I’m sitting on a tour bus in the middle of a sugarcane field in Clewiston, 60 miles east of Fort Myers, on the edge of Lake Okeechobee. There’s a Canadian farmer in the seat next to me and everyone else on the bus—except our guide and driver, Bobby—seems to be from the Midwest.
“Looks like corn,” they keep saying as we drive up and down the rows of cane.
I don’t tell anyone that my grandparents lived in Clewiston, that my mother was born here, that I spent summers barefoot in the yards we’ve just driven past. After all, on this day trip, I’m discovering the place just like they are.
“You all ready to try some sugarcane?” Bobby asks as he parks the bus on a dirt road.
Our entire group gives an enthusiastic, “Yes.”
“Well, come on then,” he says, stepping off the bus.
Clewiston is easy to overlook if you’re crossing the state, just a minor dot on the map between Fort Myers and West Palm Beach. But don’t be too quick to dismiss the place. In many ways, Clewiston is a microcosm of Florida itself with a history of competing interests among development, agriculture and the environment.
The town was founded in 1920 during the Florida land boom and was intended to be a waterfront community. Northern planners came in and laid out the streets in fine European fashion. The Okeechobee—from the Seminole word for “big water”—seemed to stretch as wide as the Gulf of Mexico. Its waters lapped against sand beaches, and the area looked exactly right for development. But successive hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 caused the lake to flood and killed more than 4,000 people. The Army Corps of Engineers eventually built a dike, but by then the plans for a lakefront community had evaporated.
Soon, growers discovered that the area was well-suited to sugarcane and Clewiston became an agricultural town. U.S. Sugar Corp. set up headquarters and employed many of the town’s residents. Over time, ecologists began to question the environmental impact of the sugarcane fields, and tensions rose between the agriculture industry and those interested in preserving the wetlands that feed into the Everglades.
It’s a lot going on in a place that calls itself “America’s Sweetest Town.”
In the cane field, we troop after Bobby and mill around the dirt road as he walks to the edge of a row and chops down two stalks of sugarcane. The first he lops into footlong segments that he hands out, calling them “souvenirs.” The man next to me looks his over before taking a tentative nibble from one end.
“How’s it taste?” I ask.
“Like dirt,” he says.
Another man tries to take a bite, and I do, too. We stand around chewing on the stalks like a bunch of pandas until one woman says, “Bobby’s going to peel us some to eat. Those are just to take home.”
We sheepishly look at the batons in our hands.
“I hope it tastes better than this,” the man next to me says.
Bobby peels and slices the second stalk of cane into 1-inch cubes.
“Put this in your mouth like chewing gum,” he says as he hands them out. “Don’t swallow it. Otherwise you’ll get your fiber for the week.”
I take the cube he gives me and place it in my mouth. It’s fibrous and gritty between my teeth, and the juice has a surprising green sweetness unlike sugar. After I work it over, I spit out the fibers. The whole group of us stands on the dirt road and chews and spits. The Midwesterners, I think, are getting the hang of it.
From the sugarcane field we explore the other highlights of Clewiston—the Hoover Dike that borders the Okeechobee, the citrus processing plant and the sugar mill. At the very end of the tour, we drive into a warehouse with a mountain of sugar three stories tall. From the cane fields to here, it’s been quite a journey.
If you go…
• The Clewiston Chamber of Commerce runs its Sugarland Tours October through March. Tickets cost $38 per person, and the tour lasts about three hours. Call in advance to book your spot, as the tours aren’t scheduled regularly. 109 Central Ave., (863) 983-7979
• The tour starts at the Clewiston Museum, and you’ll want to make sure you leave yourself enough time to explore the historical exhibits. Especially interesting? The information on the British Royal Air Force training base outside Clewiston during World War II.
• If you make the drive to Clewiston, you might as well stay for lunch. Try stopping in at the Tiki Bar and Grill after your tour. That’s where my group headed. 920 E. Del Monte Ave., (863) 983-3151