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Lake Placid charms with clowns & caladiums, good eatin’ & great yarns

Lake Placid has a few good stories to tell. Like this one from 1927.

Swain Bowers, owner of the Lake Placid Motor Car company, was called to rescue three men who were on a country drive through Highlands County when their car got stuck in sand.

Bowers came to their rescue and pulled them out with his truck and chains.

The three men had been scouting the countryside for goldenrod near Arcadia as a potential source for rubber. Who were they?

Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone.

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The Swain Bowers story. The artist is Keith Goodson. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Swain Bower’s story is depicted in this 22-foot-wide mural (above), which was painted on the exterior wall at 217 North Main Avenue by artist Keith Goodson in 2015.

What makes this and 50 other local murals unique is Lake Placid’s way of telling those stories. Through paintings. On walls. All over town.

The 1931 Tropical State Bank Robbery

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The Tropical State Bank Robbery by artist Richard Currier. (Photographed by Don T. Burkett)

Young Grady Parrish, age 10, was waiting to get a haircut at a barber shop when another customer pointed out two strangely dressed men passing by on the sidewalk, one wearing a red wig and the other a black wig.

Thinking the two men were from the circus, Grady left the barber shop to follow them, only to discover they had entered the bank next door and were holding the bank manager and two tellers at gunpoint!

Grady ran to tell his dad, who told Grady to go fetch Town Marshall Tom Bozeman. Bozeman heard Grady’s shouts and ran out of his house, strapping on a pistol and grabbing a shotgun.

When Grady’s father and Marshall Bozeman converged on the bank, guns cocked, the robbers were making their getaway. Bozeman shot one. Both were captured.

Young Grady Parrish was rewarded $10 for his part in foiling the crime.

The mural was painted on the spot where the bank was located at 3 North Main Avenue in 2000 by artist Richard Currier.

Lake Placid is ‘America’s most interesting town’

At least that’s how the editors at Readers Digest described Lake Placid after a nationwide search in 2013.

Lake Placid certainly has some qualifications.

For starters, the entire town is a living, breathing art gallery. Not just the 50+ murals we’ve already described, but even the trash cans are works of art. And tin sculptures magically appear on park benches and behind shrubs during your casual stroll through the historic downtown.

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Lake Placid grows 98 percent of the world’s caladiums.

Lake Placid also happens to be the Caladium Capitol of the World. Yes, the entire World.

Although native to South America, these popular house plants are easily propagated from tubers, or bulbs, and 98 percent of the world’s tubers are birthed in Lake Placid on 14 caladium farms.

And then there is Toby’s American Clown School and Museum, founded by former Shriner clown Keith ‘Toby’ Stokes. Toby needed help visiting kids in local hospitals, so he started the school to train clown wannabes. Along the way, Toby assembled an impressive collection of clown coolness, from figurines to clown costumes and clown art.

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My wife Kathy (left) with museum host “Silly Dilly” in front of one of the murals outside the museum and school. We really had fun exploring the museum and hearing Silly Dilly’s colorful stories about Toby and the school. The mural in the background was created by artist Monica Turner in 2010. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

This area of central Highlands County was a Seminole Indian Reservation at the beginning of the 20th Century. It wasn’t until 1912 that the U.S. government opened it up to homesteaders, who began moving into what was then known as Lake Stearns.

The town was just beginning to realize its potential as an agricultural area when it was visited by Dr. Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal System for classifying books in libraries, who saw it as a way to make money through tourism.

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Early aerial postcard photo of Dr. Melvil Dewey’s Lake Placid Club. (Circa 1920s. Credit: Florida Archives)

Dewey admired the area’s many lakes, the potential for outdoor recreation and the pleasant weather, so he purchased property on Lake Stearns to build a resort, where he would host members of a country club he owned in Lake Placid, New York.

Dewey’s next move was to convince local and state legislators to rename the town after Lake Placid, which they did in 1927.

As he was building a second hotel, Dewey convinced the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad to build a fancy new train depot so he could bring his clientele to the town. Until then, the depot was just a shack. Dewey’s depot is still standing and now serves as home of the Lake Placid Historical Society.

Dewey died in Lake Placid in 1931 after suffering a stroke. The event is marked, of course, by a mural called “The Talk of the Town,” which also commemorates the town’s first telephone operator, Florence Nowling Booker, who summoned Dr. Alfred Eide to Dewey’s bedside.

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Emily Dewey (left) placed a call to Dr. Alfred Eide (far right panel) in 1931 after her husband Dr. Dewey suffered a stroke. In the center panel is Florence Nowling Booker, Lake Placid’s first telephone operator. (Mural artist by Richard Currier; Photo by Donald Burkett.)

14 things to do while visiting Lake Placid

While the main attraction calls for strolling through Lake Placid’s outdoor art gallery in its historic downtown, there’s more to see and do in the surrounding countryside.

Toby’s Clown School and the American Clown Museum

Toby’s American Clown School was born at the Lake Placid Hospital in the early 1980s, where Shrine Clown Keith Stokes (Toby) regularly visited patients to bring them a little cheer. As demand grew, and other nearby hospitals sought clown therapy, Toby started teaching others his craft. From his first class of 6 in 1991 until today, more than 2,500 clowns have graduated from the school

The building where the school and museum is housed boasts impressive clown murals, and a small suite of rooms packed with cheery clown posters, photos of clowns, figurines and a wall full of clown dolls.

The resident jester, Silly Dilly, was ready to give us our clown education.

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First, the basics: There are basically three kinds of clowns: the happy-go-lucky German Auguste clown, the sometimes sinister English White Face clown, and the American hobo, who traces his comical ancestry to the tramps who rode the rails looking for jobs during the Great Depression.

All over Central Florida, you’ll find the school’s graduates entertaining at hospitals, special events and festivals, as well as on the streets of Lake Placid during busy tourist days.

If you go: The parking lot out back is small, and the back-door entrance uninviting. But don’t let that stop you from knocking on the door.

Toby The Clown Foundation, 109 W Interlake Blvd, Lake Placid, FL 33852. Phone: (863) 465-2920 Open Tues-Fri, Noon-4 pm; Sat., 11-3. Call Silly Dilly for details about the school, which holds classes in the fall. | TripAdvisor Reviews

Morty and Edna’s Craft Kitchen

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The mural on the wall outside Morty and Edna’s Cafe in Lake Placid depicts the Lake Placid Journal newspaper office of a bygone era. The mural was created in 2015 by artist Monica Turner. As a retired newspaper reporter and editor, I can attest to the importance of having beer close at hand, next door to Morty and Edna’s, at the Wet Dogs Brewing Company. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

This cute little cafe is in the heart of Lake Placid in the Journal Plaza, where the town’s local newspaper was once published. The building’s story is told, of course, with a mural of the newspaper offices.

But you really came here for lunch (or breakfast), and you are in for a treat. The Notorious BLT, consisting of candied bacon, avocado, fresh tomato and lettuce on sourdough bread was, well, unfrigginbelievable! Fair warning: they close at 2 p.m. sharp, and stop taking orders a few minutes early.

After lunch, check out the Blueberry Patch Boutique and Gift Shop next door. Or come back later to visit Wet Dogs Brewing Company at the rear of the building.

Morty and Edna’s Craft Kitchen, 231 North Main Ave., Lake Placid, 33852. Phone: (863) 699-0600

TripAdvisor Reviews: Customers give Morty and Edna’s a 4.5 star rating.

A Brewery, A Vineyard and a Distillery (and moonshine?)

Lake Placid (population 2,500) boasts its own craft brewery, a winery and a distillery just in case you get a little thirsty. Besides brewing it’s own craft beer, the Wet Dogs Brewing Company, next door to Morty and Edna’s, also serves locally crafted sodas and hard seltzers. Wet Dogs is open at 4 pm most days (11 am on Saturdays and Sundays) with live entertainment on weekends. | TripAdvisor Reviews

Just out of town at 264 Henscratch Road, you’ll find the Sugar Sand Distillery, where locally farmed and harvested sugar cane is transformed into rum, vodka, gin and moonshine. Open Wednesday through Sunday from 11:00 am – 6:00 pm. Tours include complimentary tastings and a discount on purchases. Be sure to review their Distillery Tour Etiquette before your visit. | TripAdvisor Reviews

A wee bit north of Sugar Sands Distillery on Henscratch Road, explore Henscratch Farms Vineyard and Winery, a charming Southern-style vineyard and winery. The wines are sweet “country” style wines from native muscadine and scuppernong grapes, maybe not for sophisticated wine drinkers but worth a taste. While you’re there, enjoy the farm’s ambiance, the friendly hens and roosters (Rhode Island Reds and Barred Plymouth Rocks) that wander the farm, and pick berries from hydroponic towers in season. Strawberries from December to April; blueberries, April and May. | TripAdvisor Reviews

Related article: Florida Craft Breweries and Brewpub Directory

Whatever happened to the famous Lake Placid Tower?

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When it opened in 1961, the tower was the tallest concrete block structure in the world at 240 feet. For years, the tower was open to tourists who rode its elevator to the observation deck. The tower closed in 2003 because of sluggish sales. The Lake Placid Tower is still standing and remains a landmark that can be seen for miles around, but it has found a new purpose as a cell phone tower.

(Photo by Ebyabe via Wikipedia)

Cowpokes Watering Hole

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The outdoor tiki bar at Cowpokes Watering Hole. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

If you don’t dine anywhere else while visiting the Lake Placid area, be sure to visit the legendary Cowpokes Watering Hole on U.S. 27, about 10 miles north of Lake Placid. Serving premium steaks and fresh seafood in its ranch-themed dining room or outside in its large tiki bar, Cowpokes is a local landmark that plays on the region’s Florida Cracker heritage. On a recent visit, I thoroughly enjoyed their signature Cowpokes Ribeye with sautéed mushrooms, precisely prepared to my expectations. Cowpokes has now become my all-time favorite Florida steakhouse. Cowpokes does not accept reservations, so I suggest an early dinner to avoid a long wait. Cowpokes Watering Hole, 6813 US-27, Sebring, FL 33876. Phone: (863) 314-9459.

TripAdvisor Reviews: Customers give Cowpokes a 4.5-star rating.

Caladium Capital of the World

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Caladium fields south of Lake Istokpoga. (Photo courtesy VisitSebring)

If you’re a gardener in South Florida, you know caladiums as those summer plants with vividly colored leaves in shades of red, white and pink. Outside of South Florida, they are a common houseplant. The big leaves come in various shapes and add color to gardens when it’s too hot to grow much else. There are more than 40 varieties of caladiums, which are in the jack-in-the-pulpit family.

Lake Placid calls itself the Caladium Capital of the World because it grows 98 percent of the world’s supply. There are 14 farming families with 1,200 acres of the plants, south of Lake Istokpoga, and they’ve been growing caladiums in Lake Placid since the 1940s.

Folks in Lake Placid compare the vast fields of bright colors in summer to Holland’s tulip fields in spring. You can see the sprawling fields of caladiums by driving (or bike riding) into the countryside south of Lake Istokpoga.

Related Story: Lake Placid Caladium Festival, July 28-29, 2023, is about a vivid plant

Highlands Hammock State Park

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Boardwalk at Highlands Hammock State Park. (Giulia Woergartner/VisitFlorida)

Old-growth live oaks dripping with air plants and Spanish moss dominate the landscape throughout much of the 9,000-acre Highlands Hammock State Park, one of Florida’s original state parks developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.

This park has a paved 2.2-mile loop road through a scenic sub-tropical forest for bicycles and vehicles, leading to a dozen interconnected hiking trails and boardwalks, an off-road multi-use trail, a CCC museum, tram tours and a shady campground.

Highlands Hammock State Park, 5931 Hammock Rd, Sebring. (863) 386-6094 | TripAdvisor Reviews

Read more: Ancient oaks caress the soul at Highlands Hammock State Park

Lake June in Winter State Park

Downtown Lake Placid overlooks Lake June in Winter, a vast 4,000-acre span of water, on the town’s northwest border. The state park that bears its name wraps around the opposite shoreline. The park’s sand scrub habitat has been dubbed “Florida’s desert,” which gives you an indication of what you’ll find if you choose to hike its trails. Dress accordingly. In addition to trails, you can carry your kayak or canoe lakeside and enjoy excellent fishing or just a pleasant paddle. Outside the park, there are several public boat ramps.

Lake June in Winter Scrub State Park, Daffodil Road, Lake Placid. Phone: (863) 386-6094. | TripAdvisor Reviews

Read more: Exploring the Lake Wales Ridge: Central ‘highlands’ with old-fashioned flavor

Lake Istokpoga | Arbuckle Creek | Airboat Rides

Lake Istokpoga is one of Florida’s best fishing lakes and, at 28,000 acres, it is the fifth largest lake in Florida. You’ll find excellent access for launching your boat, canoe or kayak at the Windy Point Boat Ramp, 161 Highlands Lake Dr, Lake Placid. This is a scenic park with parking for 80 boat trailers and offering rest rooms, picnic facilities, a nature trail and, notably, it is a popular stop on the Florida Birding Trail.

Airboat rides are available on the north side of Lake Istokpoga on U.S. 98 where it crosses over Arbuckle Creek. Airboat Wildlife Adventures offers 1.5-hour tours that go down to the lake, then back up Arbuckle Creek. There is also a boat ramp, where we launched our kayaks for an afternoon paddle on Arbuckle Creek, and a bar. | TripAdvisor Reviews

Arcadia (and the Peace River)

About 30 miles west of Lake Placid on State Road 70, a popular jumping off point for some excellent kayaking on the Peace River. You’ll need a whole day for this adventure. Last time I paddled the Peace, we paddled downriver for two days, tent camping along the way on a riverbank. Arcadia is also a historic cowtown at the center of the region’s cattle industry, as evidenced by the Arcadia All-Florida Championship Rodeo.

Read more: Peace River canoe trip is a Florida adventure

Campgrounds near Lake Placid

Highlands Hammock State Park

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A lazy, hazy morning in the shady campground at Highlands Hammock State Park. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Beautiful though aging campground with 138 sites, most densely shaded, with water and electric hookups, picnic tables, fire rings, rest rooms with showers and a coin laundry at one of the bathhouses. A separate primitive tent campground has 16 sites.

Deer and other wildlife frequently visit the campgrounds, as you might expect in a wild, old growth forest. A maximum of eight people with two tents are allowed per site. RV sites are allowed to have an RV and one tent. Sites in the main campground (RV and tent) are $22 per night (2023) plus $7 per night for utilities (electric and water) and a nonrefundable reservation fee of $6.70 per booking.

Tent sites in the primitive campground are $22 per night plus the one-time $6.70 reservation fee. There is no utility free because there are no utilities at these sites.

As with all state parks, reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance online at or by calling 1-800-326-3521. Pets OK. | TripAdvisor Reviews

Read more: Ancient oaks caress the soul at Highlands Hammock State Park

Private RV Parks and Cabins

  • Buttonwood Bay RV Park, 10001 US Hwy 27 S, Sebring, FL 33876 Phone: (863) 655-1122. 130-acre lakefront 55+ RV park north of Lake Placid on Lake Josephine. Excellent freshwater fishing, private boat ramp and a 210-foot fishing pier. Primarily a residential resort with select nightly rentals starting at $23/night. | TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Sunshine RV Resort,  303 FL-70, Lake Placid, FL 33852. Phone: (863) 465-4815. Seasonal park with limited number of daily sites with rates starting at $39 (May-Oct), $59 (Nov-Apr) include water, sewer, electric, cable TV. | TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Hendersons Fish Camp, 35 Henderson Rd, Lake Placid, FL 33852. Phone: (863) 465-2101. Located on Lake Istokpoga, Florida’s 5th largest lake. Cabin rentals starting at $99 per night.

Hotels & Motels in Lake Placid

More things to do near Lake Placid

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