By Gary McKechnie
When you enter DeSoto County on Highway 70 in the city of Desoto, the last traces of development have long disappeared. Coastal cities and oceanfront high-rises are far behind you and now, for mile after mile, you’ll see little but green pastures that reach from horizon to horizon. It’s a sign that this is a place of prosperity, tranquility, and progress.
Seriously. A beautiful welcome sign featuring a profile of explorer Hernando DeSoto reads ‘Welcome to DeSoto County. Est. 1887. Prosperity. Tranquility. Progress.’
Added hints as to what you’ll find are cutout illustrations of a galloping horse, canoes, farms, trees, and cattle.
They’re right. They’re all here. And now it’s your turn.
If things had gone differently, the City of DeSoto could have been one of Florida’s most populous counties. After its creation from Manatee County in 1887, it was a massive region until 1921 when it was broken up again, into neighboring Charlotte, Glades, Hardee, and Highlands counties. That was a big chunk of Florida then, but even at 636 square miles what remains in DeSoto is still substantial.
If you explore rural counties as often as I do, you’ll adjust to the fact that while you may live in a town of 10,000, a city of 300,000, or a county of millions, these remote off the beaten path counties usually have very few residents and, in some cases, just one or two established towns. They are, in a sense, in a different world. But they are worlds worth exploring. Especially in the case of DeSoto County.
You’ll find only one city here (Arcadia, the county seat), along with several unincorporated towns (Hull, Nocatee, Brownville, Fort Ogden, and Lake Suzy) nearly all of which are south of Arcadia on U.S. 17. For your purposes, what will likely pique your interest is what you’ll discover in and around Arcadia. It is a town filled with antiques, natural attractions, fossils... and a river runs through it.
Arcadia is the heartbeat of DeSoto County. Roughly at its epicenter, it’s developed a downtown area that seems to reflect the essence of the county itself. It’s not too rural, not overly developed, it’s just… comfortable.
Start at the DeSoto County Chamber of Commerce. It’s easy to find, just one block from the grand DeSoto County Courthouse (circa 1912) just east of Highway 17. If you have kids (or just want to cool off) a small splash park is located behind the Chamber. Inside are racks of brochures that reveal an impressive range of activities, most of which center around four things: Shopping, fossiling, the Peace River, and rodeo. Let’s start with shopping.
A few blocks west, the historic district begins by the 1914 railroad depot that looks in astonishingly pristine condition. That’s not because trains are pulling in, it’s because it’s been converted into office space. Still, it makes a great photo. Drive a few more blocks and you’ll find historic buildings have been repurposed for retail and restaurants. Roam between Magnolia, Oak, and Hickory streets where there are ice cream parlors and a tearoom (Mary Margaret’s Tea & Biscuit), cafes, and florists. There’s Rattlers Old West Saloon (a honkytonk in the heart of town), and a collection of antique shops within the Old Opera House (its tagline: ‘The Bizarre Bazaar’). Antiques seem to be the product of choice here, and the range of antiques, collectibles, geegaws, whatchamacallits, and objet d’arts you’ll find are unexpectedly diverse, from primitives to ‘50s Modern Eames designs to Florida Highwayman paintings. Speaking of paintings, the 2010 mural by artists Linda Cassels and Tim Haas, capturing the action and energy of the local rodeo, is worth a look.
One-third of Arcadia’s citizens are Hispanic, and within the shopping district is Cardenas (“America’s Hispanic Supermarket”) which carries a lot of items Anglos would recognize – and many they wouldn’t. Worth a visit to see what you can add to your grocery list.
There is such a wide range of shops in Arcadia that if you take a little time to explore downtown, chances are you’ll find what you’re looking for. Even if you’re not looking for it.
Peace River and Fossil Hunting
About two miles west of Arcadia on Highway 70 you’ll cross a bridge that spans the Peace River. Talk about truth in advertising. Its headwaters are near Bartow and it eventually flows into the Charlotte Harbor estuary after a serene 106-mile run. Turn right onto Highway 72 and you’ll see where you can go with the flow on a gentle excursion that removes your stress and cares by removing you from civilization.
Peace River Canoe Outpost would be rustic if rustic were given a facelift. It looks like a place you’d find in the mountains of western North Carolina, but the extremely casual atmosphere fits like a glove. In fact, it’s impossible to come here and not want to join those who have already learned of the river’s magic. Pull into the compound of Florida’s oldest and largest canoe outfitter (you’ll recognize it by the fleet of converted school buses and stacks of silver canoes) and you’re just minutes away from a river excursion. Check in at the office and sign up for your pleasure cruise. While you could set sail from here since the river is just a few feet away, you’ll come to appreciate the converted school buses that will drive you five miles (Oak Hill), eight miles (Brownville), or 10 miles (upriver where you’ll put in before paddling – with the current – back to the outpost.
Keep in mind there are no tiki bars or convenience stores on the riverbank, so plan accordingly (ie: use the restroom, and pack some drinks and snacks).
FYI: If paddling isn’t your thing, don’t fret. Arcadia’s Peace River Charters (“A Real Florida Ride”) can still introduce you to the river via airboat rides that are a real thrill. The vessel has a 450 horsepower punch, and if you’ve never been on an airboat before this is a good place to start. A range of options are available including custom tours, group charters, and private tours for four passengers or less.
Whichever you choose, be prepared to keep an eye out for wildlife, including river otters, black bears, deer, alligators, bald eagles, and mastodons.
Actually, all that’s left of mastodons are their fossilized remains, and locals have learned that when the river is low and the sand and gravel is exposed, the time is right to hunt for fossils.
Paddlers and fossil hunters who’ve taken time to search have found the teeth of megalodon sharks (which scientists believe were roughly 80 feet long), although larger relics such as mastodon and mammoth teeth and skulls require a license to remove. To enlist help from an expert, check out Sarasota’s Paleo Discoveries or Arcadia’s Fossil Expeditions that explore the Peace River in DeSoto County to assist hunters in their search.
DeSoto County Odds and Ends
Arcadia Rodeo. As you surmised when you arrived, DeSoto County is a largely a land of farms and fields and ranches. The end result is the Arcadia All Florida Championship Rodeo… “The Granddaddy of ‘Em All!”
Founded in 1928, the rodeo weathered the Great Depression and over the next few decades became an annual event, eventually joining the ranks of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) in the 1970s. From its pioneer beginnings, the rodeo now draws the nation’s top cowboy athletes and remains a clear point of pride for the community. The big event is held each March, with youth rodeos and special events taking place throughout the year.
Brownville Park. In Arcadia on the Peace River, the 75-acre park features a nature trail, boat launch ramp, fishing, and camping. At night, the call of barred owls will take you back 100 years. For reservations call (863) 491-5333.
Nav-A-Gator. Located at the DeSoto Marina in Lake Suzy, this Old Florida retreat is where you can rent canoes, kayaks, and even a cottage. The restaurant serves gator bites, gator sandwiches, swamp cabbage, grouper, thick, juicy burgers and key lime pie. Be sure to check out the small museum filled with fossils -- and set aside some time for an airboat ride.
If you go…
Photos by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA