Sunday, May 18, 2008

16. Just Another Week in Florida

There was no easy way to navigate from Dunedin around Tampa Bay. The bay can be crossed on any of several large bridges, but we prefer to avoid traffic and large bridges. So, we suffered through a couple hours of slow stop-n-go traffic on the major arterials. It was similar to driving from Everett to Tacoma on Highway 99. The urban area gradually faded away in the rear view mirror and we cruised on to our next RV park, located along the Peace River between the small towns of Wauchula (pop. 4,300) and Zolfo Springs (pop. 1,600).

Our main objective in Florida was to visit Pat and John in Punta Gorda. Pat and Bonnie are long-time friends, but hadn’t seen each other for 17 years. They welcomed us into their home for a couple days, fed us very well, and pointed us in the right direction for local sightseeing. We took a dip in their pool and spent some relaxing time on the patio overlooking the back yard canal and boats. John barbecued some pork ribs and brats, and Pat made a big dish of baked beans and served up a key lime pie for dessert. If that wasn’t enough, she also squeezed two quarts of very sweet delicious orange juice, right from their own tree. Ron loves good orange juice and polished it off in two days. Best we ever tasted.

We got a personal tour of Punta Gorda, including some shopping at the Fishermens Village (how about that fish?) and Bealls Outlet, where very low prices on clothing couldn’t be passed by. Punta Gorda received a direct hit from Hurricane Charlie in 2004. It removed many of the weakest older structures. Lots of attractive new development has filled in over the past four years. Pat and John’s home suffered some broken windows and doors and a damaged roof. Their “pool cage” (screened enclosure) was destroyed and more than a dozen palm trees and other trees and plants were lost. Fortunately, their house and its contents stood up very well.

About 40 miles south of Punta Gorda, Ft. Myers is home to the winter estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. The properties are side-by-side and open to the public. We expected just another ho-hum house tour, but it was much more interesting than we thought it would be. We spent several hours there.

A little history: Edison and Ford were friends and business associates for many years. Ford worked in Edison’s electric company and Edison helped Ford get his car factory going. Edison visited the Ft. Myers area by boat in 1885, twenty years before there were roads or rails to the area. He liked it and bought 13 acres for a winter home (he lived in New Jersey). His architect designed and built two houses and a laboratory in Maine and shipped them to Florida by boat. They were assembled on the site and named Seminole Lodge. Henry Ford was one of the many famous guests that visited the lodge. Henry eventually bought the property next door and built his own winter home, called The Mangoes. The two properties are well preserved and full of interesting artifacts and history. Edison was a prolific inventor who received more than 1,000 patents. A museum includes many of his inventions.

Some of Edison’s botanical gardens still remain where he planted more than 17,000 different plant specimens. We got to see the preserved laboratory where he did research into plants and rubber production for friend Harvey Firestone.
Edison gave Harvey a small banyan tree from India in 1925. It was planted at Seminole Lodge. A statue of Thomas Edison stands under this tree, which now covers more than an acre and is the second largest banyan tree in the world.

It was interesting that Thomas Edison could work so hard, invent so many interesting things, and still have time to entertain, travel, and fish for tarpon off his long pier. He was an amazing guy!

We heard a lot about Sanibel Island. Since it was just south of Ft. Myers, we decided to see what it was all about. After paying a rather steep $6 toll to get onto the island, we found a beautiful public beach ($2/hr. parking fee) with clean sand and lots of nice shells. Ron burns easily, so we stayed just long enough for some shell collecting, wading and a little tanning. Sanibel is a fairly ritzy neighborhood. It was fun to go there once, but there are many other beaches that are just as nice . . . with free parking and no tolls.

We spent an entire week at the Peace River campground. It had a nice pool, shuffleboard and pickle ball courts, a nature trail along the river, and a lodge with internet access and other things to do. It was also close to Wauchula for shopping, bank, post office, etc., and to Zolfo Springs where we found an excellent restaurant with lots of food for very low prices. It’s 1970s/NASCAR d├ęcor wasn’t pretty, but the food was good and plentiful.

Twenty miles down the road is the town of Arcadia. We drove down there for the annual Watermelon Festival on May 17. It was a very nice event with the usual arts, crafts and food vendors, a very nice little classic car show and, of course, the watermelon eating and seed spitting contests.When we were done with all those exciting events and after eating our barbecued pork sandwiches and poking through a couple of the many downtown antique stores, we parked ourselves on the brick patio under the “Tree of Knowledge” and listened to some live music. [The tree got its name many years ago when townspeople came together under its broad branches to hear the local news, to hear a sermon or to have local meetings.] It was a very nice day in Arcadia.