Friday, August 21, 2009

America's Sweetest Town

Highway 27 is my preferred route across Florida, with a speed limit in rural areas around 70 mph (112km/h) you make miles through the orange groves and past small towns. Plus you get to see Florida the way it sort of was before the Turnpike and the Interstates. And as we have seen in the Grand Florida tour of 2009, bits of central Florida are hilly, almost nosebleed hilly, like this:One of my favorite photographer is a Californian who settled in Florida and took to photographing the wildlife in the state, particularly well known for his massive black and white portraits of the Everglades. If you have ten grand to spare you can cover a wall with one of Clyde Butcher's magnificent pictures. He coined the phrase "Florida mountains"to describe the huge puffy summer clouds that build up over the state in the heat of summer:Highway 27 takes a turn to the East around the southern shores of Lake Okeechobee, which is the largest body of fresh water in the continental United states second only to lake Superior, and is thoroughly uninteresting despite that. I have sailed across the lake from Clewiston to eastern lock and it has nothing to show all the way across. However on the southern shore nestles the city made possible by Big Sugar, the US Sugar Corporation, formerly known as Southern Sugar. Eleven billion of your tax dollars go to the sugar industry so every time you eat a candy bar you are swallowing five cents of your own tax dollars. Weird huh? Big Sugar has supposedly made a deal with the state to sell their lands and turn them back to wilderness to clean up the flow of water into the Everglades and restore the waters to the south of the state. Meanwhile Clewiston remains an agricultural town with a large population of Latin fieldworkers and a monument to the good old days of Big Sugar, the corporation's hotel, called the Clewiston Inn: It sits alongside Highway 27 where the road enters the town from the west, and from the front, despite the garish BBQ sign, it looks the part of the fine southern mansion. The rear of the hotel has a second, less well known entrance and being as how I am a Floridian my idea of a good parking spot is somewhere in the shade. So I parked the Maxima under the Royal Palms and in we went through the unobtrusive back door.
The interior of the hotel is everything you would imagine a 1938 building should be, all wood paneling and chandeliers:
This being the 21st century the idiot box had to be turned on in a corner, sucking every ounce of intelligent thought out of the room, so we went on to the lunch we had been looking forward to since -ahem!- breakfast in Lake Wales.
Aside from the propaganda machine the room looks much as it always has done:
This incarnation of the hotel replaced the original 1926 building which burned down. Nowadays with fire codes and government supervision we tend to forget how prevalent fires were in the days of candles, kerosene and uncertain wiring:As hard to imagine as it may be, the Clewiston Inn was a fashionable place to gather, play tennis and wile away a long cold winter, like these fashionable folk, captured by Mr Kodak's invention in the prime of their young lives:The corridors of the hotel are lined with pictures from the Inn's past and I wanted to photograph them all...instead I took a picture of the enormous menu in an effort to remember what was offered:The dining room itself was quite delightful in the same vein as the rest of the hotel, just as we remembered it from previous visits. The room absorbed the conversations from the neighboring tables and as we waited for our food I found myself pondering a surprising thought. Considering the tables next to us were occupied by a trio of Latino businessmen, a group of African-Americans, my wife who is a Jew and me who is an immigrant, I figured none of us would have been allowed to eat in the Colonial Dining room when it was re-built in 1938. Thanks to the Federal Government's enforcement of President Johnson's Great Society legislation we were all there enjoying our meals without a second thought. And very good the food was too.
I mean, who among us doesn't like fried okra, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, sweet potato casserole, meatloaf or fried chicken? Throw in a couple of sodas, tax and tip and you are stuffed for thirty dollars.
We waddled back out into the sunshine to admire the clouds and the matching paintwork on the hotel. We failed to spot the "friendly female ghost" said to haunt the Inn, not surprisingly as she, like most apparitions of popular myth seem to prefer the hours of darkness. Anyway spirits are allergic to my robust sense of mistrust and you can be sure if I am around they won't appear.
There are advantages to touring in a car; two that I can think of: One being air conditioning, another the ability to take more or less gruesome pictures from behind the wheel of the car, of passing monuments like this plough. A hearty reminder of the richness of the soil that used to be Everglades marshland before the US Army Corps of Engineers efficiently organized it's transformation into cropland. We have since discovered that the drive by private industry to commercialize the Everglades is a Bad Thing and now the Corps is patiently trying to supervise it's return to it's original format:And for a technophobe like me there is the advantage that you can talk to your passenger without the use of electrons. which is useful when home is six hours away across more flatlands and rather uninteresting urban messes like the rest of Clewiston:And these rural clapboard houses that put me in mind of small homes on the prairie:I have no idea what this was named after:And back, on the road again...Highway 27 toward Homestead:Toward the islands we call home, the only place worth living in Florida.