Illustration by Mark Wilson
Lake Placid is the most wonderful town in the world,” says Giggles. “The people here are so friendly and giving—talking about it, I get tears in my eyes.” The 78-year-old, aka Sandy Pelski, graduated from the first clown class at Toby’s Clown Foundation and School, in Lake Placid, three decades ago. Today, and more than 1,000 graduates later, she’s an instructor there, teaching future clowns magic, pie-throwing, face-painting and how to make massive bubbles. “It’s just so rewarding,” she says.
Giggles and her colleagues—Silly Willy, Supercute and String Bean, among others—often take Lake Placid walkabouts. In full makeup and clown attire, they step, some of them in oversized shoes, into the Winn–Dixie and other places in the community, chatting with locals as well as sightseers visiting Lake Placid, voted the Most Interesting Town in America by Reader’s Digest.
That designation is, in part, because of the town’s Caladium Festival. For a weekend each July, folks come from all over to see fields of ornamental leafy plants that stretch on and on, like candy-colored bowling lanes. Because 98 percent of the global supply of caladium tubers now come from Lake Placid—the plant, also called elephant ear and heart of Jesus, is native to Central and South America—the town is known as the Caladium Capital of the World. Festival attendees buy tubers or potted plants, mingle with crafters, check out vintage cars and motorbikes, and line up for Giggles and friends’ face-painting booth.
Lake Placid’s caladiums and its clown population—more per capita than anywhere in the country—give Jennifer Bush, executive director of the Greater Lake Placid Chamber of Commerce, plenty to talk about, but she says it’s the 40-plus murals painted around town that bring tens of thousands of tourists each year.
“In the late 1980s and early ’90s a lot of businesses closed and this was a sleepy town,” she says. Then, in 1992, the Lake Placid Mural Society was launched. Locals Harriet and Bob Porter, while on a motorcycle tour, stopped in a town in British Columbia that was covered in murals. They thought something like that could bring Lake Placid back to life—and it worked. Now Lake Placid is America’s Town of Murals, each one depicting local history and flora and fauna. In The Cracker Trail Cattle Drive, cowmen drive their animals through Lake Placid to market on a precarious trail, long before there were roads across the state. Another, The Tropical State Bank Robbery, shows Lake Placid’s first attempted bank robbery, in 1931, when 10-year-old Grady Parrish foiled two suspicious men in wigs.
The chamber’s Jennifer Bush has lived in Lake Placid for 34 years and says it still feels like “The Andy Griffith Show, where everyone waves at you, everyone knows everybody.” The town’s year-round population of 2,500 or so is scattered across a region that includes 29 lakes. There’s swimming, boating and tubing on Lake Mirror, as well as most other lakes here, but “alligators can be found in all bodies of water,” she says.
Which comes as a surprise to those who mistakenly call the chamber, looking for another Lake Placid. “At least every day when I pick up the phone, I hear, ‘We’re coming up this weekend,’ or ‘Are the sled dogs running?’ and I know immediately they’re talking about the Lake Placid in New York. I think it’s great,” says Bush. “It gives me a chance to talk about this town.”
That sometimes means mentioning Melvil Dewey, who, in addition to establishing the Dewey Decimal System, started the Lake Placid Club in the Adirondacks in 1895. His exclusive resort dominated the little mountain community in North Elba, where clubhouses and winter sports became a centerpiece. In 1925, while searching for a warm-weather location for a sister resort, Dewey discovered Lake Stearns in south-central Florida. Eventually, he convinced the state legislature to change the name of the town to Lake Placid, just like the village 1,500 miles to the north.
According to the Lake Placid Historical Society’s Maria Hagg, Dewey was instrumental in bringing passenger service to this remote stretch of Florida, building a depot along the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad to ease travel to his new, sprawling Litl Loj resort. That, of course, is depicted in a mural of the man himself, holding a map, a train chugging behind him. Dewey died here in 1931, says Hagg, but he’s “buried up there with y’all.”
Giggles says, “I don’t know what Lake Placid up there is like, but I will be here on the lake until my dying days, clowning and being with family. I never want to live anyplace else.”