Small Town Gems

By: Herb Hiller

These small town gems let you experience a charming side of Florida.

Quincy and Gadsden County

Quincy is a bedroom city for the state's capital, but that doesn't mean that it's a sleepy town. Same with Quincy's Gadsden County neighbors of Havana, Greensboro, Gretna and Chattahoochee.

Many of Gadsden County's 46,000 residents wield pallets, fence equipment and hoes. They grow mushrooms. They tend cattle and raise nursery plants. Until recently, tobacco was important. Tomatoes are now.

Visitors come to fish Lake Seminole and Lake Talquin. Both are dammed and have canoe trails and fish camps. High-ceilinged and rustic, the pub 'n grub at Whippoorwill Sportsman's Lodge on Cook's Landing Road is a favorite of Tallahasseans who do a reverse commute up to Gadsden on weekends.

Some come to hunt antiques in Havana. They like to call it Hay-vana, affecting a hayseed style that amuses shopkeepers, most of them transplants from Tallahassee or even Miami. Visitors find almost 100 shops including Mirror Image Antiques, where former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Douglas "Pete" Peterson and his wife sell 12th to 15th century Asian antiques.

Others come to walk the historic district in Quincy. Quincy is the county seat with a compact collection of mostly early 1900s homes side by side with town stores. A receptionist sweeps leaves off the front porch of an old house that's become an interior design studio and complains to passersby that pecan trees leave an awful mess. A woman walking her pooch stops and chats with a friend who stops her car in the middle of a brick street. One person I met, who moved up from Sarasota, explains how people come to Quincy looking for Mayberry and find it.

"People at first have to remind themselves to wave at other folks on the sidewalk," she says. "Doesn't take 'em long to enjoy it."

Guidebooks will tell you that Quincy got its nice old houses from Coca Cola money 100 years ago. A historical marker on the courthouse square out front of the Quincy State Bank tells how banker "Pat" Munroe put his customers into the soft drink stock back when it was speculative, and no one ever rued taking his advice.

But most fine buildings were already in place, even if later fixed up with elixir money. The town had long prospered on tobacco. The result is the glorious legacy of the Shaw-Embry House with its grandly shingled turret, its decorative brackets and spindle work; the antebellum Davidson-Thomas House with its six Corinthian columns supporting a semi-circular porch; the Victorian gardens at the E.B. Shelfer House and the Louis Tiffany stained glass windows in Centenary Methodist Church.

And credit the sugared fizzy stuff for how, not long ago when folks got corking on the idea of an arts center, Mark Bates donated his old hardware store building (you can still see the Bell & Bates sign atop the newer Gadsden Arts Center), and the late Sarah May Love wrote a really big check to help. A $500,000 check. Makes you want to pop a Coke. On the other hand, not everybody's a "Co’cola millionaire," as locals describe Quincy's hometown benefactors, and you can't say Gadsden County is any worse off for that. Mexican farmhands settle in among a population where, unique in this state, African-Americans outnumber Caucasians.

I lately caught the mood on a stormy morning. Early rain poured a veil across Gadsden. Cars slowed. Hardly anybody got out. Work went on but little got transacted. At a small country store in tiny downtown Greensboro, the cook (a lady from Durango) added chicken empanadas to her pans of beef and red pepper stew for take-outs. The butcher wrapped his pigs tails and turkey necks. An odd farm worker or two flicked through comic books and bought phone cards for Mexico City, $10 for 163 minutes. Nobody was loading mushroom compost at Gamboa Brothers.

Gadsden County shows its homebody ways up in Chattahoochee too. Galin Delweiler at Divine Grace restaurant serves up homestyle classics at the all-you-can-eat buffet - "No Sharing." There's also a location in Quicy.

Folks mainly come to fish Lake Seminole, the impounded confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers above the Jim Woodruff Dam. From the dam, the water flows as the Apalachicola River all the way to the Gulf. You can view the spectacle from atop an eastern bluff at the Army Corps of Engineers administration building.

Or more simply, back in town at the stoplight heading west, you score a majestic view across the Apalachicola past ridge after ridge of low hills. Anyone seeing this vista for the first time stops. Fortunately, there's an entire lane to the side where you can pull over and marvel. A sign as you start driving down says, "Caution, Blinding Sun."

For sure, that brings a rainy day smile.

The Wilds of Palatka

Palatka may not be the center of the universe, but if you draw a triangle from DeLand to St. Augustine to Gainesville and back, a few days around this rural county seat will convince you the place is central to something you ought to know about. Even with only 12,000 people, Palatka is agreeably urban after some time in the wilds.

And the wilds are compelling, from hiking trails through the Etoniah and Welaka State Forests to paddling the lower Ocklawaha and along Dunn's Creek. For those who try it, nothing beats houseboating through Lake George, the second largest lake in Florida.

Palatka still has more places with hundred-foot hills, ravines, black bear, bobcat, fox, otter and eagles than any Florida place I know.

I had found myself driving back roads a mere squirrel-hop wide toward St. Augustine, past row after row of crops, past signs that say "Farm Machinery" and "Tote Sacks Receiving." I passed a thousand herons in the furrows of a working tractor and continued almost hypnotically through a low canyon of parched corn.

Then I saw the road end in front of a sign that said "Molasses Junction Country Store." At lunchtime, cucumber pickers flood in for gizzards, wings and goulash. You have to love this town because it's in the midst of something still close-to-the-earth America, unscripted, original.

Back more than 100 years ago, folks couldn't wait to get to Palatka, whose name means "crossing." Excursionists made the Putnam County seat a rare, cultured inland Florida city. It prospered as the transfer point between big St. Johns River paddle wheelers and narrow-beamed tour boats that passed up the deeply wooded Ocklawaha to the effusion of Silver Springs.

But though in its heyday Palatka rivaled Jacksonville, its glory went up in smoke with the great fire of 1884. Today, historic districts back away north and south from Reid Street. Queen Anne houses await fix-up. One recalled to life is Azalea House, Palatka's bed and breakfast, a two-story slice of wedding cake lately acquired by Jill and Doug DeLeuw. Jill is a needlework master and a formidable baker.

Guests walk around the corner to the Bronson-Mulholland House, an 1850s Greek revival mansion that's the pride of Palatka along with the adjacent Putnam Museum, 15 years older.

Nearby, the old freight depot beside the Amtrak Station (Palatka still has twice-daily north-south passenger rail service) hosts the David Browning Railroad Museum with as good a model railroad layout as you're likely to see.

Drive up to Palatka, past swell neighborhoods to Ravine Gardens State Park. Hillsides planted with azaleas make the gardens a springtime Florida attraction. Any time of year, they inspire and delight with miles of botanically graced paths in their hilly setting.

From the gardens, it's 10 minutes to Brown's Landing. You're in a different St. Johns than you might have imagined, fjord-like and mysterious. Without visible flow, this river that drops only 30 feet along its entire 310 miles seems instead a finger of the sea poked far inland. Early morning mist leaves a string of islands seeming like a wilderness coast.

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