A Day in Avon Park, for Some Sunshine State Fun, History and Heritage
By Vanessa Caceres
For a blend of agriculture, history and heritage, plan a visit to the town of Avon Park, about an hour south of Orlando.
Named after the town Stratford-upon-Avon in England, Avon Park is Highland County’s oldest city. Avon Park is where brown-and-serve rolls -- the kind you’ve probably eaten when comfort food is on the menu -- got their start.
The town once attracted the likes of actor Clark Gable and baseball player Babe Ruth to stay at the stately Hotel Jacaranda. Avon Park has long been a fixture in Florida’s citrus business as well, and that’s evident if you visit in citrus season. You’ll drive past your share of citrus groves, placid lakes, and cows, and you may even smell orange blossoms.
The town is a good place to visit for a slower pace of life, said Gaylin Thomas, who has lived in Avon Park since the early 1970s. “People from both (Florida) coasts want to see real rural Florida here,” she said.
Avon Park also attracts a crowd when the annual 12 Hours of Sebring auto races are held nearby.
And despite the town’s small size, there’s a relatively large number of places to visit. Here are some top spots to check out during a visit to Avon Park.
Located in downtown Avon Park, The Jacaranda Hotel was built in 1926, and it’s listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Glimpse historical architecture and décor during a stay at The Jacaranda, and you’ll feel like you’re stepping back into a simpler, more peaceful time. If you want a little more action, enjoy a meal there during Thanksgiving, which can attract hundreds of people. Another good time to visit is around the holidays, where the hotel’s lobby is resplendent in red, vibrant Christmas decorations.
This new addition to Avon Park will make you feel like you’ve in a bigger city’s art gallery. Roberts was a World War II vet, painter, and a long-time instructor at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota; he lived in Avon Park after that but went into a depression after his wife died in 2010. He stopped painting until Fred Leavitt, a local resident and leader of the Heartland Cultural Alliance, stopped by to visit him with a therapy dog. Roberts came out of his shell and started painting again, passionately. His namesake museum, which opened after he died, shows about 35 of his paintings. Roberts focused on close-up and sometimes abstract views of nature from the nearby Highlands Hammock State Park.
Get a taste – literally -- of Florida’s citrus industry at Maxwell Groves. “It’s like a walk back in time,” said Avon Park native Casey Hartt. “You go to it country store, get some orange juice, and have some ice cream.” You could spend an afternoon just watching the world go by from one of Maxwell’s brightly painted orange rocking chairs. “It’s a nostalgic place and not something everyone gets to do when they’re in Florida,” Hartt said.
Local residents like Thomas are working hard to restore downtown Avon Park to its former glory. For now, there are still a few stops you can make during a downtown stroll. In addition to The Jacaranda and nearby historic buildings, check out the downtown gazebo, grab a sandwich or a drink at The Depot or 18 East (praised by Hartt for its live music and friendly feel), take in the lake view at Donaldson Park, or try on some Western-style boots at the store Pure Grit. “A lot of regulars come here,” says Pure Grit’s Louis Maldonado.
For authentic Mexican food in Avon Park, Taqueria Merlo is a casual, flavorful destination. Part store, part restaurant, Taqueria Merlo serves up your favorite Mexican dishes at an affordable price. If you’re a vegetarian, let them know. You’ll be reminiscing for days about the vegetarian enchiladas, with a red mole sauce, beans, rice, lettuce, cheese, and avocados.
History buffs, be on alert. The Depot Museum showcases the area’s history, telling the story of Avon Park’s earliest days and how brown and serve rolls got their start in the town. Discover the local high school’s history, view the town’s phone switchboard (used until 1985), and get a glimpse of a California Zephyr Silver Palm train car, available for dining for special events.
The museum’s rotating programs and exhibits educate visitors about the Sunshine State’s history. Whether it’s “Florida Ranching—Yesterday and Today” or “Every Painting Tells a Story” (featuring photos of Florida Native American women), you’ll come away learning something new about Florida’s heritage.