A Guide to the Murals and Wall Paintings in  Florida's Small Towns 

    By Chelle Koster Walton

    At first it seemed like an off-the-wall idea: paint historic and environmental scenes on blank facades around town. Some of Florida's mural towns first faced resistance against what adversaries perceived would be nothing more than graffiti. But when folks saw the results - the town's essence distilled into larger-than-life paintings that beautified, brightened and attracted and educated visitors - they quickly changed their minds.

    It began with a vision in Lake Placid in 1993 and quickly spread to small downtown areas throughout the state. Today, there are nearly a dozen stops along the Florida Mural Trail, in every corner of the state. Lake Placid, Palatka, Gainesville and Punta Gorda tally up the most murals each, so this trail begins there and makes side trips to towns with smaller collections.

    Cows, Caladiums & Clowns in Lake Placid

    Long-horned steers low at the cracking whips. One doe-eyed heifer rests its head on another's back, gazing sadly into your eyes. Slowly the rains begin, building to thunder-crashed crescendo. You hear the cowmen's yelps and the pounding of hoofs grow louder, more urgent as lightning wields its threat of strikes and stampede.

    Where are you? Next to a supermarket on Interlake Boulevard, off bustling Highway 27 in Lake Placid, a city just south of Sebring on Florida's historic Cracker Trail. This wrinkle in time is brought to you courtesy of the Lake Placid Mural Society, Florida's first such organization.

    Leave behind the highway rush and enter a virtual trip into local history via Lake Placid's 42 realistic and stylized murals painted on the sides of a drug store, antiques mart, arts co-op and other historic and commercial buildings. Some of the murals are so realistic you feel you could step right into them, should you wish to risk attack by mastodons, wild boars or bears. Three, including Cracker Trail Drive, Train Depot and Lost Bear Cub, come with sound effects. One honors the town's reputation as Caladium Capital of the World, another its bass-filled lakes. Several have matching trash containers.

    Two murals were completed this year. Another new project has scattered a flock of 49 artistic bird portraits around town so that Great Florida Birding Trail scouts can search treasure-hunt style for them.

    The Murals of Lake Placid self-guiding tour book is also interactive, providing clues for things "hidden" in each mural. Stop at the Chamber of Commerce to buy a copy, see original mural renderings, view a 10-minute mural video on the project and ask about guided bus tours.

    Murals a Community Affair in Palatka

    Welcome to Palatka, home of more than 31 murals in and around its reviving downtown area - originally built by steamship and railroad traffic in the late 1800s, when it surpassed nearby Jacksonville in size and economic significance. Many of the murals hearken back to those glory days, depicting scenes of bustling town life. Others address Palatka's agriculture, its religious devotion and its greatest attraction: the birds, geographical wonder and lush vegetation of Ravine Gardens State Park. One even features a well-known Billy Graham, who was baptized here and preached his first sermon in the community.

    Schools and students play an integral part in Palatka's mural program, which began in 1998, mentored by the one in Lake Placid. Many Palatka murals are the work of students from middle and high schools and Palatka's Florida School of the Arts. Most of the outdoor murals are within walking distance around St. Johns Avenue. Others grace the inside of a church and the walls of schools outside the downtown area.

    For a guide to mural locations, stop by the Chamber of Commerce to pick up the guide to a City of Murals. The town's shops and galleries sell mural prints for a lasting souvenir of this town that so cleverly reinvents itself by illustrating its past.

    Beyond Gators in Gainesville

    In Gainesville, home of the University of Florida (UF) and due west of Palatka, the mural program began to discourage graffiti. Part of a Keep Alachua County Beautiful (KACB) initiative, it built on a mural trend that had started spontaneously in commercial areas through the years. KACB's first mural beautified an eyesore underpass at an Interstate 75 exit with a portrayal of "North Florida Flora and Fauna," crawling with a raccoon, black bear, alligator and other local critters.

    More Florida furry and feathered friends popped up on a retaining wall in town. "Here Today" pictures on the side of a tire store a different threatened or endangered Florida species in each letter of the title inscription. Around the corner of a gas station wall crawls an enormous alligator, representing not only local wildlife, but the town's devotion to UF football.

    Most of the wall paintings span a 12-mile driving tour; seven others decorate walls throughout Alachua County in Hawthorne, High Springs and Alachua. Seventeen of the murals concentrate in Gainesville's campus area, along 13th Street and West University Avenue within a seven-block radius of where they intersect.

    Punta Gorda's Heritage in Paint

    In the late 1800s, a railroad extension to Punta Gorda, between Sarasota and Fort Myers, meant fish could be shipped from Charlotte Harbor's stilt fish houses to seafood-starved Northerners. The local fishing industry boomed. After the railroad closed, shrimp and tarpon sports fishing fed the economy. A three-paneled mural on a medical center titled "Fishing Tales" pays tribute to the importance of commercial and recreational fishing to Punta Gorda's heritage.

    The city's murals depict Punta Gorda's birds, manatees, sea turtles and scenes of Calusa natives, Ponce de Leon's reputed landing here, and railroad days of prosperity. Most of the murals adorn store walls in Punta Gorda's historic commercial district where Marion and Olympia Avenues intersect Tamiami Trail (Highway 41).

    The current Punta Gorda Murals guide, free at the Chamber of Commerce, pictures the town's original 22 murals.

    Lake Wales Sets the Scenes

    The artworks gracing downtown buildings -- and even some trash receptacles -- were coordinated by the Lake Wales Murals and Enhancement Board, and were funded primarily by citizens and visitors.

    Among the works are depictions of downtown as it appeared in the late 1920s, the city's founders, the city's roots in the turpentine industry, Bok Tower, the Lake Wales High School Band, Florida flowers and animals, the citrus industry, and, in a bit of whimsy, a 1958 Thunderbird crashing in one side and coming out the other side of a locksmith shop.

    Mural Trail Side Trips

    DeLand: There are 15 murals in DeLand to view.

    Fort Pierce: There are three murals in downtown Fort Pierce, including a Mural-In-A-Day.