Glades County, Florida: Pioneer Stock
By: Gary McKechnie
Although you can’t tell without checking an aerial map, Glades County encompasses about 250 square miles of Lake Okeechobee – about one-third of the entire lake.
While that alone should be enough to prompt a fishing trip, when you add the county’s hammocks and sloughs and the Seminole reservation and burial mounds and then include far-reaching plains stitched together by lonely back roads, you get the idea Glades County is a perfect destination for a one-day road trip or, even better, an extended visit.
There are only a handful of places in Florida that combine the ethereal beauty of a Highwaymen painting with the scrubland scenes of Patrick D. Smith’s classic Florida novel, A Land Remembered. But the fact is…
Glades County happens to do it better than nearly anyplace else.
Give Me Moore Haven
One of the first things you’ll notice when driving into Glades County from Clewiston is the spectacular Mamie Langdale Memorial Bridge. It soars over the Caloosahatchee Canal before sweeping in for a gentle landing in downtown Moore Haven, a town of about 1,700 on the southwest shore of Lake Okeechobee.
If you stuck with U.S. 27, you’d clear the city limits in a minute or two. But since you’ve come this far, backtrack a few blocks and begin your Glades County excursion with a most picturesque drive.
On the canal’s western bank, Riverside Drive follows the waterway and offers wonderful photo ops en route. The narrow road goes on far longer than you’d expect, gliding along the canal for a few miles before passing a few Cracker cottages and then disappearing into deep green fields of sugarcane. The canal, meanwhile, flows for several more miles to reach Lake Hicpochee.
Back near the bridge, spaced evenly along the canal are small picnic pavilions popular with city workers, locals, and travelers who come here to enjoy an outdoor lunch (or a good book) beside the water. Look around and you’ll notice the mammoth bridge that brought you into town had an unintended consequence of carrying business away from town.
Replacing an older drawbridge, the new bridge sailed up and over the historic downtown, leaving several blocks of 1930s-era stores behind as a kind of modern ruins. But not all has been forsaken. On Highway 27, a filling station across from the historic Glades County Courthouse (a Florida Heritage Site) has been resurrected as the Café 27, an independent restaurant with daily specials like meat loaf, steak, beef tips, and roasted pork along with a steady menu of wings, beer, burgers, and homemade desserts.
By the way -- if you’re here in March, Moore Haven is the home of the Chalo Nitka Festival and Rodeo. Dating back to 1949, the annual county fair is one of Florida's oldest continuous festivals and means ‘The Day of the Big Bass" in the Seminole language.
From Moore Haven, it takes only about 20 minutes to reach unincorporated Ortona, which has at least three notable sights. From U.S. 27, C.R. 78 veers slightly southwest and leads to nearly 20 miles of superb backroad cruising. As you cross a landscape unscarred by billboards and uncluttered by development, pastureland is open as far as you can see. Whether you’re here in the early morning quiet or in the late afternoon, the drive is one of satisfying solitude. There is no rush hour here.
Aside from a few random stands of palms and oaks and aging cattle pens, there’s scarcely a trace of growth and that makes it easy to spy the Ortona Cemetery approaching on the right. No matter where they’re found, cemeteries often reveal the history of a place and this one does it very well.
Near the entrance, a Florida Historic Marker notes the 1928 Hurricane that swept over nearby Lake Okeechobee which, sadly, increased the cemetery’s population by hundreds. Explore the grounds and you may recognize names of local families, several of them kin to multi-generational dynasties that continue to call Glades County home. These ranchers, cattlemen, and their families lie at rest beside members of the Seminoles and Miccosukee tribes -- Billies, Osceolas, and Jumpers among them.
One of the most notable residents is Billy Bowlegs III. Born in 1862, Cofehapkee (his Seminole name) later renamed himself in honor of the famed Seminole chief. A respected tribal elder and historian, Bowlegs lived to the age of 103, passing away in 1965. You’ll find his headstone midway into the cemetery, in the first row on your left.
Adjacent to the cemetery is an overlooked, untended Florida Heritage Site called the Ortona Mounds. The site of February’s annual Cane Grinding Festival has a park, pavilions, and a walking trail to a small lake, but access to the mound is restricted, perhaps because between the 1930s and 1950s, souvenir hunters dug into it and removed priceless artifacts. Incredibly, archaeologists determined that the earthworks frame an irrigation project created by Native Americans more than 1,700 years ago.
Often the joy of travel peaks when you find places you’ve never heard of, especially when they’re hidden just off the main road. The Ortona Locks Recreational Area is one of those places. Just west of the mounds, turn left onto C.R. 78A (Ortona Locks Road) and follow the signs. Pass a few pastures, take a few turns and you’ll arrive at a small parking area where a smart little park features a boat launch, restrooms, and pavilions sitting beside the Caloosahatchee Canal, the same one you first saw in Moore Haven. A few steps away on Lock Lane, a row of cute homes are just a stone’s throw away from an RV park on the opposite shore. Reaching the opposite shore, though, requires backtracking several miles to LaBelle and returning via S.R. 80.
If you take a few minutes and explore the secluded hamlet near the lock, you’ll pass flourishing orange groves, thick hammocks, waterfront RV parks, and the River Forest Yachting Center. Afterward, enjoy the return trip toward Moore Haven as you begin to explore more of Glades County.
The Great 78
North of Moore Haven, Highway 78 is tied to the western edge of Lake Okeechobee, although the lake is often hidden behind miles of open plains. The drive north is pleasant, of course and as you’d expect it leads to yet another Florida treasure. A sign at Banana Grove Road marks the entrance to the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area, tens of thousands of acres of lightly-touched Florida wilderness, dry plains, forested wetlands, and floodplain marsh.
Bear in mind this is the east entrance to the protected area. To reach the west entrance, you’ll need to head back over to western Glades County. In the town of Palmdale, the entrance off U.S. 27 will lead to the Fisheating Creek Outpost. If you love eco-adventures and outdoors, you’ll love it here. Surrounding the free-flowing, tea-colored blackwater stream there’s hunting, tent and RV camping, hiking, bicycling, paddling, fishing (bass, crappie, catfish and bream), wildlife viewing (alligators, turtles, deer, wild boar, turkey, wading birds, raptors), and birdwatching from birds of prey to migrating species that fly in along the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. For information on activities and eco-adventures that reflect pioneer Florida, contact the Outpost at (863) 675-5999.
Back in east Glades County just north of Banana Grove Road is Lakeport, home of February’s Sour Orange Festival. If you’re one of those fortunate people satisfied with a leisurely life of freshwater fishing, this expansive, lightly populated community seems to be the perfect place to kick back. And if one day, or even a long weekend, doesn’t give you enough time, you’ll find rental cottages, fishing shacks, and trailers on back roads and hidden lanes.
Near the junction of 78 & 721, a road spins around and leads to the Margaret van de Velde Park at the Harney Pond Recreation and Picnic Area, a long spit of land that lies between marshland on the edge of the lake. Catching a glimpse of the ‘Big O’ from the elevated boardwalk reminds you of how astounding it is, especially when a towering thunderstorm rolls in. Even when a massive storm is releasing hundreds of thousands of gallons of rain, it can look like a paltry spring shower when viewed against the 730-square mile lake.
Take A Reservation
From Lakeport you can continue north on 78 toward the town of Okeechobee which isn’t a bad idea at all -- especially when you make the 30-mile drive in the early morning and see cattle grazing in the foggy pastures. Along this area, Buckhead Ridge is the last town within Glades County, which ends at the Kissimmee River. A second option is following C.R. 721 from Lakeport into the Brighton Indian Reservation.
A few miles in, a sign marks the entrance into the well-run Seminole community, which was established in 1957. On your left, the Trading Post and Brighton RV Resort caters to visitors and overnight guests who arrive with their own trailers or motor coaches or opt to stay in a fully-equipped lakeside cabin. For many travelers, the lure of the Reservation is a few miles ahead at the 27,000-square foot Brighton Casino. There are more than 400 slot and gaming machines here, and you can also partake of live action blackjack, poker, and bingo. The casino’s signature restaurant, Josiah, is open 24 hours and serves salads, sandwiches, steaks, pizzas, seafood – and traditional Seminole fry bread. If you have issues with second-hand smoke, keep in mind that it’s prevalent in the casino.
Among the hidden highlights of the Reservation is the Florida Seminole Veterans Building, where a statue of Chief Osceola stands among figures of Seminole men and women shown in uniforms of the American armed forces. Nearby you’ll see the Reservation’s police and fire department, a Boys and Girls Club, and the school where children are still being taught the Seminole and Miccosukee language. And be sure to look for the Seminole Arts and Culture Center. Open to visitors, this is where tribal elders teach younger members craftmaking skills that have been shared over generations. Handmade beaded bracelets and necklaces as well as colorful dresses, shawls and vests are sold here. To arrange a group visit, call (863) 467-6791.
Although the Brighton Indian Reservation could be your last stop in Glades County, it doesn’t have to be. Pull out a map. Find other roads. Delve deeply into the beauty and history of this wonderful Florida destination.
If you go…
For more information, visit Glades County.
Photos by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA