Clewiston boasts America’s sweetest tour, too

CLEWISTON — In case you didn’t know it, this little town stands proudly among a bunch of great American cities, maybe not shoulder-to-shoulder, but still …

Lots of prominent U.S. metropolises have their own singular claims to historical fame (or many of them), and special guided tours educate curious visitors about those identities, capitalizing on their reputation. Detroit’s history is interlaced with that of the automobile. In Los Angeles/Hollywood, think Avenue of the Stars — movies and entertainment. Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Seattle all have multiple world-class exhibitions, festivals, museums and parks, tours of their stockyards, pier-front markets, river or lakefronts, soaring or historical architecture, high finance and theater — Wall Street and Broadway, the Miracle Mile, Michigan Street. In Pittsburgh, steel is star. Milwaukee and St. Louis are known for their breweries.

There’s tiny Hershey, Pa., famed for its Hershey’s Chocolate Tour, certainly a good example of an iconic American business story and the town that grew up around it.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
A Raisin’ Cane Tour gave their guest a four and a half hour tour of the City of Clewiston’s history.

Clewiston in big leagues
Well, Clewiston’s unique history, you could say, helped contribute to the success of that last little city among the greats because the famous product of “America’s Sweetest Town” was a key ingredient in Hershey’s chocolate-covered history. And the Raisin’ Cane Tours, which are conducted through a partnership between the Florida Sugarcane League and the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce, put Clewiston in their league as well.
These 4 1/2-hour tours are the best way to learn about how the City of Clewiston’s history was shaped by sugar barons and agricultural entrepreneurs and how its commerce and small-town success today are largely dependent upon their legacy and foresight in implementing sustainability practices, best management practices that have become an example of environmental safeguarding for the world.

Of course, lots of other industries also helped make Clewiston what it is today — cattle ranching, drainage engineering, lots of citrus and vegetable farming, land speculation, railroading — but none has had the impact on the town and its people like U.S. Sugar. Way back when, it seems, most of those business interests started out all tied in together, happening simultaneously through partnerships of like-minded businessmen. But none of those have inspired their own ecotour; the sugarland tour has been going on for years.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Tour guide Bobby Pearce took guests to an actual sugarcane
farm during the height of harvest activities.

Historical figures highlighted
The businesspeople behind Clewiston’s success are a major focus of the Raisin’ Cane Tours, also known as the Sugarland Tours. Many names are thrown out: John O’Brien and Alonzo Clewis (the town’s original developers); Charles Stewart Mott (founder of U.S. Sugar Corp.); Ernest Graham (Gov./U.S. Sen. Bob Graham’s grandfather and owner of the Pennsylvania Sugar Corp., or Pennsucco, whose holdings and plant in Hialeah were absorbed into USSC during the Great Depression); and several others.
The Sugarland Express bus that is used, seating exactly 24 people plus the driver, puts on a lot of miles during these tours. They start at the chamber/museum building; take guests to an actual sugarcane farm during the height of harvest activities and pass through while all phases are in operation (field burning, automated mechanical harvesting, loading and transportation to the mill); then visit that world-renowned plant, the biggest vertically integrated sugarcane milling and refining facility on the planet. From there the tour bus proceeds past company vegetable fields (cabbage, green bean and sweet corn, to name a few) and citrus groves, too (the ones that remain) to U.S. Sugar’s wholly owned subsidiary, the Southern Gardens Citrus processing plant near Clewiston, which is another huge, very impressive facility. It ends up swinging by the stately, formerly lakefront homes of some of those pioneers and visiting the Herbert Hoover Dike.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Tour guests visited the Clewiston Museum under the direction of their tour guide.

Tons of information
Thanks to tour guide Bobby Pearce, nobody gets through a Raisin’ Cane Tour without coming away approximately 100 percent better informed about how humans’ sweet tooth is satisfied in the most basic way, with sucrose, by the nearly century-old company with the largest sugar refinery ever built. And no one ever gets lost, or included by mistake, because …

Mr. Pearce makes sure he knows exactly how many people are in every group so he doesn’t lose anyone; the way he said it, we weren’t sure whether he was kidding. After our group was escorted into the small theater inside the museum/chamber building on Wednesday morning, March 6, a woman wandered in.

He gently asked her, “Ma’am, are you on the Sugarland Tour? Did you come in on the big bus?” She said, “Yes” and Mr. Pearce goes, “Oh, you came on the BIG bus. You CAME on the big bus. You’re not on this tour here,” he informed her.

“I did, but I heard you say ‘Follow me’ so I did,” she said. (He was talking to tour group members as we were making our way through the museum.) The exactly two dozen people tittered quietly as he said, “Ah, I see, well if you were on the biiiiig bus, you are not with us.”

She left the room a bit crestfallen while in the small auditorium, a roughly 12-minute film began, introducing us to the town’s history through old newsreel footage, photographs and video with narration. Then we embarked on the bus tour, during which enough information is shared to make one’s head explode. That woman had no idea what she was missing!

Mr. Pearce told us not to worry, though — that if any of us got separated along the way, he’d just pick up someone on the way back into town so he’d have 24 when he returned and wouldn’t get in any trouble. His humor was a blessing on the long tour, as were the stops where we could enjoy the fresh air and perfect, “Chamber of Commerce weather.”

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com.

The Lake Okeechobee News is published every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and now includes news from around the lake every Wednesday.

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