Jefferson County, with its rural, largely undeveloped landscape, boasts the kind of attractions – canoeing the Wacissa, ghost tours and the Opera House – that keep discerning visitors coming back.
The dark clouds gathered overhead and thunder rumbled in the distance, but that did little to disturb the serenity of another afternoon of swimming and reveling in the cool, clear waters of Wacissa Springs.
High-schoolers lounged on the grass, while young boys swung on a rope into the spring, a picture-perfect Southern scene.
Wacissa Springs seem to be in the middle of nowhere. Driving about 18 miles south of Tallahassee on Apalachee Parkway, no billboards announced that just off the beaten path lies this oasis of water and greenery.
One recent weeknight, Jerry Russell of Orlando launched his canoe at Slave Canal – so called because it was constructed with slave labor in the 1850s – and returned the next day with his son, Brad, to canoe from the headwaters of the Wacissa River 11 miles to Goose Pastures and back. Along the way, they shared the river with gators, water lilies, egrets and osprey.
“The springs are beautiful,” Russell said, his canoe stacked on his vehicle, his diving glass and snorkel in hand.
Like Russell, Morgan Eastman grew up in the Big Bend and knew the springs. Recently, while visiting from his current home in Washington, D.C., Eastman went for an afternoon swim with a friend.
“It’s really cold but very nice,” said Eastman, shivering as she stood on the grass.
Even as Eastman and others enjoyed the spring, John Williams of Wacissa River Canoe & Kayak Rental watched as kayakers hauled boats up on trailers at the ramp.
With the water level low near the boat launch on Williams’ property, canoeists launched at the springhead.
“It’s really pristine,” Williams said of his hometown waterway. “We have lots of nature and we don’t have any houses on the river except for two fish camps.”
Williams will rent as many as 50 or 60 canoes daily for trips down the river. But for those whose sense of adventure is more inclined toward the indoors, the Monticello Opera House offers a different attraction. The Opera House’s full season runs September to May and includes dinner theater, concerts and speakers designed to keep visitors coming back.
Three different stage companies operate out of the facility and they take turns offering different kinds of theater, said Opera House director Fran Litton.
“A lot of them are murder mysteries or sometimes just a performer at the Opera House,” said Litton. “We will have a dinner that accompanies the show. It’s hard to have dinner in Tallahassee and come for a show. We provide dinner, and they eat and watch.”
The dinner theater is a boon since the restaurant offerings in Monticello are limited. A favorite, though, is Tupelo Bakery, which offers the authentic hominess that would prompt diners to drive 20 miles for lunch. The muffins, scones, watermelon pie, quiche du jour and the tongue-awakening Hubert’s lemonade are worth the trip.
“Everything is made from scratch – almost 100 percent organic – that’s our passion, using local foods and supporting local farmers,” said owner Kim Davis.
To add authenticity to her claim, a board in the bakery lists the names of area farms that supply the chicken, beef, pork, pecan and other ingredients for the pastries, sandwiches and soups.
South’s Most Haunted Town:
While Jefferson County may be better known for its annual Watermelon Festival each June, another recurring event – ghost walking tours – have attracted lots of media publicity and tourist buzz in recent years.
The ghost tours, which have earned the city the honor as the ‘most haunted town in the South,’ are especially popular in the month leading up to Halloween. But their popularity has prompted Betty Davis of Big Bend Ghost Trackers to conduct the children- and family-friendly tour at least one Friday or Saturday night each month.
The tour includes stops at about 15 properties. Some stops, including at the Opera House with its haunted dressing rooms, are public and allow tour participants to see the haunted spaces up close, said Pat Inmon, owner of the 1872 John Denham House Bed & Breakfast, which is included in the tour.
Her inn’s resident ghost is Aunt Sarah, a spinster who haunts one of the bedrooms, but there are tales of others, Inmon said.
“It’s not something I made up. These are stories that have been passed down through generation,” said Inmon, who first heard and embraced the ghost stories after she bought the property 16 years ago.
The ghost stories are getting so popular, Inmon fields calls from television production companies just about every week. Plans are afoot to expand the tour and make things even more interesting.
“The big controversy is, should they include the hanging tree where they hung people on Thursdays,” she said with a chuckle.