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Spotlight: Hendry County

Get your sugar fix and go skydiving in this vibrant town

If you are going to call yourself “America’s Sweetest Town,” you had better bring the goods. In the case of Clewiston, located in Hendry County, Florida, the proof lies in the massive sugar-cane plantations that can be seen in every direction. The mills of the U.S. Sugar Corporation in Clewiston produce 700,000 metric tons of nature’s sweetener each year—more than any other United States manufacturer.

Before the sugar industry exploded, Hendry County was cow country. Namesake Francis Asbury Hendry ran cattle here beginning in the 1850s. He supplied beef to the Confederate Army in the Civil War and eventually fenced in more than 25,000 acres for his 50,000 head of cattle. Hendry was active in Florida state politics and after he died in 1917 the legislature carved out more than 1,000 square miles for a county stretching from the shores of Lake Okeechobee in the north to the edge of the Everglades wetlands in the south. At the time there were fewer than three people per square mile in Hendry County.

It is more crowded than that today in Hendry County, but not by much. The watchword for visitors is still outdoor recreation. Lake Okeechobee, the largest freshwater lake within the borders of a single state in the Lower 48, is famous for its big trophy largemouth bass fishing. The “Big O” is also a destination for black crappie, speckled perch and bluegill fishermen. On land, hikers and cyclists take to hard-packed and partially paved Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST) that circles the lake for 109 miles.

Ebyabe

Ebyabe

For the Birds

Hendry County is in the heart of the 2,000-mile Great Florida Birding Trail, and the Hendry-Glades Audubon Society oversees Stormwater Treatment Area 5, recognized as one of America’s best bird-watching locations. The Society stages the Big “O” Birding Festival every March, in which participants can expect to see well over 100 species of winged critters. At the Devils Garden Bird Park, more than 7,000 acres have been carved from a working ranch of open prairie and wetlands for guided tours to see hundreds of Florida wild birds. Public birding and wildlife hotspots include the Spirit of the Wild and Dinner Island Ranch.

For those seeking a bit more adventure in their Hendry County experience, Skydive Spaceland-Clewiston has been dropping first-time skydivers from the skies since 1980s. Turbine aircraft enable up to 23 skydivers to jump on every flight. And if you are looking to churn up some ground-based fun, family-friendly Devils Garden Mud Park trucks in Okeechobee mud by the ton for its obstacle courses and trails. Another fantastic water attraction is the Caloosahatchee River, which runs through much of Hendry County. This waterway is known for the towering leather ferns and stately oaks that line its wild banks. Kayakers and canoe enthusiasts will find lots of possibilities for exploration on this waterway.

While Clewiston, located on the rim of the “Big O,” reigns as the metropolis of Hendry County with a population of 7,000, the county seat resides further west in LaBelle, a town platted by Francis Hendry and named for his daughters Laura and Belle. Both communities keep a close watch on the region’s history. In LaBelle, history is on display at the Heritage Museum. The Clewiston Museum, meanwhile, is housed in the old offices of the Clewiston News. Built in 1928, it is one of the oldest structures in town. A revealing fossil exhibit tells the tale of the area’s natural history and videos chronicle the rise of the local sugar industry.

Human habitation in Hendry County traces back long before Francis Hendry and his Florida cows. The culture of the Seminole Tribe of Florida is preserved and celebrated in the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, a fully accredited Smithsonian Institution affiliate, in Clewiston. In the Seminole language, “Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki” is a place to remember and learn, which is accomplished with more than 30,000 unique artifacts, including dioramas and one-of-a-kind oral histories. Detailed dioramas include a glimpse of traditional mealtime, in which multiple generations gather around their food. Also included are exhibits on jewelry making.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sweet Times in Clewiston

Still very much alive are Hendry County celebrations. The Clewiston Sugar Festival has been “raising cane” in April since 1986, reviving a tradition dating back to the 1930s that marks the end of the sugar-cane harvest season. Multi-day festivities include a rodeo, bass tournament and the crowning of Miss Sugar. The last full weekend in February finds Hendry County partying in Barron Park in LaBelle for the Swamp Cabbage Festival. The honoree is the Sabal Palm, the state tree of Florida.

Local trees are chopped down to provide decorations for parade floats, and gourmets nosh on the “Heart of the Palm,” the meat of the cabbage palm tree. Palm Hearts won’t win any accolades for LaBelle as “America’s Sweetest Town,” but they sure are an authentic slice of Real Florida cuisine. Fans of palm hearts have compared them to artichoke hearts, and this treat goes well with salads or as deep fried appetizers. Adventurous eaters might just be won over by the taste.

For More Information

Hendry County Tourist Development Council
863-983-7979
vwww.visithendrycounty.com
Florida Department of Tourism
888-735-2872
www.visitflorida.com