Baker County: Back Roads, Backwoods, Rich History
By Gary McKechnie
If you’ve ever had the notion to head out to the country for peace, quiet, and plenty of elbow room, you’ll find that in abundance in Baker County.
As a matter of fact, Baker County offers roughly 585 square miles of elbow room. An average of just 46 people per square mile live within the county lines, and that’s just fine with its residents. Compare that figure to, say, Miami, where 12,063 people occupy that same amount of space and you’ll quickly grasp that this is a place where there’s plenty of room to breathe.
So catch your breath and take off to Baker County.
Finding Baker County is simple. Just look at a map, find the spot where Georgia put its thumbprint near Jacksonville, and Baker County is just west of that. It’s easy to find and surprisingly hard to forget -- and that’s not because you’ll find a variety of picturesque towns, quaint shopping districts, and exciting attractions.
It’s because you’ll find little of this.
Their absence is natural considering roughly 220,000 acres is taken up by the Osceola National Forest. And where the forest trails off, the southern rim of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge seeps across the Florida-Georgia line.
Nature has been kind to Baker County. To fully appreciate it means exploring different regions in a variety of ways: backpacking, camping, swimming, boating, or simply taking a walk in the woods.
Look to the Baker County Chamber’s outdoor activities page for complete details, but for now you’ll find in the southwest section of the county the day-use Olustee Beach Recreation Area off U.S. 90 on 1,760-acre Ocean Pond. A boat launch area, white-sand beach, picnic pavilions, showers, and changing facilities are wonderful conveniences. Across the pond on the north shore, The Landing is known for its wilderness views, swimming, and picnic areas designed for large groups and family reunions. Nearby, the Ocean Pond Campground offers a rare perk: boat parking beside your campsite. Of the 67 sites, 19 have hookups (water and electric), but all have access to restrooms, drinking water, picnic areas and playgrounds.
Head north to the Florida-Georgia line where the 37,736-acre John M. Bethea State Forest offers primitive camping as well as a boat launch with access to the St. Marys River. A splendid county park, St. Marys Shoals Park, has preserved nearly 2,600 acres to show visitors what Florida looked like a century ago. With white shoals highlighted against two miles of tea-stained waters, the picturesque park and its trails attract riders on horseback and ATVs, as well as swimmers, hikers, boaters, and campers.
It Takes a Village
A section of I-10 knicks the southern edge of the county and when you take Exit 336 you’re driving through the front door at Macclenny, the county seat and the only incorporated city in Baker County. Beyond a long stretch of franchises and chain stores, at 5th Street and McIver Avenue two sites reveal the town’s passion for history.
Whether for a photo or for research, stop at the Colonial Revival Old County Courthouse, built in 1908 and later recycled into its current use as the Emily Taber Public Library. Next door, the Baker County Historical Jail (42 West McIver Avenue, 904/259-0587) is home to the Baker County Historical Society and Family History Library (Saturdays only, 11-3). A few blocks away, U.S. 90 is Macclenny’s main avenue. The original commercial district, charming in its simplicity, is where you’ll spot a few standouts such as a city hall the size of a small apartment, shops featuring antiques, primitives, and collectibles, and Cecil’s Hometown Cooking (1 W. Macclenny Ave., 904/259-4149) which serves comfort foods like turkey casserole, chicken and dumplings, fresh collard greens, baked ham, corn bread, and sweet tea.
Just a short drive from away, Macclenny’s main attraction is one of those rare and special places you hope to discover when you’re traveling off the beaten path. A decade-long dream of the city, local historians, and volunteers like LaViece Smallwood, Heritage Park Village (102 S. Lowder St., 904/742-1843) is a fantastically diverse collection of historic structures that pays tribute to the history of Baker County.
Arranged on five well-tended acres, there are dozens of storefronts, with each featuring a mini-museum inside. There’s a Rexall Drugstore, the Blue Haven Restaurant, the Northeast Florida Telephone Company, the Davis Oil & Gas Company, and the Moonshine Garage and Car Museum. Check out the old-fashioned grocery store, the turpentine distillery, hat shop, pharmacy, fabric store, and the old Darbyville Jail. (Darbyville was Macclenny’s original name).
What started with the relocation of the town’s historic railroad depot (which now serves as an office/museum with stories of the area’s founding families) grew to include a caboose, a vintage fire truck, a cooking shelter, a barber shop, and even a pickin’ shed for bluegrass musicians.
The centerpiece of the village is a blockhouse fort from the 1830s that became the log cabin (complete with axe marks) home of the Burnsed family in the mid-1800s. In the front yard, a working windmill creaks to life with each passing breeze. Next door, a family chapel has made the village a popular spot for weddings, with special occasions such as barbeques and holiday events filling in the calendar. One staple takes place every weekday morning, when guests are invited to enjoy a free cup of coffee and conversation with local veterans who gather at the Blue Haven Restaurant between 6:30 and 9:30.
You’ll need to call ahead so a docent knows to unlock each store, but even if it’s just you strolling through the park, photo ops are plentiful and the chance to enjoy your surroundings unhurried is a pleasure.
One last note: Hats off to the city residents who designed the village. They knew history is more than dates. Posted along a recreation of the Darbyville township are signs that introduce you to the people and pioneers of Baker County. In their own words and images, they share memories of growing up in rural Florida.
After circling the village, visit the granite “heritage benches” that surround a gazebo. Each is inscribed with a message or a tribute to a local family or service personnel. It’s a nice place to sit and rest a spell before heading out for a drive in the country.
From Macclenny, it’s easy to reach the Olustee Battlefield by simply heading 20 miles west on U.S. 90. But before you go there, treat yourself to a calming drive through the Osceola National Forest. From the neighboring town of Glen St. Mary, C.R. 125 stretches northwest toward Taylor. Focus on the journey.
For miles and miles the pine scrub has an unusual high desert appearance and, coincidentally, parts of this lonesome road look as remote as any spot in the American West. A few mobile homes set far back far from the road appear and then vanish as you rocket down the road. Occasionally another car may pass you or a solo rider on a motorcycle will speed by as they enjoy a shaded stretch of canopied road, but by the time you pass a filling station at C.R. 127 you’ll agree that this is, in a word, rural.
Where C.R. 125 meets C.R. 250, a corner convenience store is Taylor’s one and only center of commerce. When I arrived, it was hard to miss the shirtless, barefoot teenager who had ridden in on a horse; his mount tied to a makeshift hitching post.
Turning left here starts the second leg of the journey, this one delving deeper into the woods. While some national forests feature recreational activities, here they were noticeably absent. Regardless, it’s a treat to drive down a two-lane road where a row of straight pines and seasonal wildflowers are enough to satisfy. If the mood strikes you, pull over, turn off the radio, step outside and soak in the silence of the world around you.
Spotlight: Olustee Battlefield
Driving southwest through the Osceola National Forest on C.R. 250 (and then C.R. 250 A), you’ll travel about 30 miles past Taylor before reaching U.S. 90 and the entrance to one of Florida’s few Civil War battlefields. In February 1864, 5,000 Confederate soldiers squared off against 6,000 Union troops in a fight commemorated at the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park.
It’s a small place, but where there is nothing else around it tends to stand out. In a clearing in the piney woods the park headquarters features information about the camp that was used first as a Confederate supply depot. After being abandoned on Feb. 9, 1864, it was briefly held by Union troops as their base for raids on Lake City and Gainesville. But just over a week later, the Confederates returned, attacked the camp, and after a five-hour fight, drove the Union soldiers away. A re-enactment is held here every February.
It won’t take long to walk around the park, see the cannons and the monument to the soldiers – but take a little longer. Try to imagine what Florida was like at the time. Picture the pitched battle that took place on the spot where you’re standing. Right here men were willing to die for what they thought was best for the future of their nation.
A perfect historic note to conclude an historic tour of Baker County.
If you go…
A wonderful in-depth source for information about business opportunities, recreational activities, and special events across the county. Photos by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA