What Does it Take to Become the Most Interesting Town in America?
Reader’s Digest Goes Searching for the Most Interesting Town in the USA!
Did you know Reader’s Digest went searching for the most interesting town in America? It’s true. They summoned their reader-base for suggestions. Most of us are quite proud of our hometowns, so needless to say, they received responses from all 50 states. A huge amount of entries were collected! Can you imagine being the designated person(s) to sift through the plethora of stories and photos that were submitted?
Quite honestly, I would have loved that assignment. The older I get, the more interested I become in American history. Although traveling the world is exciting, I have never been more aware of the incredible beauty, nature, and culture right here in my own backyard. In fact, I’m compiling a bucket list of places I would like to visit right here in the good ole USA — cities from coast to coast (or is it sea to shining sea?).
Imagine my surprise then, to hear that the grand prize winner for The Most Interesting Town in America for 2013 was right here in Central Florida. Lake Placid was the winner — only 90 minutes from my home!
Where is Lake Placid Florida?
10 Finalist Towns in Reader’s Digest Search for the Most Interesting!
Before I introduce you to the ‘Top Dog,’ I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the towns that were chosen as finalists. In addition to the Grand Prize Winner for America’s Most Interesting Town, the Reader’s Digest editors also chose 10 finalists that received honors in unique categories. The topics were very specific. The winning authors received $1,000 and their respective towns were mentioned in a print and digital version of Reader’s Digest. The following is a list of the 10 finalist towns…
Character — Lawrence, Kansas
Parade — Peachtree City, Georgia
Yarn — Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Family — Show Low, Arizona
Landmark — Tongass National Rainforest, Alaska
Event — Lewisburg, Tennessee
Trivia — Dalton, Georgia
Nickname — Mount Airy, North Carolina
Legend — Polo, Illinois
Scenic View — Chattanooga, Tennessee
Did your hometown make the cut? If not, don’t worry, there’s always next year. The contest was such a huge success that it’s sure to be repeated. If you’re a person with a lot of hometown pride, and community spirit that’s contagious, it’s never too early to start writing your story!
The Reader’s Digest Contest Winners — How Were They Chosen?
You’re probably wondering how the winners were chosen. As in any contest, there were some guidelines for entry submissions. Readers from all over the country were eligible to participate. They were asked to submit a short essay of 150 words (or less) telling what makes their town so interesting. Contestants were free to enter as many stories as they wanted, and had the convenience of submitting them online via the official Reader’s Digest website. One story was selected by the editorial staff of Reader’s Digest. One!
The author of the winning essay received a cash prize of $1,000, and the chosen town was featured on the cover of a Reader’s Digest publication.
Lake Placid — The Grand Prize Winner for America’s Most Interesting Town!
When I say Lake Placid, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Freezing cold winters, Adirondack Mountains, Olympic gold medals? Perhaps. That was my immediate thought when I first read that the winner was Lake Placid. But after a second glance, I noticed it was Lake Placid, Florida — a tiny little town in the middle of the Sunshine State. I first realized its existence from the billboards that popped up during my road-trips to the Gulf Coast of Florida. For many years hubby and I would pass by the outskirts of this pint-sized gem, far removed from the tacky tourist spots that are so prevalent in Florida. It wasn’t until this year that we decided to venture off-the-beaten-path and tour this terrific tiny town.
Our first stop was the Chamber of Commerce/Welcome Center (a great choice for first-time visitors) where we watched a 10 minute video depicting the history of Lake Placid, Florida; and what history it has! How can something so small exhibit such greatness? I was beginning to think the town had more titles than tourists. The volunteer staff of senior citizens were proud as a peacock to inform us of their most recently designated title: America’s Most Interesting Town!
So, What Makes Lake Placid Florida Unique Among Towns?
This tiny town is a minuscule one and a half miles square and houses 1800 residents. Born and raised a small-town girl myself, admittedly, Lake Placid made my beloved hometown look like a metropolis! And with everything squeezed into such a small spot, it’s the perfect walking town. Simply park your car and meander at your own pace. Here are a few things I learned about Lake Placid that makes it so interesting.
What Does the Dewey Decimal System Inventor and Lake Placid Have in Common?
One of the first things I learned at the Chamber of Commerce Welcome Center was how Lake Placid received its name. This year, in 2017, Lake Placid celebrated its 90th birthday. But, it wasn’t always known as Lake Placid.
This tiny town has seen its share of prominent and influential people, but none more so than Dr. Melvil Dewey. You probably remember him from your school days as the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System. But what I didn’t recall from school was that Dr. Dewey was not only an educator and librarian, but a visionary and developer.
Wealth begets wealth, and in 1895 Dewey built a summer resort for his affluent friends at a place called Lake Placid, New York. I became familiar with this upstate New York town during the 1980 Winter Olympics. (Remember Roni and Ronny, the two raccoon mascots?)
About 35 years later, Dewey discovered a perfect place for a winter resort for this same exclusive group of friends — Lake Stearns, Florida. He loved the lakes (all 27 of them), the citrus, the endangered species, the rolling hills… and, of course, the mild winter weather. But he didn’t like the name! So in 1927 he persuaded the Florida State legislature to change it from Lake Stearns to Lake Placid. (Remember the old saying “Money talks?”) Mr. Dewey went on to build the Lake Placid Club in Florida to mirror the one he developed in Lake Placid, New York for his friends. And, he continued building… an upscale lodge, an additional hotel, a water tower, a train station (currently on the National Registry of Historic Places), and maintained his own beautification project.
Lake Placid, New York and Lake Placid, Florida are now sister cities! The dynamic duo signed the proclamation in 2012.
The Town of Murals: How It All Began
Lake Placid is known as “The Town of Murals.” It is quite literally an outdoor art gallery. Currently, there are 47 larger-than-life murals, each one depicting a small part of Lake Placid’s history. For more than 20 years local and visiting artists have contributed to more than 33,000 square feet of murals.
Lake Placid Mural Society founders, Bob and Harriet Porter, implemented the creative idea after witnessing the revitalization of a Vancouver Island, B.C. town while on vacation. And the concept came right on time. Lake Placid had 15 empty stores and black mold was taking over many of the walls in town. But just like their predecessor, the project was a HUGE success. Tourism has increased, which has resulted in economic gain.
In fact, the financial turn-around from Lake Placid’s mural project was so outstanding that it captured the attention of many other towns. More than 140 towns in the U.S. and Canada have requested information to start their own projects. The murals are created and maintained by fundraisers, donations, and sponsors. The title of “Florida’s Outstanding Rural Community” was earned by the mural society in 1995 & 1996.
A fun thing to do for visitors, as hubby and I found out, is to purchase the publication entitled, “The Murals of Lake Placid” from the Welcome Center. It cost a whopping $3.00 and is the perfect accompaniment when taking the self-guided walking tour. (The DVD is also available for slightly more.) It showcases each of the 47 murals with a full page description of the artist and history of each one. It also states the location throughout town, along with a challenge to find a specific listed item that is hidden somewhere within each mural. (Not as easy as it sounds!) Here are a few of my favorite Lake Placid murals:
Mural: Tea at Southwinds – Lake Placid’s first mural; depicting the glory days, where the rich and famous came to play! A patio scene from Dr. Dewey’s exclusive resort.
Mural: The Talk of the Town – Lake Placid’s phone exchange. A PBX board was used from 1930-1935.
Mural: The Old Post Office – Lake Placid’s first U.S. Post Office (February 1919).
Mural: Our Citrus Heritage – 1 out of 10 glasses of orange juice consumed in the U.S. comes from Highlands County.
Mural: Cracker Trail Cattle Drive – Cowmen driving a herd of cattle through Lake Placid on their way to market; a 2-3 week trip full of danger.
The Caladium Capital of the World
Another interesting fact that I learned about America’s Most Interesting Town during my visit is that it carries the title of “Caladium Capital of the World.” I’ve always had a special fondness for the unique ornamental heart-shaped leaves of the caladium. Have you ever purchased a caladium as an exotic decorative foliage plant for your yard, or placed one in a pot on the patio? If so, chances are real good that it was grown in Lake Placid! In fact, 95% of the world’s caladiums are grown just outside this tiny town, on 1500 acres. We were able to see the caladium fields as we traveled east on County Road 621. (Can you guess who supplied the thousands of caladium plants for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics? Yep. It was lovely Lake Placid!)
Since caladium farming is such a thriving local industry, I thought it was ironic that the plant is not native to Florida. The first bulbs were brought from the Amazon River Valley of South America and planted in Lake Placid more than 50 years ago. Now, not only are the bulbs shipped nationwide, but to countries all over the world like Europe, Spain, Turkey, and South Africa. I guess it’s no surprise then, in honor of this colorful creation, that the “Caladium Festival” is held annually in Lake Placid. Patrons can buy bulbs and plants, meet the caladium growers, and tour the fields. The Caladium Festival also has yummy food booths, arts and craft vendors, free entertainment, an antique car show, and an air boat/swamp buggy show. With free admission and free parking, you can be sure it’s on my bucket list!
Lake Placid – The Perfect Place to Clown Around!
Here’s another title for Lake Placid – The Clown Capital of the USA! No, seriously, I’m not clowning around here! Someone has to carry this prestigious honor, so why not Lake Placid? It makes sense to me that America’s Most Interesting Town would also have more clowns per capita than anywhere else in the country!
Toby’s Clown School has trained students from all over the United States and Canada to become professional clowns. These wanna-be-clowns don’t have aspirations of performing under ‘The Big Top’ though. They goof around for much smaller audiences — like hospitals, nursing homes, children’s parties, and assisted living facilities. Additionally, in Lake Placid during the cooler months of the year, they can be seen greeting visitors to the murals.
I love the history behind Toby’s Clown School. It started in 1980 with one Man’s (Toby) desire to spread smiles, love, and laughter to hurting people in the local hospital. The positive affect it had within the community was amazing. Other hospitals and organizations began requesting his special talent. The demand was far greater than one person could fulfill… hence, Toby’s Clown School was born. Today, Toby’s brand of ‘clown medicine’ can be seen coast to coast, and graduates range in age from 8 to 96! If you’ve ever dreamt of becoming a real clown, you can access the Clown School Application on Toby’s Clown School website.
There’s even a Clown Museum in Lake Placid! It’s part of Toby’s Clown School, but it’s open to the public and has free admission. Here, you’ll find paintings by Red Skelton, the famous clown and artist, circus posters from Ringling Brothers, a miniature circus scene, century-old clown costumes, a life-size hand-carved carousel horse, and many clown figurines and dolls. Toby’s Clown Museum may be the only museum dedicated to American Clowns!
“The role of a clown and a physician are the same — it’s to elevate the possible and to relieve suffering”
~ Patch Adams
Artistic Trash Containers
Even the trash containers in Lake Placid are a work of art! During your walking tour you’ll find 17 one-of-a-kind unique trash cans, each one serving as a companion piece to the murals.
Lake Placid — Worthy of the Winning Entry!
In conclusion, I truly enjoyed my day-trip to America’s Most Interesting Town! So many of America’s small towns have lost their once-charming appeal. Many downtown districts in urban areas are dying a slow death. Sometimes, as I drive through them, I wonder what the cost of restoration and revival would be. I wish that some of these old things could be made new again. I applaud Lake Placid for allowing their dingy buildings to become a canvas for artistic expression and city pride — for allowing their decorated trash cans to hold more than garbage — for allowing the class clown to flourish…
My desire as you read this article, is that someone with an ounce of hope for their otherwise hopeless small-town, would be inspired to pursue a revitalization project. Take a lesson from Lake Placid… your town can be a winner too!
Have you visited Lake Placid, Florida? What was your favorite part of the tour? Or perhaps you’ve been to another small town in America worthy of being America’s Most Interesting Town? Please share with our readers in the ‘Comment’ box below!
Lake Placid Mural Video — YouTube