Marianna Calling

    Relax in the small-town atmosphere of Marianna where you can stay in an inn or bed & breakfast, cycle through back-country roads or explore the only walk-through caves in the state.

    By Herb Miller

    Late and likely alone, Jackson County greeted the millennium by saluting Miniature Pet Pig Day. Only one family and one pet pig belatedly celebrated a 1999 proclamation by Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Even at that, the event was in mild defiance of an Alford town ordinance against livestock. But Jackson County keeps cool about knotty goings-on.

    This is, after all, where the cradle-to-grave militia of kids and old-timers faced off against raiding Yankees in the Civil War Battle of Marianna and where, today, residents proudly show off three-foot-long carp that hover at the warm edge of Merritt's Mill Pond even though they're supposed to be out in the cool spring-fed outflow chewing pond-clogging hydrilla.

    There's a natural born what's the rush quality about this oldest of inland Florida counties, 65 miles west of Tallahassee, that makes hanging out its best attraction. Not to say there aren't significant things to do. Florida Caverns State Park has the only walk-through caves in the state. The biggest dam in Florida backs up big Lake Seminole and gives rise to Three Rivers State Park. Blue Springs pours forth a first magnitude rush of water for diving and swimming, and the Chipola River forms one of Florida's most beautiful paddling trails.

    People cherish the country-in-town look of downtown where Lafayette Street takes a couple of curves atop the hill past the Battle of Marianna obelisk and the gazebo in the grassy little courthouse park, past the Mediterranean-styled post office which, though architecturally out of place, nonetheless rates as a favored Marianna curiosity.

    Best downtown place to stay is Judy Riley's Hinson House Bed & Breakfast named for a former Marianna mule dealer and where Christmas lights stay lit all year. Best downtown place to eat is the Gazebo Coffee Shoppe & Deli open till about 3 o'clock and where the $5.65 lunch specials include a drink . Locals have to figure an extra few minutes for getting in and out of the long, narrow Gazebo because of everybody they have to say hello to.

    A block east, the sign above Lafayette Street directs visitors to the caves, about a mile beyond the wooded campus of Chipola College (another county pride) and past the nine-hole Florida Caverns Golf Course (designed in 1938 and built in 1941 by Robert Trent Jones, Sr.).

    The cavern trail covers about a quarter mile. The caves are slivered between the surface and aquifer, so that roots of surficial trees often poke through cave tops while, in rainy weather, sections of cave flood and blind crayfish emerge from underground streams. It's here where the Chipola River swirls underground before rising near the old log run. The upper stretch can be daunting. The park rents canoes.

    County back roads appeal to cyclists, with slight elevations, farms all around, here and there passing a gracious antebellum mansion, peanut processing plant, maybe a cotton gin.

    Every crossroads town seems to have its country store. In Greenwood, it's L.S. Pender's General Store. No sign on it. Doesn't need one. The store has carried on business here since 1869, more or less since Lawrence's great-grandmother said the place could be used "for anything but a livery house or a tavern." You'd be surprised how busy it is.

    In Graceville, home of Baptist College of Florida with its heritage village of relocated old buildings, folks hold fast to Service Drug Store, in town since 1906, still with its soda fountain serving milkshakes and cherry cokes.