Clear blue skies, palm trees, white sandy beaches, and crystal clear ocean waters. Welcome to Florida. But just a short drive away, you’ll find enough interdimensional portals, ghosts, and mysteries to keep the entire cast of the Marvel Universe busy. Welcome to Central Florida’s Polk County, where there is no shortage of things to do, from the bricktacular LEGOLAND Florida theme park to the world-class, bucket-list-worthy Streamsong Golf Resort along with all the shopping, snacking, and dining you might desire from a place known as Florida’s Sweetest Spot. But lurking just beneath it, a jot off the beaten path, is a land of ghosts and mystery – or maybe just a little leftover, roadside attraction Florida.
The HOHO Chair
Rising above the surrounding homes, glistening silver in the intense Florida sun is an interdimensional portal.
Or is it a giant, interpretive potty chair statement by an artist? That is in the eye of the beholder.
Either way, it is the brainchild of acclaimed modern artist Steven Chayt. Built in the backyard of his home along Old Thornhill Road in Winter Haven, the 24-foot-high sculpture, dubbed the “HOHO Chair,” pays homage to fellow artist Marcel Duchamp. In fact, the coordinates on the bottom of the chair, along with the words, “Put Your Trust There,” and even the chair itself all point to Duchamp’s permanent installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Underneath the opening in the chair is a picture of a clown with an opening where the mouth would be – or the opening of a wormhole.
Chayt even created a short movie, available on his website, www.stevenchayt.com, that allows his viewers to experience traveling via a wormhole. Like his other works, the artist mixes paradox, contradiction, and humor in hopes of starting a conversation among its observers. But if you do visit the interdimensional portal, realize that the installation is in the artist’s backyard in a residential neighborhood – so please be respectful.
In scenic, Lake Wales is a spot so haunted that your car rolls uphill.
According to legend, Spook Hill was formed after a titanic final battle between a giant alligator and a Native American chieftain on the shores of Lake Wales. As the area developed, riders on horseback would notice their steeds laboring along what appeared to be a downhill portion of the old trail. With the advent of the automobile, residents found that their cars defied gravity and seemed to roll uphill by themselves.
Could it be the ancient ghost of the chief still protecting his village, or perhaps it is the alligator seeking to make it a best-two-out-of-three fight?
A favorite of both locals and tourists for generations, Spook Hills is part of a phenomenon known as mystery hills or gravity hills. While various similar sites are located around the world, Spook Hill is the only one of its kind in Florida. And after you are done rolling uphill, locals know to stick around and watch the reaction of others – that’s at least half the fun. This one is ghosts and mystery all rolled into one.
Shrine of St. Anne des Lacs
Just around the corner from Spook Hill are the remains of the Shrine of St. Anne des Lacs. This one-of-a-kind Central Florida religious site, featuring one of the few known uses of Florida native rock construction, is all that’s left of a once-thriving Canadian Catholic community.
Nearly 100 years ago, Lake Saint Anne turned the quiet town of Lake Wales into a busy summer destination when famed French artist Francis Marsollier claimed a dip in the lake cleansed his son of tuberculosis. Declaring it a miracle, Marsollier, along with other French Canadians, started to build the shrine, circa 1920. Marsollier also painted murals within the chapel and chiseled elaborate statues on the grounds.
As word of the miracle spread, the crowds gathered. Pilgrimages to Lake Wales began in 1928. Soon, thousands flocked to swim in the healing waters and visit the church. However, World War II meant fewer Canadians visiting and the beginning of the end. By the 1960s the church was practically forgotten. The Diocese of St. Augustine de-sanctified the shrine, and most of it was removed to prevent vandalism.
Today, not much more than a few sections remain. A grotto-like area still stands, as well as a rock bridge leading up to it and a fountain nearby. The rock work, as well as the tiles that made up the floors, remain. Not far away are other stone-built remains, including a wall and possible altar.
Grave of the Oldest Living American
He traveled from Liberia to the United States, suffered through slavery, fought for the Union Army, chased Billy the Kid, and even ran off with the circus. And lived to be 137.
Or so he claimed.
In 1980, the eyes of the world turned to Bartow, the county seat of Polk County, upon the passing of Charlie Smith, one of the city’s most famous residents. His death was noted in the New York Times, Time and Newsweek magazines, The Washington Post, and various international publications.
For decades, Smith had been billed as the oldest living American. He often regaled writers with his stories. Interviews with Smith, recorded in the years before his death by numerous journalists, abound on the Internet.
Apparently lost to history is a PBS television show about his being lured onto the ship called “Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree.” It was even shown on the Disney Channel.
Three years after he passed, the city of Bartow purchased a tombstone for their unlikeliest of celebrities in Wildwood Cemetery, row 28. If you stop by, it is the second headstone from the wall and near a large tree.
We’ve just scratched the surface
How about a home with a dragon in the front yard? Or a home actually built by hand in the 1920s to serve as a tourist attraction featuring concrete over stone, steel rails, and 18-inch-thick walls that cooled the house when it rained? There’s even a haunted courthouse, where “A Lady in White” is known to walk around the rotunda. Polk County is full of ghosts and mystery, so check out something truly spooky this Fall.
So the next time you want to mix a little offbeat into a vacation that could feature everything from a theme park to a safari to one of the greatest golf resorts in the nation, remember Polk County, Florida’s Sweetest Spot. Go to www.VisitCentralFlorida.org to plan your vacation in Central Florida’s Polk County.