By Gary McKechnie
When you look at a map outlining the boundaries of Florida’s 67 counties, none, it seems, look as snug as Bradford County, Florida. Tucked between Clay County to the east, Alachua to the south, and Union to the west, it’s far removed from I-75 that thunders past several miles to the west and I-10 that soars high above the northern edge of the county.
Despite being off the beaten path (or maybe because it was off the beaten path), in 1970 its rural nature attracted a young politician whose run for political office led him on a 1,003-mile walk from Pensacola to Key West. Today a portion of SR 100 is still known as the ‘Walkin’ Lawton Chiles Trail’ in honor of one of Florida’s most beloved senators and governors.
In many ways, not much has changed since Chiles ambled through these parts. To this day this county of about 27,000 residents claims only three incorporated cities (Starke, Hampton, Lawtey), one incorporated town, and many of its rural back roads are interrupted only by remote farms and trailer homes. For a certain breed of traveler, though, that’s reason enough to inspire a visit. Sometimes the sight of fields and farms beat cookie-cutter communities hands down.
Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll find when you explore Bradford County, Florida.
You Gotta Have Starke
Located about an hour southeast of Jacksonville, the county seat of Starke is a city of about 5,500. Depending on which direction you come from, you’ll see Starke in a different perspective. Arrive via four-lane U.S. 301 and mixed in with corner gas stations and strip malls are a handful of retro-style mom & pop motels that evoke memories of pre-interstate Florida. Come in on S.R. 100 and the classic buildings of downtown will take you even further back in time.
In the late 1800s the city blocks that now compromise the Call Street Historic District, an area listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was the midway point along the railroad line that ran from Fernandina on the Atlantic across the state to Cedar Key on the Gulf.
Over time a business district grew outward from the tracks and, in turn, residential neighborhoods expanded from Starke’s emerging commercial center. A post office, banks, schools, and a newspaper would follow. In fact, these architectural gems of the past are central to the core of present-day Starke since merchants still occupy many of the historic buildings within the town’s commercial corridor.
Take a short stroll along Call Street and beside the tracks a deli restaurant occupies what had originally been the first Bradford Bank Building. Opened in 1888, by 1914 the bank moved down the street to larger quarters in the second Bradford Bank Building. A century later, that building is still serving customers –- this time as the North Florida Regional Chamber of Commerce (100 E. Call Street, 904/964-5278). Open Monday-Thursday 9-5 and Fridays 9-4, it’s a smart stop to pick up literature and information on sights and activities throughout Bradford County as well as neighboring Union County.
Diagonally across from the Chamber, the classic 1941 Florida Twin Theatre is an Art Deco-style two-screen movie house that features first-run films – although you wouldn’t be surprised to see a Clark Gable-Carole Lombard flick showing on the big screen. Historic architecture fills this area, just as history fills the Eugene L. Matthews Bradford County Historical Museum (201 E. Call Street, 904/964-4606). Open Tuesday-Thursday from 1-5, the upstairs museum features antiques along with images and ephemera that chronicle Bradford’s 150-year plus history. Within a few blocks, you’ll find retail store standouts like Scarlett’s Southern Accents & Antiques, Ladybug’s Resale Shop, and the Downtown Grill, a combination sports bar/restaurant that offers live entertainment and events.
Then there’s A Real Barber Shop. Really. That’s its name – it’s painted across the front of 118 Walnut Street. If you’re looking shaggy, drop in for trim where, I’d imagine, crew cuts and flat tops are a specialty. Across the street, an official State of Florida Heritage historic marker is planted at the Woman’s Club of Starke, a circa 1922 meeting venue that’s still available for rent. Across the street, step inside the post office to see the mural “Reforestation,” created in 1940 by artist Elizabeth Terrell as a WPA project.
Continue down Walnut Street and a row of grand homes ranging from Queen Anne to Victorian to Arts & Crafts hints at the era of the town’s greatest prosperity. Just a few blocks away on 301 is perhaps the most ornate building in the county, the Romanesque Revival design of the Old Bradford County Courthouse. Built in 1902 of red brick with limestone trim, the building is now the home of a branch of Santa Fe College.
Back in Starke, should you arrive in April you’ll be there when the “sweetest strawberries this side of heaven” are celebrated at the Bradford County Strawberry Festival. Folks here work hard so you can drop by and enjoy free live music, entertainment, and activities for the kids. More than 150 vendors are selling arts and crafts, cooking up meals, and preparing strawberries a variety of ways. A few months later, “old school” riders head to town in August for the Starke Bike Festival and its motorcycle-related games, swap meet, live music, food, contests… and the chance to admire a sea of leather and chrome.
Bradford County, Florida: Outstanding in its Fields
If you’re merely out for a pleasure drive, consider starting on C.R. 18 that rolls east-west along the lower edge of Bradford County. When you drive north from Keystone Heights, look for an old-fashioned water tower on the corner of SR 100 and CR 21B.
A few miles north of the tower, just past the Keystone Airpark in Theressa, C.R. 18 appears on your left. Whether you’re behind the wheel or behind the handlebars, if you long for a look at untrammeled Florida it’s a pleasing road to discover. Only small, unincorporated towns are found along this stretch and only fields and farms fill in the long gaps between the communities. This is where you’ll enjoy a slice of the state that looks as tranquil today as it likely was more than half a century ago. In fact, the day I explored a vision took me back a few years.
Just after crossing SR 301 in the town of Hampton, I looked down a long road and spied a lake in the distance. When C.R. 18 curved, I headed straight to the boat ramp where the vision was one of simple pleasures. Along the shoreline, stands of moss-draped cypress trees encircled the lake, the treeline punctuated by long docks and several boathouses equipped with pool slides. On pristine Lake Hampton a ski boat was making lazy curves, and the kid being towed atop an inner tube was having the time of his life. It was scenic, simple, inviting -- and pure Florida.
Back on C.R. 18, the road is calm and peaceful as it follows the shoreline -- and there is little to break the spell. About six miles ahead in the otherwise empty town of Graham is the Bradford County Sportsmen’s Farm. Open for guests and members, it features multiple fully automated sporting clay courses, 25- and 50-yard pistol ranges, and a 300- and 850-yard rifle range. Pull!
Following this attraction comes the sight of random roadside produce stands, a few long-forgotten filling stations from the 1920s, and farmers turning acres of grassland into bales of golden hay. The weatherworn barns whose rusted tin roofs are a staple in the Deep South are another pleasing sight.
And then comes Brooker, the only incorporated town (not city) in Bradford. While there’s not much to see aside from a water tower, historic church bell, and a now-idle railroad depot, the fact that rock legend Tom Petty included its name into the line of his song ‘A Mind with a Heart of Its Own’ (“Well, I been to Brooker, and I been to Micanopy…”) makes it worth a souvenir snapshot at the least.
Still within the borders of Bradford County, at Brooker C.R. 18 intersects with C.R. 235 that shoots northeast toward Starke. Once again you’re on a road that’s fine for a drive but, with nearly 20 miles of open-range riding, even better for a motorcycle excursion.
It’s worth the trip.
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