Florida History: Ghosts, car races and more in Sebring

Eliot Kleinberg
Palm Beach Post
A young woman stands near "the Orange Blossom Special" train at railroad depot - Sebring, Florida.

Readers: For years, people checking in at Sebring's Kenilworth Lodge hotel would have been surprised to see Mr. Parker at the front desk. That's because he was dead.

The former manager had died in the 1950s at the historic hotel. It is said his ghost haunted the third floor of the north wing. The hotel itself has become a phantom, at least for now; it was shut down in 2016 because of fire code violations and remains dormant.

But the town is most famous for something louder: car racing.

George Sebring, of Ohio, laid out the town on the east shore of Lake Jackson, designing it in the pattern of the ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis (city of the sun), with streets radiating from a central park site.

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Both tourists and land speculators were attracted by the hills, lakes and pristine rural countryside and, perhaps most important, real estate prices far lower than those for the more famous coastal cities.

Guests rode the Orange Blossom Special train from the northeast to Central Florida. They played golf, strolled through its orange grove, crossed Lake Jackson in sailboats and motor launches, and fished and hunted in the surrounding wilderness.

Sebring's downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It features tree-lined streets, canopied storefronts and antique lamp posts.

A little out of town, thousands pack the 3.7-mile track at Sebring International Raceway in March, for "The 12 Hours of Sebring,'' the track's centerpiece event and America's oldest race for sports cars, which lures the race world's stars and drawing more than 90,000 fans per four-day weekend.

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When the Hendricks Field military air base in Sebring was deactivated in 1946, it became a municipal airport. But local race organizers saw potential in its snaking access roads. They spent a year assembling rules, planning for safety and preparing for crowd control.

The first race was held on New Year's Eve, 1950. It was the nation's first endurance race. A local service organization set up the course for a 6-hour event witnessed by about 3,000 fans.

This year, the big race, like every place else, was affected by coronavirus. It was moved from March to November.

Next week: The Lonely Hearts murder

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READER REWIND: Everyone has their own piece of Florida history. Share yours with us by leaving a voicemail at (850) 270-8418.

From a Reader: Hello Mr. Kleinberg, your column about the Cross Florida Barge canal, brought back a funny story I heard from my father. I was born and raised in Tampa, as were my parents, so they were very aware of the issues of the canal. However, according to my father, someone wrote in the paper, concerned that “once the canal was completed, what would keep the bottom half of Florida from floating away?” Their answer was “the bridge will keep it together.” Thanks for your column. I look forward to it each week. Darlene G., Port Charlotte

Eliot Kleinberg has been a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and is the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Florida Time is a product of GateHouse Media and publishes online in their 22 Florida markets including Jacksonville, Fort Walton Beach, Daytona Beach, Lakeland, Sarasota and West Palm Beach. Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.