The Cultural Center is here, a complex that includes an art museum, library, theater for stage plays, and classrooms for art classes. In December, a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian will stop here: Journey Stories, which examines the intersection between modes of travel and Americans’ desire to feel free to move.
Along one of the spokes, just behind the Cultural Center, is Lake Jackson, with a small park on its shores and a municipal fishing pier.
Few people are on the pier on this hot but cloudy day. An angler has just hauled in a net sparkling with dozens of tiny silver bait fish that he dumps onto the wooden pier. Two adolescent girls, there with their parents, are excitedly skipping around the jumping bait fish, distressed that Mom and Dad are going to use them as bait. “But I looove them,” one of the girls protests.
Mom reels her line in. She has caught a nice-sized bass and says jubilantly, “I told you we were going to have fish for dinner tonight.” The girls are intimidated by the fish, jumping back as it flaps and twists its body in Mom’s hands. Mom tosses it in the bucket with the bait fish.
Fishing is a big draw in and around Sebring. The area has 84 lakes, Goad said, with Jackson, Josephine and Istokpoga the favorites for anglers, especially bass fishermen. Golf is an attraction, too — there are 20 courses within 16 miles of downtown Sebring.
Into the woods
The lakes aren’t the only places where visitors can get close to nature. Another day, I go to Highlands Hammock, which opened in 1931 and is one of Florida’s oldest state parks. Most of its roads, bridges and buildings were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The park even has a museum that tells the story of the corps and honors the alumni of the New Deal work program.
An hourlong tram tour takes visitors through the various habitats — hardwood hammock, scrub habitat and more — along canals, past hiking trails and boardwalks, picnic areas and trees that are older than the town. Even in the slow season, the tram is nearly full. We learn about prescribed burns, floods, droughts and invasive plants. We see snakes, alligators, gopher tortoises, white-tailed deer, enormous Golden Silk spiders, and the usual wading birds.
Even more intriguing is the half-mile boardwalk through the Cypress Swamp. It starts as a wide, elevated walkway built of thick planks with railings on both sides. A little ways along though, the walkway shrinks to become a narrow catwalk, apparently to minimize its impact on the swamp, and one side is open — no railing.
I hug the rail side and pause to look for alligators or other creatures, but nothing is visible in the water, which is the reddish-brown color of strong iced tea. Cypress knees poke up above the water, and the branches arch overhead so that we are in deep shade. It’s a little spooky.
Later, I head south on U.S. 27 to the small town of Lake Placid and Henscratch Farms Vineyard and Winery, to do some tasting. Traditional wine grapes don’t do well in the Central Florida climate, but other grapes do. Henscratch grows 10 acres of native southern muscadine and scuppernong grapes, which make sweeter wines.
At the small tasting bar in the farm’s “country store,” I ask for their driest wines and get tastes of a white and two reds. The white is a nice sipping wine for a hot afternoon, pleasantly but not cloyingly sweet. The reds, however ... I’ll just say that it’s not wise to make grapes into something they’re not, and nature intended for these grapes to be made into sweet wine.
Once you accept the inherent sweetness of muscadine and scuppernong grapes, try the dessert wines — a chocolate-orange wine (yes, really) and a Florida icewine — frozen mechanically since the grapes won’t ice up on the vine. Freezing concentrates the sugar.
It’s fun to wander around the farm — which is encouraged — and see what makes Henscratch a farm, not just a winery. There are strawberries grown on hydroponic towers (U-pick season starts in December), a blueberry patch, and more than 200 free-range chickens — Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Barred Rocks and Aracaunas — who seek shade under the grapevines and whose eggs are for sale.
Driving back to Sebring, I hear a car rev up its engine to pass me, and for a moment, I think about the racetrack and how for some people, it defines the town. But as I pass the citrus groves that still ring the community, I know that the influence of George Sebring is still felt.