FELLSMERE, Fla. -- There are more orange groves and cattle than residents in this cozy rural town an hour from Orlando. It’s a place where folks talk business, while chowing down on alligator tail, in a local restaurant that’s something of an unofficial museum, and where 80,000 people show up for the world’s largest frog leg festival.
Founded in 1911, Fellsmere’s muck land was turned into a sugarcane town by investors from New York. It’s still an agricultural community, with farms raising everything from arugula to shrimp and organic turkey, and a population of about 5,300 on 44 square miles.
It’s an easy stop off Interstate 95 at exit 156, about 95 miles south of Orlando’s tourist attractions and 150 miles north of party-town Miami.
Located about 20 minutes inland from Florida’s east coast, Fellsmere is also at the headwaters of the St. John’s River, and six airboat tours operate here year-round, offering trips on Blue Cypress Lake and other waterways.
But Fellsmere’s biggest claim to fame is frog legs. The Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival, held each January (the next one is Jan. 16-19), started in 1990 serving 400 dinners, using local frogs, a traditional Old Florida specialty. These days, though, the festival serves 5,000 pounds of frog legs in four days, so supplies are imported from commercial providers in Louisiana and Asia so as not to decimate local sources. The event has won the city two Guinness World Records: most frog legs sold within the space of a working day and largest frog leg festival in the world.
Of course, not all of the 80,000 folks who show up for the festival — which also offers crafts and entertainment — care to eat amphibians. Gator tails — 3,000 pounds — are also sold, along with conventional choices like hamburgers and pizza.
Other times of year if you’re looking for a meal, choices include the Fellsmere Bar & Grill, affectionately known as the Sugar Shack by locals, and Marsh Landing, where local fried frog legs are always on the menu — along with a fried green tomato BLT sandwich.
The restaurant, which also sells pickled okra and vinegar hot peppers in mason jars, invites guests to experience the cuisine and history of Old Florida. “It’s like dining in a museum,” boasts its Facebook page. Historical documents and photos line the walls next to a stuffed alligator and rustic farming tools. Every table features newspaper clippings from the early 1900s.
Fellsmere was the first city in Florida to adopt women’s suffrage, and one clipping at a Marsh Landing table describes “the procession of the handsomest and most capable women in the in the Southland marching up to the election booth and casting into the box the first ballots ever so placed by one of their sex in unrestricted franchise south of the Mason and Dixon line.” A local chapter of the National Organization for Women still meets at the restaurant every August to commemorate the historic moment.
The elegant building that houses Marsh Landing was built in 1926 but had been boarded up for decades when Fran Adams bought it at auction. After restoring the building, she and her daughter Susan opened the restaurant in 2002. Today the restaurant attracts professionals from nearby towns along with local movers and shakers who can talk business while dining on alligator tail or catfish in a private dining room.
“We always laugh and say if you go to Marsh Landing and did something, but no one says anything, then you got away with it,” said Susan Adams, who’s also Fellsmere’s mayor.
Next door is the local gift shop, Ditch 13 Gallery and Gifts, which gets over 30,000 visitors a year and sells locally made arts and crafts as well as books about local history. A talking parrot greets customers as they enter. But the shop’s top-seller is a black T-shirt that supports the nearby non-profit National Elephant Center, which houses elephants from zoos and other facilities on a temporary basis but is not open to the public.
The T-shirt, just another aspect of life in quirky Fellsmere, says: “Love elephants? We do.”