By Vanessa Caceres
The Caladium Capital of the World. The Town of Murals. Home of Toby’s Clown School.
These cute monikers all describe just one town —Highland County’s Lake Placid, just off of Route 27 and south of Sebring.
In 2013, Readers Digest Magazine named Lake Placid “America’s Most Interesting Town” because of the small town’s “unique variety of nature, culture, and fun,” according to the magazine.
If you’re looking for a destination that’s beyond the beach and that avoids the crowds, Lake Placid is an ideal destination.
Start your day at the town’s chamber of commerce office to learn more about the murals of Lake Placid—a series of 46 artworks that adorn the side of many Lake Placid businesses.
“The murals are what make the town,” says Grace Butcher, a chamber of commerce volunteer.
The idea began in the early 1990s, when residents Bob and Harriet Porter were motorcycling through Chemainus, British Colombia, and saw how that town was transformed through colorful murals. They brought the idea back home — and, using only donations and no public funds, were able to secure funding for the murals. The town continues to add to its mural collection.
The best way to get to know the murals is with the 56-page, $3 guide “Murals of Lake Placid,” which you can buy at the chamber and at many of town’s businesses.
The murals tell Lake Placid’s varied history, and here are a few highlights:
Discover how Dr. Melvil Dewey—inventor of the Dewey Decimal System—vacationed nearby and convinced Florida legislators to change the town’s name from Lake Stearns to Lake Placid.
Find out that Lake Placid is the Caladium Capital of the World because it grows 95 percent of the world’s caladiums and draws thousands with its annual caladium festival. (The caladiums grow particularly well in the rich, dark soil on County Road 621).
Check out the mural about Lake Placid’s early role in the turpentine industry.
View a nod to Florida’s citrus heritage in a mural showing how citrus came to Florida. (Citrus groves cover more than 13 percent of Highlands County, according to the mural guide, and the county itself is one of the leading citrus growing counties in the state.)
One can’t-miss mural is called Cracker Trail Cattle Drive, a 175-foot wide and 30-foot high mural on the side of a now-closed Winn-Dixie supermarket. It depicts what it was once like to transport cattle just north of Lake Placid. You’ll hear the sound of mooing cattle, thunder, and cracker cowboys herding the animals along—and you’ll feel like you’re there part of the action. The cattle depicted on the mural are all sponsored by Highlands County cattlemen.
Art is such a big part of the Lake Placid experience, even many of the downtown’s benches and trash containers are decorated with painted clowns, old cars, and nature scenes.
Once you’ve gotten your share of murals, stop by Toby’s Clown School and Museum, where you can be a clown. Really.
Since 1993, the school has graduated more than 1,500 clowns who’ve gone through a 25-hour clown class. Visitors can see an astounding amount of clown memorabilia, including figurines, pictures, and costumes. Museum workers will entertain your gang with magic tricks and may just make you join in for the performance.
Toby Stokes, the founder, is 93 and continues to perform, says volunteer Bob Krisby, whose clown name is “Silly Willy.”
If you want to continue the journey through history, the Lake Placid Historical Society Depot Museum gives you a chance to see photos and items from the town’s history as well as an antique caboose, a 1929 steam engine, and the town’s 1920s-era jail.
Once you’ve explored downtown, check out one of the area’s 29 lakes — including Lake Istokpoga, Lake Placid, or Lake June-in-Winter — for fishing or boating. Some lakes also have swimming.
“Lake June is a very popular spot because it has a sandbar,” says Katelyn Stuart, an Orlando resident who spent lots of time in the town during the summer growing up. “Around June and July, you can anchor your boat up and expect to see around 100 people or so.”
Golfing and biking are also popular, says chamber of commerce volunteer Lee Flocke.
If you’re looking for a place to eat just a couple of miles from downtown, Jaxson’s on Lake June is popular with locals and is famous for its Hookiemelt—chicken topped with onions over sour cream, wing sauce, and jack cheddar. There’s also the fried cheesecake, topped with strawberries, whipped cream, and drizzled chocolate. Come early on Tuesday or Thursday to watch the sunset and enjoy karaoke with Party Dog Rick, one of the chefs.
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