There's No Place Like Florida's Holmes County
By: Gary McKechnie
The great thing about Florida travel is that there’s something for everyone. Wander around the state and you’ll find cool luxury hotels, nightclubs that rock until dawn, and the world’s most popular beaches and theme parks.
But when you need to shake loose from the destinations where most tourists travel, you search for places where you can dive into cool, clear springs, shed stress on rarely traveled back roads, and explore deep forests and the rivers that run through them.
That’s when you find yourself in Holmes County.
The Starting Line: Bonifay
The counties I enjoy most are those that can be navigated on a handful of rural highways. If you spy a side road that catches your eye, you’ll often find what you discover is better than what you just left.
That’s what Holmes County has waiting for you.
Bonifay, the county seat, is the perfect starting point for a “rectangle tour” that leads to a state park, a legendary dive site, roads that rise and fall like a roller coaster, and hidden rivers that flow deep into Florida’s most remote backwoods.
Make your first stop the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce, where racks of brochures promote nearly everything in and around the area; far more information than can be included here.
Reflective of the region is the Chamber’s log cabin design that’s accented by an impressive work of outdoor folk art. Applying a welding torch to a hulking, rusted naval buoy, local artist Carla Templeton carved the shapes of bronco busters, cowboy boots, and steers that are especially fitting considering the highlight of the year is October’s Northwest Florida Championship Rodeo, a three-day PRCA-sanctioned event that attracts the nation’s best cowboys and cowgirls. Each year 25,000 fans (more than eight times Bonifay’s population) watch rodeo events including bareback riding, tie-down roping, saddle bronc riding, team roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing, and bull riding.
The heart of the city, where many storefronts are empty, isn’t designed for a shopping spree nor does the 60s-modern courthouse have the same picturesque appeal as the historic government buildings in neighboring counties.
But Bonifay has a few places that may pique your interest such as the two-story Mediterranean Revival Waits Mansion, which hosts special events, and the Holmes County Historical Society and Museum that welcomes visitors the second Saturday of each month from 10-2. Members also maintain and promote the county’s historic sites and offer advice on genealogy and historic preservation – all of which you can learn about at holmescountyhistory.com.
As in most small towns, cemeteries can reveal information about the past with common names often highlighting a family tree of town founders and repeated dates marking years when epidemics spread through the town. With that in mind, check out the Bonifay Cemetery.
When you’re done here, head west on U.S. 90.
It’s Spring Time!
U.S. 90 leads out of Bonifay and doesn’t stop until reaching Van Horn, Texas. For your purposes, follow it just long enough to slip across a chunk of Washington County and slide back into Holmes County before reaching Ponce de Leon 18 miles west. There’s not much shaking in this unincorporated community, so in the middle of nearly nothing it’s a treat to find a place that’s really something: Ponce De Leon Springs State Park.
If, like me, you have the opportunity to visit on an off-season weekday, you just may enjoy something extraordinary: Complete and utter privacy.
On a Tuesday, there were no other cars in the parking lot and not a ripple disturbing the surface of a crystal-clear spring flowing at a rate of 14 million gallons a day. It was as if I had inherited the entire 443-acre park, its two nature trails, picnic pavilions, and changing rooms. In an instant, I ditched my self-imposed schedule and spent the next two hours leaping from a raised platform into the 68-degree waters and wading into the woods via the clear, shallow stream that flowed from the spring.
When I was cold, I’d sit at one of several picnic tables and read a book. When I was warm, I’d close the book and dive back in. I swam on my back and watched the azure blue sky through the peaks of cypress trees and then dive to the sandy white depths.
Florida’s state parks are at the top of the list of Florida’s highlights. Whether you visit when there are hundreds of others, or you’re here all alone, secluded Ponce de Leon Springs State Park is a charming, picture-perfect place to slow down and savor life.
Just outside Ponce de Leon. C.R. 81, which parallels the county’s western border, begins the second leg of your tour. Four miles ahead on your right comes your next destination: Vortex Spring, recognized as one of Florida’s premier dive sites.
In the early 1970s, Navy veteran Denzel “Doc” Dockery and his wife Ruth transformed Vortex Spring into a world-class dive destination. Incidentally, in 1956 Dockery had transformed dive safety when he created the internationally-recognized “diver down” symbol – a red background intersected by a diagonal white line.
The 420-acre complex is Florida’s largest dive center and includes a dive shop, several cabins for overnight stays, and assorted outbuildings that surround the huge main spring, which pumps out 28 million gallons each day. While most Florida divers prefer daylight excursions above coral reefs, diving here lasts from daybreak until 11 p.m. Snorkelers splash around the surface, divers disappear below the surface passing carp, koi, bass, catfish, and eels, and cave divers go even further to explore a network of caves where sharks’ teeth – estimated at 17 million years old – have been found, indicating this area was once submerged beneath a salty sea.
Rounding the Bend
There’s not much shaking in the northwest section of the county, but U.S. 81 is a wonderful road with improvements that make for a smooth and easy drive. The few points of interest include a community called Prosperity which, along with nearby New Hope, suggests the optimism of its earliest settlers. Prosperity is also home of a 450-acre vineyard that grows grapes for St. Augustine’s San Sebastian Winery.
The main road east, C.R. 2, will appear about 13 miles north of Vortex Spring, but if you’d like to see the community of Sweet Gum Head (if only to say you’ve been to Sweet Gum Head), branch off at Highway 185 and you’ll find it near the Georgia border. Otherwise, C.R. 2 is most enjoyable as it coasts slowly up and down the gentle hills that create northern Holmes County. Depending on the time of the year (ie: when fields of blooming cotton turn the autumn landscape into a wintry patch of “snow”) you may feel as if you’re driving through the middle of a Stephen Foster song.
Three main roads can take you south back to your starting point in Bonifay, all of which branch off from C.R. 2. The first, 179A, rambles past a random collection of small homes – cabins and trailers mostly. If you’re into outdoor adventures, several miles down the road look to your left for nearly-hidden Baker Landing Lane, where a picture of a boat is posted.
If you rarely leave paved roads, traveling this long dirt road will spark equal degrees of excitement and anxiety as it plunges deep into the forest. Follow it to its end and you’ll reach a launch site on the banks of the Choctawhatchee River. Far, far off the beaten path, this is where serious sportsmen travel to launch excursions deeper into the backwoods to look for deer, turkey, and wild hogs.
Depending on whether or not you’re ready to track a deer or set off on the river for a voyage of discovery, you may stick with C.R. 2 until you reach the next major road, Highway 179, at the community of Pittman, which in these parts seems like a city center if only for Shawn’s Grocery-Deli. Considering this corner market is just one of the rare stores since Bonifay, you may be ready to stock up on provisions including cookies, jerky, or boiled peanuts.
Head south on Highway 179 and you’re on the last leg of the trip, the final stretch that’ll complete the rectangle back to Bonifay.
But there’s one more sight to see. A half-mile down the road is an authentic log cabin. William Thomas Keith (who earlier held distinction as the third-youngest soldier in the Confederate Army) homesteaded 10 acres and built this cabin for himself, his mother, his wife, and his eight children in 1880.
As his fortunes improved and his farm grew to 190 acres, he added a plaza, smokehouse, corn crib, enclosed shed rooms, and a well. Inside, the cabin is furnished with period pieces including a bed, washbasin, table, and metal ware. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s a well-preserved example of a settler’s life in pioneer Holmes County.
From here, it’s a leisurely drive south back to U.S. 90, heading east to wrap up the trip in Bonifay.
It’s hard to believe, but eastern Holmes County is even less developed than sparsely populated western Holmes County. If you’d like to continue your tour, stick with C.R. 2 past Pittman to C.R. 79 where the community of Esto is just north of the junction. Further along C.R. 2, Highway 173 can also drop you south back to Bonifay.
While not an attraction per se, Holmes County’s history includes cemeteries, steamboat wrecks, sites of ghost towns, Civil War raids, and even Prohibition-era gunfights. To learn more about these times and places, check HolmesCountyHistory.com.
Photos by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA