Hamilton County: Essence of Old Florida
By Gary McKechnie
Can a county where there’s just one city, two towns, and 14,000 residents really embody the essence of Old Florida?
It can when it’s Hamilton County.
It was settled nearly 200 years ago, but in the more recent pre-interstate era two-lane Highway 41 brought travelers straight to the Florida of their imaginations. It was a paradise of magnolia blossoms, night-blooming jasmine, and moonlight dancing on the waters of the Suwannee River. It was all here then.
And it’s still here now.
Getting There… and Getting Around
With the Withlacoochee River on the west, the beautiful Suwannee River to the east and south, and Georgia to the north, Hamilton County has been described as “a peninsula within a peninsula.” To find Hamilton County, find your way to U.S 41 or U.S. 129. If you don’t see much at first, keep looking. Once you adjust your vision -- and your pace -- you’ll find several destinations that will help fill up a day or two, or more.
In the center of the town is a canoe outfitter, a circa 1893 general store now packed with antiques, a handful of restaurants, and a state park. In surrounding neighborhoods are graceful southern homes, picturesque churches, and the curiously attractive (and abandoned) Telford Hotel, which was among a dozen hotels that once welcomed guests arriving to “take the waters.” What should you see when you visit White Springs? Consider these recommendations.
Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park
11016 Lillian Saunders Drive/ U.S. Highway 41 North
Way down upon the Suwannee River seemed like the best place for a state park that celebrates the legendary composer. Moving dioramas celebrating Foster’s songs are featured in the antebellum visitor center, and outside it’s worth stopping to listen to the warm toll of 97 bells ringing from the 200-foot campanile and see the museum inside. Special events fill a year-round calendar including tractor and engine shows, Earth Day clean ups, and May’s wildly popular Florida Folk Festival, here since the 1950s. Quilters, artists, blacksmiths and other artisans fill Crafters Square and there’s also a general store. To truly experience one of Florida’s most pleasing state parks, consider renting one of their five riverside cabins or pitch a tent in the campground.
American Canoe Adventures
10610 Bridge Street
After selecting from a flotilla of canoes and kayaks, choose from eight runs that stretch from three miles (about an hour) to a more ambitious 12 miles (about six hours). After you’ve drifted gently down the stream and seen Florida in its natural state, proprietor John Hannum will be there to give you a lift back. Ready for more? Consider custom trips including the two-week “(Okeefenokee) Swamp to Gulf” trek.
16536 Spring Street
The town’s focal point, this historic store is a photographer’s dream. Inside, the owners have stocked century-old counters and shelves with antiques and collectibles that fit perfectly with the White Springs’ Old Florida feel.
• Fat Belly’s Bar-B-Que & Grill
16750 Spring Street
Belly up to a table at this hometown restaurant where friendly servers help you get your fill of comfort foods: smoked chicken, sliced pork, butterfly shrimp, wild catfish, the Fat Belly burger, garlic toast, and sweet tea. Closed Sundays.
• Big Shoals State Park
11330 SE CR 135
A few miles northeast of town, the road to this park is a road into the past. With little around you but 400 acres of forest, the pleasures are simple. Look at the towering bat house, take a walk along 28 miles of wooded trails, or paddle the Suwannee River and make your way to limestone bluffs and Class III rapids, the largest whitewater rapids in Florida.
When you visit Jasper, you’re visiting the county seat. While it won’t take long to tour the town, there are several sights to see.
• McCulley's Farm
3019 McCulley Farm Road
First settled in the 1860s, this throwback to the Florida frontier has been a family farm since 1915. For years the McCulleys have welcomed guests by hosting weddings, events, and the Withlacoochee Trail Ride each spring and fall as well as shorter trail rides anytime (FYI: It’s BYOH – Bring Your Own Horse). On longer rides you’ll travel through one of the largest tracts of longleaf pine in the south, past an honest-to-goodness log cabin, a pioneer cemetery, and then set up camp by the old McCulley farmstead.
In the heart of town, this tribute to veterans features a reflective black granite wall etched with the names of local men who “gave their last full measure of devotion.” Leading up to their names the granite walls share military history from the Civil War to the present which, hopefully, will never add another chapter.
• The Old Hamilton County Jail and Historical Museum
501 Northeast 1st Avenue
Located on a side street, the jail was built in 1893 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in July 1983. Call for hours.
• H&F Diner
202 Hatley Street
Drawing a wide clientele ranging from county judges to tire mechanics, buffet diners load up on catfish, chicken gizzards, pork chops, chicken, meatloaf, creamed corn, lima beans, rice, okra, tomatoes, mustard greens, turnips, black-eyed peas, cabbage, cornbread, cakes, bread pudding… and a salad bar.
On a Hamilton County road trip, you’ll find even more to catch your attention.
• Horseback Riding
With lots of woods and a love of horses, Hamilton County has a number of riding trails. In addition to McCulley Farms (above), there are several trails listed at www.opentrail.us.
Hamilton County is perfectly situated in the path of migrating birds. To find places where you can watch birds in their natural habitat, visit floridabirdingtrail.com
Heading south of Jasper on US 129, a short distance beyond I-75, an old cemetery sits on the left side of the road. It’s hard to imagine who lived here when this was even more in the middle of nowhere, but a few families make up most of the occupants. The weathered and worn tombstones make an interesting photo op as well as a glimpse back at Florida history.
- Jasper Wild Blackberry Festival: Celebrating the height of the blueberry season each June, this Jasper event showcases blackberries by themselves, blackberries in pancakes, blackberries in syrups and jellies, and the crowning of Miss Wild Blackberry.
- Jennings Peanut Festival: A September event with breakfast, sweets, entertainment, a beauty pageant, and peanuts prepared in a variety of ways.
- White Springs Wild Azalea Festival, (386) 884-9954: Each spring, the town pays tribute to one of the prettiest flowers in the Sunshine State.
For more information:
Photos by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA