Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Solomon's Castle

Solomon's Castle. A shining tribute to one mans imagination.
There is a castle in the center of Florida.
It has a moat and turrets and unique stained glass windows.
There is a lighthouse in the moat and a bridge, through a ship that is a restaurant.
Did I mention that the castle is in a swamp?
The 3 story 12000 square foot shining structure is the creation of one man, Howard Solomon, an internationally recognized artist and sculptor.

Mr. Solomon hadn't intended to be the butt of a joke by buying swamp land in the middle of Florida.

He bought the lush woodland during a dry spell. When he came back with his family to build his home Howard discovered that there wasn't enough high ground to construct the sprawling home that he had envisioned so he built a levee to control the water in Black Creek then
started with a small footprint and went vertical.
Stained glass windows in the castle walls.
Howard Solomon invented his house using home grown skills and other peoples junk.  Unfettered by conventional building styles and materials he created a unique and whimsical place to live.

Approaching the castle is quite an experience. It's gleaming 3 stories can be blinding on a sunny day. The exterior walls of the Medieval style castle are covered in shiny silver metal that used to be offset printing plates discarded by a local newspaper.

Dragon window of reclaimed stained glass.
What looks like riveted steel from a distance is actually those aluminum plates attached with roofing nails. There are stained glass windows on every side and each wall of the castle has windows depicting a specific theme.
There are 9 planet windows arranged in order of their distance from the sun, there are 12 zodiac windows.
We saw windows representing nursery rhymes and ones that depicted the 4 virtues:

Throughout our tour of the home and gallery the guide was happy to point out the quirky materials used by Mr. Solomon in the construction of the house and also the design of his artwork.

One of the dozens of train cars designed by Howard Solomon

Referring to Howard as the "Savior of Salvage" the Rembrandt of Reclamation" and the DaVinci of Debris" our tour guide pointed out aluminum cans, oil drums, bicycle gears, coat hangers, and sea shells used in unique ways.

The beginning of the tour lead us through 3 gallery rooms. Mr Solomon demonstrates a love of the ridiculous in the punny way he names his art pieces.
Guarding the gate of the castle are 2 suits of armor. One is painted black, the other white. They are Knight and Day.

Jeb the Bushman
A not quite life sized statue of and elephant is called Jeb the Bushman. It is constructed of oil drums and has clam shells for toenails.
A sculpture of a race car has a V-8 engine. Yes it really does.
There is artwork large and small. Some are freestanding and life size, some so tiny that dozens fit on a small shelf. Chess boards, trains, animals, and carousels made of wood glass and metal. The variety is astounding. I don't think the man ever slept.

The stained glass windows are beautiful seen from  indoors with the sunlight behind them.
The castle has 5 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms. It even boasts and elevator that runs of a car battery.
Our tour took us through the house and back outdoors to the moat where the Boat in the Moat, a 60 foot replica of a Spanish Galleon, serves as a restaurant that seats 250 people.
Near the boat is a lighthouse.
Made of balsa wood.
Because its a light house.

At the end of the tour you are invited to stay for a meal and to walk around the grounds and gardens.
If you decide to explore you will come across a replica of the Alamo complete with a Come and Take It cannon and bowling ball cannon balls. You will pass sheds full of future building materials and you may be lucky enough to be visited by a castle cat.

A replica of the Alamo on the castle grounds
Solomon's Castle is located in the south central community of Ona in Hardee County. We drove through miles of farm country roads past orange groves, swamp land and cattle ranches following tiny hand lettered road signs that pointed the way to Solomon's Castle.
Take your sense of humor and a love of the absurd and ridiculous with you or don't bother to go.

Howard Solomon died in 2016 at the age of 81. His family is preserving his legacy and plan to keep  Solomon's Castle open to the public.

Solomon's castle
44533 Solomon Rd
Ona, Florida
open 11-4 Tuesday-Sunday
closed July through September

Castle cat

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Southern Pines and a New Crafting Opportunity

Florida pine needles are huge.
One of the categories of household items that we had to divest ourselves of before selling the house and moving into the Behemoth was craft supplies. It was one of the most painful categories to pare down. Fred and I both enjoy making things. We saved only those tools and supplies that we knew we would use again. Most of those things are stored in our daughters garage but we did bring along a few of our favorites that wouldnt take up a lot of space.  Fred brought along his woodworking tools and I have yarn, drawing pencils and my camera. We are both always on the lookout to find new ways to feed our creative sides.

Basket Class
The Manatee County Library in Bradenton Florida offered a crafting class in November that I was able to attend.
We spent 2 consecutive Wednesdays learning how to make baskets out of pine needles.
Not just any pine needles either.
Florida long leaf pines have leafs (or needles) that grow 12-18 inches long. The pine trees are plentiful and they shed like crazy so finding basket supplies is as easy as taking a walk in the woods with a pocket full of rubber bands.
The basket making craft requires few supplies. Our instructor gave each of us a small bunch of pine needles, a few pieces of raffia, a darning needle, a cloths pin, and a short length of drinking straw.
That we were able to turn that confusing array of materials into a finished product is a testament to her teaching skill. Like many artistic projects getting started and becoming comfortable handling the materials was the hardest part.
Pine Needle Basketry is a simple and mindful technique of adding needles and stitching the sections together.
The artistic part of the process emerges as you use your hands to shape the basket into a pleasing form.

My first basket completed
My first basket is a wonky sort of work of art. I love the shape but next time will be more attuned to stitch placement and to keeping the sections of needles even.

Our second lesson had us practicing different types of decorative stitches that can be used to decorate as well as strengthen a design. We stitched them all into pieces of cardboard like those giant shoelace and picture projects that toddlers do to develop hand eye coordination. It worked for me and now I have a visual reminder of how to create each stitch.

I have gathered enough needles to make several baskets and am working on a second one now.  I will be interested to meet other basket makers and to see the materials that they use in their creations as we travel on down the road.

My second basket in progress

Florida Long Leaf Pine needles washed and drying in the sun.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Florida Produce: A Great Reason to Visit the Sunshine State

Oranges waiting to be squeezed.
Florida's sunshine and moderate temperatures make it a wonderful environment for growing things.
When Fred's Mom and Dad retired they moved to Port Richey, Florida.  Every Winter just before Christmas they would send us a giant box of oranges and grapefruits. We loved those deliveries. The juicy bits of citrus seemed to bring with them a tiny bit of the Florida sunshine that made them taste so good. When we visited Fred and Jane's home in Port Richey we were amazed by the huge grapefruit tree in the back yard and the little orange trees that they had planted. They grew mangoes and Papayas on the side of the house and tomatoes under the fruit trees. The yard was a gardeners paradise.
Those memories return every time we stop at a roadside stand or citrus orchard. This year it was our turn to send those little bits of sunshine northward.
Florida Oranges
We visited Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton to do so.  Mixon's is a family owned and operated business that has survived the sprawl of development, the devastation of citrus canker, and encroaching developmen. Established in 1939 the farm started with a 20 acre grove and grew to 350 acres by 1990. It is smaller now
at 50 acres and is once again flourishing. 
Dean and Janet took over the family business in 2006.  They have rebuilt the fruit farm and successfully marketed it as a destination. Today Mixon's grows 21 varieties of citrus and ships 30,000 gift boxes a year.  
Fred and I visited the farm twice and enjoyed both visits. Mixon's has a lot to offer. The store and gift shops offer a variety of locally sourced foods that include orange blossom honey, and a delicious orange ice cream flavored with their own juice. We tried the orange ice cream twisted with vanilla. It was so good.
On weekends the store frequently has sampling stations so that you can try cookies, flavored popcorn, citrus juice, wine and fudge before buying. One day that we visited there was a chili cook-off competition. Local high school chefs made their favorite version of chili and told us about their recipes as we tasted our way through the room and voted for our favorites.

The odd looking Budda's Hand is very fragrant but it lacks pulp or juice. 
We took a tram ride through the citrus groves seeing oranges, grapefruit, lemons and limes. There were other more unusual citrus varieties like Pomelo, Budda's Hand and the giant Ponderosa Lemons.

One of the stops on the tram tour is at Wildlife Inc, a Florida wildlife and education center. Dean and Janet Mixon have provided land in the grove for this organization that rehabilitates animals to return them to the wild. Wildlife Inc also provides shelter for animals that cannot be safely released due to injury, behavior or non-native status.
If you are near Bradenton we recommend a visit to Mixon Fruit Farms, you will be glad to have made the trip.
We are staying in Arcadia during February. This small town is in farm country and we are enjoying the bounty of their crops. Tomatoes, blueberries and strawberries are currently in season along with the citrus crops. There are miles of orange groves in the surrounding area. It is not unusual to see enormous trucks full of citrusy goodness headed for the juicing plants. 
Local fruit and vegetable stands are plentiful and we have identified our favorites, visiting them every couple of days for the best and freshest selections.

Mixon Fruit Farm
2525 27th St. E
Bradenton, Florida

Monday, January 16, 2017

Myakka River State Park

Myakka State Park in Sarasota is one of Florida’s oldest and most diverse state parks. Myakka’s 58 square miles contain two shallow lakes , a portion of the Myakka River and a beautiful combination of dry prairie, wet lands and forest.
Great Blue Heron on the shallow lake.

The Park was developed in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief program that was part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative.
Fred and I visited on a warm December day. We enjoyed the drive out route 72 past citrus trees and horse farms. We arrived at the gate, paid our entry fee and drove slowly down Park Drive to the Visitor Center. The road is paved and winds gently for 3 miles through a Spanish moss draped forest past camping areas and the Nature Trail.  We stopped at a rest area near the bridge to walk back and admire the large alligators soaking up the sun at the edge of the Myakka River.
The Myakka Outpost was our destination. We were lucky to find a parking spot in the tree covered lot to the rear of the Outpost. A Park Ranger had warned us against parking near the water in the morning or late afternoon. Oddly the black vultures that inhabit the park have developed a taste for rubber.  They enjoy feasting on windshield wiper blades and we didn't want ours to become an appetizer.

The Outpost is where the Visitor Center is located. There are wildlife exhibits as well as videos that explain the complex eco-system that makes up the park.

We were interested to learn about the controlled burn program as the fires were blazing on the day of our visit. In the past fires ignited by lightning burned regularly on the prairie. Once the land was settled measures were taken to control those fires which resulted in an overgrowth of shrubs and trees that made the prairie disappear. Endangered plants and animals are  thriving in the prairie environment now that the burns are allowed to take place albeit in a controlled manner.
The Outpost is also home to a restaurant, a large nature themed gift shop, canoe kayak and bike rentals, as well as ticket booths for Air-boat rides and Tram tours.

We signed on for the one o’clock Air-boat Ride and boarded the Myakka Maiden. The parks air-boats are large, the park claims they are the worlds largest. The Myakka Maiden’s aircraft type propeller was powered by a 1975 Cadillac El Dorado engine. The engine had no trouble pushing us across the shallow lake. We didn’t set any speed records but it was a smooth enjoyable ride. Our Captain Richard is also a Park Ranger. He had an interesting presentation and seemed happy to answer our questions. Richard’s knowledge of the lake and it’s inhabitants was extensive. He pointed out native plants, birds and animals and also told us of the non native fish and plants that have invaded this part of Florida.

The Nature Walk is a flat sandy trail.
The airboat tour is about an hour. We motored, or is that aired, across the lake to the shallows where the water is only about 18 inches deep. It was a little unnerving to see and hear the splash of the water as alligators got out of the way of the approaching boat. Richard told us that the alligator population of Myakka lake is estimated at 500-1000 of the beasts. We saw several large alligators sunning on the river bank, a flock of Roseate Spoonbills, Sandhill Cranes, Anhinga and the occasional Great Blue Heron.
We returned to the boat basin and walked upstairs to the Pink Gator Cafe to enjoy a lunch of Alligator Bites, French fries, Iced Tea and Carrot Cake. The restaurant serves cafeteria style with pagers to notify you when your cooked food is ready. We enjoyed our lunch on the outdoor second floor patio that overlooks the lake.

74 feet to the top of the Canopy Walks tower
Bellies full we headed down Park Drive to Myakka’s Nature Trail.  The nature trail is 1 ½ miles long and is a flat sandy path through live oak and palm hammocks decorated with na variety of epiphytes. The trail includes Myakka’s famous Canopy Walk. It is made up of 2 towers the taller of them is 74 feet above the forest floor. The towers are connected by a moving bridge. The view from the top is spectacular providing a birds eye view of the forest and the lake. Black vultures soared by on wind currents circling overhead.
The park also includes a wooden Birdwalk that stretches out over the water at the eastern shore of Upper Myakka Lake. We left that walk for another day.

Myakka River State Park
13208 State Rd 72
Sarasota, Florida
(941) 923-1120

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Motorhome Item Up-Date

With this three month stay at Horseshoe Cove RV Resort we needed to make a few improvements to the coach. 
1. First we have ordered the Magne Shade System for installation on the Main Front Window of the coach. This should help block about 90% of the sun light and heat from coming inside of the motorhome. We should have them by middle of December. 
2. Next I have upgraded all of the inside light fixtures with new LED lamps. We had to replace total of 21 incandescent lamps. Plus total of 16 fluorescent lamps. To change the fluorescent lamps I had to remove the light fixture and rewire the light system in each fixtures (8) and reinstall back into the motorhome. We purchase the incandescent replacement lamps from M4Product.com and fluorescent replacement lamps from Fulight Optoelectronic Materials, LLC on Amazon Marketplace. 

3. Next we have purchase a Tire Pressure Monitoring System to monitor the motorhome tire's as we drive down the road. But to install the system we needed two value extension and two stem extension stabilizer for the front wheels. Found the items at "AlwaysShinyWheels.com".

4. Next I found at a garage sale within the RV Park a Winegard Trav'ler Dirctv HD Antenna cost new about $1500.00. This one was 3yrs old and I got it for $75.00. So later this spring we will be going to Tiffin Factory in Red Bay, AL to have the antenna installed and motorhome's TV cable system up-dated. 

5. Ok next item, I made a "Sun-Shade" to install on the sky-Light above the shower. This helps block the sunlight and heat from coming inside the coach. 

6. Last ltem, I'm always worried about small animals getting in sewer/water compartment of the motorhome. Due to a hole at bottom were the sewer hose pass thru. Well we found from one of our feller camper a product called "The Sewer Sock" so we went to www.sewersock.net and purchase one for our motorhome. This device blocks the small hole/opening around the sewer hose. So hopefully no animals (snakes) will get into that compartment. 

Now time to relax and enjoy camp time. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Von Kessinger's Express at the Florida Rail Road Museum

A member of the General's staff.
The Florida Rail Road Museum has several special events each year. We were lucky enough to be near Parrish Florida for Veterans Day Weekend when the Von Kessinger's Express came to town.
Dozens of re-enactors moved into the train depot late that week to set up camp in 1944 occupied France.
There were two camps actually. One for the German forces under the command of General Von Kessinger was in the train yard. In the woods beyond the station was the camp of the Allied Forces.
"Let me see your papers" screamed the German soldiers
We got to the train station just in time to be issued travel papers from the German Army. They hurried us to board the train with the general, his entourage and a cadre of French citizens traveling to Paris.
The General is in possession of important information that must not fall into Allied hands. Allied troops have parachuted behind enemy lines have cut off his normal lines of communication. The German soldiers are in control of the train but they are running for their lives.

The General's wife and his secretary were seated in our car.
The train left the station as the conductor warned us to keep our papers in order and not to argue with the German soldiers.
The Generals wife and his "secretary" were seated in our car. Their weepy friend accompanied them. She had recently lost her husband and was searching among the passengers for a new one.  Their banter kept us laughing as we traveled through the "French" countryside. It was necessary to use the imagination as we passed orange groves, palm trees and moss draped oaks.
The German soldiers patrolled our car frequently demanding that we hold our papers in the air.  They questioned us about our destination. Those that did not answer to the soldiers satisfaction were arrested as spies and taken away. One gentleman in our car was taken into custody because the General's secretary admired his muscles.

The Gestapo?
  A tall thin man in a black leather coat walked through the car several times. He stared fiercely at us but didn't say a word. We could only imagine that he was part of the dreaded Gestapo looking for spies.
Their were several German aviators on board. They were having a wonderful party as we traveled but would not share their wine. One of them held a lovely brown dachshund. He enjoyed allowing people to pet the dog with the line "Would you like to touch my wiener?"

The train stopped suddenly. There was debris on the track. Allied troops arrived in authentic WWII vehicles to capture the train. A battle ensued but the allied troops were beaten back at the ride continued.
A roughed up American soldier was paraded though the car at gunpoint having been captured.  He taunted the German soldiers, telling them that the Allies were closing in but they laughed at his suggestion to surrender.

A captured American soldier
The General and his officers walked through our car gloating about their victory.
The trip continued, more battles were fought and we enjoyed every minute of being participants.

Allied forces fight to capture the German train
The train traveled about 13 miles and the entire trip took about 2 hours. We reversed course at a train yard in Willow where the museums vintage engines and cars are stored. It was interesting to see what else the museum had to offer.
General Von Kessinger 
We learned that the car we were riding in was a former Jim Crow car. It had a divided wall and separate bathrooms where riders were once segregated by skin color. The conductor was very knowledgeable about the museum and the cars that were part of its rolling exhibit. It would have been interesting to talk with him longer but this event was not the place for that conversation.
The Florida Rail Road Museum is a unique experience in that the cars are the exhibits.
Rides are available twice a day on weekends. The museum gift shop and static exhibits are open Wednesday- Sunday from 10-4.

Florida Rail Road Museum
12210 83rd St East
Parrish, Florida
(941) 776-0906

Friday, November 18, 2016

De Soto National Memorial

Conquistador Hernando De Soto was an experienced explorer by the time he landed in Florida's Tampa Bay in May of 1539. He had spent years under the governorship of Pedrarias Davila exploring and plundering areas of what is now Peru and Central America.
He had set sail from Cuba with 9 ships containing an army of 600 soldiers, craftsmen and 12 members of the clergy to conquer a portion of the new unexplored world called la Florida. The vessels also brought horses, war dogs and pigs to the new world. De Soto and his crew are thought to have made landfall at Piney Point and set up camp at Uzita, a native American village on the Manatee River.
Piney Point, where the expedition is said to have come ashore is where the National Memorial is today.
The park is located on the river, just beyond a residential neighborhood. You will know when you are getting close because the street signs have the image of a conquistadors helmet on them.
The De Soto National Memorial has a Visitor Center with plenty of parking. Near the Visitor Center you will find Camp Uzita, a recreation of the Uzita Village that De Soto and his troops occupied after landing. In the Winter months Park Rangers and volunteers dress in period costume to demonstrate daily activities of life in that time period.

Fred the Conquistador
During the off season you can see exhibits of armor and weapons inside the Visitor Center. It was very interesting to try on armor and helmets. The helmets were huge. We thought that the Spanish explorers must have had very large heads, but then realized there was a fabric hat that went underneath the helmet and a neck piece that held it up.  It must have been unbearable in the Florida Summer to wear heavy European clothing covered up by chain maille and solid armor. Those shiny metal helmets would have been like an oven.
Fred enjoyed a long conversation with the Park Ranger on duty about the halberd weapon and its similarity to a current fire fighting tool. It was interesting to learn that the halberd is still in use by the Swiss Guard at the Vatican.

Boardwalk through the mangroves

We watched a 20 minute film at the Visitor Center that described De Sotos fruitless search for gold and other material riches through what is now Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas.

The National Memorial site includes a 1 mile Nature Trail. The trail begins to the right of the Visitor Center. As you approach the water you can see across the Manatee River to Tampa Bay with the Gulf of Mexico in the distance. This is a lovely spot for picnicking and boat watching.
The Nature Trail is very easy walking along the water and through a forest of black, red and white mangroves on packed sand and boardwalk. The Spanish moss and ball moss hanging from the trees are like lace curtains as you walk along the trail.

There are points of interest along the way that include native plants labeled with their names as well as how they would have been used by indigenous people.

The nature trail
We also found a shell midden, a tabby house ruin (tabby is an old kind of concrete made of burned oyster shells), a cross, and the Holy Eucharist Monument.  The Holy Eucharist Monument is also called the Hernando De Soto Catholic Memorial. It was originally exhibited at the World's Fair in New York in 1969 before finding a home at Piney Point.

Henando De Soto Catholic Memorial
The cross was erected as a memorial to the 12 catholic priests who traveled with De Soto.  The cross and Holy Eucharist monument are owned by the Catholic Diocese of Venice who used to own the land where they sit. That land called Riverview Pointe Preserve is now owned by Manatee county. It has been registered as a National Historic Place and is administered by the county and the National Park service. There was once a 9 foot bronze statue of De Soto here but it was removed due to vandalism. It is currently on display at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton.

Memorial cross
Near these monuments is a nice stretch of sandy beach. There were many party boats anchored here. Boaters had grills out and were cooking an afternoon dinner, flying frisbees and playing with their dogs. There was a nice selection of Caypso music drifting over the water. We stopped to speak to a couple whose poodles were enjoying the sand and water but nobody offered us a beer so we continued our walk.  Next trip we will remember to bring the picnic basket.

We found the party beach. Every waterfront National Park seems to have one.

The De Soto National Monument is the start of The De Soto Trail, a 34 stop Florida driving tour of locations connected to the expedition.
De Soto's quest for riches and personal glory was devastating to many of the native peoples his expedition encountered. The spread of disease and superior weaponry killed many. Although his dream was never accomplished and he died on the journey Hernando De Soto is remembered as the first European explorer to travel and document what is now the Southern United States and to cross the Mississippi River.

Ball moss in the mangroves

The De Soto National Memorial
8300 De Soto Memorial Highway
Bradenton, Florida
(941) 792-0458