Suwannee County, Florida: The 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.
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…
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
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
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, 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).
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
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.
Blueberry Festival (June)
1340 8th Avenue, Wellborn, FL 32094
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
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.
You’ll find even more to catch your attention on a Suwannee County road trip.
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)
C&J’s Blueberry Vineyard (Live Oak)
Lee’s Nursery (Branford)
Mitillini Vineyards (Live Oak)
Scott’s Blueberry Farm (Wellborn)
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.
To find woods and refuges where native and migrating birds can be seen in their natural habitat, visit floridabirdingtrail.com.
Suwannee County Fair (March)
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
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)
This Branford event has been going at a gallop since 1956.
Christmas on the Square (December)
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.