Visit Putnam County, Florida and Slow Down
By Gary McKechnie
If you turned back the clock a century or two, you would have arrived in Putnam County by foot, rail, or riverboat.
The odd thing is, none of those methods would seem out of place today. In fact, spend a little time in Putnam County and you’ll get the sense that time here moves at a much more leisurely pace. Time seems to run in sync with the gentle flow of the St. Johns River, the magnificent waterway that brought life to Putnam County.
According to a splendid online history prepared by the Putnam Historical Society, William Bartram, the author and artist who explored the American South on a four-year journey, arrived in Palatka in 1774. Where today you’ll find the county seat, Bartram found an Indian village surrounded by an orange grove and fields of corn, potatoes, beans, squash, melon, and tobacco.
In the decades that followed, Florida and, by extension, Putnam County, were swapped between the British and Spanish before the United States took over (minus a few years for the Confederacy.) While the Indians never had a say in any of this, they did express their displeasure by burning down Palatka in 1835.
In the 1800s Jacksonville and Palatka ran neck-and-neck as centers for river transportation and shipping, but Jax eventually took an insurmountable lead. Then after flirting with high-end hotels, northern tourists, and VIP visitors, Putnam County over time settled into a state of contentment. In fact, that’s about how you’ll feel when you visit. With low-key natural attractions, scenic drives, historic highlights, excellent fishing, and plentiful opportunities to slow your pace to Putnam time, chances are you’ll be satisfied with what you’ll discover.
Why not start in…
It’s a sprawling city comprised of commercial districts and a web of residential neighborhoods, so a casual drive can become confusing unless you concentrate on a few highlights.
There’s not a single thrill ride at Ravine Gardens State Park, not a single costumed character, no blaring mood music. In their place you’ll find peace and tranquility in a setting William Bartram would recognize.
Within the 59-acre park, a 1.8-mile loop encircles twin ravines that are as deep as 120 feet. Students, couples, families, seniors and solo travelers follow the one-way loop in cars, on foot, or on bicycles and stop at scenic overlooks along the way. Steps lead down to the floor of the ravine where a trail parallels the flow of the Whitewater Branch, an underground river that carved the gorge.
For decades this has been one of the city’s most treasured attractions, especially between January and April when flowers (especially azaleas) are in bloom. Seasonal activities such as wagon tours, summer camp, and Eco Adventure Days add to its appeal.
Ships used to moor in the expansive waters of the St. Johns, leaving excursions into Florida’s interior to smaller riverboats. Although those ships set sail long ago, the river has remained.
Capitalizing on this natural asset, between the waterfront and the historic commercial district, several vintage buildings have been restored while sleek waterfront condos have been added. With a wide sidewalk, oak trees, terraced seating, benches, and a lush green lawn, the riverfront park is a popular place for picnics, fishing, a stroll, or simply stopping awhile and settling down with a book (even better, settling down for a nap).
From the park, small boats and the occasional yacht are framed by the soaring Memorial Bridge (be sure to check out the WW I bronze statues at its base), and the picturesque views illustrate perfectly the beauty of Florida.
A few blocks away on St. Johns Avenue, a variety of merchants are doing what they can to bring business, and people, back to the heart of downtown. More than two dozen murals tell the story of the town’s history and its heydays.
One enterprise that has lasted more than most is Angel’s Diner, here since 1932. Located on Highway 17 near the commercial district, Florida’s oldest diner still serves all-day breakfasts, burgers, fries, frog legs, onion rings, shakes and more.
A few blocks north, the 1854 Bronson-Mulholland House predates Angel’s by more than half a century. To this day, the classic antebellum home of Judge Isaac Bronson reveals the level of wealth that existed when Palatka was a thriving commercial port. Now owned by the city and furnished with period pieces, docents offer guided tours and the entire house and surrounding two acres can be rented for weddings and other events.
It’s a little tricky getting your bearings in Crescent City. When you arrive here after driving down Highway 17, you’ll gravitate toward the waterfront and assume the sprawling body of water is the St. Johns River. Actually, this is Crescent Lake. And it’s beautiful.
Roughly 13 miles long and two miles wide, the 16,000-acre lake feeds the St. Johns via Dunn’s Creek (see State Park, below). But here at the foot of Central Avenue in Crescent City, it is the centerpiece of the town. Thanks to Florida’s fifth-largest lake and what you’ll find in its waters, the town has proclaimed itself “The Bass Capital of the World” and has enough fish in reserve to host the Rotary Club’s Catfish Festival each April.
The waterfront is, of course, where locals and visitors tend to congregate and enjoy what passes for a commercial district. Few places in Florida capture that kind of lazy Huck Finn-fishing-on-the-river mood like Crescent City.
By the waterfront the pace seems slower and perfectly suited for the Sprague House Bed & Breakfast, which is only a short walk from the waterfront 3 Bananas restaurant. Aside from this, a few merchants sell collectibles and antiques, but overall there’s a nice drowsy Old Florida feel here.
Putnam County Odds & Ends
Since this is largely a rural county, aside from its only two cities (Palatka and Crescent City) there’s no “best” way to reach other points of interest. So when you embark on your voyage of discovery, consider adding these to your itinerary.
Fishing. It’s not just Crescent Lake where the fish are biting. Rivers and lakes in south Putnam County are known as prime spots for black bass. Amateurs as well as pros competing in multiple tournaments also looking for largemouth bass, striped bass, speckled perch, bream, catfish, and mullet.
Putnam County Speedway Park. (Satsuma) NASCAR hopefuls, shade tree mechanics, and anyone who gets an adrenaline surge from racing (or watching) fast cars head here to see drivers compete in stock cars, trucks, carts, ATVs, dirt bikes -- and even lawn mowers. Concerts and non-racing track events fill in a busy calendar.
Log Cabin Winery. (Satsuma) A replica of the farm’s original log cabin speaks to the history of this third generation farm. Having added a commercial ten-acre vineyard, the end result is muscadine wines. The family farm welcomes visitors and also hosts events including the Old Florida Wine & Harvest Festival.
Welaka State Forest. (Welaka) Two hiking trails -- the two-mile Mud Spring Trail loop and the John's Landing Trail that meanders along old road beds to the St. Johns River – give you a glimpse of the forest that includes wetlands, flatwoods, hammocks, sandhills, and bayheads. The Sandhill Horse Trail is a combination equestrian trail/hiking path and the state forest features training and show horse arenas along with a 72-horse stable. (386) 467-2388.
Dunns Creek State Park. An area once used by Native Americans, steamboat operators, turpentine loggers, and cattle ranchers, this 6,200-acre-plus park encompasses nearly 20 natural communities -- sand hills, deep ravines, pine flatwoods, and sand pine scrub among them -- and also protects several native and endangered species, including the gopher tortoise. Dunns Creek, which connects Crescent Lake with the St. Johns River, is a popular spot for canoeing. Picnic areas, hiking trails, and equestrian trails are also found in the park. (386) 329-3721
Azalea Festival. A fixture since 1946, the floral celebration takes place in downtown Palatka each March. FYI: 1949’s Azalea Queen, Neva Jean Langley, became Miss America in 1953.
Florahome. While there’s certainly not much to see in this unincorporated community on Highway 100, it is interesting for the fact that someone’s converted the old station beside a stretch of the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail into an antique shop.
Interlachen. Located 15 miles west of Palatka, the railroad came to town in the 1870s and things were going great until the freezes of 1894-1895 killed the town’s fledgling citrus industry. Three wooden hotels came, two went (fires), and one remains: The Lakeview House Hotel. The Interlachen Historical Society runs a small museum at the Interlachen Hall.
Mount Royal Indian Temple Mound (Welaka). When William Bartram was exploring Florida, he saw and then wrote about this, the largest sand temple mount in Florida. Created sometime between 1250 and 1500, you can still see it today – and it’s free. (386) 467-9709
History. If history, genealogy, and the past excite you, be sure to visit the Putnam Historical Society’s website. Articles and links will lead you to a wealth of information on cemeteries, railroads, historic districts, black history, yearbooks, phone books, and other aspects of Putnam’s past.
Photos by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA