The first week of January, (and our last week in the Palm Bay area), was spent tying up some loose ends with the house and saying our goodbyes to family. Lucille’s Aunt Eugenie and her cousin Diane came by for a visit – we enjoyed a nice lunch at Cracker Barrel. Another evening, we met friends Rick, Eileen, Ron, Loretta and Rick’s father Jim at Niki’s Rainbow Family Restaurant, a small Greek-American restaurant in Satellite Beach. We’ll definitely will go back there again – the food was very good and the prices reasonable.
One afternoon, before we left the area, we had exterior sunshades installed on some of our RV windows by Bob Jones of RV Sunshade. When we visited with friends Russ and Freda in Branson, Missouri, we noticed their fifth wheel had sunshades that looked quite nice. We contacted Bob, who is an RN working in Branson during the summer and in the Titusville, Florida area during the winter, installing shades in his free time. We arranged to have our shades installed when he got to Florida in early January, when we’d still be in the Titusville area. We are quite pleased with how they look and work. We especially wanted to get a shade for the rear bay window because most of the first half of this year will be spent in Florida. That particular window has no day/night shades because of its construction. The vertical blinds keep out some of the light but not the heat. We had that window tinted a couple of years ago but direct sun in that direction is still pretty warm. The few days so far that we’ve been in direct sunlight since getting the shades, we’ve noticed quite a bit of difference – money well spent. The shades are fastened by snaps that blend in well with the exterior. When we get on the road, they are removed and stored in a PVC tube that rides in the bed of the truck.
The Camping World in Fort Myers was our next destination. We had an early morning appointment on January 9th, so we arrived late afternoon the day before. After checking in and doing our requisite purchases of cool RV stuff, we settled in for the night. They allow RVers to stay in their lot overnight. Early the next morning, Larry backed the RV in to one of the bays. We were prepared to hang out there till mid-afternoon while they did the requested work. We soon found out, though, that they didn’t have the right tools for our work. The wheel bearings on the RV should be repacked annually. Larry had confirmed with them on three separate occasions that they were set up to do this job, but when they actually had the RV there, they realized they couldn’t do it. Oh well….at least we got a free night’s camping and bought some cool stuff…not a waste of time. And besides, we’re retired!
Onto our next destination – Hendry’s Sabal Palms Campground in Palmdale, Florida, about 45 miles northeast of Fort Myers. We learned of this campground from Harry and Marie, friends from Ontario we met last year in nearby Moore Haven. If you are looking for a campground with great monthly rates (especially for Florida), spacious sites, friendly folks, a rustic atmosphere in a peaceful setting, and the opportunity to be entertained by several species of birds and some surprise visitors, Sabal Palms is the place. There are 68 campsites, most of which have full hookups. There is also a clubhouse, laundry room, a bathhouse with showers, and horseshoes. Several of the folks here have park models or leave their RVs here year round and come down for the winter. Some folks actually stay here year round. Our row of campsites is located between two ponds--we are constantly rewarded with sightings of several species of hawks, wading birds, a pair of sandhill cranes and other birds. We understand later in the season the crane chicks will make their debut.
The campground runs parallel to US 27 but the access is from County Road 733. Traffic is few and far between on this road, which makes it ideal for our morning walk north to US 27 and back, a distance of about 2.5 miles. The post office is about three miles south of us and is a pleasant bike ride with lots of scenery. Palmdale itself is a blink in the road, with the post office, a Baptist church, and a palm tree farm its only commercial enterprises besides the campground. The nearest grocery store is about 15 miles away.
Despite the fact that there is no swimming pool, no planned activities other than a weekly potluck dinner, the days fly by. There are six of us that hang out together. Rich and Linda, and their German Shepherd Sable, have been coming here over five years. Harry and Marie stumbled onto the place about three years ago and have returned each year since. We kick off our mornings with our 2.5-mile walk, hoping to spot alligators in the ditch adjacent to the swamp. We often see sandhill cranes, black and turkey vultures, great and little blue herons, white egrets, anhingas, and the occasional crested caracara (a member of the carrion family) and lots of cows. There’s always something to keep our interest on our walks.
Later in the day, we may bike down to the post office and check for mail. Fisheating Creek State Park, on US 27, is an easy bike ride. Fisheating Creek supplies water from the west to Lake Okeechobee. It’s a popular waterway for canoeing, swimming and fishing. There are a couple of miles of bike riding and walking trails there, as well as a small camp store stocked with basic groceries. There’s a boardwalk deck around the store and office that overlooks a turtle-filled pond. The turtles have been conditioned to swim towards the deck looking for handouts when they hear footsteps on the boardwalk. We saw at least a dozen plate-sized turtles as well as one small alligator.
We gather in the afternoons for happy hour, then get back together again for our nightly walk around the park, hoping to spot a barred owl that makes its rounds at night. Occasionally, we have informal potluck meals amongst the six of us. Rich fixed fried grouper one night that put to shame the grouper offered at the American Legion’s weekly fish fry. He loves to cook – what a match – we love to eat!
Nearby LaBelle has a farmer’s market on Saturday mornings, so we’ll pile into Harry’s truck and head down there to buy some of the reasonably priced local produce. We also stop at Winn Dixie and stock up on groceries while we’re in the ‘big city’ of LaBelle.
And once in a while, we’ll get some surprise visitors wandering through the campground. Most notable is Porkchop, a wild pig that was adopted by a nearby family. He’ll sneak into the campground in the evenings, scrounging vegetable parings or corn left out for the birds. He’s skittish when approached until he realizes you are not a threat, and will allow you to scratch his ears while he’s eating some corn. One afternoon we were treated to three horses and a filly meandering through, nibbling on tasty (to horses) grasses. They’re pretty tame because Linda approached a couple of them with slices of apple. Marie tells us cows will be coming through but they haven’t made an appearance yet. No alligators in the ponds – the water level is too low because Florida hasn’t had much rain.
If you prefer a bustling campground with planned activities, you’ll be bored here. But we all love the laidback atmosphere and peace and quiet. We plan on returning next winter for two months.
In between our hectic ‘country’ schedules here, we’ve made some trips elsewhere. Lucille’s cousin Marcel flew down to visit with her aunts in Tamarac so we made a day trip to visit them. Harry and Marie offered to feed and walk Shelley so time wasn’t a constraint. We enjoyed the ride over, experiencing very little traffic but lots of scenery. Coming back we encountered traffic from those coming home from their jobs. We had a nice visit with the Tamarac folks, enjoyed a rotisserie chicken and all the fixings, made plans with Marcel to visit him at his Rhode Island home later this year, then we headed back to our home on wheels.
We made a quick overnight trip back to Palm Bay. Lucille’s father was in the hospital for a week. After several days, the doctor determined some of his medications were causing him to pass out. He’s lucky he never got hurt when he had the fainting spells and we’re glad the medical personnel figured out the problem and are working on correcting it. We met with his nurses and physician and left for home after being assured he was in good hands and that he would continue to have home health care when he was released till he got back on his feet. We felt at ease knowing that Lucille’s mother could handle any issues that may come up, knowing he’ll have frequent in-home medical visits for the short term. Again, Harry and Marie graciously offered to care for Shelley, which was such a big help to us.
On two different occasions, we visited Harry and Mary, another RVing couple we met last year at Moore Haven. We signed up for a couple of their campground’s weekly dinners, open to campers and their guests, getting there earlier in the afternoon to join them in a few rounds of a board game called Sequence.
Harry drove the day we went to the RV show in Fort Myers on a Thursday (half-price entrance fee that day.) Considerably smaller than the show in Tampa, it still offered a good selection of current year RVs as well as RV-related supplies. Nothing jumped out at us exciting enough to make us want another RV. It’s still fun, though, to see what’s new on the market.
One Monday, we enjoyed the 4-1/2 hour heritage and agricultural Sugarland tour, departing from the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce. At $32.00 per passenger, we were surprised at how quickly the tours fill up – this time of the year, reservations are a must. When we called, we had to wait a week for an opening. After taking the tour, we can see why it is so popular. After a short video and talk from our tour guide Hunter Latham about what we’d be seeing and doing that day, we hopped aboard the Sugarland Express, a 24-passenger bus. On tap was a visit to a sugarcane farm, a sugar mill and refinery, a citrus juice plant, a tour of some historic Clewiston homes, a stop at an overlook of Lake Okeechobee, and lunch at the historic Clewiston Inn. True to his word, we did it all – time flew by.
In 1931, the United States Sugar Corporation bought the bankrupt Southern Sugar Company and all its lands, sugar mill and other assets. U. S. Sugar’s Charles Edward Mott revived the company and convinced other investors and creditors that growing sugar in the rich muck soils around Lake Okeechobee was not only possible but also very profitable. Because of the embargo on Cuba’s sugar in the 50s, Florida’s sugar industry expanded. It also benefited from the expertise brought by some of the Cuban refugees. By the early 80s, Florida had become the largest sugar-producing state in the country.
We learned that most of the sugar consumed in the eastern half of the U.S. is cane sugar while beet sugar sweetens the western half. Sugar beets can’t be grown in this climate and sugarcane can’t be grown where sugar beets prosper.
What sets U.S. Sugar’s operations apart from other sugar operations in the area is its internal transportation system – over 120 miles of track and 1,100 railcars linking the sugarcane fields with the mills. The company farms over 180,000 acres in Hendry, Glades and Palm Beach counties. The mill can process nearly 40,000 tons of cane per day, producing over 700,000 tons of sugar per year. The company not only is the country’s largest producer of sugarcane and refined cane sugar, it is one of Florida’s major producers of oranges and orange juice products. It also owns Southern Gardens Citrus Processing plant – more on that later.
Sugarcane is considered one of the most environmentally friendly crops because it requires little fertilizer or pesticides. It is basically a giant grass, thriving in South Florida’s sunshine and abundant rainfall. Sugarcane has a 12 to 15 month growing season, yielding three to four consecutive crops before it has to be replanted. Mechanical harvesters cut the stalks into foot long lengths that flow into the tractor-pulled wagon. Each railcar full of sugarcane weighs approximately 40 tons. About 1,100 cars are unloaded every 24 hours.
One of our stops was at a railroad siding to watch the custom made tractor-pulled wagon dump its load of freshly cut cane into the railcar. Eighteen hours after the cane is cut in the field it is being processed – an amazingly short and efficient turnaround. At this same stop, Hunter cut down several stalks of cane, peeled off the exterior bark, and then cut it in slices for us to try. The trick is to chew it, then spit it out after you’ve gotten all the sweetness out of it. Pretty good candy!
At the plant, the cane is sent to a series of mills where it is crushed and the juice extracted. The residual fiber is known as bagasse and is used as fuel to generate steam and electricity needed to operate the factory – a very eco-friendly operation. After the cane is initially processed into raw sugar, it can be stored indefinitely. The refinery only processes raw sugar when a customer places an order, keeping the raw sugar stored in huge long buildings until that time. We watched 100# sacks being filled with processed sugar. Hunter told us that a store brand of sugar is no different than a name brand if both state the same level of refining, such as fine, extra fine, or super fine. Brown sugar is sugar with molasses added to it for color and flavor, the more molasses, the darker the color. There is even baker’s sugar, sold to bakeries for uniformity of sweetness. All grains are the same size so a cup of sugar from one bag of baker’s sugar is just as sweet as a cup from another bag. We didn’t know that!
During the October to June harvesting season, the Southern Gardens Citrus Processing plant harvests the fruit from three million citrus trees located on 32,000 acres of groves to produce over 42 million gallons of Florida premium orange juice. That’s a lot of oranges!
We learned lots of factoids from Hunter: Valencia and Hamlin are the prime juice-producing oranges. 95% of Florida’s citrus production is for juice, the remaining 5% is for eating--oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, etc…California produces more eating citrus, so chances are your breakfast orange juice originated from somewhere in Florida. Juice that is processed here is loaded into a food-grade tanker truck and can head to any part of the U.S. where it will be packaged by Minute Maid, Tropicana, etc… After the juice has been loaded into the tanker car, nitrogen gas is pumped in to displace any oxygen within the tanker. This truck, which is not refrigerated, can leave from Clewiston, head to a Washington State destination, with the juice warming up just a few degrees more than when it left Clewiston, thanks to the nitrogen gas. This same gas is used to top off huge multi-million gallon stainless steel upright tanks onsite at the plant. The juice will stay fresh for up to five years stored in this manner.
Occasionally, the orange tree may develop a canker, a sort of blight. When that happens, all affected trees and those immediately surrounding must be destroyed. Oranges cannot be planted in that same area for two years but sugarcane can. After the two-year wait period is over and several cane crops have been harvested, the orange grove is replanted. It takes about seven years for a tree to mature and produce good fruit. It makes sense to recoup some of the loss from the damaged crop with the sugarcane but that is still a long time before the grove is productive again.
Virtually every part of the fruit has a commercial use. Whole pulp is used in popular juice products; aromatic oils and essence are recovered from the peel; d’limonene is recovered and used in natural solvents; most anything else leftover is dried and compressed into cattle feed pellets; water used at the plant is recycled through an elaborate on-site cleaning and filtering system and is used to irrigate nearby orange groves. We even see some piles of orange mush piled high in nearby pastures – the cows love it.
Lunch was served at the Clewiston Inn, which was built in 1938 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The buffet was excellent, with several entrees to please most any diner. Hunter suggested we take a peek at the mural in the lounge, painted in the 50s on Florida’s East Coast and transported and installed in this room. That alone is an engineering feat. The painting was beautiful and wrapped around the entire room. The scene depicts what is typically found around the Lake Okeechobee area, with wading birds, wildlife and native trees and plants. Our challenge was to find the one animal not native to the area, which turned out to be a chipmunk.
We finally got a glimpse of Lake Okeechobee, the nation’s 2nd largest lake. Okeechobee is the Seminole word for “Big Waters”. Average depth of the river is typically about twelve feet but is currently about ten feet because of the lack of rainfall in the area. The Corps of Engineers controls the flow into and out of the river. If the water level becomes too low, saline water seeps into groundwater and affects the quality of drinking water. Too high a level and there’s a risk of breaching the Herbert Hoover Dike which surrounds the lake, providing flood control. Hurricane Wilma caused damage in 2005. The winds from the storm blew the water northward and as it flowed back, it flooded parts of the towns located on the lake’s southern border.
We highly recommend the tour if you are ever in the area. We would have liked to see more of the processing plants but due to health and security regulations, we were only allowed to watch the sugar being bagged. But the tour was still a great value and Hunter’s knowledge and enthusiasm added even more to our afternoon.
We ended January with a quick visit to Lake Placid. RVing friends Greg and Kristie, whom we’d met several years ago at one of the Escapades, have recently left the workforce. They have a winter home in nearby Sebring and suggested a halfway point between there and Palmdale to meet. We met at the Main Street Grille in Lake Placid (known as the Caladium Capital and Town of Murals). We enjoyed a nice lunch and played catch up on what we’d been doing since we saw them last September. We then went to the Chamber of Commerce and watched a video on Lake Placid’s murals and decorated trash receptacles. With Greg and Kristie guiding us, we set off to check out some of the forty+ murals. The murals present the history and ecology of the area, through artistic means. Most of the murals are within walking distance of the Chamber. Some have things hidden in them for the observer to find and some even have sound. The one-of-a-kind sculptured trash containers are unique – we saw a small car with ‘occupants’, a bank safe, a turpentine jar (formerly produced in that area), a train engine, and many others.
Coming up: more fun in Palmdale; visiting friends, family and being tourists in Tampa and the surrounding area; Crooked River State Park and Jekyll Island State Park, both in Georgia for March and beyond.