Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Florida's Hill Country along the Ridge Scenic Highway

Loads of tourists come to the Sunshine State each year to absorb some vitamin D along the 1,350 miles of coastline. Being a peninsula, it’s surrounded by water and, being significantly marshland, is comprised of more than 4,500 islands.  Then there are its 7,500 lakes.  Florida sports 27 first magnitude springs, more than any other state.  In fact, Florida barely qualifies as solid land sitting just above sea level.

County after county, Florida is an expanse of water infused flatland riddled by sink holes and cedar hammocks, the tell-tale sign of a potential sink hole. However, there are few hills. A few mountains even.

Though the tallest mountain in Florida is in the northern highlands, it’s the hills in Central Florida that created the Tuscan-like Lake Region south of Orlando and east of Tampa. Iron Mountain at 295 feet lies on the Lake Wales Ridge, running north-south for 150 miles in central Florida.  It houses Bok Tower, a gilded carillon bell tower with daily concerts beneath the oaks that can be seen for miles around.

Unlike other mountainous ridges, this one appears more like islands left behind by a prehistoric sea. The soft rolling hills make driving the single lane roads reminiscent of riding a kiddy coaster. At some point lakes filled the valleys and so there are water and mountain vistas around every bend.

It’s gorgeous country and it’s not surprising that early Native Americans settled here. Yet, as much of American history, they were displaced and virtually annihilated by European settlers. Displaced by De Soto’s heinous crew, but also by the US decreed Armed Occupation Act of 1842 that permitted large land grants to murderous opportunists who would be willing to “protect” themselves against the native population, referring to the Seminoles and Creeks who had just lost their second war.  The original inhabitants, the Timucua and the Calusa, had long since been whipped out. 

The Ridge Scenic Highway (SR 17) winds southeast through small Victorian resort villages with names like Lake of the hills and Frostproof

The town of Frostproof drew the first white settlers, hunters and fishermen mostly, for turkey and deer were abundant. But, citrus farmers came as well lured by the name. Needless to say, more than a few folks were surprised when frost did come in the winter of 1894, destroying that year’s crop.

Lakeland, the primary municipality in the Lakeland-Winterhaven statistical area, grew with the laying of rails in the 1870’s and flourished during the Spanish-American War, which was in large part launched from the subtropical peninsula. Allied fighter pilots were trained at Lakeland's Lodwick Airfield during World War II by volunteer barnstormers—stunt pilots who had earned a living performing in flying circuses.

There are so many lakes in Lakeland alone—38—that residents don’t use streets as reference points, but instead, the waterways. Besides the lakes, there are numerous unnamed phosphate mine pits that have filled with water, adding to the landscape. 

The historic 25 room, 10,000 square foot Spanish style Mediterranean castle, Casa de Josefina, built in Lake Wales out of love by a husband for his wife, aptly overlooks Lake Amoret.

Also beautifying Florida’s Lake District are the descendants of Queen Elizabeth’s royal swans, the native population having been decimated by alligators, and the largest collection (18) of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings on a single site. The Florida Southern College Campus collection includes one of Wright’s 60 Usonian Houses, now used as a visitor’s center to the Wright Collection, and his recently renovated Water Dome.

No comments:

Post a Comment