Forty miles east of Arcadia we turn north and begin to climb the Ridge. This is the series of hills, gradually rising in height from south to north for 200 miles or so. The Ridge forms the watershed between the Atlantic and the Gulf. Like all of the rest of inland Florida, it is agricultural and forest country dotted with scores of little towns, thousands of scattered homesteads and cottages, occupied largely by northern people who come down for the Winter, and with a dozen or more highly developed communities, each making its special and peculiar appeal to winter visitors.
This Ridge country holds an especial charm for those to whom the sea beaches and salt water have no strong appeal, and who prefer to spend their winters where the tempo of life is slower and the pitch of gayety lower than in most of the coast resorts. A large proportion of the folk who come into the Ridge country only in Winter are interested in the orange and grapefruit industry to some degree, either as individual grove owners or as shareholders in one of the numerous successful cooperative citrus enterprises. Many of the successful winter truck farms in this central region are operated by Northern market gardeners, who thus practice year-’round agriculture.
The peculiar advantage enjoyed by the Ridge country as an agricultural region is that, in addition to good soil, ample rainfall, with good natural drainage and the life-giving Florida sunshine, it has what Florida growers call “air-drainage.” Cold air currents tend to sink to the depressions on either side of the Ridge, and thus avert much of the danger to crops and citrus groves from the occasional frosts which the flat country experiences. The name of “Frostproof,” which one of the thriving little towns along the Ridge bears, is by no means a joke.
Avon Park, one of the southerly towns of the Ridge, is widely known as the home of Rex Beach, the novelist of Alaska, who returned to his boyhood home in Florida after exciting experiences in the frozen North, and operates a large and successful farm on which he grows principally gladiolus bulbs. Close to the Beach farm is the pioneer celery farm of this region, which has yielded as high as $6,000 gross to the acre. In 1937 the Seaboard Airline opened a spur track into the eastern part of Highlands County to take care of the growing production of freight from the truck-farming region lying between Lake Istokpoga and Lake Okeechobee, east of Sebring.
It is questionable whether Sebring is prouder of the purity of its water supply, widely advertised as “Sebring health water,” or of the fact that the Sebring High School Band is the champion band of Florida. Find a Florida community which does not send its high-school band to one of the annual state, sectional and national band contests and you have found one of those rare towns which has no high school. Sebring was founded in 1912 and named for its founder, George E. Sebring of Sebring, Ohio. Many of its pioneer settlers and present-day winter visitors are Ohioans.
We are in unmistakable citrus country as we climb the Ridge northward through Frostproof and Babson Park, to Lake Wales.
At Babson Park is the winter headquarters of the Roger W. Babson statistical organization of Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts. It is also the home of Webber College, a financial school for girls founded by Mrs. Babson.
Polk County, in which this section of the Ridge lies, is the principal citrus-growing county of the state. It ships annually more boxes of oranges and grapefruit than any other county; and here at Babson Park is one of the most successful lemon grove developments, producing the thin-skinned Perrine lemons, under the direction of H. W. Bennett and his sons.
Florida communities are so filled with local pride that even to suggest that any one of them has points of merit or attraction superior to those of any other community usually evokes indignant protests from the prideful citizens of the other communities, who consider themselves and their home town to have been maligned by the implication of inferiority.
But there is one spot in Florida to which all the others generously and sincerely yield homage; that is Lake Wales and its Bok Singing Tower.
This monument which the late Edward Bok raised to the memory of his grandparents on the summit of Iron Mountain is the central milestone from which all distances in southern and central Florida are measured. No matter what the pretensions of other resorts may be or how carefully they avoid enlightening tourists and prospective visitors of the existence of any other places in Florida besides their own, almost without exception they take pains to inform those whom they invite to visit their own communities that they are only so many miles by motor highway from the Bok Tower. Lake Wales is, indeed, a principal focus of Florida highway traffic. It is the center of a spider-web of good roads radiating like the spokes of a wheel to every point of the compass; and these highways are literally crowded, throughout the season from November to April, with tourists making pilgrimages to see the tower itself, possibly America’s most beautiful structure, and to listen to the heart-lifting, soul-stirring music of its bells.
Mr. Bok for years had made his winter home at Mountain Lakes, an exclusive residential section of Lake Wales owned by a private club, whose members alone are permitted to have their homes within its precincts. It was Mr. Bok’s custom at sunset to climb to the top of Iron Mountain, within the club grounds, to listen to the evening songs of the birds and to look out over the wide expanse of green trees and blue lakes all around him, from that elevation of 324 feet above sea-level. The idea came to him of establishing here on Iron Mountain a bird sanctuary, in which the natural forest growth would be maintained, but made accessible by motor or on foot to all who might feel the same delight in observing and listening to the birds. He purchased 60 acres surrounding the summit of Iron Mountain for this purpose. Then he conceived the idea of the Singing Tower.
No description on paper can give an adequate impression of the sheer physical beauty of the Bok Tower, nor convey the spiritual effect which it exerts upon those who visit it and listen to its music. The tower itself is 52 feet square at the base, rising in tapering outline to a height of 205 feet and a diameter of 37 feet. Its walls, outside of its steel frame, are of grey and pinkish marble, carved into graceful shapes and symbolic surface designs. It stands on a small island surrounded by a water-filled moat. Between the great north doors of the tower, of hammered yellow brass, and the waters of the moat, is the grave of Edward Bok, covered by a flat marble slab. While there is an elevator inside the tower, the general public is not admitted.
Those who are able to gain the privilege of ascending to the top of the tower never forget the beauty of the vista revealed to them from that eminence, the highest point in all Florida. For thirty miles in every direction is a scene of rolling country, thickly carpeted with the glossy green of orange and grapefruit groves, broken at innumerable spots by the glittering blue of a thousand lakes. In the very top of the tower are hung the 71 bells of the carillon, the largest and finest set of bells in the world. They were made in England to Mr. Bok’s order. The largest bell weighs eleven tons, 22,000 pounds, and the smallest 12 pounds. They have a musical range of four and one-half octaves. The bells are arranged in five tiers, each bell firmly fixed to a steel cross-bar, since the bells of a carillon do not swing, like those of a set of chimes, but are struck by hammers which are actuated from an organ-like keyboard. The carillonneur of the Lake Wales Tower is Anton Brees, formerly of Antwerp, Belgium, considered the foremost of the few masters of this form of musical art. From the middle of December until the middle of April the bells of the carillon ring out over the whole countryside. Programs of gay modern pieces, of classical compositions and of sacred music are given, the character varying with the day, the hour and the occasion. On Easter Sunday the outdoor religious service held in a clearing adjacent to the Singing Tower frequently draws a congregation of 5,000 or more.
The Bok Bird Sanctuary and Singing Tower make Lake Wales one of the most interesting of Florida inland communities for the winter visitor. The traveler is struck by the impression of substantiality, good taste and contentment reflected in the homes and gardens of this delightful little residential city, which as host to hundreds of thousands of yearly visitors to the tower maintains six hotels and many good restaurants. Close to Lake Wales is the Roman Catholic shrine of Ste. Anne des Lacs, in which is an exact reproduction of the miraculous shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupre, of Canada. Around this shrine, which was established in 1920, has grown up a center of Roman Catholic religious pilgrimages. Many holy relics are exhibited in the buildings around the shrine, which include a Biblical museum and a sanctuary in which is exhibited a piece of the True Cross. Nearby is a carved wooden statue, a reproduction of the Christ of Limpias, the original of which stands in the small town of that name on the northern coast of Spain. Here in the heart of Florida’s citrus belt the entire economic life centers about oranges, grapefruit and lemons, although Haines City, somewhat north of Lake Wales, is becoming a center of the beef cattle industry, some of the best high-grade herds being pastured on the wide, open ranges to the eastward. Near Davenport in Polk County is the stock farm of P. E. Williams, president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, who has the largest battery of silos in the United States, growing ensilage for winter fodder on the reclaimed muck land.
Winter Haven flaunts two slogans, both justified. One is “The Citrus Capital of Florida,” and the other “The City of One Hundred Lakes.” Winter Haven is literally surrounded by lakes, most of which are connected with each other by channels which make a seventy-five mile boating trip practical. These lakes, like all the other fresh-water lakes in Florida, furnish wonderful fishing, the chief game fish being the bigmouthed black bass. On the edge of one of these lakes lies the Cypress Gardens, already referred to, one of the real beauty spots of the Florida scene, which can be reached by regular scheduled boat line running through six lakes.
It is hard for the stranger, often for the resident of any Florida city, to tell where the city ends and the country begins. It really makes little difference exactly where municipal boundary lines run. In this country of orange and grapefruit groves the city, for all practical purposes, takes in all the territory from which growers can more easily bring their fruit for packing and shipping than to some other shipping center. Winter Haven, with its nine citrus packing houses and three canneries, is the focus of 16,500 acres of groves, many of whose owners and operators live within the technical city limits.
Besides citrus and cattle and some of the most successful and extensive cabbage patches in Florida, Polk County’s largest and most valuable product is phosphate.
Bartow, county seat of Polk County, lies between the citrus region to the East and the phosphate beds west of the city. The central location of Bartow and its accessibility to every part of Florida make it an increasingly popular rendezvous for motor tourists. The city maintains a modern trailer camp equipped with such conveniences as hot and cold showers, a laundry, a community house, shuffle-board and horse-shoe courts, water supply and electricity, all of which are supplied to the traveler who parks his caravan under the shade of the moss-covered oaks at a charge which begins at $1.30 a week for two persons, with an additional charge of twenty-five cents a week for each other adult in the touring party.
Besides the usual industries incident to a county seat in the citrus country, Bartow has one which is unique. That is a factory making artificial lures for fishermen out of frog skins. These are obtained from a nearby frog ranch, which does a large business in growing and shipping frogs’ legs to the Northern markets for those delicacies.
The great phosphate mines of western Polk County are estimated to contain enough phosphate rock to supply the demand, at the current rate of consumption, for 150 years. Min ing is done by the surface stripping method, the top-soil or overburden being removed by electric drag lines leaving the exposed strata of pebble phosphate deposits to be found in sand and clay base. The pebble phosphate is then mined hydraulically, the pebbles with adhering clay and sand being conveyed to washers where the phosphate is separated from foreign substances. Improved methods of handling phosphate have been developed in recent years by which abandoned mine dumps as well as finer materials which were formerly considered waste, are now treated by the flotation and concentration methods. The washing, drying and grinding or pulverizing of the pebble phosphate is done in the seven huge plants operated by The International Agricultural Corporation, The American Agricultural Chemical Company, The Phosphate Mining Company, The Southern Phosphate Corporation, The Amalgamated Phosphate Company, The Coronet Phosphate Company and Swift & Company. The total output of the phosphate mines is nearly two and one-half million long tons annually, which is above 90 percent of the total phosphate production in the United States and more than half of the total world’s supply of this essential fertilizing ingredient.
Many of the smaller blue-water lakes and ponds in this section of Florida are worked-out phosphate mines which Florida’s copious rains keep filled.
Fourteen miles north of Bartow is the enterprising, beautiful little metropolis of Lakeland. This lively city of 21,000 inhabitants is the trading center for a widespread inland area extending far beyond the limits of Polk County. It derives its name from a group of lakes which surround it on all sides. One of the loveliest of these lies in the heart of the city and its borders have been developed into one of the most attractive public parks in all Florida. With its numerous fine hotels and other accommodations for winter visitors, Lakeland’s popularity as a tourist resort has grown steadily since 1920. The beautiful surrounding country is sprinkled with citrus groves and attractive residential estates. Not far from the city, on a tract of 2,000 acres, surrounding a lovely lake, is the home maintained by the International Union of Carpenters and joiners, where its superannuated members may retire to spend their last years in peaceful comfort.
The impression which Lakeland makes, even in its extensive downtown business district, is one of sparkling neatness and energetic activity. It is an ambitious and forward-looking community and, as this is written, is engaged upon an ambitious project which is expected to make this inland city into a seaport. This ambition is based upon the immense volume of freight tonnage produced in Polk County from its phosphate mines and citrus groves, and the possible savings in freight charges if these products could be shipped by water instead of by rail, and incoming commodities needed for the use of the growing population of the region, especially building materials and petroleum products, could be brought in the same way. The Florida Legislature has established a Port Authority, which in 1937 began to acquire the rights of way for the construction of a deep-water ship canal twenty-three miles long, connecting Tampa Bay with a terminal harbor which it is proposed to excavate and develop a few miles south of Lakeland, with terminal railroad facilities running to the phosphate mines. The project has the approval of the Federal and State governments, the U. S. War Department has granted the necessary construction permit, and the business men of Lakeland at the close of 1937 were looking with shining eyes toward a future development of their community into a great industrial and commercial center. Sponsored and indorsed by responsible business interests, including some of the largest prospective shippers, the Lakeland-Tampa Industrial Canal seems among the probable realities of the Florida of the future.
Swinging westward toward Tampa and the Gulf Coast again, our route lies through the strawberry kingdom centering at Plant City in Hillsborough County. The first strawberries that arrive in the northern winter markets come from the more than 4,000 acres of strawberry fields in this region. “Fresh strawberries for Christmas,” is Plant City’s slogan. More than 7,000,000 boxes of strawberries are shipped annually, enriching this enterprising community by nearly $1,500,000.