Painting their town

A Lake Placid couple want to share their adopted home's history with you.

Published May 26, 2007

LAKE PLACID - Not long ago, I was driving through Central Florida on U.S. 27 - another busy, boring, generic road much like every other busy, boring, generic road in our state, with its car lots and Wal-Marts and McDonald's.

Suddenly, up ahead, I saw a diamond in this Florida rough: the Sistine Chapel of Winn-Dixies. Somebody with a great deal of ambition and paint had created an enormous cattle-ranching mural on the supermarket's side wall.

Cowboys! Steers with big horns! Lassos! Talk about the beef people: When I got close to the painting, I even heard whips cracking and cows lowing from some strategically placed speakers.

That's how I found out about a civic-minded couple, Bob and Harriet Porter, and the murals of Lake Placid, population 1, 700, in Highlands County.

Fifteen years ago, the former Pennsylvanians began turning their town into an art gallery, arranging for artists to dress up drab buildings with fancy murals that celebrate everything from Central Florida's cowboy heritage to its bass fishing.

"Some people who move to Florida never quite establish a sense of place, " Harriet told me. "That wasn't the case for us. We found Florida very interesting and we wanted to share our interest with others."

The Porters, who are in their 70s, often start sentences with "Do you know?" and proceed to share what they have learned about scrub jays and alligators and even a bank robbery that took place a half-century ago.

"Do you know that our area has one of the biggest bear populations in the state?" Bob asked.

I did, but I buttoned my lip. It was better just to follow the Porters to the mural called The Lost Bear Cub, which an artist named Terry Smith had painted on the side of Tony's Barber Shop on E Interlake Boulevard.

The mural, 46 feet wide and 14 feet high, pictured a chubby bear ambling toward the palmettos. Her cub, alas, was raiding a beehive.

"Hear that?" Bob asked. "Hear that?" is another question the Porters like to ask.

I heard angry bees buzzing out of the hive. I heard Mama bear growling. The murals of Lake Placid often are accompanied by sound.

The Porters got their inspiration during a trip to Vancouver Island, where they drove through a little town, Chemainus, famous for its murals.

"People thought we were nutty at first, " Bob says.

The Porters knew that taxpayers were not going to pick up the expensive tab. They solicited donations and held fundraisers that continue to this day. Well-known regional artists, including Guy LaBree and Dean Quigley, have painted 39 large history-telling murals and 50 smaller murals that celebrate bird and animal life all over the charming town. Others are in the works.

Lake Placid is not Disney World, but it is a kind of Magic Kingdom. Once you arrive, it's free.

For information, call (863) 465-2394 or e-mail bhporter@htn.com. The Web address is murals.htn.net.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com.