Florida

A Florida Friday: Bok Tower Gardens

Edward W. Bok’s beloved Singing Tower; his grave is at its base.

On rolling hills south of Orlando not far from Lake Wales and amid abundant orange groves—perhaps, the last place you’d expect—stands a majestic “singing tower” surrounded by lush botanical gardens, the handiwork of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.

First glimpse of the tower after you come up the hill from the entrance

This is Bok Tower Gardens—yet another Florida gem that is off the beaten path but more than well worth a visit. It was envisioned and founded by editor, author, and philanthropist Edward W. Bok (1863-1930), who emigrated from Holland to the US as a child and wanted to leave behind a place of beauty for Americans to enjoy as a way of thanking them for his success.

The base of the tower

Less than a year after the official opening to the public in 1929, Bok died of a heart attack within view of his beloved singing tower. He was buried at its base.

Since then over 23 million people have visited this place. Even today, it remains an oasis of calm in an oft-times troubled world. I’ve been here several times, always in the “off season” when the number of visitors declines to a trickle. I finally got my husband here last year, and he immediately understood why I was so keen for him to experience this place.

Garden scenes

Wandering up the hillside toward the tower to the sound of chirping birds, we passed underneath massive old oaks laden with ferns and dripping with Spanish moss. When we finally reached the top and arrived at the end of the reflection pool, the view of the tower was mesmerizing. Once we explored the areas around the base of the tower, we strolled to the edges of the gardens for a view of the surrounding lands; we were, after all, standing on one of Florida’s highest elevations—some 295 feet (LOL).

In short: Go visit if you are ever in this part of Florida. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. The 60-ton carillon still plays daily. Also on the grounds is Pinewood Estate—a Mediterranean-style mansion built in the 1930s for a steel magnate. And, there’s a wonderful museum and gift shop. If you have a botanical garden or museum membership elsewhere, check to see if you can take advantage of reciprocal agreements. You may be able to get into Bok Tower Gardens for free or at reduced cost.

The view from the hilltop on a steamy summer day with limited visibility 😦

That’s today’s “Florida Friday.” Thank you, Edward Bok, for leaving us all such a wonderful legacy.

P.S. Below are an article on the official 1929 opening with President Calvin Coolidge presiding (the original name was “Mountain Lake Sanctuary and Singing Tower) and a January 1930 obituary.

February 2, 1929 – Jamestown Evening Journal (Credit: FultonHistory.com)

January 10, 1930 – The Schenectady Gazette (Credit: FultonHistory.com)

Categories: Bok Edward W, Coolidge Calvin, Florida, Lake Wales, Olmsted Jr Frederick W | Tags: , | Leave a comment

A Florida Friday: Solomon’s Castle

The entrance gates at Solomon’s Castle

Solomon’s Castle is on my must-see list of Florida’s quirkiest places.  Like many others on that list, it’s off the beaten path and getting there requires a bit of effort.  We were staying in Sarasota a couple of years back when the brochure caught our eye. Shall we go? Why not? Early the next morning we headed east and eventually found ourselves in Florida’s rural heartland in search of the “town” of Ona. It was a hot sunny day during the off-season. Few travelers on the road. GPS was patchy at times; we worried a bit about getting lost, but fortunately, we found our way there.

Hardee County, in which Ona and the “castle” are located, probably hasn’t changed much in the last century. Its 1930 population of 10,000 has almost tripled; but that’s nothing compared to Lee County , which is where we live. Here the population has gone from roughly 15,000 to 620,000 during that same time span. Few contrasts could better reflect the great divide between the pace of life in Gulf coast towns and cities and inland areas such as this.

Solomon’s Castle was the brainchild of Howard Solomon, who died in 2016 of heart troubles. He was 81. Howard spent many decades commuting from his 55-acre property to his St. Petersburg cabinet-making and boat-building business to earn the money that fueled his creative passions. Why base himself in a place like Ona? The land was cheap, and there was plenty of it.

Photography is not permitted within the “castle,” but YouTube has footage of tours Howard used to give to visitors (see link below).  You’ll quickly see why the folks behind the Weird US publication called him the “Da Vinci of Debris”.  For a great article on Howard, click here.

Resources:
YouTube video – 1 of 4 – Start here.
Google Images
Haven Magazine article: “Solomon’s Castle: A Visionary’s Legacy”

From here on down, I’ll let the pictures do the talking. Have a great weekend, everyone.

The approach to the Castle whose walls are covered with aluminum printing plates from a newspaper business 

You can gaze at the turrets, towers, and stained glass windows as you await your turn for a guided tour. I kept expecting to see King Friday even though Mr. Rogers’ castle looks much different.

Pitchfork and quirky garden decor in the foreground

Fun idea for flower bed or small vegetable garden

Lots of massive staghorn ferns hang from the trees here

Yes, there’s a boat with a moat—complete with the occasional alligator. Howard built it all. Climb aboard, for here and beyond are the restaurant and gift shop.

Veranda seating overlooking the restaurant boat — it was still quite early so no diners yet.

More seating and a gift shop on the left. Note the fabulous live oak festooned with moss and ferns—a signature element in much of old Florida

Categories: Florida, Miscellaneous, Ona | Tags: | 5 Comments

A Florida Friday: The wonder of orchids in bloom

It’s the time of year here in South Florida when all of our orchids are in bloom or are on the verge of blooming. I thought I’d share some photos of some of the flowers that have appeared so far on our lanai. It’s always a time of wonder here. Perhaps these images will brighten your day, too!

Categories: Florida, Nature, Orchids | Tags: | 8 Comments

A Florida Friday: Time for some yard work?

Florida ‘snow’ (aka Florida pusley and Mexican clover)

It’s hot as blazes out today and hot, sunny weather is expected through next week, which may be a good thing since UV rays kill viruses. But with America on quarantine, I am asking myself: what am I going to do for the next few weeks so that I don’t go stir crazy? And the answer seems to be to get out and do some yard work. The local tree-trimming company we’ve used is happy to drop off 11 cubic yards of mulch for free to the home that is closest to its last work stop of the day, and we are on the list to have that mountain delivered. It would be fantastic if it came during this nationwide stoppage.

Our yard most definitely needs lots more work. Hurricane Irma’s wrath whipped up enough water in this part of Florida to leave many yards at least partially submerged. Over two years later, many homeowners are still struggling to free their properties of all the weeds that washed in and never washed out. The most obvious invader at this time of year is “Florida snow” (aka Florida pusley and Mexican clover)—its little white flowers are everywhere. Our yard is no exception! It’s easy to remove when you find the main stem, and then you can just yank it up out of the ground with all its tentacles trailing after it. But when your yard is 90% Florida snow… well, if you choose to fight back, brace yourself—the flowers produce seeds rapidly, allowing “Florida snow” to spread uncontrollably.

Major respect for this ‘little’ yellow flowered specimen whose roots go a mile into the ground

Instead of fighting, we are strategizing ways to minimize its presence through the creation of a Florida-friendly landscape that relies on native plants and lots of mulch and pine straw. Regarding the “snow,” which is an invasive species, we are going with the flow and looking on the bright side: the plant’s flowers attract a ton of bees—so many bees, in fact, that I don’t dare walk across the grass in wide-bottomed trousers or a long skirt. And the flower itself is actually quite pretty. Don’t get me wrong—we are on a quest to slowly eliminate it. We are mulching over segments of our yard as we install all sorts of native plants. It’s the natives that easily grow and thrive here. Why plant species from elsewhere, as beautiful as they are, when they’ll require a lot of maintenance in the summer rainy season and lots of water in the dry winters?

Pretty yellow flowers atop, but just see what is below. It takes some muscle to pull these sweethearts out

Plus, water is expensive if you don’t have your own well, which we do not. And, of course, if you water your lawn in the winter to keep it green, you also have to mow it.  We just go with Mother Nature’s flow and by doing so have only had to mow the lawn 3-4 times since September. That’s how dry it is and how slowly things grow this time of year.

Fortunately, we don’t live in an HOA-run community that makes homeowners keep their yards free of weeds. Having and maintaining a perfectly manicured grass lawn here is challenging. A chemical called Atrazine can be used to eliminate “Florida snow,” but who wants to use chemicals on their lawn especially given how sensitive Florida’s environment is? Fortunately, I’ve heard that someone in Tallahassee has introduced a bill prohibiting HOAs from banning the presence of “Florida snow” since it is so ubiquitous.

A tour of our front yard this past week alerted me to some more pretty little surprises, and before leaving you, I must point out the weed with the swirling pale-yellow flowers (see photo). It’s a Florida native called “common wirewood” (Sida acuta), and it is a BEAST! Check out that root. This is one tough cookie, and it takes real muscle to pull it from the ground. I’ve read that it can get quite large if allowed to grow unfettered and that it is high in protein, making it good deer food. In Florida’s natural settings, property owners are encouraged to let this plant grow. Anyway, gotta have respect for this one. My husband says to leave it where we find it; it’s earned its place here!

Some day when we are finished with our Florida-friendly landscaping project, I will share our “before and after photos”. Meanwhile, heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s back to work we go…  Stay safe, everyone.

Native succulent: Portulaca pilosa (pink purslane)

Spanish needles (Bidens alba)

Categories: Florida, Native plants, Nature | Tags: , | 4 Comments

A Florida Friday: “Gatorama”

Gatorama is a long-time Florida attraction located off the most beaten paths in South Florida, but it’s well worth a visit and the price of admission. Hundreds of alligators and crocodiles of all shapes and sizes are on display, as are some other Florida creatures. We were there in July, and since then, the local ABC7 station has done a story on the gator and croc training that goes on there. It’s surprising and fascinating and well worth the view. Enjoy, and have a great weekend!


Categories: Alligators crocodiles, Florida, Miscellaneous, Nature, Palmdale | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

A Florida Friday — the arrival of two very different bundles of joy

The birth of another great-nephew this week (named Wyatt) coincided with a birth of a very different kind—the emergence of a beautiful Monarch butterfly in the passion flower vine growing just outside in the milkweed bed. We failed to notice the chrysalis until just after the butterfly made its appearance. We named it Wyatt in honor of our newest family member and enjoyed watching it take its inaugural flight to the nearby tamarind tree. Can’t wait to watch baby Wyatt take flight, too. The sky’s the limit! Or is it? Perhaps, he will be the first family member to travel to the stars and beyond!

PS: We have another one on the way! 🙂

Categories: Butterflies, Florida, Miscellaneous, Nature | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

A Florida Friday: The Murals of Lake Placid

Murals are popping up all over these days, and in most cases, I would say they are a welcome addition. The town of Lake Placid (FL)—population roughly 2,200—is no exception, and here, this south-central Florida community seems to be taking things to a whole new level, with 47 murals so far. We traveled through there not too long ago, during the “off season,” so few people were around. In the snowbird months, the place would be bustling with all sorts of activity; there’s even an outdoor movie area downtown (see murals with white space in center). And, by the way, Lake Placid is also known as the “Caladium Capital of the World”—my sister has been to their Annual Caladium Festival several times and always brings back all sorts of fantastic bulbs that, after planting, emerge in pink, green, and white swathes to liven up the slow summer months. I hope you will enjoy these scenes; perhaps they will encourage you to stop by this historic little Florida town when you are next in this part of the world.

Categories: Florida, Lake Placid | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

A Florida Friday: The house that cowboy hats (and lots of other hats) built

The John B. Stetson House in DeLand, Florida; photo by Ebyabe, 1 March 2008 – Permission granted to copy, use image under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license – see https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

I love old houses, and I’m sure I am not alone in that regard.

Here in Florida, it can be a challenge to find homes over a certain age, depending on where you live, of course, especially the further south you go.

Because truly old homes are not as plentiful as up north, I periodically search for ones for sale on websites like Realtor, etc., where you can filter out results based on age and other criteria. It’s fun (IMO) to look at old home interiors you would otherwise probably never get to see. I was doing that a few days ago when I came across the John B. Stetson mansion at 1031 Camphor Lane in Deland, Volusia County, Florida. We’d been in that area a couple of times in recent years, visiting nearby De Leon Springs and Blue Springs, but had no idea the Stetson mansion, celebrated for its history and its architectural mix of Moorish, Gothic, and Tudor styles, would have been within such easy striking distance.

John Batterson Stetson (1830-1906) portrait. Wikipedia – public domain image

Who was John B. Stetson? If you have not heard of him, you may still be familiar with the Stetson hat.

Born in 1830 to a New Jersey hatter and his wife, Stetson, while still a young man, was diagnosed with tuberculosis and told he may not have much longer to live. He took off for the West, wanting to lay his eyes on that expansive majestic land while he still could. That’s when he came into contact with the region’s settlers and cowboys, who until then had largely been wearing caps made of coonskin and other furs, not very practical. Returning home to Philadelphia, he came up with the Stetson hat, and started turning them out in 1865. They sold like hotcakes and became known as “the boss of the plains.”

The Holly Standard, March 8, 1883 (Credit: http://www.fultonhistory.com)

Stetson lived well into his seventies and along the way became known for his generosity as an employer and a philanthropist. His hat-making business had treated him well. His company survived and thrived, and it’s still going strong today: https://www.stetson.com

Seeing as how Stetson’s Florida mansion, built in 1886, is up for sale (for $4.7 million), this is an ideal time to get a look inside at the interior without paying an admission fee and without having to physically go there. The sellers purchased the house a decade ago and completely restored and renovated it.  The result is stunning, and although this is a private residence, they have generously been permitting people to tour the estate and experience this very interesting piece of history. In fact, it’s the #1 Deland attraction on Trip Advisor. Hopefully the eventual buyers will want to keep this up.

To go to the listing and its 122 photographs, click here: John B. Stetson house. For the Stetson Mansion website, click here.

The Boone County Recorder (KY), October 28, 1875 (Credit: http://www.fultonhistory.com)

The Rockdale Messenger (TX), 9 September 1904 (Credit: http://www.fultonhistory.com)

From the New York Daily Star, May 24, 1929 (Credit: http://www.fultonhistory.com)

The New York Daily Star, 20 September 1929 (Credit: http://www.fultonhistory.com)

The New York Daily Star, 16 May 1930 (Credit: http://www.fultonhistory.com)

The Evening Telegram (NY), 30 September 1904 (Credit: http://www.fultonhistory.com)

Categories: 1870s, 1890s, 1900s, Advertisements, Deland, Florida, Stetson John B | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

A Florida Friday: Some thousand-year-old oaks

For this “Florida Friday” post, I’m sharing a few scenes from a recent visit to the 9,000-acre Highlands Hammock State Park, which is located outside the town of Sebring in lower central Florida. Established in 1931, it was one of the first state parks in Florida. Here, some of the oaks are said to be over a thousand years old. The Civilian Conservation Corps was responsible for building many of the structures and the numerous boardwalks and trails. The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018. Though it is off the beaten path for most visitors to this state, it is well worth a visit—as are all the Florida state parks, actually! Have a great weekend.

 

Categories: Florida, Hiking, Nature, Trees | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

A Florida Friday: Flowers, flamingos, and a feeling of serenity…

Some images from a recent stroll through the historic Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs, Florida. It was the end of the day, and I had this small zoo/botanical garden to myself. Nothing like nature to lift one’s spirits and relieve the stressors of the day.  I hope you have a chance to spend some time this coming weekend in the great outdoors.

Categories: Bonita Springs, Florida, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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