By Greg Hamilton
Back in 1891, when a group of people intent on changing the Citrus County seat from Mannfield to Inverness came calling, the clerk of court — Capt. W.C. Zimmerman — stubbornly refused to budge.
So, the Inverness crowd lifted him up in his chair, put him in a wagon and hauled him about 10 miles east to their hamlet.
Zimmerman should have thanked his impromptu porters because Mannfield soon became a ghost town. Inverness has blossomed into one of Florida’s hidden treasures.
Located on the scenic Tsala Apopka chain of lakes about an hour or so west of Orlando and the same distance north of Tampa, Inverness — named by a homesick Scotsman — has a bit of anything a visitor could want.
What to Do in Inverness: Downtown
Tree-lined streets of old Florida homes that all seem to end at a lake, a pedestrian-friendly diamond-shaped downtown anchored by the restored 1912 Historic Courthouse, kitschy antique shops and delightful dining spots make this a town that continually surprises.
The courthouse, where Elvis Presley filmed scenes for his 1961 movie “Follow That Dream,” is steps away from a modern City Hall that boasts plug-ins for electric vehicles.
Visitors rolling in on State Road 44 from Orlando are greeted by the towering water fountain in Cooter Pond, one of many civic improvements that include a boardwalk at the lake and a gazebo downtown.
The 1926 Valerie Theater on the courthouse square, where locals once marveled at the advent of “talkie’’ movies, is being restored as a cultural arts center. As part of its "Going Green" initiative, Inverness will build a canoe/kayak launch at a lakeside park complete with a floating dock and storage so people can lock up their watercraft and head into town for a bite.
What to Do in Inverness: Fishing & Boating
You’re never far from a lake in Inverness, which draws anglers from all over central Florida dreaming of lunker bass. Most mornings, you can see rowing teams silently gliding along the glassy water in the pre-dawn mist. Stroll along the boardwalk at Lake Henderson, peer into the tea-colored water and watch the fish and turtles — cooters, as they’re called around here — scooting among the old growth cypress trees.
The cooters brought national attention to Inverness in 2004 when Ed Helms and a crew from The Daily Show — alerted by a newspaper column — dropped in to film a segment on the town’s fledgling Cooter Festival. The segment was highlighted by townspeople who didn’t realize that to folks elsewhere, cooter is a cute euphemism for a certain female body part. The video continues to be a YouTube sensation.
The short walk around the lake brings you to a park that offers a fishing pier, a playground for youngsters and shuffleboard courts for the young at heart.
The more adventurous visitor can head a short distance from town and climb aboard an airboat for a heart-racing tour of the Withlacoochee River — hold onto your hat.
Where to Eat & Drink
By now, you’ll be hungry so head over to Coaches Pub & Eatery for a sandwich, a mountain of wings and a cold beer — maybe shoot a game of pool. During the day, Little Italy offers sandwiches and home-baked Italian cookies and pastries. But the eatery really sparkles on special occasions when the owners set up an intimate dining room for an after-hours, all-night sumptuous Italian dinner where the brothers double as waiters and sing opera arias between the many courses. Don’t be surprised if a wedding proposal — or even a marriage ceremony — breaks out.
More in the mood for local fare? Sit at an outdoor table at Stumpknockers and tuck into all-you-can-eat catfish. Duck inside and check out the stuffed deer, foxes, bass and other natural decor lining the walls and the ceiling.
Around the corner, step inside the Pine Street Pub and be transported to a cozy Irish pub. Have a Guinness or drop by on the one night each week when local brewers take over the taps and serve up their own blends.
For a more upscale or romantic night out, visit the McLeod House Bistro. Built in restored mansion, the private dining rooms, open deck and imaginative menu will provide plenty of new memories.
With so much eating and drinking going on, you may be looking to burn off some calories. Fortunately, Inverness is home to one of the finest small-town recreation complexes in the state. Whispering Pines Park is 290 acres of baseball, soccer and football fields; hiking, running and biking trails through the woods; tennis, basketball and racquetball courts; campsites, picnic pavilions, a kids’ splash park and an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Bring your bike because the Withlacoochee State Trail courses through downtown Inverness, inviting bicyclists, joggers and roller-bladers.
If golf is more your speed, seven public golf courses are within a half-hour drive of downtown so you will know what to do in Inverness, Florida.
It is soon obvious why Citrus County is considered the heart of the Nature Coast. With seven rivers in the county and the 43,000-acre Withlacoochee State Forest available, there are no excuses for not getting out and having fun. Two-legged adventurers can try hiking, birdwatching or camping; miles of horse trails lead to Tillis Hill, a mecca for equestrians from throughout central Florida. Access to the miles of trials is limited during hunting season.
The fun doesn’t end at the city limits. Head south on U.S. 41 and spend a wild Saturday night at the Citrus County Speedway, where local gearheads build and race cars. Most weekends offer features such as Figure 8 demolition derbies involving school buses, pickups hauling boats on trailers and lawn tractors races on an oval asphalt known as The Friendliest Track in the South.
For a much quieter activity, visit nearby Fort Cooper State Park, where a small contingent of U.S. soldiers survived a siege during the Second Seminole War.
Visit Floral City
Highway 41 winds its way to Floral City, a single-stoplight town that in the early 1900s had a bigger population, fueled by phosphate mines and timbering. Pull off the road into Ferris Groves and sample all things connected to locally grown oranges and strawberries.
Visitors will soon notice that the vehicles around them have changed. On the weekends especially, classic cars from the area’s numerous clubs cruise the winding tree-lined country roads on their way to car shows or simply to show off their gleaming prides.
Sharing the meandering two-lane blacktop are herds of weekend warrior motorcyclists who have escaped from the clogged city streets to let their steel horses run in the fresh air.
Besides a love of their rides, both species of motorists share another passion — they all seem to end up at Sleepy Hollow, an outpost deep in the woods outside of Floral City, for some pub grub and a cold beer .
Any weekend is worth a stop in Floral City for a taste of history or to stop in the antique shops around the one intersection — but some are better than others. You’ll know if luck is with you about a half-mile outside of town when your mouth starts watering.
From time to time, the members of the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church fire up their grills and the sweet aroma of barbecue wafts over the quiet burg. Get in line and get your fill.
It’s a fitting way to wrap up a relaxing step back into unhurried Old Florida, where folks still have front porch swings and they know what to do in Inverness, Florida.
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