Charming Historical Towns
Step back in time and explore the area’s charming towns and villages. Plan your trip around one of many festivals or just slow down and stroll through the streets in search of amazing history, seafood and shopping. And who knows, you may even encounter a ghost or two.
Monticello is well known for its small-town appeal and significant history as the “heart of natural North Florida.” Established in 1827 and now home to 2,500 residents, it is the county seat. The area around Monticello was once dominated by cotton plantations. The Slave Canal mentioned elsewhere in this guide was dug to transport cotton to the coast. In the 1880s many farmers switched to growing watermelons. The importance of this crop is marked by the annual Watermelon Festival, parade and crowning of the watermelon queen. Graceful historic buildings abound here, many surrounding the Courthouse Square. Chief among these is the 1890s Perkins Building, home of the Monticello Opera House that still hosts musical events. Every fall Monticello offers ghost tours that draw on the town’s rich history. Visitors may enjoy restaurants with locally sourced food, inviting bed-and-breakfasts, a two-mile rail trail and the 27-acre Monticello Ecological Park. Contact the Chamber of Commerce to arrange tours.
Perry proudly touts the honor of being recognized as the “Tree Capital of the South.” The annual Florida Forest Festival emphasizes the important role forestry continues to play in fueling the local economy. The town is still surrounded by a heavily forested landscape. Once called Rosehead, the town was renamed in 1875 in honor of Madison Stark Perry, Florida’s fourth governor. Today, about 7,000 people call Perry home. Downtown Perry boasts a main street lined with restaurants, shops and a steam locomotive-era train station, newly restored to showcase the town’s long history and the importance of the railroad. The Bloodworth’s Pharmacy building is an excellent example of turn-of-the-century construction, as is the white-columned building that now houses the Taylor County Historical Society. A 1.2-mile historic trail marked with signs takes visitors on a walking tour of 21 historic buildings. Along the coast near the town, remnants of Civil War-era saltworks are still visible. Sea salt – vital to preserving meat and other food – was extracted by ponding the Gulf’s waters.
Life in Steinhatchee revolves around the richness of the Gulf. Sponge fishermen thrived in the 1930s, with a fleet of 50 to 100 sponge boats on the river. After World War II, a disease killed most of the sea wool sponges, and the economy evolved to accommodate recreational and commercial fishing. Today, Steinhatchee is known for its hospitality as well as its commercial seafood, now focused on blue crab, mullet and bait shrimp. The town retains a fishing village charm with Spanish moss draping trees and fishing boats lining the waterfront. A large boat ramp and ample parking are available for visitors who wish to venture out on the seagrass flats or to deeper waters offshore. There are also charter captains, and kayaks, canoes and boats available for rent. Steinhatchee is the midpoint for the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail offshore and the terminus for the Steinhatchee River Paddling Trail that begins at the falls upstream and meanders through a scenic landscape about six miles to the town. After a day on the water, visitors can enjoy delicious seafood at one of several local restaurants.
The little town of Jena is located just across the river from the town of Steinhatchee. Jena also provides easy access to the Gulf and Steinhatchee River from a large public boat launch. A privately owned marina provides a specially designed kayak launch, boat rentals and delicious seafood. The Jena Unit of the Big Bend Wildlife Management Area extends south from the town offering magnificent salt marsh views, fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing.
5. Cross City
Though created only in 1921 from the southern portion of Lafayette County, Dixie County has a rich history. Cross City took its name from the “cross roads,” where the Old Spanish Trail met the Old Salt Road that leads to Horseshoe Beach. The Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, now transformed into the Nature Coast Trail, also crossed through town. The historic railroad depot provides a view back to the early 20th century. The railroad played an important role in the forest economy of the region. It transported lumber as well as guests and lumber company executives. In 1927 the owner of the successful Putnam Lumber Company, specializing in cypress and longleaf pine timber milling, built the Putnam Lodge, a beautiful 36-room retreat in what was the company town of Shamrock. The lobby, of elaborately stenciled pecky cypress, is a testament to the ancient cypresses that once filled the coastal swamps of the Big Bend. The lodge has been transformed into an inviting hotel and restaurant.
Nestled in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, the town of Suwannee overlooks the river and gulf, saltwater and freshwater creeks, and man-made canals. Experience nature at its untouched best while enjoying waterfront accommodations, great seafood, down-home restaurants, marinas and expert fishing guides. Visitors can embark on a wildlife cruise in hopes of seeing alligators, sturgeon, tarpon and bottlenose dolphins at the mouth of the river. Manatees are seen in the river, creeks and canals during the warmer months of the year. The near-shore Gulf waters of the Suwannee Sound, rich with nutrients from the river, create an excellent habitat for fish, shrimp and shellfish and attract thousands of shorebirds such as pelicans, herons, egrets and diving ducks to feed in the marshes, tidal flats and oyster bars. Raptors, including ospreys, bald eagles, red-shouldered hawks and the seasonal swallow-tailed kites, sail the skies above the river and Gulf. East Pass, a broad, winding arm of the river populated with tall cypresses, is a nesting area for ospreys, while both ospreys and bald eagles nest in the old-growth trees of the tiny islands dotting the shallow near-shore Gulf waters.
Known as the “Gem of the Suwannee Valley,” Chiefland won the 2000 Florida Rural Community of the Year Award. Farming has always been important here, and many are drawn to the pastoral landscape of the region. Incorporated in 1913, Chiefland celebrates its farming heritage with an annual Watermelon Festival featuring the Tour de Melon, a 100-mile bicycle event through the beautiful country roads of Levy County. Local farms produce timber, cotton, hay, silage, corn, soybeans, peanuts and, of course, watermelons. The downtown Chiefland Farmers Market showcases the area’s bounty. The town is known for the only registered quilt museum in the state of Florida, dedicated to teaching about the craft and holding semi-annual quilt shows.
8. Cedar Key
Picturesque Cedar Key dwells on a cluster of islands fringing the Gulf of Mexico. Native Americans inhabited the islands for over 5,000 years while layers of colorful history define the rugged life of early European settlers. A boat ride or paddle to historic Atsena Otie Key – the original Cedar Key and now part of the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge – and a stroll to its lonely cemetery give a forlorn reminder of the hard life of early settlers. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Cedar Keys were home to pencil mills, lumber companies and manufacturers of whisk brooms made from young cabbage palms. It was an important port for mainland products. David Yulee Levy’s Florida Railroad (for whom the county is named) reached the keys in 1860 to support these industries. Today this small fishing village has a flourishing tourism industry and an aquaculture industry for delicious clams. A large marina and fishing pier provide access to the Gulf’s unspoiled coastline with excellent fishing, photography and wildlife viewing. Cedar Key celebrates its unique heritage with annual arts and seafood festivals. Excellent restaurants, small shops, museums and quaint lodging are all within walking distance in the compact downtown. Keep an eye on the old pilings at the waterfront that are roosting spots for yellow-crowned and black-crowned night herons. Roseate spoonbills and other wading birds and a variety of shorebirds can be seen from numerous vantage points around the islands working the tidal creeks and mud flats.
Bronson, the seat of Levy County, was once surrounded by productive orange groves that were destroyed by hard freezes in the mid-1890s. Today it retains some of its historic grandeur including the beautiful United Methodist Church, built in the 1890s. One of the town’s most famous residents was renowned musician Bo Diddley. He now rests in peace at the Bronson Cemetery. A visit to Bronson would be incomplete without stopping at Blue Springs County Park. Open from March to October, this second-magnitude spring with its cold, clear water is the perfect place for swimming or snorkeling on a steamy summer day.
On the banks of the Withlachoochee River, Inglis is a popular destination for both salt and freshwater anglers. From Inglis, outdoor enthusiasts can access the many opportunities provided by the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, hiking on the area’s many trails or paddling down the Withlacoochee River into Lake Rousseau. Bank fishing is popular where the Bypass Spillway mixes lake waters into the lower Withlacoochee River, providing a chance to catch both salt and freshwater fish. While visiting the town of Inglis, take time to drive east on State Highway 40 to the Inglis Lock Recreation Area to look for migratory birds such as American kestrels and eastern bluebirds. Visitors can enjoy a picnic at the pavilions located near the spillway or use the launch. Multiuse platforms along the lakeshore provide access for fishing and/or wildlife viewing. Local eateries offer delicious seafood.
Surrounded by public conservation lands, Yankeetown is known for its natural wonders. Armanis F. Knotts moved to the area to enjoy its hunting and fishing opportunities. He founded the town in 1923, marketing it to people back in his home state of Indiana. Legend holds that the mail carrier coined the name by directing interested visitors to “that yankee town.” The 500 residents of Yankeetown live in tree-lined streets along the banks of the lower Withlacoochee. Visitors will enjoy views of the river and opportunities to drop a line at town parks. A restaurant located in the historic 1927 Izzak Walton Lodge offers riverview dining. There are several outfitters and ecotour operators that provide fishing trips and wildlife viewing tours of the winding creeks. Wood storks, roseate spoonbills, alligators, porpoises and bald eagles (in winter) are all common sights. The nearby Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve is another outstanding wildlife viewing destination. During the fall Yankeetown sponsors an annual seafood festival. Bed-and-breakfasts in Yankeetown and nearby Inglis offer the opportunity to stay longer.