by Chuck Seaver, South Lake Tablet
Clermont remained a sleepy little town in 1952 with plenty of available vacant land that led some to dream big and sharpen their entrepreneurial abilities. Dreams became reality for A.W. Thacker when he purchased land on both the east and west sides of US-27 and what is now called Grand Highway. Land was $10.00 an acre at the time. It was a time when US-27, a two-lane highway, was considered the Main Street of Florida.
Thacker bought the land intending to build the first Motel that Clermont had known in the town limits. Hotels in the Clermont area were mostly located in the original downtown section of Clermont and had on-site restaurants.
Thacker was also planning what would later become the Citrus Tower. The original idea was born with the urging of friends to build an observation tower similar to that of the fire watch towers that were common in Central Florida at the time. Thacker climbed a tall pine tree that was located on the property to catch a glimpse of what that view would be like from the treetop. “I remember Dad descending from the tree with misty eyes,” says Will Thacker, the elder Thacker’s son.  “He claimed that he had something in his eyes but I’m sure that the view is what teared him up,” says Will, who was seven years old at the time.  The elder Thacker commented that “the rows of orange trees, and how they were placed in perfect lines, adorned the surrounding hills and slopes leading down to Jack’s Lake and as far as the eye could see.”

The spark had been ignited and plans to build both a motel and the Citrus Tower continued. The motel, later named the Skyline Motel, 190 North US-27, would be located at the southwest corner of Grand Highway and US-27. Scrub oaks and pine trees were cleared from both properties to allow the planting of watermelons. Thacker intended to grow and sell watermelons to raise money for the construction cost of both projects. “The plan was successful, and enough funds were raised to begin the building project of the motel,” says Will. The motel would be the only motel located on US-27 between Leesburg and Haines City.
The Thacker family lived in a trailer that was on the motel site during construction. The younger Thacker remembers the steel being delivered from Konsler Steel, Clermont, by the truckloads for both the Citrus Tower and some of the cottages. “George Cole was a foreman with Konsler Steel and helped immensely with the Tower project,” says Will.

Construction was soon complete with eight cottages total. Each cottage contained two motel rooms that were complete with air-conditioning and television, a trend that had not yet caught on with many motel chains. The room rate was $6.00 a night with a lower rate for the cottages close to US-27. The property contained a small fishpond that many guests mistook for a swimming pool. “That pond had algae and water plants all over it most of the time. I’m not sure how anyone mistook it for a swimming pool,” says Will. The property later acquired a swimming pool, believed to be in the early 1970’s, while under different ownership.

“The lack of a restaurant on premises did not seem to be a problem for guests,” says Will. “We simply directed them to the Lakes and Hills Restaurant in Minneola, owned by Matt and Betty Matz. The restaurant was well known by locals for its Florida citrus fruit pies and home-style cooking.”

Many of the Citrus Tower contractors lodged at the Skyline Motel while the Tower was being constructed. One such contractor was Thomas Russell, an architect who was also one of the lead architects in 1930 on the Empire State Building project in New York City, New York. Other notable names that lodged at the Skyline Motel were Stan Laurel from the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. Jack Linkletter, son of Art Linkletter, hosted a traveling daytime variety show titled “On the Go.” The show hosted a Grand Ole Opry performance at the Citrus Tower for guests of the tower and locals alike.

Although business “couldn’t have been better,” according to Will, the family decided to sell the motel in 1959 to begin new endeavors. The motel remained open and entertained several different owners through the early 2000s. The construction of the Florida Turnpike and Interstate 4 diverted most tourist traffic away from US-27 over the years. This traffic plan brought with it the demise of many family-owned businesses along the US-27 corridor.  In 2005, a convenience store-style service station replaced the motel. Currently, the location is occupied by BP, a British multinational oil and gas company headquartered in London, England.

Will, who has since moved from the Clermont area, cherishes childhood memories while residing on the motel property and “old Clermont.” Memories that include a visit back to the motel and watching dozens of United States military semi-trucks loaded with military weapons traveling south on US-27 during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

“It’s hard to believe how much our little town has changed over the years,” says Will. A sentiment that many Clermont natives share as generations of history and landmarks fade away to new growth and population expansion.

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