Off the Beaten Path from Tallahassee: Madison County, Fla.
By Gary McKechnie
Madison, once the largest county in the entire state, ceded that distinction to Palm Beach County when, over time, Madison spun off what are now neighboring Taylor, Lafayette, and Dixie counties. Then, in the 1960s, superhighway I-10 changed once-essential Highway 90 into a lonely back road that slipped through rural counties and squeezed past historic town squares. Although changes in size and detours in traffic altered what once existed, they preserved simple pleasures that radiate out from one of the most charming county seats in the South.
1. Madison’s Avenues
Enjoy a casual walk around the town square in the county seat of Madison. Within the space of a few blocks you’ll discover the stately 1912 county courthouse that, inside and out, captures the fictional feel of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Shortly after sunrise or before sunset when daylight is softer and redder, the courthouse is bathed in perfect light and has a commanding presence. Trendy boutiques, antique shops, a vintage barbershop, and cafés are neighbors with historic homes surrounding Four Freedoms Park, where several statues and monuments complement the park’s namesake, a graceful sculpture inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s proclamation that everyone on earth should enjoy freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.
2. Cave, Man!
State Road 6 winds across the hills of north Madison County and, at the Hamilton County border, reaches a bridge spanning the long and winding Withlacoochee River. Most guests are content to pull over for a refreshing swim in the cool waters of Madison Blue Spring State Park, but serious divers from around the world come here ready to take the plunge; disappearing into a series of submerged subterranean passages, squeezing through narrow passages, and floating into spacious underwater chambers. It is, they insist, a supremely calming sensation. Of course you may be content with the equally calming experience of sitting on the banks of the Withlacoochee River, looking at the woods and waters and listening to the sound of the flowing stream unfolding over a line of small boulders spanning the waterway.
3. And a Cherry on Top
Largely hidden from all but determined travelers, Cherry Lake is yet another Madison County anachronism. As seen from a lovely canopy road that circles it, the broad lake is dotted by vintage homes, log cabins, lodges, a boating club, and a lakefront 4-H facility that’s welcomed generations of happy campers. Next to the camp on the lake’s north shore, a county park is open to the public (ie: you), making it a fine place for sunning, swimming, and fishing in a setting that takes you back to the Florida of your youth.
4. A Ray of Light
Hundreds of thousands of motorists racing past I-10’s Greenville exit are unaware what awaits them just a few miles north. Displayed prominently in Haffye Hayes Park near the intersection of U.S. 221 and U.S. 90, a statue of Ray Charles pays tribute to the small town boy who made good by becoming one of the most influential musicians in history. Bradley Cooley’s 2005 bronze sculpture of Charles captures the musician’s fierce energy, charisma, and unique stage presence as he attacks the keys. Even better, there’s room on the piano bench for you to join the genius for a great souvenir photo. From the park, head to 443 SW Ray Charles Avenue where you’ll find a recreation of his childhood home.
5. Lee Way
The Suwannee and Withlacoochee rivers border eastern Madison County which made the name of Twin Rivers State Forest a foregone conclusion. Near the town of Lee, the nearly 15,000-acre forest is along the migratory route known as the Great Florida Birding Trail making it a popular destination for birders, just as forest and riding trails offer a haven for hikers and equestrians and rivers attract visitors ready to travel the waters via canoe and kayak.
For more information, check out visitmadisonfl.com.
Want to read about more hidden Florida gems? Check out these articles: