in New York, she met her aunt and traveled to New Smyrna Beach. Two years later in 1940, they moved to Port Orange.
She and her family kept in touch, but as time passed, fewer and fewer letters were sent.
“That’s a question mark in my life,” she said. “I don’t know what happened to them. Sometimes, families get away from each other, and I got away from mine. When you’re adopted, you forget your past. You’re supposed to forget it; you’re not supposed to bring it up.”
So, she kept moving forward.
Cardwell became a student at Port Orange Elementary.
Though the school was founded in the 1800s, the brick building was built in 1925 on the same site where it stands today. The school’s campus has expanded from having two rooms to housing about 400 students in 2018.
Harold Cardwell, also a historian and Thelma’s brother-in-law, remembered the school's May Day programs with a king, queen and maypole; the Halloween fair, where students would bob for apples and chase a greased pig; and the peach tree outside Principal Sandsbury’s office.
Thelma later attended Mainland High School, which was located on Beach Street at the time and only had two stories.
She graduated in 1947 and married her husband the following year.
Her husband attended mortuary school and continued working for Cardwell, Baggett and Summers Funeral Home. At the time, the business also had its own ambulance service.
Thelma also worked at Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens gift shop for about five years.
Gill said the botanical gardens were once a sugar factory part of the Dunlawton Plantation. The 19th century structure still stands.
Thelma said she remembers when the location also featured a menagerie of wild animals and handmade goods made by Seminoles who traveled through the area. She also remembers when a local paleontologist installed large dinosaur statues in the gardens.
When Thelma wasn’t helping her husband take ambulance calls or working at the gift shop, she was at home raising their four daughters — Christine, Glenda, Carolyn and Barbara.
Her daughters had children, and their children had children.
“I don’t have enough fingers or toes to count all my grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” she said.
Family continues to keep her busy. She said she is constantly attending birthday parties and graduations. However, now she has time to focus on history, and Gill said that makes her a valuable member of the trust’s team.
Over time, the trust has collected letters, photographs, clothing, quilts, antique furniture and other assorted items for its recently expanded museum, which now has six rooms. As the trust's eldest historian, Thelma adds the anecdotal element to these items.
“She has information and knowledge that’s not in books or a computer,” said Jennifer Gill, vice president of the historical trust. “She has first-hand stories that we love, and they are so interesting and valuable.”