Small Towns on the Old Florida Heritage Highway
By Greg Hamilton
Pull off Interstate 75 at exit 368, steer east on a shaded, tree-lined country road and feel the decades fall away.
Glide past vast expanses of verdant, rolling pastures that make you swear you’re in the Carolinas or Tennessee -- certainly not flat-and-sandy Florida. The hustle of the highway fades in the rear-view mirror as Marion County Road 318 brings you to a single traffic light.
Swing north onto U.S. 441, which lives up to its designation as the Old Florida Heritage Highway.
Five or so miles away, you’ll find McIntosh -- a small Florida town where time seems to have stopped at around 1930, and no one is complaining.
It’s also a draw for antique-hunters, people looking for that special accent piece for their home, or just anyone interested in eclectic items.
There are at least seven antique shops in tiny McIntosh, which has sat alongside Orange Lake since the early 1800s. The numerous Victorian homes along the quiet lined streets are historic relics themselves.
For the antique dealers, having so many outlets in such a small area is not a concern. "Everyone pretty much stays in their lane," said Dina Michael, owner of Winters Past on U.S. 441, which specializes in clothing and jewelry. Others might focus on furniture or toys, books and music, or even rustic farm implements.
"We sell what we love," she said, adding that the shopkeepers refer customers to each other.
Sometimes, they’re the customers themselves. "I got my coffee table from a shop in town," Michael said, describing an old wooden railroad cart she repurposed for her home.
Michael said she enjoys getting to know the customers and finding out about their tastes. "Sometimes, they don’t know what they want," she said.
In keeping with the town’s turn-of-the-century -- the 19th century, that is -- easy-going vibe, the shops have varying hours of operation. Best not to get there before 10 a.m. most days.
After treasure-hunting in the town, get back on U.S. 441 and continue the journey along the scenic old Florida heritage highway. Head north past fields of grazing cattle and old motels dating back before the interstate arrived and this was a major artery for Florida tourists.
Soon, you’ll get to Micanopy. Or, rather, you’ll get close.
Look for the flashing light -- that’s the intersection of County Road 234 -- and turn west toward the historic downtown.
Away from the main road, a short tunnel of moss-draped oaks opens onto one of Florida’s best-preserved historic treats.
"Micanopy has an amazing ambience of Florida music, cafes, a lovely museum -- free -- and just a wonderful variety of antiques," said Monica Beth Fowler, owner of Delectable Collectables on Cholokka Boulevard, and unabashed town booster.
Hers is one of a dozen antique shops lining the peaceful street that teem with visitors most weekends. Fowler has been selling antiques -- her specialty is cameos, and she has more than 1,500 of them -- for 35 years in Micanopy.
Around her, shops invite visitors to browse and learn about the wares and the town itself. Knowledgeable owners love to share stories about how they acquired the gems on their tables and shelves. They call it the thrill of the hunt.
"There’s some overlap, but mostly it means more choices," Fowler said of the shops. There are also gift shops that provide a different flavor, she said.
In many people’s minds, Micanopy is synonymous with "Doc Hollywood,” the 1991 movie starring Michael J. Fox, Julie Warner and Woody Harrelson that was filmed in the town. Fowler said visitors still ask about the movie, even all these years later.
Across the street sits the venerable Herlong Mansion, where countless brides and grooms have posed for wedding day photos over the decades. The entire downtown could easily pass for a Hollywood set -- except that it is very real, and very much still alive.
As is often said around here, a day trip to Micanopy and McIntosh is not complete without a visit to The Yearling Restaurant in nearby Cross Creek. So, head south on 441 a short distance and turn east onto County Road 346. Once across Orange Lake, turn south on County Road 325 and a few minutes later you will arrive in Cross Creek.
This rustic town near the Old Florida Heritage Highway is a homage to its most famous former resident, naturalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
The Yearling Restaurant, named after the Rawling’s most famous work, is a one-of-its kind eatery. The ramshackle restaurant is rough-and-tumble looking, as befits a former fish camp.
"Some people pull up to the restaurant and don’t want to go in there," said owner Robert Blauer. "It’s not fancy, and they don’t know what to expect."
Venture inside and expect to have your senses caressed. Your eyes will take in the charm of a building that has been added onto many times over the years until it resembles a rabbit warren; your nose will pick up the scent of a real cracker menu that features fresh catfish, venison, grouper, quail and duck, and your mouth will commence watering.
And your ears will thrill to the sounds of legendary local bluesman Willie Green. No, that’s not a CD playing; Willie himself is perched on his stool, plucking his guitar and wailing on a harmonica.
The recipes have been around for 40 years or more and the meals show it. Blauer said the most popular are their shrimp dishes and catfish, but occasionally they’ll mix it up and add, say, rabbit to the menu. This is no chain restaurant.
The Yearling is open Thursday through Sunday from noon to 8 on Thursday and Sunday; till 9 on Friday and Saturday. Willie Green is there most days.
By now, after a day of strolling through historic Florida towns and dining on wild game, you’re about ready to call on Miss Rawlings. Her place is just down the road.
Head south on CR 325 and you’ll arrive at the author’s homestead, now a state park bearing her name. It was here, on a rough wooden table in a screened-in porch, that she wrote "The Yearling” on an old typewriter in 1938.
The house, gardens, woods and out buildings seem frozen in time. Stroll around the well-kept property and sense what Rawlings experienced as she became one with the natural beauty -- and rugged way of life -- that she called home.
Before you take the trek, re-read the book or watch the 1946 movie to get a taste of Rawlings’ writing style and descriptive passages; it will make the experience that much more vivid, like you are revisiting a previous life.
The park is open every day and visitors may tour the house with a ranger in period costume from October through July on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 10 and 11 a.m. and at 1, 2, 3, and 4 p.m. Often, volunteers are in the kitchen making bread and food from the era, making the farm come alive once again.
Picnic facilities, a boat ramp and a playground are located in the adjacent county park on the shore of Orange Lake.
As the sun begins to dip over the lake, it’s time to return to the blacktop, back to the busy life you left behind for this day trip back to a quieter era.
Make plans to return; this peaceful way of life may be old-fashioned, but it has never gone out of style.