Madison County, Florida: Where the Past is a Destination
By Gary McKechnie
Time’s knack of softening edges goes a long way to explain why there’s such a fondness for the past. But the past is often a destination that’s difficult to reach.
Unless the destination is Madison County.
On the Florida-Georgia border an hour east of Tallahassee, this is a place of quiet country roads, clear natural springs, wild rivers, small town festivals, antebellum homes, and peaceful city parks. Tour Madison County and you’ll find nearly 20 historical markers, likely more than you’d find in any other county in the state.
Because routine repeatedly lured us back to the same destinations, it tends to leave Florida’s rural counties overlooked. But should you explore Madison County, you’ll find more than enough to schedule a return visit.
The Madison County seat, also called Madison, is intersected by old U.S. 90, which makes this town of 2,900 a perfect place to begin your journey.
At its center sits a stately 1912 courthouse that, in the breaking light of day or the last rays of sunset, is bathed in an almost supernatural glow. Not only does this look like a place where Atticus Finch would argue a case, a courtroom inside recalls images from “To Kill A Mockingbird."
From the courthouse, set off and explore this wonderful walking town. Blocks of historic buildings are filled with an eclectic range of shops and restaurants; some at a level of sophistication unexpected in this off-the-beaten-path destination. There are trendy boutiques and chic cafés as well as several antique shops and interior design stores that would be at home in Miami’s South Beach district. There are signs of nostalgia as well, such as the Treasures of Madison County (a museum/genealogy center), Masonic Lodge #11, an old-fashioned barbershop, and a country store selling folk art, preserves, and primitive pieces handmade in Madison and rural northeast Florida.
While in the district, take time to enjoy Four Freedoms Park. Inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s epic speech, in 1943 artist Walter Russell created a statue depicting freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion and dedicated it to Captain Colin Kelly, a Madison native who became a B-17 pilot. Three days after Pearl Harbor, Kelly had attacked Japanese ships when his plane was targeted by Japanese fighters. After ordering his crew to bail out, the bomber exploded over the Philippines, giving Kelly the unfortunate distinction as one of the first casualties of World War II.
This is a most peaceful park, and a most impressive one. A Confederate memorial topped by a granite soldier is the park’s centerpiece. There’s a flagpole dedicated to Gold Star mothers, a sign marks this as the site of a Seminole Indian War blockhouse, and there are monuments to the slaves of Madison County as well as to local civil rights pioneers who fought to correct injustices. One monument, erected by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, is a subtle reminder that on Sundays things are quiet in these parts. Many shops are closed, so call ahead for hours.
Madison is also a town of historic homes, in many places looking untouched after nearly two centuries of time. Volunteer guides offer walking tours of the historic district, but more convenient may be visiting the Chamber of Commerce and picking up a detailed walking map containing historical details about sites such as the 1836 Livingston House (Madison's oldest home), the 1880 Italianate Dial-Goza House, and the 1860 Greek Revival Wardlaw-Smith House.
The village is just one place to enjoy a casual stroll. A few blocks east is Lake Frances where a pavilion is a wonderful place to enjoy a calming view. If you’re more energetic, joggers and pedestrians enjoy walking around the lake encircled by quiet residential neighborhoods of more historic homes.
Along the way, you’ll notice images of quilts displayed throughout the community. It’s a sign that Madison, like Trenton, Branford, Live Oak, and White Springs, is part of the Florida Quilt Trail.
North of Madison, head east on S.R. 6 and you’ll be on a picturesque country road marked by rolling hills and cornfields. Just before crossing the Withlacoochee River into Hamilton County you’ve arrived at Madison Blue Spring State Park where the focal point is a sunken azure pool. While most visitors would look at this glistening first magnitude pool and see a place to splash, snorkel, or perhaps snooze in the shade of overhanging oak trees, some see it as something far greater.
Cave divers from across America and Europe come here, disappearing first underwater, and then underground, for several hours as they explore a series of subterranean passages. While it sounds frightening to most, diver Meredith Tanguay shared an opposite reaction after exiting the water.
“In the cave it’s actually quite calm and peaceful,” she said. “It’s not about adrenaline. Cave diving is a sport that rewards Zen and finesse. And Madison Blue Springs is one of the most beautiful places to dive.”
Steps away where the spring flows into the Withlacoochee River, a row of small boulders creates a small waterfall and one of Florida’s most picture-perfect scenes. While this is likely one of the least-visited state parks due to its location, it’s certainly one of the most attractive. You’ve come this far, so do yourself a favor and take a little time for yourself. Find a quiet spot in the shade by the waterfront, sit back, and just listen to the water as it rushes over the rocks in folds and creases.
A Cherry on Top
C.R. 145 (aka Colin Kelly Road) stretches north from Madison and parallels a wide recreational trail that was once the path of a railroad. If you’re a cyclist or just in the mood for a long walk, the Four Freedoms Trail is part of a 135-mile path that encircles the county, much of it along Highway 90 between Suwannee County to the east and Jefferson County to the west and much of it embedded in the Adventure Cycling Association’s Southern Tier ‘Coast to Coast’ cycling route.
And while Floridians are accustomed to seeing orange groves and palm trees, along the way you’ll see something unusual: A cotton field stretching for hundreds of acres with puffy white cotton sprouting like snow from the branches. The sight will make you feel you’ve departed Florida for the Deep South.
Several miles ahead in the unincorporated community of Pinetta you can buy homemade sausage at the Pinetta Market and see what must have been a railroad depot and whistle-stop hotel, both now remnants of time. Highway 150 splits to the west, the space between Pinetta and the next unincorporated community, Cherry Lake, separated by scenes of large nurseries, small farms, fields of corn and, surprisingly, a contemporary subdivision. At the junction of C.R. 150 and Route 253, two service stations look as slow and sleepy as their surroundings, but what really makes this unincorporated community worth visiting can be found just a few miles north.
Well off the beaten path, 600-acre Cherry Lake is unknown to most Floridians, but is cherished by families whose homes – either rustic or elegant – surround the lake and by generations of students who’ve attended the 4-H camp, which has been here since the 1930s. Next to the camp, a small county park is delightful in its solitude. There is little to disturb you here on the shores of hidden Cherry Lake. A picnic pavilion and park overlook the water, the bank slopes to a small beach, and a floating dock offers a place for sunning, swimming, and fishing. From the opposite shore and back along the banks are log cabins and lodges, a boating club, and racks of canoes.
A Ray of Light
From Cherry Lake the remote nature of Madison County can be seen in Cinemascope as winding Highway 150, followed by a switch south on Lovett Road, takes you up and over hills, through stretches of canopy roads, past forlorn cemeteries and Cracker cabins. From here your destination is Greenville, not because there’s an extraordinary amount to do here, but because of who once lived here.
Near the junction of U.S. 90 and U.S. 221 in Haffye Hayes Park is a wonderful statue of Ray Charles, the legendary entertainer whose childhood was spent in Greenville and who was later a student at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf & Blind.
The 2005 life-sized work by sculptor Bradley Cooley appears to be in motion as Charles plays a keyboard with fierce intensity. It’s well worth a photo as you pass through town on U.S. 90 – aka Ray Charles Memorial Highway. To see where Charles was raised (actually a reconstruction of his childhood home), set your coordinates for 443 SW Ray Charles Avenue.
Madison County covers 716 square miles, but relatively few major roads cross it. Should you arrive from the south on I-10, exit at 275 and you’ll pass the Suwannee River State Park by Ellaville and then cross the Suwannee River southeast of the town of Lee (“Little But Proud.”) If you’re a nature lover, in the short distance between the river and the town is the place for you.
The Twin Rivers State Forest refers to the junction of the Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers, and is along the migratory route known as the Great Florida Birding Trail. Within the forest are hiking and equestrian trails, canoeing, and primitive camp areas.
In every quarter, Madison County awaits.
So hit the road, Jack.
If you go…
Check out the Madison County Chamber of Commerce site.
Photos by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA