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Turning Back Time

By HERB HILLER

© St. Petersburg Times


It was a wintry late afternoon years ago in North Florida. I had been cycling for hours in blustery cold and rain.

In Madison I pulled up at the old K&M Hotel and dinged the front-desk bell. Minutes passed before an elderly clerk shuffled up. As I filled out the registration card, I asked, "What's there to do in Madison on a Saturday night?"

The old fellow unhinged his jaw, squinted his eyes, and croaked: "Yewwww tell me."

Things don't move much faster today in Madison, county seat of the same-named county, and three neighboring counties in rural North Florida. The four have in common their classic Southern courthouses in classic courthouse squares (though one is actually a courthouse circle). You can enjoyably walk the four county seats, poking through mom-and-pop stores and visiting historic sites, then drive the backroads.

Along the way you can swim in springs, canoe quiet streams, and picnic in river parks while you exercise your mind about the condition of this region from moribund to reborn.

Just enough full-service restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts show up so that you don't have to rely on endless fried-food stops and chain motels.

Through much of the region, signs bearing the introductory bars of Old Folks at Home -- "Way Down Upon the Swanee River" -- greet visitors entering the towns. Of course, Stephen Foster's melody has of late been under attack as Florida's state song because of its stale racism.

Other signs in this region, long known as part of the Bible Belt, say "Have a good day and may God bless you all," or, painted on the side of a house: "Jesus Loves You. I love Sunday School."

Even dead main streets come alive in their woe. Mayo: remembering better times

Mayo is the only incorporated town in Lafayette County, which is named (if not pronounced) for the French hero of American independence. Locals call it La-FAY-it or La-FETTE. It's an agricultural county but with half its land mass in swamp. Just 6,500 people live here. There's one school, and the county ranks at the bottom of Florida's 67 in college graduates.

Mayo is a shameless ruin of about three east-west blocks beyond its defining crossroads, much of it boarded up. Some of the beautiful brick storefronts have become mere facades, like the old office of the Mayo Free Press, where behind the boards covering windows you can see that the roof has collapsed. The Chamber of Commerce operates without any sign at all and has lately done double-duty as a center for guidance counseling.

Vi Johnson, passing time at Hatcher's Drugs, looks out the window across the street to her place, the Dust Collector, in case anyone shows up. Her place is one of a row of third-hand shops, most closed during the week and, when open, sometimes without lights because electric bills haven't been paid.

Betty Land, who, with her husband, Elvoy, runs Mayo's only B&B, grandly called Le Chateau de Lafayette, remembers other times.

"Elvoy (lived) five miles to this side of town and I was five miles to that. Everybody who wasn't related to him was related to me."

Into the 1950s, Betty can recall, "The sidewalks on a Saturday were so thick you sometimes had to get into the street if you were in a hurry."

The Chateau sits behind a lumberyard's worth of columns and picket railings, an impressive two stories raised up off the ground surrounded by verandas, the whole of it glaring white and lacking only paddlewheels to hint at churning its way down the Mississippi.

The building in fact is the "old" county courthouse, built in 1893-94. It sits across from what they call the "new" courthouse -- the neo-classical building with the clock tower, built in 1908. Betty Land regrets the new courthouse isn't as pretty as it recently had been, because the fellow who tended the flowers around it was transferred to the county landfill. Live Oak: bustling with life

By contrast with Mayo, downtown Live Oak in Suwannee County shows vital signs. Antique dealers are moving into vacant storefronts on Howard Street, exterior gimcrackery from the '50s is being removed to show original brick again.

The flurry anticipates September this year, when six blocks of Howard Street will have $600,000 worth of new colorful tiled sidewalks, matching concrete benches and trash receptacles, old-fashioned globe lights and flowering crape myrtles.

At the Dixie Grill, morning coffee is a daylong affair. Locals carry home whole fresh-baked pies. Folks will tell you that the Dixie pretty much sums up what life is all about: You know what to expect, but there's always a daily special.

A scattering of architectural treasures provides a downtown trace of Live Oak's heritage.

The yellow-brick Suwannee County Courthouse nearing a century of use combines features of Georgian and Queen Anne styles. City Hall occupies a 1908 symmetrical, mansardlike structure with Italianate details. An old brick freight station has been converted to a historical museum where displays include a moonshine still.

Summers, people come from everywhere to dive Suwannee County's 30 springs and tube the Ichetucknee River. Exercise masochists can work up a sweat, then chill out during the Suwannee Bicycle Association's early August Dog Days Pedal & Paddle at Suwannee River State Park.

Early winter, lawns in front of the double-columned porches of gracious houses along Pine Avenue get dressed with spectacular Christmas displays. But with the new year, the permanent gray of town reappears. The Spanish moss, always somnolent, looks deathly. Any crack or patch or gap in an old clapboard or shingled house looks threatening.

Photographer Ed McCook recalls that when he was growing up, he roamed the woods with his daddy. The landowners lived here; liability wasn't a problem.

Ed continues the tradition with his kids today largely because under the Save Our Rivers and Preservation 2000 programs, the state has bought up so much land and turned it into protected forests, parks and preserves.

One newly fixed-up site is Suwannee Springs, with walkways to the ancient spring house and with a downstream view as vestigial as looking through a stereopticon -- to the rusting steel bridge, no longer in use, but still spanning the river.

Nearby, north of town, is the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park where headliners such as Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, B.B. King, Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers appear year-round at bluegrass, Cajun and gospel festivals. The park is immensely successful as a campsite and performance center, wholly unexpected in a venue so far from a major city.

South in the county are Dowling Park, a retirement village that somehow has sprouted as a full-blown suburb apart from any "urb," and the little city of Branford. Madison: picture perfect

All through this region folks talk down "guv-mint." But talkin' and doin' aren't necessarily the same. Drive north into Madison, and just off Highway 53 past the tobacco barn and the building and auto supply stores is little Lake Frances Recreation Area. First thing you notice is the sign asserting that the project was "financed 100 percent by state funding: NO LOCAL funding required."

Out-of-town grants also helped finance the $750,000 renewal of downtown S Range Street. Small-town renewal doesn't come any prettier than this.

Suddenly Madison has everything going for it. Maybe you don't need anything the shops are selling, but you can't resist walking in. The shops sit behind broad sidewalks with brick insets and handsome arcades. The signs are one-of-a-kind and the building columns are repainted, while yellow brick along with beautiful overhangs and ornamental rooflines surround the 1913 classic revival courthouse and courthouse square.

Here is Wild Garden, newly opened, with attractive crafts. Madison Jeweler's sits behind a silverine facade with pilasters and a beautiful frieze. The florist colors the street behind the Corinthian columns of its one-time bank building.

Beggs is as much museum as fashionable men's shop. It dates from 1895 and uses a 1917 cash register that still swallows your cash. The third story is home to a trove of post-Civil War gear -- and the first funeral home established between Jacksonville and Tallahassee.

In a town that daily communes with its past, it is no surprise that Madison's people are regularly stopping each other to talk about last Sunday's wedding or chuckling at a leaf-raker whose verses mock a city official in unflattering song.

Jimmy Sales at Sales Ace Hardware says he has to pinch himself every time he goes into the Manor House, the recently opened B&B located in a corner of century-old buildings leading to N Range Street. Forty original rooms have been converted to five large, tweedy, eclectic suites above Miss Virginia's Cafe and the Manor House Pub.

The history of Madison plays out in Confederate Park east across the street, in the mansion row just to the north, and in the post office mural in the courthouse square that depicts the contribution of African-Americans to Madison's 19th century cotton-based prosperity.

A couple blocks away is St. Mary's Episcopal Church, organized in 1840 and occupying the same steepled structure with its original pews since 1851.

South of town is the old steam engine that once powered the world's largest Sea Island cotton gin. A patch of cotton is more or less kept growing alongside.

Not to be missed just northeast of town is O'Toole's Herb Farm, with its greenhouse of scented geraniums. Monticello: valuing its past

Continuing west another 28 miles you reach Monticello, the seat of Jefferson County, named for America's third president. In place of a renewed commercial district, Monticello boasts a downtown listed in the National Register of Historic Places with more than 40 properties dating from the 1800s.

Monticello is also only 26 miles from Tallahassee and glimpses its future as a bedroom community for families tied to government payrolls but who welcome small-town neighborliness and a well defined sense of place.

So, although Jefferson is one of the state's poorest counties, Monticello is moving smartly ahead by preserving its past. It helps that I-10 has sucked Highway 90 almost dry of traffic. Instead of billboard blight, the old highway carries on as one of Florida's most beautiful country roads. For miles to the east, the roadside is lined with boxy hedges, and to the west by landscaping installed more than a half-century ago that has turned the undulating two lanes into glorious parkway. This is what America ought to look like everywhere between cities.

Downtown Monticello claims a pair of B&Bs in historic houses: the Palmer Place and the Clarke House. From either B&B you can easily walk through town, where the moss-hung oak groves and seasonally blooming shrubs ornament the historic streetscape. Shops sit tucked into one- and two-story storefronts in a friendly jabber of architectural styles that form a delightful series of rooflines.

Visitors browse about two dozen antique shops and art galleries, the public library housed in a refurbished, turn-of-the-century hotel, and a number of restaurants with colorful stories, if ordinary food.

Notable is the Rare Door, open daily for breakfast and lunch but not for dinner because, as the owner explains, he already feeds everybody for breakfast and lunch "and they wouldn't come in for three meals a day."

Guests used to enter from the rear door of Jackson's Drug Store, but the story goes that the sign man was tipsy the day he painted the restaurant sign, and what was to have become the Rear Door became the Rare Door.

Two downtown buildings particularly stand out. The central circle of the town contains the silver-domed courthouse, which dates from 1909 and which honors the architectural preferences of Thomas Jefferson with its French-influenced, neo-classical style. All commerce and traffic radiate from here.

Close by is the Perkins Block, a row of commercial buildings and a second-story opera house that date from 1890. The opera house has been restored and is again the performing-arts hub of town. The old agricultural building on the Jefferson High School grounds will soon become the Jefferson Arts Center.

Beyond town the county spreads through a landscape of working farms and remnant plantations, one bought a while back by Ted Turner and Jane Fonda. Watermelons, pecans and nurseries account for much of what you find while driving around.

The Wacissa and Aucilla rivers, both pristine blackwater streams, provide outstanding canoeing, their shores barely developed.

The Aucilla is notable for shoals along much of its length, including a run of whitewater at Big Rapid. Below here the river wends through a series of lakes, marshes and sinkholes, twice disappearing.

The river is also the site of recent archaeological discoveries, which scientists claim reveal how humans of 10,000 years ago adapted from hunting big game to surviving by farming in fixed settlements.

That long-ago adaptation suggests how North Florida people at the turn of the century are finding new themes from their more recent past to revitalize these places they call home. Herb Hiller is a freelance writer who lives east of the North Florida towns he describes here. If you go

For more information contact:

Lafayette County Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 416, Mayo 32066, (904) 294-2705.

Suwannee County Tourist Development Council, P.O. Drawer C, Live Oak 32060, (904) 362-3071.

Madison County Chamber of Commerce, 105 N Range St., Madison 32340, (904) 973-2788; e-mail: chamber@tallynet.com.

Originally published May 18, 1997



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