Tucked behind the orange groves along Route 17 in central Florida’s lake region is a destination known to few. Since its founding in 1915, Mountain Lake [formerly known as Buck Lake] has been a well-kept secret amongst an exclusive group of captains of industry. But today, given the reality of the economy, this corporate (homeowners buy shares in the Mountain Lake Corporation, don’t ask me how it works, that’s not the point) community, they are promoting membership and even has a website and
interloper that I am although I’m an invited guest on occasion, I feel I am at liberty to share. 45 miles south of Orlando, this enclave is a far cry from the crowds and park-goers of its northern neighbor’s theme parks and Joe Six Pack(s). In general, during the winter months, residents of Mountain Lake are mad golfers with multiple homes. They enjoy their privacy, the abundant natural beauty and after 4p, daily cocktails with or without friends.
A Bit of History
Since the late 1880’s much of Florida, including Mountain Lake located just south of Lake of the Hills- original, eh?, became an investors haven thanks to modest real estate prices, low property taxes and good weather. By 1914, Maryland-born Fred Ruth, who had inherited 1,400 acres from his father, moved to Lake Wales, FL, with his wife Sally, to develop the Mountain Lake Corporation.
Ruth’s successfully executed plan was to create a place where “residents of great accomplishments and social status would enjoy winters…” in a “residential park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. [whose father designed Central Park and the Boston Common] with luxurious estates, a golf course sensitive to its surroundings designed by Seth Raynor, and acres of beautiful and profitable citrus.” (BOOK Citation to come, The History of Mountain Lake, it’s a secret book, only available to corporation members)
The Mountain Lake Estates area is made up of the 18-hole golf course, private residences [mostly out of range of errant golf balls], the Olmsted designed Colony House [a central gathering sort of clubhouse, private hotel and dining room] just shy of the 18th hole and down the road a piece, you’ll find Bok Tower Gardens. Structures, including the Colony House and Bok Tower, built before 1937, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s all quite grand in an extremely understated way.
Among the rich and fabulous that visited the area in it’s incarnation was Edward Bok, former editor of Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post. He vacationed at Mountain Lake in the early 1920s and hired Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr to design park like gardens to surround a carillon tower in 1929. The tower stands tall, there’s a nature preserve, adult and family educational programming and in my estimation, it’s the highlight of “off-site” attractions. The children prefer “Spook Hill” where for some reason beyond my understanding, though a car is facing downhill, you drive uphill or maybe the reverse is true. Either way, you move forward, not backward. Given its proximity to the incline, the nearby town of Lake Wales’ elementary school is named for the hill and the mascot displays a remarkable resemblance to Casper.
While our gentleman folk LOVE to golf, the 15-year old and I prefer to explore the area. We’ve been to the tower on many occasion, know the historic district of the town of Lake Wales and recently discovered a Target, Best Buy and
big swinging Dick’s Sporting Goods about 25 minutes from the golf course. We’ve made regular trips to stimulate the economy to some degree by stocking up on Boots No. 7 from Target, enhancing the father-in-law’s Wii set-up thanks to Best Buy and a one piece swim suit for spring term’s 9th grade phys. ed, go straight toward the camouflage and turn right. Voila. Bathing Suit, check, goggles, check, pink nike bathing cap, check. The outings are generally filled with laughing and giggling as we pass cow fields, mini-malls that seem to have sprouted out of nowhere and American-made automobiles driven by octogenarians slowly creeping rambling along the roadway. Closer to “home,” this time around, we checked out the local Flea Market and sho’ nuff, we spotted bait, guns, a swimming pool (the fiberglass kind), rusty tools, dvd’s, plastic toys as well as oranges, grapefruits and other local produce. Not so funny. “No pictures,” said the lady manning the truck decal department. “Some of the designs are his originals.”
Until we moved East from California, I failed to recognize the natural beauty, peace and quiet of this place, seemingly stuck in time, hidden behind the orange groves. But now, leaving the
hustle and bustle noise of Manhattan behind for a few days, even if it’s just to go for a long walk through the “park” or take a trip to target, I get it. Fresh squeezed orange juice, the fragrance of orange blossoms, the sight of spanish moss, the cackle of noisy but elegant sandhill cranes and little else than my own time on my hands. Keep it quiet.
* The title is in reference to Dominick Dunne’s old money vs. new commentary of the 1980’s. In an effort to link to Amazon, I discovered the following article by David Brooks from The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200309/brooks It has to do with diversity, less about exclusion or inclusion. Plus ça change. Interesting nonetheless. xo