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Highlands County’s little-known fun facts

Highlands County is well-known for its oranges and cattle, but did you know that before citrus, pineapple was king in Avon Park? Or that the Avon Park Lakes area used to be a ranch and the Avon Park Chamber of Commerce was instrumental in helping sell or market lots there?

The 12 Hours of Sebring and the Sebring International Raceway fans have heard all kinds of stories over the years but which of these urban legends are actually true? How about this: the biggest elementary school in Highlands County has more students than any of the four middle schools when school ended in June.

As part of its ongoing series, Highlands Today has compiled a list of things you may not know about the county.

Raceway ‘facts’ straddle the bizarre, believable

Every longtime institution has its urban legends and so it goes with the Sebring International Raceway.

The raceway has done some fact checking on things it has heard about itself over the years and the result is a fairly voluminous list of fact and fiction trivia on its web site - from the colorful to the bizarre.

Since this article is about facts of Highlands County, we’ll keep out some of the rumors, even the legendary ones.

Here are some fun facts that did happen.

Six drivers of reserve entries, unhappy they were not allowed to start, did sneak on the track during the first lap, do one of two laps and then get off. It happened in 1955.

It’s also true that remnants of a Ford GT, driven by Bob McLean, was buried at a nearby ranch property. McLean was killed during a fiery accident approaching the hairpin in 1966, and there was very little left of the car. The remains of an Alfa Romeo also are buried near the circuit, but the raceway is not telling where.

Jim Morrison, the lead singer for the Doors, apparently did attend the Sebring 12 Hours in 1962 and/or 1963. So did Steve Jobs. Jobs attended the 1980 race. Apple sponsored a car that year.

Dale Earnhardt had a “secret” test in a factory Corvette at Sebring shortly before he died. Earnhardt and his son tested with the Corvette team in December 2000, raceway officials said.

Belligerent drivers were not the only ones who snuck on the track one year. A spectator was able to race in a street car during a supporting event at Sebring. It happened in December 1959 prior to the U.S. Grand Prix Formula One race.

Roger Penske’s Chevrolet Lola was stolen after the 1969 Sebring 12 Hours. While towing the car back from Sebring, the team stopped near Ormond Beach, where it was pinched. Most of it was eventually recovered.

Portions of the 1975 movie “The Great Waldo Pepper” were filmed at the Sebring Airport and Raceway.

Another celebrity, Walter Cronkite, drove in the 12 Hours of Sebring and witnessed a fatal accident on his very first lap. It happened in 1956.

And here is the fact that may actually sound like fiction but is not.

Drivers would actually get lost at night on the old 5.2-mile circuit, some recording laps over 10 minutes trying to find the circuit.

The old runway portions of the circuit were nearly impossible to negotiate at night, and many cars wandered aimlessly trying to orient themselves back on the proper line, the raceway says.

To check out the complete list, go to http://www.sebringraceway.com/track-info/sebring-urban-legends

Not tropical enough for the pineapple

Avon Park is known for oranges, but at one time growers tried to plant pineapples in its well-drained, sandy soil until the 1894-’95 freezes put a kibosh to that fledgling industry.

The Avon Park Depot Museum has an exhibit on it titled “Pineapple Was Once King” in Avon Park because growers had high hopes for the tropical fruit, which was grown between rows of citrus and sold for a $1 a piece in the northern markets, said museum director Elaine Levey.

Since it’s a tropical fruit, the pineapple don’t take well to frost, and Florida cultivators were only too aware of that. They tried to come up with “frost-proof” varieties for areas not quite insulated from frost.

The Florida Agriculture, in a 1892 report, mentions one such new, self-proclaimed “frost-proof” pineapple cultivated in Avon Park - the Pabor Lake Pineapple.

It appears around that time, the Avon Park and Pabor Lake region, which is present-day River Green Estates, had about 100 acres devoted to pineapple harvesting.

The name Pabor came from its founder, W. E. Pabor, a journalist, pioneer and poet-laureate, who tried to market the Avon Park area for “pineapple plots” for cultivating the fruit. The allure for the pineapple came for various reasons. Pineapples ripened in two years but citrus trees took five years to produce fruit, Levey said.

Small pineapple plantations were “part of the scenery” in South Florida in the mid 1880s, she said. “At that time, Florida’s major crop was pineapples - not oranges,” she added.

The agricultural journal’s rather grim predications on how “it’s a costly business to actualize tropical dreams in a semi-tropical climate” and how “Avon Park will have her quota of victims” turned out to be true.

Insects, diseases and the freeze of December 1894 and February 1895 devastated the agricultural industry.

The pineapple’s future in Avon Park went to mush with it.

Chamber of commerce as Realtor?

It’s not clear why and to what extent, but one of the groups involved in the establishment of Avon Park Lakes - the subdivision built around Lake Olivia - was the Avon Park Chamber of Commerce.

When Highlands County Historic Preservation Commission member Bill Pollard, who lives in Avon Park Lakes, volunteered to compile a written history of the area, he was not expecting so little to be documented on Avon Park Lakes, he said.

According to conversations he has had with folks, the chamber actually sold lots out of its office, and appears to be involved in some capacity from the late 1950s to the 1970s.

Pollard has come across chamber ads for lots in at least one edition of the Avon Park Sun.

Apparently, at least part of what is now Avon Park Lakes used to be the Touchton Ranch, and old-timers remember trying to fish in Lake Olivia, which was then on private property, before being chased away, Pollard said.

It’s fairly unusual, at least in modern times, for a chamber of commerce to be involved in real-estate deals. Why Avon Park was, Pollard would love to find out.

“There are big holes in here and it’s hard to find stuff,” he said.

There are some things we know.

Buyers had to purchase a minimum of two lots, each one 4,000 square feet, and they sold for $300 each, he said. A few lots were sold in 1956 but they were officially put for sale in early 1957. The Avon Park Lakes Association was formed in 1959, and houses were built from 1957 onward. If homeowners didn’t want to pay the full price, they could put $25 down and $5 per month, one of the ads states. As an added incentive, they could get free deed, free title insurance and exchange privilege.

What’s big in Highlands County school system?

Nearly half of the students in the Highlands County School District’s 12,000-plus students were enrolled in one of 10 elementary schools, a final enrollment count for the 2013-14 school year shows.

Of these campuses, the one with the highest students was Lake Placid Elementary, with 879 kids, followed by Sun ‘n Lake Elementary at 758.

To put it into perspective, their individual student population counts were more than any of the four middle schools, which typically get students from more than one elementary school.

Ironically, Lake Placid High School and Lake Placid Middle School had the fewest students of the three high schools and the middle schools, letting one suppose that if student population growth in the south of the county continues the present trend, enrollment patterns might change over time.

As of June, Sebring High School was the county’s biggest school with 1,500-plus students. At a little less than 400 students, the Kindergarten Learning Center is the smallest county school but it has only one grade.

While students categorized as white continue to lead the student count, with 5,500 students, Hispanic students have out-raced the number of black students and now are close to 3,910.

At the high school level, there are 909 students listed as Hispanics and 1,564 as white. At the elementary school level, however, the gap is much narrower. There are 2,587 white elementary school students. The number of Hispanic students from kindergarten to fifth-grade and some pre-K classes? 2,142, the enrollment count shows.