Gentle, warm days and cool, pleasant evenings—January in Central Florida can bring weather that makes August a damp memory. This is the time of year when, long before air-conditioning, Northerners sought winter respite in the Sunshine State.
It's a time to get out in the open and walk on pine-needle paths, which is just what Edward Bok did in the 1920s at his winter home near Lake Wales, in the heart of Florida's rolling highlands.
Bok's sojourns often took him across Iron Mountain, the highest spot in peninsular Florida, where he could see the sunsets across a lake below.
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The 298-foot hill was a sandy knob, but within 10 years, with the help of America's premier landscape architects and designers, Bok had transformed it into a place he declared "the most beautiful spot in America."
This year on Feb. 1 and 2, music from that spot, Bok Tower Gardens, will sound through the Florida winter air in carillon recitals to honor Bok and mark the 85th anniversary of his creation. Bok died on Jan. 9, 1930, not far from his "singing tower."
In his lifetime, Bok was an influential editor, prize-winning author, philanthropist and civic leader who counted presidents among his friends.
But it's likely that the garden sanctuary he carved out of Florida's sand is his greatest legacy—a place where generations of Floridians have ventured on winter day trips, often with Up North visitors in tow. Today, it's a National Historic Landmark.
Dutch boy in Brooklyn
Bok chronicled his immigrant rags-to-riches story in his Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, "The Americanization of Edward Bok (1921). In its pages, he described how he came from the Netherlands with his family to Brooklyn, N.Y., at the age of 6.
"Here," he wrote, "was a little Dutch boy unceremoniously set down in America, unable to make himself understood or even to know what persons were saying; his education was extremely limited, practically negligible.
"And yet, through some curious decree of fate, he was destined to write, for a period of years, to the largest body of readers ever addressed [at that time] by an American editor."
It was more than fate, of course, that gained Bok his success. Starting as a schoolboy, he pursued a correspondence with inspirational and famous figures of the day , and eventually counted among his friends luminaries including Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
A Western Union office boy at 13, he became a magazine writer and editor in his teens before taking the helm of the Ladies' Home Journal in his late 20s. Under his 30-year editorship, it became the first national publication to exceed a million subscribers.
A major cultural force
During these years, from 1889 to 1919, the Journal was a major cultural force in the United States, guiding the country's households from a world of agriculture and homemade goods to one of industry and buy-it-now culture.
Bok acquired a fortune, but money wasn't the driving force of his life. When he walked over Iron Mountain near his Florida retreat, his thoughts turned to the many people back home in the Northeast who exhausted themselves in "the clatter of the cities and the strife of the mart," he wrote later.
As he watched the sun set from Iron Mountain while the paler moon rose in the eastern sky, these words came to him: "I come here to find myself; it is so easy to get lost in the world."
Thus, in the gentle quiet of the setting sun, Bok envisioned the mountain as a sanctuary both for the birds -- "the tired little singers of the sky," Bok called them -- and also for the "pent-up humans of the Earth."
Bok's beautiful tower was dedicated on Feb. 1, 1929, by President Calvin Coolidge. For more on Bok Tower Gardens' 85th anniversary events, including a new historical timeline and exhibit, visit boktowergardens.org or call 863-676-1408.