A Tour of Clewiston’s Agricultural Past and Present
By Vanessa Caceres
And while you make your way through Clewiston, a road-trip stop at the Clewiston Museum provides insights to the area’s rich history. The Clewiston Museum and the town’s chamber of commerce share space together. “It’s a place to take a break,” said museum curator Butch Wilson.
The museum’s exhibits fill you in on “America’s Sweetest Town,” nicknamed because of the sugar industry that flavors the area.
You can start your visit to the museum with a video about the town’s history. If you’re lucky, Wilson will be there to walk you through the museum.
Wilson is knowledgeable, engaging, and probably could recite historical facts in his sleep. He’s a sixth-generation Floridian whose pioneer family started near the Panhandle and eventually made its way down to South Florida. He grew up in South Bay, not far from Clewiston, went away to college and majored in history and theology, and then returned to the area. He worked for 30-plus years at Clewiston’s U.S. Sugar before he became the museum curator.
The museum’s presentation spans the prehistoric to the present, starting with a massive display of fossils found in or around Clewiston. It may be hard to believe that Florida was once completely underwater. As the landscape changed, animals like wooly mammoths, sloths, megalodons (mega-sized sharks), giant land tortoises that weighed 1,000 pounds, dugongs (similar to manatee and still alive in the Indian Ocean) and saber-tooth cats walked the land we now walk on and swam in our waters. Researchers may disagree on how old the fossils at the museum are, but they could be as old as 500,000 years -- give or take.
Museum visitors have the chance to touch some of fossils. Wilson may even have you unknowingly hold some fossilized animal poop.
Native Americans, Spanish explorers
Florida was initially inhabited by Native Americans, before explorers from Spain made their way to the Sunshine State in 1513. Other Europeans soon followed. The museum charts the history of these various groups, pointing out that gold and silver have been found -- and could still be found -- from the Spanish explorers who brought it here originally.
The museum also includes information about the Seminole Indians who still live near Clewiston.
A pioneering town
The museum transitions to information about the pioneers who came to Sandpoint -- the former name for Clewiston -- and saw potential for the area, in part due to its location near Lake Okeechobee, the second-largest lake in the contiguous United States. Settlers here often grew vegetables that could not be grown elsewhere while the rest of the U.S. was in a freeze. “People did well but they lived a pioneer life here,” Wilson said.
Words, pictures and artifacts tell the story of a colorful character named Marian O’Brien, who became the mayor of nearby Moore Haven and was the first female mayor east of the Mississippi River. O’Brien and her husband named the town Clewiston, named after their business partner Alfonso C. Clewis, a banker in Tampa. The O’Briens, along with Clewis, opened a railroad in town in 1921, which helped transport vegetables grown in the area to other parts of the U.S. They had grand plans for the development of Clewiston and even envisioned it as a little Chicago. Financial troubles brought many of those ideas to a halt.
Vegetables and some sugar cane had been grown in Clewiston and nearby areas for a long time. But when Southern Sugar Company opened its sugar factory in the area in 1929, Clewiston and the industry became interwoven. Stewart Mott -- the name behind Mott Apple Juice -- bought Southern Sugar Company in 1931 and renamed it U.S. Sugar Corporation. The sugar industry in Clewiston particularly flourished in the early 1960s when the U.S. decided to stop buying sugar imports from Cuba. U.S. Sugar continues to employ a large number of people in Clewiston and supports many ventures and events in town.
Citrus also has played a big role in Clewiston’s history, as it has in much of Central and South Florida, Wilson said. Hendry County -- where Clewiston is located -- is one of the state’s top citrus-producing counties.
The museum has large window treatments that show scenes from the town’s early agricultural history -- including high school seniors who used to pose in the sugarcane fields for advertising pictures. You can also see on display a machete (used before the sugarcane process became automated) and a mini version of the machinery currently used for sugar production.
Elsewhere in Clewiston
After you wrap up your visit to the Clewiston Museum, grab a bite to eat at Roland Martin Marina & Resort with its lakeside views. You’ll find delicious Mexican food at Jalapeños Taqueria or Sunrise Restaurant, and a $7.50 platter of Cuban food at Julio’s Café Tropical. The platter is big enough to feed two adults, Wilson said.
If you’re a history buff and find that the museum just whets your appetite for more area history and culture, then come back to town for the Sugarland Tours, sponsored by the chamber of commerce from October to March. The 3½-hour tour takes visitors on a passenger bus to visit a sugarcane field and citrus juice plant.