The City of Oaks: LaBelle Florida

Jun 01, 16 The City of Oaks:  LaBelle Florida

By Nancy Dale

The Heart of old Florida is revived beneath the ancient shady oaks in the “City of Oaks,” LaBelle, Florida.

Traveling a short jog off  U.S. 27 north onto State Road 29 West, it’s like gradually lifting a shadowed veil of history and rediscovering the roots of over 200 years of Florida’s cultural heritage.  This short travel distance back in time re-lives the story of the pioneer spirit preserved in the beautiful town of LaBelle, Florida, population 4,588 (2013).

The community leaders of LaBelle have refurbished many old structures that give new life to the “way it was” in the 1800s such as the building that houses the LaBelle Heritage Museum. The Museum maintains a large collection of local artifacts and documents reflecting an appreciation of the traditional lifestyle of early settlers.  Traveling further west on State Road 29 through downtown, LaBelle borders the natural beauty of the Caloosahatchee River where visitors can walk, canoe, kayak by day or under the dark night skies displaying a blanket of stars where the only sound heard is “silence.”

Brad Murray, co-owner of LaBelle Ranch Supply

Brad Murray, co-owner of LaBelle Ranch Supply

Appreciation of the traditions live in LaBelle through natural preserves such as Barron Park on the River by the bridge and other planned preserves postured on the edge of the Lake Wales Ridge that runs more than 200 miles through the spine of Florida.  After the last Ice Age more than 11,000 years ago, Hendry County sported an ancient beach when the sea level fluctuated and the Florida peninsula arose from the bottom of the sea.

Closer to the present time, in the 1800’s after three Seminole Indian Wars, new pioneer “cow hunters” began to settle in Central Florida.  The “adventurers” gathered their cow herds, packed up their families in covered wagons and headed south through rugged Wild Florida.  As cattle rancher Dewey Fusell, whose family settled in the Green Swamp (Polk County) remembers, “my great, granddaddy told me “little baby Lewis had to learn to walk all over again when he climbed out of the wagon through nothing but swamp and high water.”

La Belle is old Florida at its best.  Visitors can experience those early days in the successful shops of family businesses that line State Road 29, such as the Harold P. Curtis Honey House, who started the family business in 1945, one of the first in the town.  Down the street there are more shops of interest.  The old antique shop is an inviting place where visitors can browse for lost treasures to add to their own environment, dine across the street at the famed Flora and Ella’s Restaurant or walk around the corner to the Bridge Street Coffee and Tea House for an after dinner delight.

Traveling further west, St. Rd. 29 dead ends into the historic Hendry County Court House built in 1926 in the Mediterranean-Revival style by Edward Hosful where justice is still today reckoned and laws enforced, unlike the old days of Wild Florida and Bone Mizell in the turbulent days of the 1800’s range wars when justice was meted out by the toughest “cow hunter” protecting his family, herd, and property from cattle rustlers.. (In the 1800’s, cattle ranchers were called “cow hunters” as they had to gather up their cows for long cattle drives to coastal markets by pulling them out of swamps, palmettos, and shrubs).

Today one of the biggest and most successful events in LaBelle is the Swamp Cabbage Festival celebrating its 50th year in February.  The event attracts visitors the world over.  There are vendors making swamp cabbage, other foods, and the excitement of the traditional armadillo races.  The festival also offers an opportunity to take a rustic boat cruise down the Caloosahatchee River.  It is a huge celebration!

LaBelle is a unique community established by Captain Francis A. Hendry when in 1889 the new settlement became “LaBelle” by combining the two first names of Hendry’s sisters into the name of the community.” Many families in LaBelle, who set down roots in the once rugged land, stayed for many generations and today grew the community into a thriving lifestyle and land based economy of cattle and agriculture.

Outside terrace of The Quart House.  New Restaurant in Labelle.

Outside terrace of The Quart House.
New Restaurant in Labelle.

As cattle ranching is still prime in Hendry County, one long time business, LaBelle Ranch Supply owned by father and son, Brad and Rodney Murray, stock boots, saddles, feed, animal medicine, rifles and handguns, “cow hunter” books along with a display of cowboy hats along the walls collected from local pioneer “cow hunters.”  Brad Murray, graduate of LaBelle High School and Embry Riddle, whose scholarship fostered his plunge into Professional Baseball as a Pitcher with the Chicago White Socks, eventually came back home to LaBelle and with his dad bought the present store.

For entertainment, food, and family fun, one of the most unique new restaurants, The Quart House, recently opened at the old location of the famous Long Branch Saloon, offering a lengthy choice of selections for lunch and dinner serving beer, wine, green tea, other beverages and providing a unique dining experience.  Bryan Beer and Executive Chef, Matt Germain teamed-up in 1965 to pursue a joint venture and become restaurant proprietors.  What is unique about the The Quart House food is Chef Germain’s wide variety of organic dishes he created made with locally grown vegetables served in a variety of tasty dishes.  One of the specialty offerings on the large raw food salad bar are the delicious “cucamelons,” a small cucumber.  There is also organic bok Choy, duck eggs, beets and a special Protein Platter with burger or grilled chicken breast, brussel sprouts and locally grown collard greens, topped with a fried egg.  The Chef also creates other traditional dishes such as Angus steak, blackened chicken salad, “\Angry shrimp” and a classic Quart House burger with a selection of toppings.

Grandkids stiitting on owner Bryan Beer’s. Yellow shirt Jackson Beer and friend Mason Cockran

Grandkids stiitting on owner Bryan Beer’s. Yellow shirt Jackson Beer and friend Mason Cockran

Visitors can eat inside or out on the large front terrace and order take-out at the drive-through window.   Friday’s locals gather in the fresh air on the terrace to socialize and enjoy the musical entertainment of Randy Cormier from 6:30-9:30 p.m. along with an offering of Sushi rolls. The Quart House is open 6 days a week, 11-9 Monday-Sat. and Sunday, 10-3 p.m. Phone:  674-7141

Chef Matt Germain at salad bar with visitors.

Chef Matt Germain at salad bar with visitors.

The LaBelle community is a small town, stretching to grow into the future supporting local businesses, educational opportunities at Florida Southwestern State College, sports, good food and fun.  As Mayor Lyons says, “LaBelle has many small businesses in the LaBelle Chamber of Commerce and we invite everyone to discover Old Florida here where the beautiful Caloosahatchee River meets Old Florida under the oaks.  I am fortunate and blessed to live in LaBelle.”

Nancy Dale is the author of the true stories of the Florida pioneer “cow hunters” in 5 published books.  www.nancydalephd.com

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