FELLSMERE, Fla. – There are more orange groves and cattle than residents in this cozy rural town an hour from Orlando. It’s a place where folks talk business, while chowing down on alligator tail, in a local restaurant that’s something of an unofficial museum, and where 80,000 people show up for the world’s largest frog leg festival.
Founded in 1911, Fellsmere’s muck land was turned into a sugarcane town by investors from New York. It’s still an agricultural community, with farms raising everything from arugula to shrimp and organic turkey, and a population of about 5,300 on 44 square miles.
It’s an easy stop off Interstate 95 at exit 156, about 95 miles south of Orlando’s tourist attractions and 150 miles north of party-town Miami.
Located about 20 minutes inland from Florida’s east coast, Fellsmere is also at the headwaters of the St. John’s River, and six airboat tours operate here year-round, offering trips on Blue Cypress Lake and other waterways.
But Fellsmere’s biggest claim to fame is frog legs. The Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival, held each January, started in 1990 serving 400 dinners, using local frogs, a traditional Old Florida specialty. These days, though, the festival serves 5,000 pounds of frog legs in four days.
Other times of year if you’re looking for a meal, choices include the Fellsmere Bar & Grill, affectionately known as the Sugar Shack by locals, and Marsh Landing, where local fried frog legs are always on the menu – along with a fried green tomato BLT sandwich.
The restaurant, which also sells pickled okra and vinegar hot peppers in mason jars, invites guests to experience the cuisine and history of Old Florida. It’s like dining in a museum, boasts its Facebook page. Historical documents and photos line the walls next to a stuffed alligator and rustic farming tools. Every table features newspaper clippings from the early 1900s.
The elegant building that houses Marsh Landing was built in 1926 but had been boarded up for decades when Fran Adams bought it at auction. After restoring the building, she and her daughter Susan opened the restaurant in 2002. Today the restaurant attracts professionals from nearby towns along with local movers and shakers who can talk business while dining on alligator tail or catfish.
We always laugh and say if you go to Marsh Landing and did something, but no one says anything, then you got away with it, said Susan Adams, who’s also Fellsmere’s mayor.