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Spotlight: Arcadia

Pie, paddling and citrus greet visitors to this tantalizing Florida getaway

According to local lore, it all began with a birthday cake. A rancher and Baptist preacher named James Madison Hendry was in the process of setting up a sawmill along the Peace River in south central Florida in 1883 when he took supper in the home of settlers Thomas and Fannie Albritton. After revealing during mealtime conversation that his birthday was the next day, young Arcadia Albritton surprised him with a cake in the morning. An appreciative Hendry then promised that when the town that would inevitably follow his sawmill was of proper size he would name it after the thoughtful junior baker. And so Arcadia, Florida, came to pass.

As one of the oldest settlements in southwestern Florida, Arcadia retains the distinctive appearance of its pioneer days. The two- and three-story brick buildings along Oak Street have been herded into the Arcadia Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. Wooden residences such as the Micajah T. Singleton House, the John Morgan Ingraham House and the Johnson-Smith House are prized as examples of 19th-century folk architecture. On a grander level, the pink Arcade-Koch building will make architecture buffs drool.

Appreciation for heritage runs deep in Arcadia. The Antique Association of Arcadia has been hosting Antique Fairs on the fourth Saturday of every month since the 1990s. The fairs are some of the largest in Florida, often drawing thousands of shoppers to pick through the offerings of more than 100 dealers. On non-fair days, two-dozen antique shops line the streets of downtown for browsers to explore. Parking is free and a slice of “Old Florida” is within easy walking range inside a four-block area.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Superb Pie

Appetites built up from a day of antique hunting can be sated at Wheeler’s Café, which has been recognized as one of Florida’s best authentic hometown diners. Wheeler’s has been family-owned and dishing out its famous peanut butter pie since 1929. Of course, the Shelfer family over at Joshua Citrus can be excused for considering the Wheelers and their 86 years in business as “newcomers.” James Shelfer planted his first orange trees along Joshua Creek in 1880 before there was a dream of a town. The marketing mavens at the Florida Department of Agriculture have designated Joshua Citrus a Century Pioneer Family Farm. Today, you can visit the heritage groves and see a Florida packinghouse in operation—don’t leave without a glass of trademark strawberry orange juice.

The ranching roots of Arcadia are still very much in evidence with rodeos scheduled through the year at the DeSoto County Fairgrounds, highlighted by “The Granddaddy of ’em All”—the Arcadia All-Florida Championship Rodeo in March. First started in 1928 as a way to raise money for a new American Legion building, the All-Florida is now the premier bull-riding and barrel-racing event in the Sunshine State and a much-anticipated stop for performers of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

Riding Horses and Boats

You can saddle up your own mounts at Deep Creek Preserve southwest of town, where nine miles of multi-use trails wind through 2,000 acres of freshwater prairie and longleaf pine flatwoods. Once you are through rambling up and over the scrub oak-covered ridges, several local canoe outfitters stand ready to launch you onto the Peace River. Meandering 106 lazy miles towards the Charlotte Harbor estuary, the Peace River has made Arcadia the best place to canoe in the state, according to Florida Monthly magazine readers. By the way, those folks you see prowling the banks with their heads down are seeking fossilized shark teeth and prehistoric mammal bones. The Peace River is such a rich ground for fossil hunters that Arcadia took a star turn on the Travel Channel adventure reality show, “Cash & Treasures.”

Ebyabe

Ebyabe

If paddling languidly past the majestic Peace River cypress trees and water oaks dressed in Spanish moss is too slow for your tastes, settle into an elevated cushion seat of a Peace River Charters airboat and cruise the waters with 450 horsepower behind you. In an hour, you will cover 20 miles of primordial river teeming with of 400 native Florida animal species from Roseate Spoonbills to American alligators. To experience non-natives, visit Lions, Tigers and Bears just north of Arcadia, where unwanted exotic pets and non-releasable wildlife have been given a home on 40 acres of Florida habitat.

Arcadia boosters like to tout their home as the “Best Small Town in Florida.” Clearly the reference is to population (less than 7,000) rather than visitor attractions. And it all began with a birthday cake served so many years ago.

For More Information

Discover DeSoto County Tourism Development Council
863-491-7574
www.visitdesoto.com
Florida Department of Tourism
888-735-2872
www.visitflorida.com