Experience a Dose of Southern Charm at Starke County, FL
By Amy Wimmer Schwarb
Jacquelyn Totura’s love for downtown Starke began with a cute outfit purchased at the Stump’s and “ hoes” shops.
She was living in Palm Beach County, working as an investigator on behalf of the public defender’s office. Her job frequently brought her to Starke—home to the Florida State Prison and other major prisons positioned on State Road 16 several miles outside of town. Starke County in Florida is also host for many southern style towns.
Located in north-central Florida, Starke County is between Jacksonville and Gainesville, six hours away from upscale Palm Beach—and, it seemed to Totura, half-a-world away.
“One day I had to go to the prison to interview a client,” Totura recalls. “So while I was in town, I went downtown to shop, and they had a store called Stump’s Department Store—a great little store with all kinds of cute clothes. So I shopped at Stump’s, and then I went down to the shoe store. But the “s” was out in the sign, so it just said ‘ hoes.’
“And then I went back to Palm Beach and told all my friends that I bought the cutest clothes at the Stump’s and hoes stores in Starke. And the next weekend, they all came up with me to go shopping.”
Like Totura and her friends, most people tend to discover Starke by accident or necessity. They come to town for business or visits at the prison or while on a meandering day trip, and discover a North Florida town with a healthy helping of southern charm. The prisons buoy the economy, but to the locals, they are just part of the backdrop.
Starke has some surprises, from ample antique shopping to fine dining at Rick’s Downtown Grill (try the prime rib), to—perhaps most unexpected—an old movie house, the Florida Twin Theatre.
“We get to see everything when everybody else does,” Whittle says. “Most people absolutely die when they find out what we pay to watch movies. We can take the whole family for a little more than $20.”
The prisons and nearby Camp Blanding, Florida’s National Guard base, have also made Starke an ideal backdrop for some film production. A number of movies, including G.I. Jane, starring Demi Moore; Tigerland, starring Colin Farrell; and Basic, starring Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, have been filmed in the vicinity of Starke.
In fact, Travolta stayed at the Hampton Lake Bed and Breakfast, located seven miles outside Starke on an 822-acre cypress lake and featuring 60 open acres. Besides free wifi and full breakfast offerings, the B & B offers sweeping views from the expansive porches that overlook the lake.
No one can say for certain where Starke got its name. One theory is that it was named for the family of the town’s first postmaster. Another is that the name was inspired by Madison Starke Perry, who became governor of Florida in 1857, the same year Starke was awarded a post office.
The town first gained notoriety simply because of its central location between Fernandina Beach, the Atlantic Coast town on the end of the Florida Railroad Company line, and Cedar Key, on the Gulf Coast end.
In the end, Totura uprooted her Palm Beach County life after bringing her friends to Starke for a little shopping.
They walked the streets, admiring the historic homes, when Totura spotted a house and fell in love. “There was this house for sale,” she says. “I’ve seen that house in my dreams all my life, even when I was a child.”
She bought the historic home on Adkins Street—paying, she estimates, about one-fifth the price she would have paid for a similar house in Palm Beach County.
“After I came, I brought all my friends with me,” says Totura, who would go on to co-found the Bradford County Historic Preservation Society. “Then my family came up. It is such a warm, loving, friendly and forgiving community. You just want to live here.”
Points of interest in Starke County, Florida
- North Florida Regional Chamber of Commerce
- Florida Twin Theatre
- Rick’s Downtown Grill
- Hampton Lake Bed and Breakfast
Don't forget to go to VISIT FLORIDA's travelers guide for these and other Florida travel ideas.