Category Archives: The Real Florida

A Visit to the Real Lock Tower – Part 2

In last month’s post,  we looked at the history and exterior of Bok Tower in central Florida, which was the inspiration for Lock Tower in Abby Renshaw’s latest adventure. This month, we’ll open the famous sculpted brass door and step inside.

Tower Bronze Door
Photo by Jack Massa

Note: The inside of Bok Tower is generally closed to the public. In this post, we’ve relied on published descriptions, videos, and photos, and provided appropriate credits.

The Founder’s Room

On the ground floor is the Founder’s Room: vaulted ceiling, marble carvings, colored tiles, iron staircase. Abby’s description of the inside of Lock Tower is based in part on these images:

“… this building is light and full of energy—like a living spirit…It looks like a fantastical palace or some elaborate hotel in a steampunk story”

Founders Room
source: https://naturetime.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/florida-inside-beautiful-bok-tower/bok-inside-looking-out-15feb13/

 

Founders Room Stair
Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ykGx6uHKCI&t=109s

 

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ykGx6uHKCI&t=109s
The Many Levels

This page on the official Bok Tower web site describes the levels of the tower interior.

Tower Diagram
Source: https://boktowergardens.org/?da_image=35483

The two levels upstairs from the Founders Room are used for mechanical and workshops. On the fourth level is the Carillon Library. The library contains many of Edward Bok’s writings and also the largest collection of carillon documentation and music in the world.

Carillon Library
Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ykGx6uHKCI&t=109s
The Carillon and Bells

Above the Library level is the carillon studio, including a practice instrument for rehearsals. From there, the carillonneur climbs a spiral stair to the actual cabinet for playing the bells.

Bells in Bok Tower
Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-YFQgC66f4

This video provides a tour of the carillon and let’s you hear some of its music:

The Rooftop

At the climax of Ghosts of Lock Tower, Abby climbs to the parapet for a final confrontation with her evil opponents:

“My footsteps ring and echo on the metal—the black stairs and catwalks that rise into the belfry. The bells of the carillon hang from beams at many levels, some of the bells smaller than me, others enormous. …. The roof is open space except for the fan and the struts that support it, and the parapet, a walkway twelve-feet wide along the edges.”

Top of the tower with Herons
Source: https://www.everydaybythelake.com/touring-bok-tower-gardens/
Tower from Above
Source: the Youtube Video below.

View from the air

This video from 2016 shows a drone flyover of Bok Tower with splendid views of the surrounding landscape:

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this look inside the wonderful Bok Tower. Along with its surrounding gardens, the “Singing Tower” is one of the most unique and fascinating destinations in Florida. If you visit our state, and can tear yourself away from the theme parks and beaches for a few hours, it is well worth the trip.

Ghosts of Lock Tower officially launches October 1. But you can
pre-order the e-book, or buy the paperback, now.

 

A Visit to the Real Lock Tower – Part 1

At last, at last, the third Abby Renshaw Adventure, Ghosts of Lock Tower, is about to be published. The book will be posted for pre-order on Amazon by the middle of August. (Watch the Triskelion Books home page for the announcement.)

In celebration, this month’s post takes you on a visit to the real tower in Florida that was the inspiration for Lock Tower. IRL, it is called Bok Tower. (Names in the novel have been changed for the purpose of making stuff up.)

The Tower and Gardens Today

Bok Tower is located on a tall hill amid beautiful gardens in Lake Wales, Florida.

Bok Tower
Bok Tower, photo by Jack Massa

Abby’s description of Lock Tower in Chapter 1 of the novel mostly applies to Bok Tower as well:

Lock Tower might be the weirdest place in Florida.

I know that’s saying a lot.

But picture this: a pink marble bell tower, 23 stories high, set inside a moat full of goldfish. The tower stands on a hill in the middle of the state, surrounded by acres of flowery grounds with ponds, trails, and a visitor center. They say Emanuel Lock had tons of black soil trucked to the top of this sandy hill so they could plant the gardens. These days the place gets its share of tourists—those willing to drive the back roads to discover “old Florida.”

Moat at Lock Tower
Tower moat with giant koi
Edward Bok and the Gardens

As described on the official Bok Tower Gardens website , the tower and gardens were built in the 1920s by Edward W. Bok.

Mr. Bok, an immigrant to the US from the Netherlands, became a successful magazine publisher and Pulitzer Prize winning author. He wintered in central Florida and was enchanted by the beauty of the area and the vistas offered by Iron Mountain, a hill located near the exact center of the state.

View from Near Lock Tower
View from Bok Tower Gardens

After purchasing the hilltop land, Bok hired famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to lay out the gardens.

Garden Path

Garden Trees
The Master Builders

The tower itself was designed by architect Milton B. Medary, with artwork commissioned from expert sculptors, metalworkers, and tilemakers.

Here are a few images of their work.

Heron Relief

 

Tower Clock

Tower Bronze Door

Bok presented the tower and gardens as a gift to the American people on Feb. 1, 1929.

The Bells

The main feature of the tower is the carillon—a musical instrument consisting of 60 bells and the mechanism to play them. The carillon at Bok Tower is among the largest in North America .

For a taste of carillon music, listen here:

Visiting Bok Tower

As Abby mentions, you can visit Bok Tower Gardens today. Head south from Orlando and get on Route 27. It’s about a 90-minute drive.

Gardens Entrance

While in Lake Wales, you can also visit Spook Hill. (But that is another story.)

But what about the Inside?

In general, the interior of the tower is closed to the public. But, to be honest, gaining access is not quite as rare and difficult as it is for Abby to get inside Lock Tower in the novel.

While visiting Bok Tower a few years back, I was standing beside the moat and thinking about how cool it would be to tour the inside. In that moment, I saw two teenage girls walk across the footbridge as if they owned the place, open the tower door, and walk in.

And that was the inspiration for the opening scene of  Ghosts of Lock Tower.

Next Time

In the next post, we’ll look at the interior of Bok Tower, including some fabulous artwork and the spectacular view from the top. We’ll also hear more carillon music.

A Visit to Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp

In Ghosts of Bliss Bayou, the first book of the Abby Renshaw adventures, Abby is a high school student troubled by nightmares and scary hallucinations.

Trying to figure out the source of these apparitions, Abby visits her grandmother in the small town of Harmony Springs, Florida. There, Abby discovers a history of occult happenings and learns that the town was founded in the late 1800s by spiritualists, including one of her ancestors.

The idea of a small town in rural Florida founded by 19th Century spiritualists came to me after reading about Cassadaga which is—you guessed it—a small town in rural Florida founded by 19th Century spiritualists.

Cassadaga Today

Cassadaga is still a spiritualist center, and visitors are welcome. I toured the place with my wife a year ago, and we had a wonderful time.

The entrance to the camp is located on County Road 4139 not far from DeLand, Florida (in between Orlando and Jacksonville).

Entrance to the Camp
Entrance to the camp. Source: GoogleMaps.

The hotel and visitor center stand on one side of the street. On the other side are shops and psychics offering readings. These are “not affiliated with the spiritualist camp.” Everyone wants to be clear about this.

The Cassadaga Hotel  dates to the 1920s. In addition to hotel rooms, they offer psychic readings and healing sessions. The restaurant is called, oddly enough,“Sinatra’s.” The food on our visit was excellent and the atmosphere was atmospheric.

Sinatra's
Dining room of the Casadaga Hotel.
Lecture

The visitor center has a bookstore and a meeting hall. Here you can attend classes and schedule sessions with mediums and healers. We signed up for a introductory lecture and walking tour.

The lecture was given by a young woman who identified herself as “a first level student of the camp.” She used a slide show and talked for twenty minutes about the history of spiritualism in the 19th Century. She touched on Andrew Jackson Davis, the Fox Sisters,  and George Colby, the man responsible for founding Cassadaga. You can read about Colby and the founding of the camp on their official website, here.

Our lecturer also described the philosophy and belief system of spiritualism as it is still practiced in Cassadaga. She said there was an active portal right in the corner of the lecture hall where a boy and girl spirit came through. She had not met the girl but had met the boy many times.

Walking Tour

Following the lecture, our guide led us outside. As we walked down the road, she talked about the hotel and the different houses and their history.

House in Cassadaga
Houses in Cassadaga

This tree outside one of the houses was carved in memory of a child of one of the original families.

Tree Carving
Tree carved with angel and child

Seances, we learned, were often held in attics. There were special windows built into the houses to allow the spirits to come and go.

Spirit Window
Spirit Window in attic

The tour ended at the temple, which our guide unlocked for us. It is a large auditorium with a stage and interesting pictures along the walls. They hold services here every Sunday.

temple interior
Interior of the Spiritualist Temple
The Fairy Garden

The tour guide also pointed out the Fairy Garden, which had an entrance up the hill and borders a forest. Following the tour, my wife and I walked up there. The energy was somewhat spooky. People had left all sorts of statues, chairs, and shiny baubles.

Fairy Garden
Offerings in the Fairy Garden

We walked in a ways and then felt we should not go farther.

Edge of the Fairy Garden
As far as we went.
Conclusion

If you enjoy off-the-beaten track destinations, and are looking for a little adventure, I can definitely recommend a visit to Cassadaga, Florida.

You can learn more about the Abby Renshaw adventures here.

The Real Mermaids of Weeki Wachee

This month we’re talking a Blog break from discussing the art of the backstory. Instead, we’re visiting one of the most magical places in offbeat Florida, Weeki Wachee, home of the live mermaids.

Where it’s at

Weeki Wachee Springs, now a Florida State Park, is located on Highway 19, about an hour north of Tampa.

Entrance to the park. Photo copyright by Jack Massa.

Weeki Wachee is one of a large number of natural springs in Florida, and one of the deepest.  According to the park website, each day more than 117 million gallons of water gush out of the underground aquifer and form the source of the Weeki Wachee river, which flows 12 miles to empty into the Gulf of Mexico.

At the park, you can take a boat ride on the river, and you can also rent kayaks nearby.

View from the river cruise. Photo copyright 2018 by Jack Massa
History

The real attraction, of course, is the mermaids.

In all began in 1946 with a man named Newton Perry. Perry had trained Navy frogmen during World War II, and also invented a method of breathing underwater from a free-flowing air hose. At the time, the area was pretty much a wilderness and “the spring was full of old rusted refrigerators and abandoned cars.”

Newton Perry, having just helped save the world for democracy, decided that his next mission would be to clean up the natural springs and fill them with live mermaids. (Maybe there really is something to this greatest generation stuff!)

Perry recruited local young women who were good swimmers and trained them to use his breathing device, He also taught them to do water ballet, eat bananas, and drink soda underwater. And he trained them to cope with the very strong current and constantly chilly 74 degree temperature. He installed an 18-seat theater on the shore of the springs, with view windows under the surface.

Source: https://weekiwachee.com/about-us/history/

Newton’s mermaid attraction opened in 1947. In those days, traffic on Highway 19 was scarce. According to the legend, the mermaids would run out to the roadside in their bathing suits when they heard a car coming and beckon the drivers to come in and watch the show.

During the 1950s, Weeki Wachee grew in popularity, and more attractions were added. Celebrities visited, movies were filmed, TV commericals beckoned northerners to “come on down.”

Then, in 1959, the park was bought by media giant ABC (the American Broadcasting Company). More money and more tourists poured in. A new 400-seat theater was built. The Mermaids performed elaborate shows, including Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, and Peter Pan.

Souce: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7lmxhIKd2o

I remember seeing the TV ads as a kid in the early 1960s and dreaming of live mermaids. Then I watched a 1963 episode of the series , Route 66, called The Cruelest Sea. In this episode, our traveling heroes visit Weeki Wachee and meet a girl who might be a real mermaid. Or is she? You can watch the show on YouTube and decide for yourself.

Mermaids Today

Weeki Wachee became part of the Florida State Park system in 2008, and today the mermaids are still going strong.

Sitting in the theater and watching them is really fun and really magical.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jack Massa

So if you always thought mermaids are only a legend, now you know the truth.

Note: If you are planning to visit Weeki Wachee, the mermaids will NOT be performing November 26, 2018–March 15, 2019 due to scheduled renovations at the park.

Sunken Gardens and Sand Paintings

This week, my wife and I visited the Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg.

According to the brochure, the gardens date back to 1903, when George Turner, “a plumber and avid gardener,” purchased and drained a shallow lake, which had filled an ancient sinkhole.  They’re called sunken, because the whole place is 10 to 15 feet below street-level. What a great use for a sinkhole, I must say.

Flamingos at the Sunken Gardens

The gardens are full of streams, ponds, and waterfalls. Along with the Flamingos you can see turtles, parrots, cockatoos and fish. But the real attractions are the trees and tropical plants from all over the world.

This limestone slab was found at the bottom when they drained the lake.

The plaque claims that anyone who sits on the stone is gifted with tranquility, inner harmony, and the talent to make things grow. All new employees of Sunken Garden sit on the stone as part of their orientation. Now that is out-of-the-box talent development, folks.

Naturally, my wife and I took the opportunity to sit on the stone. What happened later might just be a coincidence.

After touring the gardens, we had lunch in downtown St. Petersburg. Walking back to our car, we passed a craft gallery. Inside, four Tibetan Monks were creating a sand painting.

Tibetan Sand Painting (through the window).

We went inside to get a better look. The painting featured a white dove at the center.

The whole experience was one of deep tranquility and inner harmony.

But like I said, it might just be a coincidence.

Old Florida: The Grounds of the Ringling Museum

One of my favorite “Old Florida” spots is the Ringling Museum of Art complex in Sarasota. You can read about how this wonderful place came to be on their official website.

On a nice Saturday in January, I had the chance to tour the gardens…

This pond and statue are near the gate house.

 

A Rainbow Eucalyptus tree showing off its beautiful colored bark.

This is a Bo Tree, under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. Well, not this particular one:

This Banyan grove overlooks Sarasota Bay.

The Gardens are not without their dangers. The Banyan trees, for example, have been known to eat the statues.

…and the Bunya Bunya trees can drop 20 pound “pine cones” on your head.

There are even naked zombie statues lurking in the foliage.

But for the most part, the denizens of the garden are friendly.

…And Mabel Ringling’s Rose Garden is lovely beyond belief:

The Ringlings are buried at the edge of the property. Here, a butterfly is paying her respects.

This lion and sphinx apparently had an argument. I think they are stuck with each other, so hopefully they will make it up.

The courtyard of the art museum. The reproduction of Michelangelo’s David  is used on the logo of Sarasota County.

A Visit to Harmony Springs 2 – Downtown

In Ghosts of Bliss Bayou, Harmony Springs is a small town in Florida with an occult history dating back to the late 1800s. This idea was based on several places in Florida, which were actually founded as spiritual or Utopian communities— including Ruskin, Estero, and Cassadaga.

But the inspiration for how downtown Harmony Springs looks came from visiting another old Florida town, Micanopy. This post has some pictures taken in Micanopy, to give you the flavor.

Early in the book, Abby describes looking at the town on Google Earth.

…The historic downtown looks exactly the same, and it’s amazing—a few blocks of old shops and commercial buildings, the streets lined with huge, twisted oak trees draped in moss. And Victorian houses with wraparound porches and pointed turrets. The street-level pictures make me all warm and nostalgic. I feel this ridiculous yearning to be there.

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In a later chapter, Abby is walking downtown on her first morning in Harmony Springs.

While yesterday was overcast and humid, today is hot and dry. Sunlight filters through the oak leaves and casts wavy shadows on the ancient, broken sidewalks. The buildings and overgrown yards all look like they haven’t changed in a hundred years—not since the time of Annie Renshaw. But the modern world is also right in my face: cars and pickup trucks driving by, advertisements in the shop windows for the theme parks in Orlando…

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This, by the way, is the Herlong Mansion in Micanopy, now a bed and breakfast. Some sources claim it is haunted.

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Late in the story, Abby and her friend Molly sneak into the town’s historic cemetery at midnight.

We cruise down a winding path of hard-packed sand and crushed dead leaves, past gravestones and monuments, some well-tended, some overgrown. Black branches reach over us like twisted fingers. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I can sense all the spirits sleeping around us.

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