Antique-hound-haven Havana (they pronounce it Hay’-vana), fifteen miles north of Tallahassee, will host their Havana Day Festival on May 7th in celebration of the town’s heritage, and to benefit Community Cares Outreach of Havana. The event begins at 9:00 AM and will feature lots of children’s and family activities, arts and crafts (and of course antiques), as well as a concert by folk/country artist Billy Dean at 6:00 that evening.
Back at the turn of the century this region was known for growing Cuban cigar tobacco. Farmers in and around Havana specialized in growing “shade tobacco,” the leaves of which cigar makers used as the outer wrapper of cigars. It was called shade tobacco because they grew it under cheesecloth tarps, which let just the right amount of light through in order to grow perfect leaves. The growing and subsequent curing/drying was a very specialized and precise process. But in the mid-1960s, under a foreign goodwill program sponsored by the United States government, the north Florida shade tobacco growers’ special farming and harvesting techniques were taught to workers in several South American countries. Within just a couple of years, these countries were producing shade tobacco at a significantly lower cost, and the growing industry around Havana evaporated. It turned into a virtual ghost town, until the mid-1980’s when antique shop owners bought several downtown buildings, and relocated their shops there.
The festivities for Fernandina’s 48th Annual Shrimp Festival kick off Thursday night (April 28) with a pirate parade and continue for three more days in beautiful historic downtown Fernandina Beach, with arts and crafts shows, children’s games and activities, live entertainment, and of course great seafood.
So what is the deal with “eight flags”? Eight different country’s flags have flown over Amelia Island (more than any other location in the United States). First the French arrived. Huguenot Jean Ribault was the first European to set foot on Amelia Island (which he named “Isle De Mai”) in 1562. This didn’t sit well with the Spanish, since Juan Ponce De León had claimed all of Florida for Spain when he landed just north of present-day St. Augustine in 1513. So, in 1565, the Spanish sent Pedro Menendez de Avile to kick the French out of Florida and off Isle De Mai, with great success. They renamed the island “Santa Maria.” Later there were invasions from the British—the earliest around 1702, but the island remained a Spanish territory until the first Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War in 1763, and Britain returned Cuba to Spain in exchange for all of Florida. British General James Oglethorpe gave Santa Maria its new name, “Amelia,” after the daughter of King George II. But the British underestimated how unfriendly the Indians could be, how much swamp land there was, and how many mosquitoes, snakes, and alligators there were in Florida, so twenty years later England traded Florida back to Spain. In 1812, a small group of U. S. patriots who called themselves the “Patriots of Amelia Island” overthrew the Spanish on the island and raised their own flag for a very brief time. In the summer of 1817, Sir Gregor MacGregor seized control of Spain’s recently completed island fortification, Fort San Carlos. MacGregor flew his “Green Cross” flag, but withdrew a short time later. A few months after that, French pirate Luis Aury raided the island and raised the Mexican flag—unbeknownst to Mexico, by the way. By December of that year, U. S. troops had taken over the island and were holding it in trust for the Spanish. In 1819 Spain and the United States signed a treaty: the U. S. got Florida in exchange for taking over $5 million in debts that Spain owed the citizens of the United States. It took two years to iron out all the details, but in 1821 the United States officially acquired Florida and consequently Amelia Island from Spain. In April 1861 Confederate troops occupied Fort Clinch at the north end of the island, but Federal troops regained it a year later. (history lesson—excerpt from Visiting Small-Town Florida, Third Edition, Pineapple Press 2011).
In my Visiting Small-Town Florida, Third Edition (Pineapple Press 2011) Introduction I briefly mention three of Florida’s most notorious speed traps: Waldo, Starke, and Lawtey, all in a row along Highway 301 northeast of Gainesville. These three are so notorious that the American Automobile Association purchased billboards outside each town warning, “Speed Trap Ahead”. There are others, less infamous, but just as treacherous. It’s a long and lonely eighty-mile stretch along Highway 98 in the Panhandle, from Carrabelle to Perry. But don’t be lulled by the mostly sixty-mile-per-hour speed limit. Right where the road takes a little zigzag at Newport (just east of the turnoff to St. Marks) it drops precipitously to thirty-five-mile-per-hour. And the sign to that effect is posted (I’m not making this up) right behind a tree, so that travelers heading east cannot see it until they are directly alongside it. The local sheriff spends most of his day parked in the bushes just past the sign. Another trap town, Howey-In-The-Hills (just north of Clermont) takes advantage of this area’s undulating terrain with a speed limit drop from fifty-five to thirty-five miles-per-hour on State Road 19’s downhill slope into town. No wiggle room here—they will write you up for thirty-six.
Note that Visiting Small-Town Florida’s Table of Contents contains none of the above towns. That’s because none merited inclusion as visit-worthy. However, one town with a very strictly-enforced speed limit did: Big Pine Key. The speed limit along Highway 1 through town is mostly forty- and sometimes thirty-five-miles-per-hour and they too will write you up for one-over. But I don’t consider Big Pine Key a “speed trap”. Their enforcement is legitimate.
Big Pine Key, thirty-five miles northeast of Key West, is home to a number of rare and endangered birds, reptiles, and mammals. Their best-known endangered inhabitant is the petite Key, or toy, deer. Key deer are the smallest race of North American deer and are indigenous to the Lower Keys; nearly the entire population is found on Big Pine Key and neighbor No Name Key. A typical adult weighs between forty and seventy pounds and stands less than two-and-half feet tall at the shoulder. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Key Deer Refuge estimates their current population at about eight hundred, double what it was twenty years ago. Despite this improvement, they are still at great risk. More than half of those that die each year are killed by automobile strikes. Hand-feeding exacerbates the problem. These little guys are so cute that people get out of their cars to feed them. The deer are quick learners, and before long they start running out to cars, and invariably get hit. The fine for feeding a Key deer is $250.
Here again, local police will write speeding tickets for just one mile per hour over the limit, but for once it is for a worthwhile purpose.
Highlands may not be a Florida small town (although there are plenty of Floridians here), but it is one of my favorites. Proving that they have a good sense of humor, or perhaps just a tight budget, every morning the Highlands Police Department parks a patrol car somewhere alongside one of the roads leading into town, manned by a patrolman who I have named Officer Manny Quinn.
“Sopchoppy” might be a mish-mash of Creek Indian words sokhe and chapke, meaning “twisted” and “long”, to describe the river that flows past this town. Or, they might have been describing something else—worms. Worms have put the Panhandle town of Sopchoppy on the map. The variety that breeds in this area’s soil is particularly fat and long—a fisherman’s dream. The method used to bring them to the surface is called “gruntin.” The worm grunter’s tools are a wooden stake and a flattened iron paddle. Something amazing happens when a grunter drives a stake into the ground and grinds the iron paddle against it: worms come wriggling out of the ground by the hundreds. The grunting noise that the grinding makes sends a vibration through the ground that makes the little slimy guys crazy.
On the second weekend in April, Sopchoppy holds its annual Worm Gruntin Festival and Worm Grunter’s Ball. There’s lots of good food and live entertainment and they choose a Worm Queen. The highlight however, is the Worm Gruntin Contest—to see who can grunt up the most worms in fifteen minutes. In 1972, Charles Kuralt brought worm gruntin to the attention of the outside world, much to the chagrin of locals. Following that publicity, the U. S. Forest Service began requiring a permit and charging fees for gruntin.
Visitors to Sopchoppy will find a mom-and-pop grocery store, a hardware store, and a bait-and-tackle shop. There is also a terrific pizza restaurant that doubles as a canoe and kayak outfitters shop called Backwoods Pizza & Bistro, located in a restored 1912 pharmacy building. More festival info: www.wormgruntinfestival.com
Along a fifty-mile stretch between Sebring and Okeechobee, Highway 98 passes through an idyllic region of old Florida cattle-country. It winds past the tiny almost-ghost-town communities of Lorida, Cornwell, and Basinger; and crosses the Kissimmee River on one of its wilder sections. Eventually it straightens out for about a dozen miles where it bisects what I can only describe as a vast Serengeti-like plain that stretches to the horizon on either side. But instead of galloping giraffes I find grazing cows and sand hill cranes.