Much of the American South is not only rural in nature but rustic, sparse in population, and given over to timber, swamplands, desert, or endless rolling crop fields—places like the arid oil country of Loving County, Texas, or like Echols County, Georgia, which is known for its pine forests and swamps. Both have very low populations made up of hardy souls who have come for work or the natural beauty of these places, or have been there for generations and see no need in going elsewhere.
Northern Florida is much the same: a lot of forest, rivers, lakes, as well as quite a bit of crop- and cattle-raising—but not so many people and not that many towns. Many like it this way—there is a sense of peace and land unchanged from pioneer days—but there is still an express need for civilization, for the trappings of government, for doctors and hospitals, places to shop, places to worship, and means of transportation in and out of the region. For northern Florida, in its vast expanse between Jacksonville and Tallahassee, Lake City is the literal and spiritual gateway to the state from Georgia and the epicenter for a land rich in rural history and tradition.
A Seminole village called “Alpata Telophk,” or “Alligator Village,” was located here, and when white settlers arrived around 1830 (Columbia County was incorporated in 1832), they called their own town “Alligator”—until 1859 when the town was renamed Lake City in honor of the number of lakes in and around the town. Lakes Isabella, De Soto, and Alligator played important roles in the formation of neighborhoods in the emerging town. Lake Isabella boasts a historic district renowned to this day for its fine homes, while Lake De Soto is the focal point of the downtown area and the location of one of the town’s hospitals.
The Civil War had an impact on Lake City with the Battle of Olustee, fought not far from the town. Today a celebration of not only this battle but also the influence of the Civil War in Florida in general and period traditions of the region is celebrated with the Olustee Festival held in early February every year. A reenactment of the battle—considered one of the best Civil War reenactments in the nation—is held at the site of the battle at Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, and other events are held in downtown Lake City including a parade, lectures, craft fairs, a mile run for kids, and a 5K race.
An emphasis on older traditions has been a focus for many years in Lake City. Like the Wiregrass Region of Georgia—with which Lake City has more in common than it does the typical Florida stereotypes of beaches and palm trees—Lake City has long been a center of agricultural and timber-related industry. Tobacco, turpentine, lumber, cattle, and field crops all have played crucial roles in the local economy. Tobacco and turpentine were well-suited to the land with ancient pine forests supplying the oleoresin necessary for production of turpentine as well as soil that was perfect for growing tobacco plants. By the 1930’s these two industries led Lake City into a period of growth at a time when many areas of the American South were starting to see financial hardship.
Tobacco, however, declined in the region for a variety of reasons even before smoking was on the wane nationwide, while turpentine production—once known as “naval stores”—was also in decline and nearly phased out by the 1950’s since it was no longer needed in such large amounts for the shipbuilding industry and could be produced overseas at far reduced cost. Research on naval stores issues swiftly turned towards advances in cultivation of pine for the lumber and paper industries instead, including work at the Naval Stores and Timber Production Laboratory in Olustee, Florida, not far from Lake City.
Lake City had other cards in its deck, though. A military flight training airfield had been built to the east of town during World War II for the training of pilots, so it had an airport. Rail connections were good and had long played an important role in transport within the region, and with the advent of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950’s, I-75 passed just west of Lake City and I-10 to the north running east and west, offering great rail and highway access.
Additionally, the farming lands of Columbia and Suwannee counties are bountiful and offer a diversity of both field crops and the ability to produce fine beef and dairy cattle, as well as a good setting for poultry. Swine production is less-developed, but Nettles’, a local sausage company, is loved for their old-fashioned sausages and also provides a buyer for local farmers who raise hogs. Field food crops—watermelons, strawberries, potatoes, and pecans—plus haylage and silage to feed livestock also account for a lot of local agricultural production. Columbia and neighboring Suwannee County are, once you get out of Lake City or Suwannee’s county seat of Live Oak, very rural and very developed in terms of farming.
Downtown Lake City speaks of history, of the way small Southern cities were in the mid-twentieth century. You can see and even feel it just walking around. While big-box stores located out by Interstate 75 are now where a lot of local shopping happens, locals once frequented family-owned drug stores, clothing boutiques, and grocers downtown. The twin centerpieces of this downtown core are the county courthouse and the Hotel Blanche, which for years was a majestic example of a grand hotel. The building now awaits new use, but much of the original architecture is intact. The City Hall is another building of unique design and helps frame the importance of commercial and governmental affairs downtown. Lake De Soto sits silently just due east of these buildings, reminding visitors and locals alike of the namesake of the fine town. When you turn on to side streets, however, it’s clear there are commercial vacancies, and some urban renewal would be a great benefit.
Some such efforts are clearly underway already. The Marion Street Deli and Pub went into an old pharmacy’s space which had become a bar and a youth-oriented coffeehouse in recent years, neither of which had found success. The space with its exposed brick and original floors, its high ceilings, and central location, simply begged to be something great and to have an emphasis on its proud and long history. By opening a bar and restaurant in the space, the owners have taken a logical path to finding a good and loyal client base: during the day, business-people and local lawyers will venture in for lunch, but at night there is now a reason to come downtown, something that had been missing for quite some time. And the food and drinks are at the level you’d expect for their delightful setting. The second bar had recently been completed and opened; it runs down a narrow room that was probably at one time part of a separate business altogether. Providing an even more intimate space than the cozy main bar, it’s sure to be a hit. There are also ample references to local history all over the restaurant, from menu items named for local attractions and geographical features to reprints of local newspaper pages, maps of Florida, and other mementos.
The Marion Street Deli and Pub, however, isn’t the only good place to eat in town. Out at the mall near the I-75 interchange there is a welcome surprise, the Ole Times Country Buffet, which is part of a Valdosta-based chain but serves up very authentic and stunningly tasty old-time country cooking, just as the name would imply. The buffet often boasts fried chicken, collard greens, okra and stewed tomatoes, mashed taters, corn bread, an embarrassment of desserts, and on weekends a seafood buffet.
Shirley’s Restaurant is another local favorite featuring down-home cooking, as is the Kountry Korner. While it’s possible to get good Chinese cuisine, sushi, or go to a number of chain favorites in Lake City, the dedication to Southern culinary traditions here is intriguing: unlike such luminary culinary cities as Savannah and Charleston, we’re not seeing a revival catering to tourists here, but instead a long, steady progression of keeping valued traditions alive. Here these traditions simply never left: people knew they had a good thing with their food and hung on to it.
If you drive a little ways north of Lake City, heading up towards Georgia, you’ll find another great spot for Southern food: Milton’s Country Store. In the small community of Deep Creek, Milton’s is a gas station, convenience store, hunting/camping goods outfitter, and restaurant all rolled into one, but the food is simply exceptional despite having really no competition nearby whatsoever. Dishes like fried chicken and fried green tomatoes are leading draws here, as are their famed biscuits.
The area around Milton’s harkens back to a Florida of another time: seemingly countless miles of pine forests are only broken by a farm here and a house there or the ruins of a small store or gas station. Roads have names such as “Thomas Camp Road” that tell of their naval stores past, when they led to local turpentine camps where the oleoresin was actually harvested from the trees. Churches such as the Hopewell Church and the Prospect Church are set way back in the woods at the ends of long, looping dirt roads. Their locations tell of a long history when the communities they served didn’t have US 441—the main road providing access to these areas of northern Columbia and Hamilton counties—and paths of transit were very different than today.
Indeed, the hardy souls who lived in this remote area were engaged in forestry and farming and very independent, probably only venturing into Lake City now and then for clothing, cloth, dry goods, and the few things their own farms could not provide. And independent they had to be: when a bridge—the Cone Bridge which was named for Florida’s Governor Fred Cone who was from this area—was destroyed by an overloaded and grossly overweight logging truck, it was never replaced. It served too scant a population perhaps to be worth that expense and effort. Now there is a boat ramp where the bridge once was. The community Governor Cone was born in, Benton, appears on very few maps of the state today, showing how a rural community—even if the birthplace of a famous man—can fade from memory. Governor Cone did a great deal for Lake City, however, and his influence can even be found in Gainesville where a local park bears his name. He is buried in neighboring Hamilton County, back to land not far from where he was born.
Lake City is often skipped over by tourists headed south and glossed over by the news, but make no mistake about it, it’s a thriving and fascinating place. Its history is rich and its appreciation of that history deep and loyal. In many ways, Lake City really represents the true South and the real Florida where the Sunshine State developed in its early days of statehood.
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