Wish You Were in Dixie County, Fla.
By: Gary McKechnie
You’d think that somewhere in the Deep South there’d be another state with a Dixie County. No, that honor became Florida’s alone when it was created from a portion of Lafayette County in 1921. Located about 50 miles west of Gainesville, odds are you’ve skirted around its borders, but next time you’re nearby put yourself in the heart of Dixie.
In most counties, there’s usually a city or town that’s a perfect place to begin a journey and, from there, a network of roads leading to destinations to be connected one by one. Dixie County is an exception. Since there’s no perfect Point A and relatively few high-profile centralized destinations in its 864 square miles, this is a place where you can ramble around without much of a plan, content that somewhere along the way something will catch your eye.
Here are a few things you’ll find when you arrive.
Old Town: Rail to Trail… and a Sunken Treasure
Old Town, roughly 10 miles southeast of the county seat of Cross City, likes to note two historical sights: the Old Town Elementary School (now the Dixie County Cultural Center) and the circa 1890 Old Town Methodist Church. It’s a judgment call, but I’d suggest two other gems surpass both the church and school.
Near the junction of C.R. 349 and Alternate 27, a short walk will lead to a long-lasting sight.
Stretching for 32 miles, an old railroad line is now the Nature Coast State Trail with trailheads in Cross City, Trenton, Fanning Springs and Chiefland. You can also enter in Old Town where it’s only about half a mile to the famed Suwannee River.
You may have driven above and across the river before, but now you can see it at your own pace as you pass open fields, shady woods, bicyclists, riders on horseback, and a handful of country homes along the way. A railroad trestle spans the waterway, and benches allow you to savor the view. The river is wide and magnificent; to the north it disappears around a wide bend, to the south it flows straight and true. Take your time here. Resist the urge to pick up and move on. Instead, appreciate your surroundings because, quite often, there’s not a soul nearby leaving you to enjoy nature in peace and silence.
Then look into near the riverbank below where a large orange buoy marks the resting place of the City of Hawkinsville. Once among hundreds of steamboats on the Suwannee, the two-deck, 141-foot ship carried lumber between Branford, Clay's Landing, Old Town, and Cedar Key – including supplies to create Florida’s railroads. Ironically, those railroads would doom river commerce. When the era of steamboating reached its end, the captain abandoned the ship and sank the craft here. Only skilled divers can visit the wreck, which is relatively intact and part of the Florida Underwater Archaeological Preserves.
Dixie County is one of 35 Florida counties with coastlines. If you head to the coast from Old Town on C.R. 349 (known as the ‘Gateway to the Gulf’), it twists and turns for 24 miles until arriving in Horseshoe Beach with side roads branching off to coastal communities such as Suwannee and Shired Island where fleets of pleasure and personal fishing boats are moored and awaiting a day on the water.
Keep in mind there’s alternate route to the coast, C.R. 351 near Cross City, which will also take you there. But first it will take you back.
There are many remote places in Florida, but on the 20-mile drive you may suspect this is one of the remotest. On either side of the highway dirt roads disappear into the pines, and even though you’re driving through the middle of nowhere, it’s satisfying to be away from people, away from signs, away from traffic. Just… away.
Either way you go, when you reach Horseshoe Beach you’re still away – and that’s why you’re here. It’s not unusual to wonder how people get here. Not in a map sense, but in a life sense. This is a place where your mind can take you back to Old Florida as you drive into a waterfront Cracker village where boaters wait for high tide, a few shrimp boats are docked in a canal, and The Marina takes care of everything else as a combination convenience store, bait and tackle shop, souvenir stand, marina, and boat launch that also advertises “Jake’s Waterfront Lounge and Marine Gas.”
Amidst the small touches that create pure Florida comes one more: One of the coolest house in the state. Towering above a narrow lane on the waterfront is a home shaped like a galleon. Quirky and eye-catching, you’ll wonder why the homeowners decided they wanted to live on a ship elevated atop piers – and where they found an architect to create it.
More than anything, though, are the views. From the shore, three small islands are the only thing between you and Mexico. This may not be the world’s most famous beach, but with little to distract you, it’s definitely one of the most pleasing.
Come Fly with Me
Near Horseshoe Beach is a 53,000-acre area known as the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. Much of the northern region of the refuge lies in Dixie County, with some portions of the refuge within the flyway of the Great Florida Birding Trail.
Within the refuge are manatees, bald eagles, otters, red-shouldered hawks, kingfishers, an array of coastal birds and plenty of freshwater and saltwater fishing. There are recommended stops for birding and wildlife viewing including Shired Island Beach where trails lead through coastal hammocks, past mudflats, and to an open beach. If your vehicle can handle it, the Dixie Mainline sneaks through pine flatwoods, bottomland hardwoods, and marsh for nine unpaved miles. There’s an observation deck above the saltmarsh at Fishbone Creek and an ADA-accessible boardwalk that leads to Salt Creek.
Cross City: A Lodge and a Lunchroom
A century ago, Florida’s Big Bend region was hitting its stride as a center for the logging industry. With few places to stay along the Dixie Highway, one company chose to create a relaxing environment where tourists, company executives, and their clients could get down to business while also enjoying nearby hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation.
In 1927 when the Putnam Lodge opened just north of Cross City in the community of Shamrock, it was everything the Putnam Lumber Company expected. Over time, though, they and other logging companies depleted their resources. After removing nearly all of the deepwater swamp cypress and longleaf yellow pine, sawmills stopped sawing and the company town of Shamrock with its ice plant, company homes, and department store ground to a halt. So did the Putnam Lodge, which went into suspended animation for several decades before Ardith Eagan began an impressive drive to save it. In time, Eagan would pass the baton to Beverly and Ed Pivacek who would complete the restoration and return the lodge to its glory days.
It’s surprising that, in this unincorporated rural community, they’ve turned back the clock while improving the lodge with touches of modern style. Many of the original touches such as hand-painted pecky cypress columns and ceilings will be around to see their second century, and 25 clean and well-appointed guest rooms, additional meeting rooms, a billiard room, wedding facilities, and a full service restaurant and bar are here for a new generation of traveler. If you don’t dine at the lodge, across the highway is the Cypress Inn Restaurant. Here since 1928, you’d swear the clientele has been there nearly as long. Inside is a 1930s truck stop atmosphere matched by a range of comfort foods including fried chicken, pork chops, cornbread, swamp cabbage, fresh local fish, squash, broccoli, buttered carrots, mashed potatoes, turnip greens, biscuits and gravy and, believe it or not, swamp cabbage.
Odds and Ends
Whether it’s through the woods or on the water, Dixie County has miles and miles of trails to explore. Its Blueways Trails of rivers, tributaries, and coastlines include the final 50 miles of the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, the Dixie Paddling Trail, portions of the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail, and sections of the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail. Its Greenways Trails include paths for motorized vehicles, ATVs, hiking, and biking. To see the range of destinations you can explore check out the wonderful Dixie Trails brochure.
For fans of Old Florida, there’s hardly a more enjoyable sight than the neon sign at Suwannee Gables, a small motor lodge in Old Town near Fanning Springs. Snap a photo when the sign is lit at night and it looks like a vintage postcard.
The Steinhatchee River separates in Dixie County from neighboring Taylor County. Across from the town of Steinhatchee is the community of Jena which, although small, is the namesake of the Jena Wildlife Management Area. Off the coast, scalloping is a wildly popular activity between July and early September.
Don’t you wish you were in Dixie County?
Photos by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA