The Ridge Scenic Highway (State Road 17) has some stories to tell.

It’s one thing to visit a place. But to get to know its story – now that’s a way to travel. Sure, I seek the sights. But I also search for the personalities and histories that enliven my destinations.

I find them by talking to old-timers and directors of two-room museums, and by striking up conversations in mom-and-pop restaurants. Often I hear of homesteaders who battled the wilds to establish their communities; other times I learn of heroes (and antiheroes).

The 38.7-mile drive from Haines City (at the intersection of SR 92) along State Road 17 to south of Frostproof (at the intersection of SR27) weaves a patchwork of historical anecdotes: a light read bubbling with colorful characters, comic relief, contemporary scenes conjuring another era and lots of pretty pictures (the road’s alternate identity as The Ridge Scenic Highway proves a fitting title). Continue south on SR 17 through the Avon Park/Sebring area en route to Arcadia to continue this magical journey.

Frostproof Diaries

Seemingly endless rows of orange groves mark the approach into Frostproof, where the late Ben Hill Griffin parlayed a 10-acre grove into a Florida citrus empire. All I wanted to know about the town (including how it was named), and things I was hesitant to ask (like how it was bombed during World War II), were explained by June Felt, a spry 80-something-year-old serving as Frostproof ’s unofficial historian.

Turns out that the first permanent settlers here voted to name the town Lakemont over the objection of one person (who insisted on Frostproof). As fate would have it, this lone holdout was the horseman selected to carry the application to postal authorities in Fort Meade. When the town received its post office, residents shouldn’t have been surprised to see it named Frostproof. Despite the label, the area has experienced a few frosts over the years, Felt recalled.

And what of the bombing? During World War II, Air Force planes using the nearby Avon Park bombing range for nighttime practice runs inadvertently dropped some of their payload on Frostproof. “Fortunately, there were no injuries,” Felt remembered. The only loss, according to Felt, was then mayor John Maxcy’s garage, which was reduced to rubble. “Air Force officials showed up and apologized profusely,” Felt said. But the following week, they were bombed again.

Avon Park Primer

Though the bombings were accidental, it’s no fluke that settlers flocked here before (and especially after) the completion of the original scenic highway in 1918. Following the warm climate, plentiful rain and sandy soil – not to mention the land boom – settlers planted thousands of citrus trees, and the seed for the region’s nickname, “the citrus ridge.”

The drive south to Avon Park shifts from this natural pictorial to a more manicured version once you hit Main Street. Beautifully landscaped in downtown Avon Park, it’s called the Mile-Long Mall. Century-old trees and the town’s original wooden bandstand (constructed in 1900 and now the centerpiece of several annual festivals) crown the center island.

At the town’s Depot Historical Museum, housed in the former train station, director Elaine Levey asked me if I knew Avon Park’s claim to fame. She led me to a display case filled with baked rolls and announced, “Brown ’n serve rolls were born right here.”

In 1949, local baker and volunteer fireman Joseph Gregor was experimenting with different kinds of dough to keep his rolls fresher. With a batch in the oven, the town’s fire alarm sounded. Gregor turned off the oven, removed the rolls and rushed to the fire. When he returned, he baked the rolls an additional seven minutes. The outcome was so fresh, a General Mills salesman wrote home about it, and the company patented Gregor’s recipe.

Sebring's Story

In Sebring, the scenic highway winds through the center of town and around Circle Park, decorated with trimmed oak and magnolia trees, flowerbeds and stylish streetlights. George Sebring, who founded the town in 1911, applied a circular pattern to the street layout, believing that all roads should lead to the city center.

Some of the community’s older residences line Lakeview Drive, encircling Lake Jackson. The city pier area reflects a new look, with an arts village always evolving. The complex includes the Highlands Museum of the Arts, Highlands Little Theater, the county library, the Highlands Art League and the Historical Society, with plans to continue restoration of other historic buildings.

Arcadian Anthology

Southwest toward Arcadia, the orange groves give way to expansive cattle ranges. The landscape recalls the 1890s, when raging cattle wars earned Arcadia a reputation as one of the wildest towns in Florida. But a mysterious Thanksgiving Day fire in 1905 destroyed most of downtown and, with it, Arcadia’s raucous history.                                                                                                                                            

Today, Arcadia offers more staid attractions. It’s repeatedly ranked as one of the top antiques shopping venues in Florida. Indeed, more than 120 vendors join the town’s 30-some antiques shops in the high season of the Antique Fair. Though the market is open the fourth Saturday of every month, the number of vendors peaks in winter. The town’s three-block run of antiques stores along 1920s-era Oak Street is open year ’round.

Of course, the cowboy heritage has not been forgotten. The 2006 documentary Cowboys of Florida was inspired by the local landscapeVictor Milt, a golden child of Madison Avenue, was driven to direct the film after 33 years of visiting the area with his wife and producer, Kim, a local. His experience made him passionate about chronicling a vanishing breed – the cowboys who rode the ranges of Central Florida for more than 150 years. (Cowboys of Florida won the Florida Choice Award at Tampa’s Independents’ Film Festival in September 2006.) It soothes my traveling spirit to know that Milt and others like him are dedicated to documenting the legends of these lands.

Travel File

It’s easy to find the first of the historic buildings being restored as part of Sebring’s arts village. Just look for the yellow house. Constructed by George Sebring in the 1920s, the building now serves as the Yellow House Gallery and Gift Shop for the arts village. 863-385-5312. Traveling with kids? Children’s Museum of the Highlands thrills with a maze and a kid-sized village that includes a fire station. 863-385-5437.

For the night, try Kenilworth Lodge. Constructed in 1916 to attract “well-to-do” Northerners, the Mediterranean Revival-style property balances historic appeal with modern amenities. Enjoy a sunset over Lake Jackson from one of the rocking chairs on the front verandah. 

Tour a dining car at the Depot Historical Museum. Afterward, stroll the town and its Mile-Long Mall. Overnight at the Hotel Jacaranda, a block-long property built in 1926 and updated by its current owner, South Florida Community College Foundation. Though students live in several rooms, guests have always been welcome – including Babe Ruth and Clark Gable (and, it is rumored, Al Capone).

This community of 3,000 sits on “the ridge” – a series of slow-rolling hills between Lakes Clinch, Reedy, Silver and Moody. At the Historical Society Museum Library, learn about Frostproof's settlers of 1886 and modern efforts to restore downtown.

For more information on visiting this area, contact the Frostproof Chamber of Commerce.

Howard Melton wrote the book on Arcadia’s historic homes (Footprints and Landmarks) and he shows how you can trace the town’s history through its architecture, from pillared Southern plantations to early Cracker residences made of pine trees cut on the property. Fan out east and west from the Downtown Oak Street commercial district, and you’ll discover many of Arcadia’s nearly 300 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.