Answer: You’ll have to read this Discover Small Town America Tour post to find out!
Rorie and Bart set out the other day for off-the-beaten-track destinations in interior Florida with several possible target locations in mind. Much to their joy, they unexpectedly discovered places that hadn’t been on their radar screen when the journey began. Their route took them to Zolfo Springs (pop 1,805), where Bart spied a sign for Pioneer Village park and the Cracker Trail Museum. After the dust settled from his really sharp left turn into the Museum parking lot, we toured the picturesque park and visited the museum. The Village has a cabin from 1879 with an adjacent outhouse (certainly too far from the cabin for Rorie to walk on a cold dark night), an 1897 blacksmith shop, an 1880’s reconstructed smokehouse, post office, work wagons and – every kid’s (little and big) favorite – a huge locomotive engine.
The actual museum building contains thousands of historic pioneer-era items and photographs. Judith George, the museum’s Curator, is a walking library of information about the museum and early pioneers in this area, and an enthusiastic champion of the Cracker Trail, Pioneer Village park and surrounding areas. For more information on this interesting piece of history, go to the Cracker Trail Museum website – www.hardeecounty.net/crackertrailmuseum.
After leaving the museum, we cruised down more country roads to the tiny town of Ona (pop. 314) in search of Solomon’s Castle, built by Harold Solomon, an internationally renowned artist and sculptor. Mr. Solomon started building the castle in a Florida swamp in 1972. This 12,000 square foot 3-story homage to recycling is Harold’s art studio and home. As astonishing as the inside of the home is, the exterior is positively quirky. Every square inch of the castle is covered with blindingly bright discarded aluminum printing plates. It looks like someone wrapped Disney’s Magic Kingdom in tinfoil.
The long, winding yellow brick walkway leading to the castle is another “brilliant” illusion. It actually isn’t brick, but rather poured concrete painted and stamped to look like the real thing. Stained glass windows, turrets, Solomon’s art and sculptures, extensive walking trails, a “boat in a moat” which houses a family run restaurant, a lighthouse and – of course- Harold, the king of the castle, along with four generations of his family, all make for the most remarkable, one-of-a-kind experience.
By now we were pretty hungry and more than ready for our next destination, Arcadia (pop. 7,621). This town has survived drought, floods, a turn-of-the-century fire that destroyed the business district and a devastating hurricane in 2004. But resilient locals consider these forces of nature “character building” events. What interesting and accomplished folks they are. They’ve rebuilt their historic town and turned it into an antique-lovers destination.
Our friends Marcia and David told us about a terrific lunch spot they discovered when driving through Arcadia last year. It’s called Mary Margaret’s Tea and Biscuit House. After exploring the antique shops on Polk St. and walking past an old fashioned ice cream parlor (Rorie wanted everybody to know she didn’t imbibe), we made a beeline to Mary Margarets with great anticipation – and a big appetite.
Dennis and Bruce, owners of the restaurant named after their mothers, are two of its main attractions. Funny, knowledgeable, charming, and dressed to impress in top hat and tails, they cook, serve, welcome and entertain their guests. Dennis took us on a tour of the dining rooms and pointed out some of his favorite antiques, many contributed by their customers. The authentically decorated Victorian-era interior had us swiveling our heads in all directions trying to take in every detail from the 1873 organ, to the wallpaper, furniture, oil wall sconces, tea cups, samovars and paintings. The place is truly a feast for the eyes.
And speaking of feasts, the food was the star of the show. Bart chose to eat healthy and ordered a stuffed tomato with chicken salad and fresh fruit on the side. It was the most gorgeous arrangement of “good for you” foods we’ve seen so far on The Discover Small Town America Tour. And the taste – it was to die for!
Rorie on the other hand ordered a bowl of rich, creamy, sherry-laden lobster bisque with homemade tea biscuits. New Englanders have nothing on Bruce and Dennis’ rich creation. A woman at the table behind us who was from New Bedford, MA – where “lobstah” and “chowdah” are king – was positively swooning over the bisque! After Rorie emptied her big bowl of soup, and said loud enough for everyone to hear that she couldn’t eat one more thing, Dennis brought us a white chocolate bread pudding sitting in a pool of decadent caramel with a scoop of clotted cream AND a Malva pudding, an African dessert made with apricots, a creamy sauce and of course clotted cream. We didn’t want to insult the owners and chef so, of course, we (actually, mostly Rorie) had to eat every bite. It was soooo good!
If you’re ever on the Gulf Coast of Florida and have time for a very pleasant day trip on country roads that take you by gorgeous horse farms and orange groves, we highly recommend you visit Dennis and Bruce and enjoy lunch at their very special restaurant – http://marymargaretsteaandbiscuit.com.