About a half-hour drive from Tallahassee—which, by the way, is one of the most breathtaking stretches of highway in Florida—is one of the Sunshine State’s best-kept secrets. Hidden among the gently rolling hills and mild climate of northern Florida is a place with working plantations and small farms producing everything from pecans to mayhaw berries. This quaint Florida community is dripping with more than just honey from the local bee farm. It’s dripping with history and good ole Southern charm.
Jefferson County was established in January 1827, nearly a decade after Spain gave the Florida territory to the United States through the Transcontinental Treaty in 1819. Named for Thomas Jefferson, the county seat of Monticello was established the same year, named for Jefferson’s home in Virginia. Although the county had its share of hardships due to war and the debt created from the railroad, the land of Jefferson County offered plenty to attract settlers.
Fox and quail hunting were popular sports in the nineteenth century, and Jefferson County was (and is) a hunter’s paradise. Wealthy Northerners purchased large tracts of land to use as hunting retreats, and many of these grounds still honor the tradition of hunting on horseback. Dixie Plantation, a quail hunting preserve established by Gerald Livingston, holds the annual Continental Field Trials for bird dogs. Coincidentally, the property’s Greek revival mansion was designed by John Russell Pope, who also designed the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Farming offered a way of life for those looking to lay down roots in Jefferson County. In the late nineteenth century, the county was the top producer of watermelon seeds, providing eighty percent of the world’s supply. While the market for seeds isn’t what it used to be, several local farmers still grow watermelon along with a number of other crops, thanks to the fertile land and moderate temperatures northern Florida offers. For residents in this close-knit community, this means a “farm-to-table” experience unavailable in many larger cities.
And Monticello is far from a large city. Nearly 200 years later, it is still the only incorporated city in the county, and it isn’t breaking any population records with roughly 3,000 residents. But this only adds to the charm of this quaint Southern town with tree-lined streets and several shops and cafes that still close their doors on Sundays. It’s like a walk back in time. Literally. Residents hardly take a step without laying a foot on a piece of history. More than 600 buildings in Jefferson County were built before 1920, with several listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Like most historic communities, each building has its own story to tell. The Lloyd-Bond House, built in 1855, served as both a Confederate hospital and a school for neighborhood children. Then there are the other stories—tales of war heroes at Iwo Jima, saber tigers, watermelon queens, and poisonous tung trees. All these stories and more are hidden within the boundary lines of this small, well-kept Florida secret.