Suwannee County: A River Runs Through It

    By Gary McKechnie

    Sometimes minor events can lead to historic changes. One event that would affect Florida’s future took place at a piano in 1851. Working out lyrics to a tune, composer Stephen Foster was stuck at the first line and asked his brother, Morrison, for help.

    “Should it be ‘Way down upon the Yazoo River?” Morrison offered. No, said Stephen. “Well, how about ‘Way down upon the Pee Dee River?” Morrison proposed. “Oh, pshaw! We won’t have that!” Stephen told his brother.

    Searching through an atlas, Morrison Foster looked at several southern states. He turned to his brother and asked “Suwannee?”

    “That’s it exactly!” said the composer.

    Composer stephen Foster launched Florida's tourism industry

    Composer Stephen Foster. Although he wrote the song that helped launch Florida's tourism industry, he never saw the state -- or the river he made famous. He passed away in 1864 at the age of 37.

    - A Florida Memory

    Arrive in Suwannee County and cross the famed river

    When you arrive in Suwannee County and cross the famed river, there's always a feeling you're heading back in time -- back to the age of Stephen Foster and 'Old Folks at Home'.

    - VISIT FLORIDA Editor


    From that one word, Florida tourism would be born. After the close of the Civil War the first wave of tourists came to Florida in search of the river described with such vivid imagery -- and they’ve been arriving ever since.

    Now it’s your turn to see Suwannee County.

    Getting There and Getting Around

    Just 30 minutes west of Lake City via I-75 (or more tranquil US 90), Live Oak is the largest city in Suwannee County. It’s also the only city in Suwannee County, just as Branford is the only town. Together they share nearly 700 square miles with 17 unincorporated communities.

    Despite the lack of development – well, actually, because of it -- Suwannee County is a place where travelers can find safe harbor from their busy schedules and simply go with the flow. Offering several state parks, historic architecture, plenty of festivals, and acres of u-pick farms, here are some suggestions for your visit, starting in…

    LIVE OAK

    Visit the Suwannee Music Park in Suwannee County

    Blackberry Smoke takes the stage at Waneefest, one of the most popular events at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. A variety of performers fill a year-'round calendar of shows.

    - Gary McKechnie


    Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park

    9379 County Road 132, Live Oak, Fla. 32060
    800-224-5656

    There are hundreds of rural campgrounds in Florida, but only one presents an ongoing calendar of popular music festivals. A combination of its setting (a peaceful, wooded 800 acres on the Suwannee River), its location (midway between the music-loving college capitals of Gainesville and Tallahassee), and talent (plenty of it!) set the stage for a decades-long line-up of live music.

    Hardly a week goes by without musicians of varying genres performing at venues around the park. (For a full list of weekly events and major festivals, visit musicliveshere.com).

    Aside from shows, there are hiking trails, horse trails, a craft village, and disc golf. When it’s time to tune out, simply head to your campsite (or RV site) and laze beneath the shade of an oak tree -- or maybe head to the banks of the tea-colored Suwannee River to laze on the white sand beach, or visit the Suwannee Outpost and rent a canoe or kayak for your own expedition.
     

    Suwannee River State Park
    3631 201st Path, Live Oak, Fla. 32060
    (386) 362-2746

    Florida history and nature combine at this intriguing state park where you’ll find traces of Civil War-era earthwork mounds built to protect a railroad bridge from advancing Union soldiers, the ruins of a cemetery that once served the long-vanished town of Columbus, the remnants of a road that last saw stagecoach traffic more than a century ago, and a giant cog that once helped power a riverside sawmill. Add to this history five hiking trails that range from a simple quarter-mile to an 18-mile path that winds through longleaf pines and into the Sand Hills. Near the ranger station, a boat launch grants access to the Suwannee and the nearby Withlacoochee River. Like what you see? Stay awhile at the full facility campground which includes five two-bedroom riverside cabins.
     

    Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park
    18081 185th Road, Live Oak, Fla. 32060
    386-776-2194

    Divers from around the world make the trek here to explore nearly five miles of surveyed underwater passages via two major springs, a spring run, and six sinkholes. While divers are cautiously exploring those dark tunnels and caves, directly overhead hikers are following nature trails that closely mirror the winding, watery paths. The park, named for the late underwater cinematographer and photographer Wes Skiles, features campsites and picnic pavilions.
     

    Downtown Live Oak

    An assortment of historic buildings in the heart of town includes the most prominent of all: the Suwannee County Courthouse. Built in 1904 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, the strong and graceful Federal-style building overlooks U.S. 129. Another great photo op is down the street at the historic Union Depot and Atlantic Coast Line Freight Station. Today the depot is home of the Suwannee County Historical Museum (208. N. Ohio, Ave., Live Oak, Fla. 32064, 386-362-1776) which features an extensive photo collection of the county’s people and places as well as images and items related to railroad history.

    Just outside downtown, the The Straw Market (13020 E Highway 90, 386-590-1633,) is open Wednesday-Sunday. The collection of independent merchants sells baked goods, soaps, handcrafted items and more.

    Here since 1959, the Dixie Grill serves up a wide range of comfort foods you’d recall from the pre-chain era: Buttermilk-dipped fried chicken, liver, and gizzards, jumbo pork chops, Apalachicola Oysters, catfish filets, shrimp and creamy grits, and plenty of “sammiches.” Other local favorites include Stoudemires (chicken wings, catfish, ox tail, pork chops, barbeque ribs), All Decked Out Café (fried green tomatoes, crab-stuffed mushrooms, fried shrimp, fresh oysters, fried shrimp, lobster nuggets, coconut shrimp, ribeye steaks), Big Wood BBQ (brisket, sliced beef, sliced pork, ribs), and the Brown Lantern (beef tips, Carolina barbeque, fresh Gulf grouper, grilled pork chops, potato casserole).
     

    BRANFORD

    Located in the southern section of the county, Branford may have a small population (around 700), but it compensates by being the “Freshwater Spring Diving Capital of America.” Here, every day is spring time.

    Troy Spring State Park

    674 NE Troy Springs Road, Branford, Fla. 32008

    386-935-4835

    This 70-foot deep, first-magnitude spring offers opportunities for swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving. Bring the family for an old fashioned swimming hole party! Nestled in the shallow water of the spring run are the remains of the Civil War-era steamboat Madison, which was scuttled in 1863 to keep it from being captured. Only open-water scuba diving is permitted and divers must be certified; no solo diving is allowed.
     

    WELLBORN COMMUNITY

    Blueberry Festival (June)

    1340 8th Avenue, Wellborn, FL 32094

    386-963-1157

    Join more than 6,000 attendees while indulging in all things blueberry, from cobblers and pies to ice cream and jellies to syrups and fudge. Highlights include more than 100 arts, crafts, and food vendors along with a blueberry parade, blueberry bake-off, a blueberry pancake breakfast, and crowning of the Blueberry Queen.

    Broken Lance Native American Church

    2771 US 90 East

    386/209-3317

    There are a lot of churches in Suwannee, but there’s only one Native American Church. Ken Miller, who’s of Cheyenne and Nez Perce descent, felt called to start this church based on biblical lessons and Indian heritage. Services are Sunday mornings at 10:30.
     

    WHAT’S MORE

    You’ll find even more to catch your attention on a Suwannee County road trip.

    U-Pick Farms

    There are several farms where you can pick blueberries, blackberries, grapes, strawberries, persimmons and produce all by yourself. Some farms feature gift shops and packaged produce. Call ahead for hours, seasons, and what’s ripe and ready.

    Rooney’s Front Porch Farm (Live Oak)
    (386) 963-5037

    C&J’s Blueberry Vineyard (Live Oak)
    (386) 216-3362

    Lee’s Nursery (Branford)
    (386) 935-1410

    Mitillini Vineyards (Live Oak)
    (386) 364-1773

    Scott’s Blueberry Farm (Wellborn)
    (386) 963-4952

    Horseback Riding

    Like its north Florida neighbors, Suwannee County has a number of riding trails as well as equestrian events planned by the Suwannee County Riding Club. Some local riders have mapped out some of their favorites at opentrail.us.

    Birding

    To find woods and refuges where native and migrating birds can be seen in their natural habitat, visit floridabirdingtrail.com.

    Festivals

    Suwannee County Fair (March)
    386-362-3247

    For more than 100 years this springtime event has showcased livestock displays, competitions, live shows, baked goods, talent contests, art, and plenty of fun on the midway.

    Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
    386-364-1683

    Among the most popular events on their year-‘round calendar are Aura, Suwannee River Jam, Wanee, Purple Hatter’s Ball, Magnolia Festival, and Old Tyme Farm Days. Assorted smaller festivals fill in the calendar.

    Suwannee River Riding Club Rodeo (September)
    386-365-8971

    This Branford event has been going at a gallop since 1956.

    Christmas on the Square (December)
    386-362-3071

    A downtown parade leads to the historic depot for food, live music, dancing, and fireworks followed by a day attractions more than 250 arts and crafts vendors, a car show, agriculture exhibit, and live entertainment at Millennium Park.

    the Suwannee River in 1948

    A 1948 image preserved by the Florida Memory Project, reveals that the slow, easy pace of the Suwannee River hasn't changed in decades.

    - A Florida Memory

    At spirit of the Suwannee

    At Spirit of the Suwannee, several stages and outdoor venues make concerts a natural.

    - Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA


    For more information:

    Suwannee County Chamber of Commerce
    (386) 362-3071

    Photos by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA except where otherwise noted

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