A North Florida Road Trip: the Secret Backwater Towns Worth Seeing
In northern Florida, far from the state’s more well-known attractions, history and nature intersect in tiny weathered towns and coastal hamlets teeming with wildlife.
For years, my idea of hell was a holiday in Florida. You couldn’t pay me to make the scene in the louche lounges of South Beach. And God help the next telemarketer who invited me to “claim” my discounted suite at the Magic Kingdom. But I’d heard that in the northern part of the state, an older Florida survived. Safely removed from the anaconda-long lines in Orlando there was said to be a sanctuary of backwater towns, horse farms, heirloom tangerine groves, slouching tin-roofed shacks, and roadside attractions that predated the interstate.
So I decided to give Florida another chance. I started my ramble in the panhandle, flying into Tallahassee and then driving 15 miles south to Wakulla Springs, the world’s largest and deepest freshwater spring. Wakulla has been attracting tourists for at least 12,000 years, an estimate scientists based on the trash left by prehistoric campers. In 1934, financier and political kingmaker Edward Ball bought the spring and 4,000 acres of wilderness around it, building a 27-room Mediterranean Revival hotel now run by the state, the Lodge at Wakulla Springs. Checking in, I found a lobby adorned with Moorish tiles, art deco grillwork, and a heavy-beamed ceiling resplendent with murals depicting scenes of Floridian history and nature. Guests got on and off a walnut-paneled cage elevator. They sipped malteds at a 70-foot-long marble soda fountain. They inspected “Old Joe,” a stuffed 650-pound alligator. They congregated around the hotel’s one television to watch scenes shot in Wakulla’s gin-clear waters: Grantland Rice newsreels (featuring madcap actors picnicking and boxing underwater), “Tarzan’s Secret Treasure” (starring Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O’Sullivan), and “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” featuring local youth Ricou Browning as the Gill-Man. In my room, the 1940s furniture made me wonder if Robert Mitchum and Loretta Young were sleeping in the next suite.
The next morning, I boarded the first boat tour down the nine-mile Wakulla River. We puttered past century-old cypress trees that wore wizards’ sleeves of Spanish moss. A half dozen turtles—Suwannee cooters—sunned themselves on a log known as “the Shell Station.” An anhinga, one of the park’s 182 bird species, speared a fish on its bayonet bill, and then tossed it down its gullet.
The Wakulla Spring beach was starting to fill up with swimmers. Donning a mask and snorkel, I waded into the translucent water. The refracted sunlight had the aquamarine tint of an old Kodachrome slide. Even beneath the surface, Wakulla seemed to drip with nostalgia. I made my way past some blue gill toward the base of a 20-foot-high diving tower where teenagers were jack-knifing and cannonballing. Loitering underwater, I watched as each of them plummeted into the cavernous basin, detonating a thousand bubbles, before scrambling back to the surface with a smile.
After dusk, I set out on dry land in search of some entertainment. Feeling my way through the green tunnels of Tallahassee’s tree-canopied back roads, I found a dirt lane marked by a burning torch. At the end of it, next to a cornfield, a one-story cinderblock building stood under a hoary oak. This was the Bradfordville Blues Club, the latest incarnation of a juke joint that, during the past half-century, has heard the moan and stomp of Little Milton, James Cotton, Bobby Rush, Johnny Winter, and Charlie Mussellwhite, to name a few. Inside the walls were festooned with Christmas lights and signed oil portraits of blues deities. Victor Wainwright and the Wildroots were pumping out the blues. Outside, people were eating around a roaring bonfire.
I was starting to see how northern Florida was much more “Southern” than south Florida. The next day, listening to the radio as I drove down US-80, I heard no Latin music but a lot of country and a lot of preaching. Florida’s own pioneers of southern rock—the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Molly Hatchet—were also in heavy rotation. I passed signs for “Hot Boiled Peanuts,” “Live Shrimp,” “Gun & Pawn,” and “Mud Track Racing.” Slash pine, long used for turpentine, stood in rows so regimental the trees seemed to be marching. Along the road were magnificently rusted trucks and ramshackle barbecue huts.
Two hours south of Wakulla Springs, I rolled into High Springs, a small town lined with Victorian and Craftsman homes dating back to the 1890s. At the turn of the century, steam locomotives stopped here to fill up on spring water. When the railroads waned, the town might have dried up, figuratively, if not for its many springs, which lured kayakers and scuba divers. Daredevil cave-divers come from all over the world to the limestone mazes under the Ginnie Springs recreational area. Snorkelers and paddlers with ordinary nerve (i.e., me) tend to stick to the easily accessible springs that feed the Santa Fe River.
I’d heard that no one worshipped these springs more than Ed Watts. Back in 1984, Watts fell in love with an out-of-the-way spring named Lily, hidden off the Santa Fe. Watts asked the spring’s owner if he could look after it and built himself a hut there, and eventually Watts’ hermit life and disdain for clothes earned him some notoriety. Passing canoeists began calling him “Naked Ed,” though he would usually don a loincloth for visitors. High Springs’ Great Outdoors restaurant, located in a former Romanesque Revival opera house, even served Naked Ed Pale Ale, whose label showed a bald, bearded, middle-aged man wearing glasses and love beads.
I wanted to meet Watts. I found Lily Spring on a map. It looked close enough, so I jumped into a canoe and headed up the Santa Fe, passing turtles, wild turkeys, kingfishers, and ibis. I floated by Rum Island (a former bootleggers’ hideout). Close to dusk, after two hours of stroking against the current, I was ready to turn around when I saw a sign for Lily Spring.
Another hand-lettered sign declared, “If you have come to laugh at me, at least take off your clothes.”
I beached my canoe. “Hey, Ed!” I called. “Are you here?”
“I could not afford to see the world, so I let the world come to me,” proclaimed still another sign.
I opened the gate of Watts’ fenced compound, where a wooden shed was covered with palm fronds. I left my cell number and paddled back in the dark.
The next day, my phone rang. A soft, southern-accented voice said, “This is Ed.”
The 64-year-old Watts explained that he was born with a genetic bone disorder. After spending much of his life in and out of hospitals and working “flunky jobs,” he saw Lily Spring as an Eden.
“I have the life a lot of people would like to live, if they had the courage,” said Watts.
The sun was signing off as I crossed a three-mile causeway that brought me to Cedar Key. The town of 702 people is the anchor of 13 islands in the Gulf of Mexico, all teaming with wildlife and history. Pirates Jean Lafitte and Captain Kidd once made it their hideout. Naturalist John Muir walked here from Kentucky. The Island Hotel, where I was staying, was a story in itself. Built in 1859 of seashell tabby, the two-story building had sheltered Confederate and Union soldiers, President Grover Cleveland, Pearl Buck, John MacDonald, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Myrna Loy. After adding my name to the registry, I repaired to the hotel’s snug King Neptune Lounge, where an up-and-coming singer named Jimmy Buffett used to perform. I ordered the hotel’s signature heart-of-palm salad with ice cream dressing (treacly) and pecan grouper (perfection). With King Neptune gazing from a 1945 mural behind the bar, I figured it would be disrespectful not to honor him with a libation. Two of the Island Hotel’s previous owners had tried to outlaw drinking here; one proprietor was burned in effigy, the other was allegedly poisoned.
Properly lubricated, I took a stroll outside. The warm Gulf breeze was perfumed with wisteria. Deserted Main Street was lined with buildings that had seen a lot. Though they had beautiful gingerbread fretwork, many of them were framed with hobbled columns and listing balconies, the result of decades of storms. I wandered down to the site of the old Eagle Pencil Company Mill. The islands’ cedar had lured Eagle and Eberhard Faber here to make slats for thousands of pencils. But the 1869 hurricane snapped the business in two.
It was risky building a town at sea, but Cedar Key rewarded its citizens and visitors with one of the darkest skies in America. The stars above glistened like bubbles at the bottom of a spring. Back at the Island Hotel, I called it a night, paying no mind to its 11 resident ghosts, which included a drowned boy and a murdered prostitute.
I’d made a plan for the next day to hop around the outer islands of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. I’d hoped to see a Paleo-Indian shell mound, and maybe a roseate spoonbill or a spotted eagle ray, and have a swim on Atsena Otie Key, where you can also explore the ruins of a once-thriving village. But after hearing there was a tornado watch, I drove back across the causeway to the mainland, where I proceeded to another exquisite podunk: Micanopy.
For a town of one square mile, Micanopy has quite a past. Twelve miles south of Gainesville, it’s the oldest inland settlement in Florida. Today, about 600 people live here. Virtually every building was on the National Historic Register, including my B&B, the Herlong Mansion, a 1907 Greek Revival with leaded-glass windows, 12-foot ceilings, ten fireplaces and, naturally, its own ghost.
Warner Brothers made Micanopy the location for the 1991 movie Doc Hollywood, in which Michael J. Fox played a snotty med school grad who finds his calling in a small town. I happened to arrive on the weekend of Micanopy’s annual Doc Hollywood Days festival. Organizers had decided not to recreate the film’s Squash Parade this year, but blues and bluegrass musicians were on hand to provide a soundtrack for Micanopy’s usual pastimes: eating and antiquing. I inhaled a Portuguese custard tart at the Mosswood Farm Store and Bakehouse. Then, ready to roam again, I drove six miles to Evinston, home to Florida’s oldest continuously operating post office, chartered in 1882. The weathered plank building doubled as the Wood & Swink general store.
“We used to sell feed, fertilizer, a little bit of everything,” said 74-year-old Fred Wood, Jr., whose father served as postmaster for 44 years and whose wife, Wilma Sue, served for 32. “Now we sell snacks, books, and paintings. And vegetables I grow. I never wanted to be postmaster. I like farming. But I do come here to visit with people.”
Visiting with people was what you did in the hamlets around Micanopy. Over in Citra, where they’d been growing citrus since before the Civil War, Pete Spyke ran the Orange Shop, which opened in 1936 and has a palm tree growing through its striped awning.
“We have varieties of tangerine you will never see in a grocery store,” said Spyke, a third-generation grower. “Our juice is kind of like a gumbo. We’ll start with navel, honey bell, temple or Valencia oranges. Then we’ll add tangerine juice—page, sunburst, Chinese honey. It decides itself.”
From Citra, I drove north up the verdant membrane of land that separated Orange Lake and Lochloosa Lake. Its narrowest point was Cross Creek. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings came here in 1928 to grow oranges and write. Drinking in everything around her (as well as a good deal of bourbon), Rawlings produced fictional portraits of local trappers and moonshiners. The stories angered some of her neighbors, but her 1938 novel, The Yearling, won the Pulitzer Prize. I stopped for a tour of her homestead. An old Smith-Corona sat on the porch where she tapped out The Yearling. Through the breezeway was the bathroom where she threw a party—filling the toilet with flowers—when her words allowed her to afford indoor plumbing.
Up the road, I stopped at the Yearling restaurant. First opened in 1952, the place sits on a creek where regulars still pull up on their airboats. The menu features such local specialties as frog’s legs, gator, cheese grits, fried green tomatoes, and sour orange pie. Rawlings’ deer-hugging protagonist, Jody, would shoot me but I ordered the venison.
My day’s last stop was a town whose early identity revolved around racing. Back in the 1800s, wagering men who met on the shores of Lake Santa Fe would learn the jockeys were off when someone shook a white rag, and the place became known as Shake Rag. The name was long ago changed to Melrose but when I got there I could see there was still betting going on—only now it was on artists. This was the last day of Melrose’s weeklong Open Air Arts “paint out.” Artists from around the state had come to this lake region to capture its landscape. Now, their still-wet canvases hung in Melrose’s three packed galleries. That a town of 6,478 people has three galleries tells you how hip it has become in the last few years.
“Melrose’s vitality comes from its diversity,” said regional architecture authority Ronald Haase. “We have a large lesbian population. There are artists, old hippies, university people, and rednecks.”
At the moment, the hippies were over at the old Gothic church, now known as the Shake Rag Arts and Culture Center, dancing to the Psychedelic Relics. The rednecks were gathered, as usual, at Chiappinni’s, a canopied filling station run by the same family since 1935. Besides gas, Chiappinni’s sold hunting ammo, minnows, Lee’s Pork Skins, and many kinds of hot sauce. Motorists could also enjoy cold beer and cigars at a high-gloss wooden bar while admiring taxidermy that included a gator, a bobcat, a possum, and something city folk were told was a “swamp ape.”
I asked the station’s current proprietor, 62-year-old Robin Chiappinni, what his longtime customers made of the new arrivals.
“The art scene has been a good shock to the community,” he said, while working the cash register. “It’s kept the old buildings alive. We do have good old boys here. But we don’t mind new people. So long as they’re cool.”
I had one more goal in Florida: to meet a mermaid.
About two hours south of Gainesville is Weeki Wachee. In 1946, former Navy frogman Newt Perry had the outré idea of building a theater where you could see shapely girls performing underwater ballet using long air hoses. In between shows, these sirens would sit by the road and entice motorists to stop. The American Broadcasting Company bought the venue in 1959 and plowed millions into it. Esther Williams, Don Knotts, Arthur Godfrey, and Elvis Presley were among the thousands who made the pilgrimage to Weeki Wachee. Grander amusements in Orlando eventually lured vacationers away but, lately, Weeki Wachee’s kitsch appeal has attracted a new following.
Now a state park, the aquatic play land boasts four flume rides. Weeki Wachee is also an actual spring. Certified divers can explore the passages of America’s deepest freshwater cave system. Kayakers can paddle the glassy river running from its powerful headspring.
On the day I visited, the theater’s sequined performers put on a production of The Little Mermaid, lip-syncing while doing cartwheels 45 feet underwater. As I watched from a glass-windowed theater, I noticed one pesky turtle that hovered around star Kylee Troche.
“The turtles enjoy playing with us,” Troche, 21, told me after the show. “They may be attracted to blondes.”
Encounters with wildlife are par for the course for these aquatic actors. Once, the mermaids had to clear out of the spring when a gator dropped in to see their routine. They tolerate being upstaged by manatees, although there was that one awkward show when two of the blubberpusses copulated in front of children in the audience.
“We’d do anything to swim,” said 75-year-old Vicki Smith, one of several former mermaids who have continued to perform. She once entertained Elvis. “In the 1950s, we used to dive off the top of the theater. It’s like diving into diamonds the way the silver bubbles surround you.”
If ever there was a spokeswoman for the rejuvenating power of Florida’s springs, it’s Smith. “At a certain time of day, a shaft of sunlight shoots down onto these ancient rocks, into the abyss,” she said. “It’s like the eye of God.”