Archive for August, 2012

Arcadia Opera House Lures Hunters of Ghosts and Antique Rarities

Arcadia – The rambling Arcadia Opera House looks like it could hide a few ghosts.

“I’ve never seen one myself, but there have been quite a few sightings,” says proprietor James Crosby, who has owned the 1906 building for two years. Indeed, a haunt-hunting team from Bravo Television stalked spirits there and a program is scheduled to air this fall, Crosby said.

Museum pieces from the turn-of-the-century theater add a nostalgic touch – or an eerie one, if the observer is particularly sensitive.

But the Opera House’s big draw is its huge selection of antiques spread over 14 rooms in the two-story building’s 9,000 square feet. Furniture from New England, clothing from decades back, tools from your grandfather’s box and glassware from all over are among the vintage items. There’s a 1923 Victrola and an RCA Victor Consolette from a later era – and there is an extensive vinyl album collection.
Madame Zoltar, a version of the animated Gypsy fortune teller once found in arcades, adds a proper touch to what Crosby calls the Bizarre Bazaar, which offers literally hundreds of items for sale.

For a quarter, customers can turn on the band organ, an old-school county-fair type of instrument that plays automatically and is designed to sound like a multi-piece band. A sign on it says: “Infamous ‘horn machine’ has driven thousands crazy since 1918. Now it’s your turn.’” 

Crosby said he takes some items on consignment and he also rents space to vendors. The charge is generally $100 to $200 for a room, depending on its size, plus 10 percent of the vendor’s take.

The Opera House, built the year after a 1905 fire destroyed most of Arcadia’s downtown, anchors the city’s historic district. About 3,400 acres containing 293 historic buildings comprise the neighborhood, which was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Several blocks of antique stores make it a picker’s paradise. The dealers association offers an “antique fair” on the fourth Saturday of each month; it sometimes draws more than 100 independent dealers.

Two bed-and-breakfast sites offer neighborhood accommodations and there are several restaurants, including the 83-year-old Wheeler’s Café with its pie specialties. (The author’s favorite was the butterscotch peanut butter.)

Arcadia itself is a trove of history. It was a focal point of the 19th century Florida cattle industry and, at one time, had a reputation as a wild and wide-open cow town. Range wars erupted and sometimes spilled across the town’s dusty streets. One historian wrote that as many as 50 fights a day took place; one is recalled as causing the deaths of four men.

The Opera House probably did not see any of the Old West-style violence. But it became a magnet after the 1905 Thanksgiving Day fire that started in a livery stable. Only two buildings survived.

Soon afterward, John J. Heard built the Opera House, establishing the second-floor theater over the Florida Loan and Trust Company. It was used for both silent movies and “talkies,” political events, school graduations, dances and a USO operation during World War II. The stage and balcony are preserved, along with theater bills and paraphernalia. None of the museum pieces is for sale.

Among other items, a circuit board for the original stage lighting remains. A klieg light dating from the early 1900s was used to provide the light needed to expose early film. The original wooden cylinder used to crank up the stage curtain still is present.

Not all the museum items are related to the theater or old movies. A metal contraption resembling a bomb is labeled as “the first guided missile.” The thing has a saddle and handlebars mounted on it, and is addressed to “the Kaiser,” a reference to the German leader during World War I.     

Perhaps the most unusual piece is a fancy surrey sitting center stage. It’s a 1902 Deere and Webber – and you can almost see the shade of John J. Heard sitting atop it.

If You Go

Arcadia Opera House
106 West Oak Street
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Phone: Call James Crosby at 941-456-5602

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The Ancient Spanish Monastery: Miami's Passageway to Medieval Europe

Miami’s known for many things. But 12th-century monasteries are not one of them.

Yet amid the urban bustle of North Miami Beach sits a piece of medieval Europe: the Cloisters of the Ancient Spanish Monastery.

Walk inside the gate to these beautiful green grounds, filled with gardens, walkways and statues, and the monastery doesn’t seem out of place at all; it’s in splendid harmony with its surroundings. Here, the 21st century seems a million miles away.

Everything about the monastery says “medieval.” Lanterns on the garden paths. Statues and fountains. Stained glass. Carved ceilings, columns and arches. Sacramental stone tables. A bell tower. Colorful coats of arms adorning the cloisters. Heavy wood strongboxes. The air of spirituality seeps from every crack in the stone and from every little alcove.

So, how did this piece of medieval Spain get to Miami?

Construction on the Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux began in Sacramenia, in the province of Segovia, in 1133. It took 11 years to build and was occupied by monks for the next 700 years. In the midst of social upheaval in the 1830s, the cloisters of the church — covered passageways of arched-stone — were sold and converted into a stable.

In 1925, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst visited the monastery. Hearst — as anyone who’s been to his “castle” in California knows — was a lover of European culture and history. He fell in love with the ornate cloisters and purchased them.

The 800-year-old structures were then dismantled stone by stone. Each was numbered, packed in hay and shipped to the United States in 11,000 boxes. At the time, however, there was a serious hoof-and-mouth outbreak in Spain. Fearing the hay carried the disease, the Department of Agriculture broke open the boxes and burned the hay upon the shipment’s arrival in New York.

It took 23 men and three months to open the boxes (which contained seven tons of nails) and remove the stones. After the hay was burned, they put the stones back in the boxes — but not the matching ones.

Then the Great Depression hit, and Hearst fell into financial trouble and was forced to sell his collection. The stones sat in a Brooklyn warehouse for 26 years until 1952, when Miami businessmen William Edgemon and Raymond Moss decided to buy them and turn them into a tourist attraction in North Miami Beach.

It took 19 months to ship and reassemble the Cloisters at a cost of $1.5 million. But things didn’t work out as Edgemon and Moss had planned.

Because Dixie Highway was at the time the only way to get from Miami to the Keys, Edgemon and Moss figured the road would make the Cloisters a major draw, says Gregory Mansfield, who ministers to the congregation at the attached St. Bernard de Clairvaux Episcopal Church. But when U.S. 1 was built, “suddenly they were stuck with a tourist attraction on a road with no tourists.”

They lost their shirts on the deal and sold the Cloisters to the Episcopal Church for pennies on the dollar.

Now, the structures are studied by everyone from artists to historians to writers to architects. The latter, in particular, are fascinated to find two architectural styles.

Construction began in Romanesque style, but some monks who had traveled to France became enamored with the Gothic architecture in vogue there.

“When they returned, they asked the architects to use that style,“ Mansfield says. “But the architects weren’t familiar with Gothic, so the monks sent them to France to study it. And when they came back, they finished up the already Romanesque cloisters in a Gothic style!”

If the walls here could talk, they’d have nearly 900 years of stories. The tranquil property is popular with local artists and has become a sought-after wedding spot.

The congregation of St. Bernard de Clairvaux is reflective of Miami — one-third black, one-half white and one-third Hispanic. And the nationalities represented here include Polish, Iranian, French and Haitian.

“We feel that these grounds don’t belong only to us,” Mansfield says. “We have a responsibility to share this special place and to preserve it for future generations.”

If You Go

The Cloisters of the Ancient Spanish Monastery, 16711 West Dixie Highway in North Miami Beach, is open 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday  and 11 a.m – 4 p.m. Sunday. Regular admission is $8, $4 for seniors and military members, free for children under 4. The monastery sometimes closes for special events, so call ahead to confirm hours at 305-945-1461. Visit for more information.

Steve Winston has written/contributed to 17 books. His articles have appeared in major media all over the world.

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Photo: Florida Cracker Trail sign

The sign depicts the cattle-driving whip whose snapping sound gave the Florida Crackers their name.

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Photo: Oak trees, Highland Hammocks State Park

Some of the live oak trees at Highland Hammock State Park are believed to be more than 1,000 years old.

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River Otter Exhibit Opens at Central Florida Zoo

I remember one of the first times I saw a North American river otter and I remember being vastly entertained as it swam to one bank of rocks, did a back flip, and then swam to the other side – over and over and over. This was the Michael Phelps of otters.

Starting Saturday, September 1, if you travel to the wonderful Central Florida Zoo in Sanford (about 20 miles east of Orlando), you’ll be able to see their newest exhibit: North American River Otters sponsored by Sean and Nina Barth. I didn’t know these otters are native to Central Florida, but since seeing them in the wild is a toughie (they’re generally nocturnal and I’ve only seen a handful in lakes and rivers), this may be your best bet since they’ll be showcased in a new exhibit where you can expect to see them slipping, sliding, somersaulting and bellyflopping (National Geographic says otters can slide for up to 20 feet at speeds reaching 18 mph).

Beyond otters, the 116-acre Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens is well worth a visit, with a naturally wooded setting that enhances exhibits that includes leopards, bald eagles, monkeys, cheetahs, llamas, sloths, tortoises, vultures, kookaburras, pythons, rattlesnakes, gila monsters, porcupines, lemurs… Entertaining, educational, and dedicated to preservation and conservation. What’s not to love? For more information, call them at (407) 323-4450 – and then drive into nearby Sanford and spend some time in this active waterfront downtown (boutiques, antiques, bookstores, sidewalk cafes…).

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Old Florida: What Were the Big Attractions?

If you were one of the fortunate few who lived in Florida when theme parks were far in the future, you may recall some classic attractions that are now just a distant memory.

For no other reason than to reminisce and to share you with you some fun and fascinating sites that pay tribute to these classic attractions, I wonder if any of you recall the places I remember…

I grew up in Maitland, and for us the furthest we traveled for an attraction was Ocala to see Six Gun Territory (which I always thought was cool because they had an autographed picture of Dan Blocker, who played ‘Hoss’ on Bonanza). But on the way there along Highway 441 I remember there were also billboards that announced that we could ‘SEE! Big Sam, the World’s Largest Bull!’ and ‘SEE! The Amazing Walking Catfish!’ (who wore tuxedoes and carried walking sticks) and that was almost as exciting for me. We never did stop, though, because there was a shootout waiting for us at Six Gun Territory.

But in Kissimmee, there was ‘Xanadu, Home of the Future’, and somewhere near Daytona Beach, I think, was Marco Polo Park (which my mom and brothers enjoyed almost completely withoug any other guests which may explain why it didn’t last long). And our family went to Rainbow Springs near Dunnellon, and Circus World in Haines City, and I’ve heard of Webb’s City in St. Pete and there was even a place called ‘Storyland’ near Pompano Beach.

If you love Old Florida, you can re-visit our past at a great site called ‘Florida’s Lost Tourist Attractions’ which includes pictures and stories of these and dozen of other parks that made growing up in Florida a unique and, obviously unforgettable, experience. And on facebook, there’s a wonderful site called, believe it or not, Old Florida.

I think we had a good thing going.

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Florida Sunsets: The Greatest Earth on Show

I’m only making a guess, but I imagine the reason why people love living in, or visiting, Florida is the chance to see our extraordinary sunsets. I know sunrises are popular as well, but I’m usually asleep when that happens so I’ll focus on sunsets.

Maybe it’s something instinctual; the same way we feel when we’re around the water, for instance. Watching the sunset makes us feel like we’re part of something bigger; whether it’s nature, the solar system, the universe, or God.

Floridians have the best of all of this. Naturally, we’re blessed by nature, and with water features like rivers and lakes and the inlets and the Gulf of Mexico, our sunsets are spectacular. But some of my favorite sunsets have come when I’m out in the country, riding across some small hills or even when the landscape opens to flatlands near the St. Johns River or when I’m in Western Florida where the elevations are higher and, as I ride west, the sun just seems to draw me in its direction.

Every day in Florida, folks in Key West gather at Mallory Square to celebrate the sunset together. People are also doing this in Marco Island, Sanibel and Captiva, in Sarasota and Clearwater and Steinhatchee and in small towns like Mount Dora and Seaside and Monticello and on St. George Island, and at casual waterfront restaurants and at retro tiki bars and canoe outposts…

Each day we’re given an opportunity to witness one of nature’s most incredible sights. When that moment comes, consider turning off the television, stepping outside, and rewarding yourself with a gift. Time. Time to stop everything and experience one of the truly wonderful aspects of living in Florida.

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Photo: School of the 16th Century, Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, St. Augustine

Typically, classes includes about 50 participants, but professional reenactor and instructor Chad Light says he could accommodate as many as 150.

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Photo: School of the 16th Century, Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, St. Augustine

The School of the 16th Century seminar at St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth instructs participants in how soldiers dressed, fought, ate and navigated their way around the New World.

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Photo: School of the 16th Century, Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, St. Augustine

From pike drills and horsemanship to how to navigate using only the stars, the seminar exposes participants to 16th-century soldier life in one- or three-day training exercises.

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