Panama Jones and the Town of Clarita

By Reed Boettcher   

      Nestled in the farmland of Coal County is the quiet town of Clarita.  For many, the town is known for hosting the Amish School auction every September, but for Winston Rice it’s known as home.  It’s said home is where the heart is. This must be true, for Rice has spent the last couple of decades pouring his heart and soul into restoring his hometown.  Some might see Clarita as the town time forgot.  After all, it isn’t uncommon to see a horse drawn carriage when passing through the area.  As for Rice, he sees Clarita as a town rich in culture with the capacity of sustaining independent businesses.      
    Winston Rice is a nostalgic visionary who isn’t afraid of tackling big projects.  Looking for adventure, Rice followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the military.  While in the Army, Rice went to Jump School and Parachute Rigger School where he became a Paratrooper.  After being stationed in France and Germany he re-enlisted and was assigned to an airborne unit in Panama.  Rice served three tours of duty in Panama as a Paratrooper.  In his off time he sought out adventures such as: scuba diving, trekking across the isthmus, fishing, searching for artifacts, and exploring the many nooks and crannies of Panama. During such explorations is where he first met the Embera Indians of the Darien Region. His intrigue with the culture and love of the climate would later result in his establishment of an adventure tourism company in Panama.
    December 22, 1972 Rice set a world record parachute jump.  He and eight others performed nine way jump formations on the Panama Atlantic and Pacific coasts within two hours.  At the age of 23, Rice earned a Master FAA Parachute Rigger license making him the youngest person to achieve this rating at the time.  
    With over 600 jumps to his resume, Rice finally ended his military career as an Army newspaper editor at Fort Richardson near Anchorage, Alaska. While in Alaska he learned the trade of cabinet making and met his wife, Linda.  The cold climate couldn’t have been more of an opposite to the warmths of Panama.  After several winters and a severe case of cabin fever Rice and his family moved to his hometown of Clarita where they set up shop and started developing their Panama tourism business.  
    At first their tourism business started off slow so Rice sought further education in tourism and computer technology to enhance their business.  During this time Rice became aware of the importance of the internet medium.  Even though the world wide web was in its infancy, Rice and his family developed and bought which impacted their business tremendously.  Imagine the frustrations this caused the Panama tourism development officials.  The newly marketed website generated so much business that it became necessary to establish an office in Panama to receive their tourists.  Rice and a few of his long time friends worked together to develop a tourism program that encompassed historic Panama locations as well as native inhabited rainforests. Rice began working with the Embera Indians on the Chagres River where he was at the forefront of incorporating the natives into Panama tours.  His long standing relationship with the local Indians brought prosperity to the tribes and a authentic touch to the tours.  
    After several attempts to register the company’s name Rice and others eventually decided to name the business after his nickname.  In 1997 Panama Jones was official and running on autopilot. This allowed Rice to begin his ongoing labor of love to restore and develop the town of Clarita.
    For Rice the development and marketing of a town that has no draw for consumers is based on the area’s cultural and historical richness.  Rice’s love of antiquities and preservation of the past has played a key role in the developing of the current vendors and services offered at Clarita.  His vision of a “Mayberry like” community, where retail business offer unique products in a family friendly setting, is different than commercialized tourist traps such as Branson, Missouri.  Rice commented on his overall vision and concepts for his beloved home town.  
    “In a lot of ways the development of Clarita has been harder to get started than the Panama touring business.  The first step was a labor intensive clean up of the properties I was purchasing.  Then, for it to really work I was going to need community involvement.  It’s one thing to restore and market a building in a way that attracts people to the area and it’s another to convey my concepts where people will understand and want to be involved.  In many aspects getting others involved is my main objective.  Getting the locals involved and excited about the possibilities of creating independent money is key to these project’s success.  My biggest supporters in developing Clarita economically have been members of the local Amish community.”
    Rice has restored and rebuilt several structures in the town which were the stepping stones for obtaining is overall goal.  Rice purchased the “Moore House” in 2005 which he restored and furnished to its original design.  Built in 1909 by the town’s barber, this historic home is now available for guests to enjoy for $75 a night.  Three years of restoration is evidenced in Rice’s attention to details.
    Another current and completed project is Schmelzer’s, home to Velma’s Kitchen offering all you can eat country style dinners every Friday night, by reservation only.  Velma’s Kitchen also caters private parties at Schmelzer’s and other locations. Schmelzer’s  has also been host to many special events including fund raisers, family reunions, weddings, civic group meetings, and church organization meetings.  Another business that was started at Schmelzer’s is Got Grub.  Operated by Ronda Sharp, she prepares lunches for delivery throughout Coal County.  Currently, Saturday night dinners are in the works for two entrepreneurs that will alternate BB-Q and catfish dinners.
    “Schmelzer’s has a lot of potential so I have never wanted to be tied down to making it strictly a restaurant.  Right now it serves as an incubator to those looking to break out in the restaurant business.  Offering people of this community a chance to provide their services not only makes me happy, but plays a key role in getting others involved,”  says Rice.
    Other ongoing projects include the restoration and remodeling of Clarita’s Church of Christ building.  This large building has been restored to look like a period school house where retreats, workshops, seminars and even weddings can take place.  The school house is built using quality craftsmanship and an antique touch while still offering all the modern day technologies to accommodate large business meetings.
    Rice recently acquired another piece of Clarita history, an old cabin owned by General “Mule” Waveren who was a scout for General Custer.  Fortunately Waveren wasn’t present the day of the “Little Bighorn Massacre”.  Unfortunately he did lose his arm shortly after in another small battle.  The cabin where Waveren lived was relocated by a team of mules from the nearby woods to Clarita’s main street where it will be restored for public display.
    For Winston Rice, taking on big projects is just away of life.  Whether he’s breaking sky diving records, or spending hours landscaping on his Kubota, he knows that some things start with a leap of faith.
    To find out more information about Clarita or Panama Canal tours email Winston Rice at or

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