Posts Tagged ‘Ortona’

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South of Orlando, between the beach side communities on the east and west coast, you’ll find huge open tracts of land. Prairies, Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades with small towns and farms scattered throughout. This is the agricultural heart of Florida. Citrus groves spreading as far as the eye can see, and sprawling cattle ranches. Roads where you can pleasantly lose yourself for as long as you’d like.

Even by the wilderness standards of the region, SR 29 is sparse. The biggest city on it is LaBelle, the Hendry County seat. I would’ve thought it was Clewiston. Both are at the northern border of the county, Clewiston on the east side, LaBelle the west. Actually, they’re pretty much the only two urbanized places in the county.

From Clewiston, there are two main ways to get to LaBelle. One is SR 80, which splits off from US 27 and takes you right into LaBelle.

But I’m going to start the other way, from Moore Haven. Going west from there, take a left at the SR 78 intersection. No more dike, as you’re heading away from Lake Okeechobee. After about 8 miles, you’ll see a cemetery on the right. This is the Ortona Cemetery. There aren’t any signs I could see indicating you’re in Ortona, but that happens sometimes. The cemetery is the burial site of Billy Bowlegs, a historical figure of some note, apparently. You can drive around in the cemetery, or park and walk some. It’s a rather large cemetery, so you could easily spend an hour or more exploring.

Only a little further on is a turnoff that will take you to the Ortona Mounds Indian Park. There’s a small highway patrol station next to it. A nice park, with some hiking trails. If you go far enough, you’ll be able to see the Ortona Cemetery from the rear. (see Google map)

About 6 miles on, and you’ll reach SR 29. Going south, you’ll only see fields and large stands of trees. In a couple of miles you’ll see buildings here and there. Another mile or so, you’ll cross a bridge over the Caloosahatchee River. Welcome to LaBelle.

In fact, you’re in the historic district. Park in the park next to the river, or somewhere off the street. This is one of the smallest historic districts in the state, only a block long. Go a bit further down, and grab a bite at the restaurant in the old Forrey Building. Pretty good food, as I recall.

Other highlights include the original home of the county’s namesake, and one of the more unusual-looking courthouses in the state. I can honestly say I’ve not seen another like it. I don’t mean that in a bad way; I think it’s got a quirky charm. There’s also a heritage museum a block down from it, if you want to find out more of the area’s history. And a Wendy’s nearby, if you’re hot from all the walking and need a cold drink or a Frosty to chill out.

If you like festivals, there’s a biggun here in February. It’s the Swamp Cabbage Festival. For the more refined, swamp cabbage is better known as hearts of palm. I never even considered where hearts of palm came from. Turns out it’s the inside of Sabal palms, the state tree of Florida. I may attend someday, as it’s piqued my curiosity now that I know more about it. (see Google map)

Head east 5 miles on SR 78 or Fort Denaud Road and you’ll reach the site of, well, Fort Denaud. There’s an old bridge that crosses the Okeechobee Waterway. There’s a historical marker about the area on the north side of the bridge, and a smidge further north is the old Fort Denaud Cemetery.

If you want to visit Fort Myers, just keep going west another 20 or so miles. I will be doing a roadtrip post for that area eventually. (see Google map)

  • Fort Denaud Historic Site
  • Historic Fort Denaud Bridge
  • Fort Denaud Cemetery (Ft Denaud Cemetery Road)
  • Roan House (south of SR 78, somewhere) (AGFHA)

Ten miles down SR 29, if you turn left at CR 832, you’ll be in the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest. No idea what it’s like, but it’s a decent size, so there’s probably at least some hiking trails. (see Google map)

By the way, SR 29 is a very straight road. It does have some bends, but they’re few and spaced out. So beware of highway hypnosis.

Over 20 miles from LaBelle, and you’re in Immokalee. And in Collier County. The one NRHP site is the Roberts Ranch, which looks to be part of a living history sort of museum. It covers a large area. The hours are limited, so check to see when they’re open if you want to see it all.

If you’re low on gas, or need to avail yourself of facilities, do it now. It’s around 35 miles until the next outpost of civilization, at the US 41/Tamiami Trail intersection.

You’re skirting the edges of the Everglades now. The Big Cypress National Preserve is on your left the rest of the way. In a while, you’ll see high fences on either side of the road. That’s because you’re going through part of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. It’s also one of the rare roads in Florida that has a day vs. night speed limit. To reduce your chances of hitting a panther crossing the road, I suppose.

Twenty miles from Immokalee, and you’re at I-75. The road goes over the interstate, and you can actually get on it here. If you want to get to Naples or Miami quick, this is the place.

The Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge continues a ways, then the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park will be on your right. There’s an entrance along here, and one further south of Tamiami Trail. It is home to unusual orchids and lots of older growth trees native to the area. (see Google map)

About 17 miles on from the interstate, you’ll reach the Tamiami Trail. Not travelled much nowadays, with I-75 to the north providing a faster route between coasts. But the trail was a tremendous accomplishment for its time, and still in use today.

There’s a visitor center here for the Preserve, and a small convenience store across the street. Get some info and stretch your legs, why doncha.

Technically this is the end of SR 29. But we’re going to continue on a little further down to the original end, which is now CR 29. Oddly, after only visiting there for a couple of hours, this is now one of my top ten spots in the states.

Just 4 miles down, and you’ll be in Everglades, a/k/a Everglades City. In the early days of Collier County, this was the county seat. Which seems weird now, since it’s currently Naples. But back at the county’s founding, there wasn’t much of Naples. Everglades City was going to be the boomtown, after the Tamiami Trail was finished. It was for a while, but then development and travel shifted away from the area.

Now, Everglades is a quiet town tucked away in the southwest part of the state. But it’s not rundown, as so many Florida towns that have survived from bygone days are. It’s very bright and clean and casual. Probably popular with boaters and fisherman and folks wanting to escape the big city. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.

All the historic things on the list are clustered with a half-mile of each other. There’s not a traditional downtown collection of buildings. They’re kind of strewn along Everglades Boulevard. You’ve got the old depot, which is now a restaurant. Then there’s a giant traffic circle. On it are an old church which looks brand new, and the city hall which used to be the county courthouse. Then there’s a history museum in a former laundry, and the city’s bank (which was for sale when last I was there). Last but certainly not least is the Rod and Gun Club, which has been a fixture here since the 19th century. (see Google map)

Another 4 miles south is Chokoloskee, on Chokoloskee Island, which is a shell midden. Consult the map linked below, since it’s tricky to get to the next place. I almost missed it when I was there. You wouldn’t think you could get lost in such a small town, but the roads are very twisty and everything’s close together. Very Castrovalva.

Once you get to the end of Mamie Street, you’ll find the last NRHP on this trip, the Ted Smallwood Store. Another survivor of many decades. More amazing because it’s all made of wood, and must have been hit by dozens of hurricanes since it was built. A testament to old fashioned craftsmanship.

Head north until you get to Tamiami Trail. West to Naples or east to Miami, your choice. If you decide east, you’ll go through the Preserve and the Everglades. Oh, and there’s Monroe Station, and old post office NRHP about 15 miles away. If west, there’s a boardwalk that goes into Big Cypress Bend. You can also visit Collier-Seminole State Park, which has one of the original dredges used during the construction of the Tamiami Trail. (see Google map)

There you are, really rural Florida. Until next time, see you on the road!

Route length: 81 miles

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Wound up waking up at 7, ‘cause I didn’t notice there was a window in the kitchenette area, so failed to cover it. Live and learn. Got cleaned up and some coffee in me, which pepped me up. Loading the car helped too, since it was a bit brisk and breezy outside. Not a cloud in the sky either. The weather proved to be spectacular the whole day.

One of the two Clewiston Historic Schools buildings

Got out by 8:30, and found my first photo op easily, the Clewiston Historic Schools (photos). This was the beginning of second theme of the trip. The first, lest we forget, was construction. Number 2 was schools. I saw more historic schools all over the place than I have on any other trip. Usually for me it’s churches that I run across. The school theme, though, will become obvious as I recount my journey. The sub-theme of this was that almost all the schools I ran across were closed, even the ones I hit on Monday and Tuesday. I guess it was spring break in southwest Florida. Lucky me.

Next I got three historic houses that were fairly close together. And theme number 1 reared its ugly head, as the street they were on was tore up. Not so much that I couldn’t get close enough to take pictures, but still.

Then I went back to the Clewiston Inn and parked. From there I was able to walk and get the rest of the stuff in town I needed (the Inn, the Dixie Crystal Theatre, the local history local history museum, and city hall). As a bonus, I stumbled across the offices of US Sugar, so I snapped a couple of that.

I headed west about 10 and stopped at the local Super Wal-Mart before I completely left town. Mostly it was because of a minor recurring car issue. I picked something up that corrected the problem for the rest of the trip and a few weeks after, hurrah. Also picked up some trail mix to snack on if need be, and these cool individual powdered coffee creamer tubes that Mom found out about and liked. Didn’t take too terribly long and was back on the road soon after.

I kept an eye out, and still no mile markers. It must be something they’re doing in Palm Beach County only. The US 27 and SR 80 intersection (street view) is jazzed up. I can remember on my numerous trips to Miami how basic it was. Stop sign from the SR 78 side and that was it. Now there’s lights and nice road paving and everything.

Yes, I would go down US 27 to Miami, not the Turnpike. Back in the 80s I hated being a hostage to it. The tolls, the expensive food and gas at the toll plazas, it was a racket. It’s better now, but I hardly ever need to use the Turnpike anyway, ‘cause it’s not usually convenient to the way I travel. The day before was probably the third time I’ve used it in 10 years. US 27 was so much more scenic, and only took an hour longer. The only bad part was south of Lake Okeechobee, and that’s finally been four laned, so it’s all good. Mind you, there’s been a crapload of development on some stretches, especially around the main routes to Orlando. Still, I prefer my good old US 27. A friend of Mom’s still goes that way to visit her family in south Florida, so I’m not the only one.

Heading north on US 27, it’s only a few miles before you see the bridge over the Moore Haven Canal (above), bigger than life (street view). It’s the biggest thing in Moore Haven, really. It’s strange seeing it this way, since as much as I hate the Turnpike, I’d usually drive it on the way back from Miami. Driving US 27 at night was scary. There was so much nothing, and being way before cell phones, God help you if you had a car problem.

So there’s the bridge and what’s the first thing I see after I’m over it? The Glades County Courthouse (above). It was getting well after 11, and the midday light (the couple of hours before and after the sun hits its zenith) is the best for photos, I think. Though near sunset has its advantages at times. While photographing, I looked and looked, and couldn’t see the waterline. When the area was flooded in 1926, the first floor of the courthouse was totally submerged. There’s still a faint line where the water rose to, but I couldn’t see it. Something to think about, though.

I backtracked to hit the downtown historic district (photos and street view) first, since it’s only a block long. The dilapidated state of the old buildings is sad, and an odd contrast to the new park across the street from them. My favorite part of the district, though, is on the canal which was dredged years ago to connect Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River. Right there at the end of Avenue J is the Lone Cypress Park (street view), one of the smallest parks I’ve seen. I don’t think it’s even half an acre. At the center is the Lone Cypress, used as a navigational aid way back when. It really stands out, as you hardly ever see cypress trees like this in Florida. And this one looks like, I know this sounds like an oxymoron, but it looks like a giant bonsai. It looks very sculpted and stately. Peaceful, too. It’s the kind of tree you could sit under and read a book for hours.

A Masonic Lodge, in the residential district

After that I drove around the residential historic district (photos) and took pictures. The houses are all very old frame vernacular style buildings, quite a few on the ramshackley side. I’m not sure if any of them were survivors of 1926 flood, but if not they were probably built not much later.

I stopped at the larger city park and called my friend Richard. I used to call Mom around 11 when I was at work, and did the same when I was on a roadtrip. Then I’d call her every two to three hours after, so in case anything happened to either of us, the other could notify authorities and that sort of thing. Now that she’s gone, I thought it would be a smart idea to still continue that, for safety reasons. Even though it was nearing noon, it was still cool in the shade. I love spring in Florida.

As I headed west out of town, I thought of all the people who’ve driven through Moore Haven over the years. Passing through, with little thought of where they were, only where they were going. A few minutes, a half-hour, just a little time taken out of their travels and they could have discovered a little gem like the Lone Cypress Park. I’ve said for the longest time that you should enjoy the journey as much as the destination. So many are in such a hurry, how much better our lives would be if we slowed down every so often to enjoy the scenery.

I thought there weren’t any BP gas stations for a ways, but before I got out of Moore Haven, whoomp, there one was.

To explain. I got gas cards for BP for this trip. That way I wouldn’t need to carry as much cash. They’re much more convenient, and BP gas is often the cheapest. This was all before the spill, mind, but I may still use them in future, since it takes some of the worry out of travelling.

I really wanted to see what was left of the Cypress Knee Museum (street view), but it was rather out-of-the-way, so skipped it.

Ah, the Cypress Knee Museum. So sad it closed back in 2000. There’s not much left of it, I gather. I always looked forward to it on my trips down to Miami. I never actually stopped there, but it was a comforting landmark. And all the Burma-Shave style signs the owner put up along US 27 to let people know about it. The place was everything I love about kitschy tacky touristy Florida. Some may not like that aspect of our fair state, but to me, that’s part of its charm. I finally did stop there a couple years after it closed, and I can only imagine what it was like in its heyday. If I’d taken half-an-hour whilst it was still in business… Ah, regrets.

Just about when I decided to skip the museum, I saw one of the familiar brown signs for a Florida Heritage Site. One that I never knew about. It wasn’t much of a detour, so I took a turn and headed down SR 78. Which went through major cattle country. I really hadn’t realized how extensive the industry was. It looks like it’s in every county around Lake Okeechobee, and the counties next to them.

Panorama view in Ortona Indian Mounds Park

I reached Ortona, but you couldn’t prove it by me. Drove by the local cemetery, where Billy Bowlegs III is buried. Just past it is a dirt road which leads to the heritage site, a park behind the cemetery. Ortona Indian Mounds Park, that is (street view of entry road). I didn’t see much in the way of mounds, as they appeared to be overgrown. Nice little park, however. Had a small portable building that was a police station. The park was right on the shores of Lake Wobegon too. No, not that one.

Onward after that to SR 29 south. I soaked in the isolation of it all. Hardly any signs of civilization. This is what Florida must have looked like back in the 19th century and before. An air conditioned car stocked with Altoids, the open road, what more could you ask for?

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