Ron’s back roads

I wrote this for the current, Summer 2021, issue of Forum magazine. It’s about some of my favorite out-of-the-way places in Florida.

A red-brick road into the past, a lighthouse at the edge of the world, a vanishing waterfall, an improbable aluminum castle and a forgotten Civil War fortification. Those are five out-of-the-way Florida attractions well worth taking a Sunday drive for.

Espanola was a happening little town back when timber and turpentine pretty much defined Florida. And when they built a red-bricked Dixie Highway from Jacksonville into Flagler County, in 1916, Espanola was poised to become a boom town and play host to legions of “tin can tourists” arriving from up north in their Model T Fords.

But a newer, paved Dixie Highway, constructed in the 1920s, bypassed Espanola. Now it’s listed on www.ghosttowns.com, and consists of a modest collection of homes and small farms perhaps best known for its historic cemetery.

But if you have a sense of adventure, and good tires, you can still drive what remains of that old brick Dixie Highway. From Espanola it runs northwest for 9 miles through piney woods and palmetto scrubs into Putnam County. Millions of bricks (manufactured by the Graves Brick Company in Birmingham, Ala.) are still evident (they are protected from removal on pain of prosecution by Flagler County ordinance) but this is largely a sandy road that requires care and patience to traverse. Traffic is practically nonexistent but the occasional logging truck might require you to pull over while it passes. Signs warn to “drive at your own risk,” but I did it in a Subaru Outback with no difficulty.

Fun fact: The red brick road was financed by a successful 1916 local tax referendum that promised “Good Roads, Progress, and Prosperity.”

Following the narrow strip of red bricks makes for an enchanting sojourn through the heart of old, old Florida. And you’ll know you’ve reached the end when you pass a cracker homestead with a tire swing out front and suddenly find yourself on a nicely paved County Road 204, which will take you on to Hastings, the potato and cabbage capital of Putnam County. In Hastings, you can turn right on SR 207 to reach St. Augustine, or left to visit the St. John’s River city of Palatka. But before leaving Hastings, best stop at County Line Produce and pick up some world class veggies.

To get there: It’s a 4.5 mile drive from Bunnell, Flagler’s county seat, to Espanola. First head north on U.S. 1 and then, at 1.3 miles, turn left onto CR 13. Upon arriving in Espanola turn right onto the unpaved North Old Dixie Highway. You will find yourself on a 9-foot wide tree canopied lane with bricks evident in the center. The sandy road runs northwest for 9 miles into Flagler County and terminates on CR 204. Turn right on CR 204 to get to I-95. A left turn will take you through the Cracker Swamp to Hastings.

U.S. Highway 98 hugs Florida’s western gulf coast from the Big Bend to Pensacola. It’ll take you through vast pine plantations and links one beach town after the next.

Ah, but if you are headed west and want to experience something totally different, take that left onto county road 59 (if you just crossed the St. Marks River Bridge, you missed it). Suddenly you will be in a different world entire. A wet land of primeval beauty that time sees to have forgotten about.

That narrow road takes you through trackless salt water marshes and past long tidal sloughs that glisten under the sun. You’ll see gators, of course, but this is also the habitat of black bear, bobcats, snakes galore, coyotes and all manner of critters. And take the binocs, because you are at the gateway of the great Florida Birding Trail. If you’re lucky, you might spot an endangered whooping crane, or witness a monarch butterfly migration.

Stay on that narrow track long enough and you will arrive at what looks like the lighthouse at the end of the world. Tall, slender and resplendent in its whitewashed simplicity, it has survived hurricanes, eroding shorelines, and even Civil War bombardments. The St. Marks Lighthouse is Florida’s second oldest, in its various iterations, was a reliable beacon for mariners from 1830 (when it burned whale oil) until 2016, when the Coast guard finally removed its elaborate lens. The lens is on display at the Visitor’s Center, and the lightkeeper’s house is open for tours on the first Friday and Saturday of the month and every Tuesday.

Fun fact: In 1835, at the outbreak of the Second Seminole War, lighthouse keeper Samuel Crosby asked the government for troops to protect his family from marauding Indians. When his request was denied, he asked for a small boat in which to escape if necessary. That assistance also refused, Crosby awaited the inevitable attack- but apparently his citadel was too remote for even the Indians to bother with.

Oh, and when you get back onto U.S. 98, take a left and head west to visit the tiny settlement of St. Marks. Once a thriving port town this picturesque community hosts a handful of restaurants as well as the San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park. Ask the rangers there about that time Spanish conquistadors – under siege by Apalachee warriors – had to eat their horses and use the hides to lash together rafts so they could escape into the sea (hint: it didn’t go well for them). And while you’re in the vacinity, visit the riverside town of Sopchoppy, Angelo’s Seafood, on Ochlocknee Bay, and Alligator Point.

To get there: From Tallahassee take SR 363 (Woodville Rd.) south to SR 267 (Bloxham Cutoff Rd). Turn left on U.S. 98 and almost immediately after crossing the St. Mark’s River, right onto CR 59 (Lighthouse Rd). It’s just a 29-mile drive from downtown Tallahassee to the lighthouse.

There is of course a natural tendency to compare Falling Waters with Niagara Falls, and to find Florida’s tallest waterfall wanting. But such superficial comparisons tend to overlook the sheer mystique of Falling Waters. To be sure, Niagara Fall is North America’s largest and most powerful, sending mega-tons of water per minute cascading 160-feet into Lake Ontario. Falling Waters, on the other hand, tumbles just 100-feet from a meandering Washington County stream down into a 20-foot cylindrical sink hole at a volume dictated by seasonal rainfall.

But beyond that, notes the Florida Park Service “the water’s final destination remains unknown.”

Listen, people go to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon, but everybody knows that once the honeymoon’s over it’s important to keep the mystery alive. How better to “let the mystery be” than to contemplate Falling Waters and ponder it’s ultimate fate in Zen-like fashion? Does it vanish into another dimension? Is there a worm hole involved? Will it inevitably end up in a Clearwater swimming pool, or a South Beach margarita? Nobody knows! But in any case, Florida most enigmatic natural attraction is surely worth a visit next time you’re in the neighborhood of Chipley.

And not just to see the waterfall. There are also 20 huge, fern-festooned limestone sinkholes located on the park. A lot of folks have to wait until one opens up under their house or car to experience the mystery of sinkholes. But these have been sitting around for as long as 20 million years just waiting to be eyeballed. Oh, and there’s a butterfly garden that’s been known to draw the Queen, monarch, emperor, swallowtail and dogface varieties. Plus the remains of a Civil War-era grist mill. And a 2-acre sandy beach lake for swimming and fishing.

Fun historical facts: Florida’s first oil well was drilled here in 1919, producing a whiff of natural gas but no gusher. On the other hand, they did put up a distillery there in 1891 and managed to turn the water into wine. Talk about keeping the mystery alive.

Bonus side trip: While you’re in the area, motor on over to nearby Marianna and take the opportunity to visit Caverns State Park. They are just about the only Florida caverns you can explore without the assistance of an aqualung and fins, so that’s pretty cool. Plus it gets a little scary when they turn out the lights.

To get there. Falling Waters State Park is a 5.7 mile drive from downtown Chipley. Head south on Main Street (State Road 77). Shortly after passing under the I-10 interchange, turn left onto State Park Road (77A). State Park Road leads directly to the state park (no mystery there).

Let’s get one thing straight. Solomon’s Castle is not just another Florida roadside attraction.

In fact, you can’t even see it from the nearest, lightly-traveled county road. Indeed, if you miss the single, small wooden sign announcing your arrival, you’ll miss the castle altogether.

But follow the sign through a dense copse of woods and what you see may astound you. And perhaps tickle your funny bone.

If it’s hard to look at in the blinding Florida sun that’s because the 3-story, 12,000 sq. ft. castle appears to have been made out of giant sheets of aluminum foil. In fact it was constructed from printing plates salvaged by its creator from a newspaper. The castle is stuffed to the gills with sculptures created by builder and artist Gary Solomon. And the grounds surrounding Solomon’s kingly home is a wonderland of wacky structures fashioned out of discarded auto parts and whatever else he could get his hands on.

Yes, that is a replica of a Portuguese galleon sitting in that pond. Solomon calls it his “boat in the moat,” and it’s part of his restaurant, as is the nearby lighthouse.

Mere words do not suffice.

Fun historical facts. Solomon’s Castle is located in Hardee County, named, not for the hamburger chain but for Florida’s 23rd governor, Cary Augustus Hardee. A Live Oak banker, he governed from 1921-1924, and during Hardee’s term Florida outlawed state income taxes and adopted the electric chair as its official method of execution. Oh, and Solomon’s Castle is located in the heart of “Bone Valley,” which contains the largest phosphate deposits in North America.

To get there: It’s about a half-hour drive from nearby Arcadia. Head west on W. Hickory Street, which becomes SR 70 once you cross the Peace River. After about 14 miles turn right onto 112th Ave/Lily Ave NW. And then, 7.6 miles later, turn left onto CR 665. Almost immediately after that (.4 miles) turn right onto Solomon Road. Keep your eyes peeled for that tiny sign.

What else to see: If you double back to Arcadia and then head west on SR 72 you will arrive at Myakka River State Park, a natural wonderland not to be missed. Or, if you head north on U.S. 17 to Bartow and then east on SR 60, you can go to Lake Wales and see its famed Bok Tower and Gardens. Or if you like fishing, SR 70 east takes you to Okeechobee.

Stand on the high bluff at that place where the Withlacoochee empties into the Suwannee and you will surely by struck by the quiet natural beauty of it all. But you may not, at first, appreciate just how vital this out-of-the-way river juncture was to confederate forces during the Civil War.

At the time a wooden railroad bridge spanned the Suwannee and it provided a vital supply link, as trainloads of beef, salt and sugar were shipped into Georgia. Protecting the bridge became especially vial after the fall of Vicksburg cut off confederate supplies from Texas and Arkansas. To protect the bridge against Union raids, long earthworks were built up along the Suwannee and confederate troops permanently stationed there. Although the bridge was never attacked, it wasn’t for lack of trying. In 1864 Union troops left Jacksonville with the intention of destroying the bridge. They were turned back at Olustee on Feb. 20 in the bloodiest Florida battle of the Civil War.

The earthworks are still there, at the Suwannee River State Park, not far from Live Oak, along with a large paddle wheel shaft from a 19th century river boat. One of the oldest cemeteries in Florida, where residents of the long vanished town of Columbus buried their dead, is also located on the park. With the assistance of a network of riverside trails, a visit to Suwannee River State Park is a stunning walk through both history and nature.

To get there: It is a 12-mile drive from Live Oak to the park. Simply head west on U.S. 90 until you see the park entrance sign.

Other things to see. Return to Live Oak and drive north on U.S. 129 to visit the nearby Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park. Or follow CR 135 east out of Live Oak to go to Big Shoals State Park, the only stretch of white water on the Suwannee. Oh, and the lovely riverside town of White Springs, 15 miles east of Live Oak on SR 136, is also worth a look see.

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