As Good As It Gets
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As Good As It Gets

The Small Town Circle: Getting out of town for the day and riding the countryside

Cruise out on Archer Road with the top down. On the left is the historic Kanapaha Presbyterian Church. Continuing on the right is the Haile Plantation House with the “Talking Walls”. How do walls talk, you ask? In the olden days, if there was something to be remembered, write it on the wall! The church’s twin sister is in Archer.

The legendary Yulees and the Hailes were members of that assembly. And you ask who were the Hailes and the Yulees? The Hailes have been a prominent Gainesville family since the 1850s and their plantation was eventually developed into Haile Plantation, a community on the north side of Archer Road. Like all area plantations, it was worked by slaves and the primary crop was cotton. Unlike plantations in other areas of the South, which were developed along a waterway or river for transportation, the Haile Plantation Gainesville and The University of Florida all were developed alongside and dependent on the railroad.

Senator David Levy Yulee was Florida’s first senator. He was the first Jewish member of The United States Congress, and he was Florida first great railroad builder. Running alongside of Archer Road is a very straight level biking trail; a rail-to-trail on the bed of Yulee’s Railroad. Five-hundred slaves labored to build the railroad from Fernandina to Cedar Key. Shortly after the Civil War John Muir, the famed California naturalist, walked this way on his way to fame. Those 6-feet high beams are what remain of the track he traveled in his book detailing his 1000-mile walk to the sea.

To the right on a hill just inside Archer, was the Yulee’s Cotton Wood Plantation. The plantation raised cotton and grew wood, hence the name.

Archer is known for its authentic Depot Railroad Museum, The McNeil House, the Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, and the area’s most haunted, the Gordon House. The ghost who visits the current owners has her grave in Archer’s Laura Hill Cemetery along with T. Gilbert Pearson’s — the founder of the Audubon Society — parents who died within a month of each other during the great flu epidemic in 1917. Pearson was a Tom-Sawyer-kind of young man who learned all about birds close up in the trees. He was an expert in how to blow out and preserve bird eggs, and had an extensive bird egg collection. His youth was an adventure in the wilds of the late 1800’s Florida.

Me at the Depot Railroad Museum with Historian Murray Laurie (left) and Archer Railroad Museum Director Brenna Braley (right) posing atop a 1930s gas-powered railroad motor car. — Doug Finger, Gainesville Sun

Archer is also where the Confederate treasury vanished in 1865, and where the U.S. Presidential Election of 1876 was held. The outcome of that election was decided by the stuffed Archer ballot box! Additionally, Archer was refuge for the Rosewood Massacre Survivors, a racially motivated incident, and it’s where the U.S. House Representative Josiah Walls began his political rise to the United States Congress as a teacher in a freeman school.

Up Scenic Highway 27/41 is Newberry, and the Red School House Museum, as well as Dudley Farm, an 1800s farm still in use today. The farm’s past includes a grisly lynching at an oak tree right out front.

Continue up NW 134th Street through rolling hills and past The Hammock, a nature preserve where hardwood trees grow on the rolling hills, to Alachua’s Historic Main Street. Alachua is home for a variety of festivals and a great 4th of July fireworks show.

Want to experience a bank hold-up and shoot-out? Then come to High Springs for Pioneer Days; or go tubing? The High Springs Area has springs and rivers just waiting. Be forewarned the water is cold! It’s also an antiquing destination. Check it all out or drive through the retro diner for some fries.

Street name sign for the former Bellamy Road at the intersection of US 41/441via Wikipedia

Further north is Bellamy Road — Florida’s first cross-state highway from Pensacola to St. Augustine. Parts of Old Bellamy Road are what we call around here a “Dim Road” Because the thick tree canopy dims the bright sunshine. It passes by a place where time is lost: the Newnansville cemetery, our oldest graveyard. There are Dentons amongst those headstones. Do not spend the night!

Wind on through strawberry fields and cattle land to the the Santa Fe River Preserve. The Santa Fe River glides by through the woods. Then head for Waldo. If you are a flea marketer, the Waldo Flea Market is a landmark. Before the Internet, this flea market had whatever you might need. It is a great Saturday outing.

An historic note about Waldo: This is where Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, had his luggage captured. Davis had fled from Richmond, Virginia in May of 1865 with what remained of the Confederate Treasury. They crossed the Carolinas and Davis was captured in South Georgia. The gold disappeared right here in Archer!

The Waldo Flea Market — Visit Gainesville, Alachua County, FL

Now we pass by Lake Santa Fe to Earlton. The Earl House is a classic old southern home built before the Civil War for the Earl Plantation owner’s daughter. The house is topped with a towering cupola and the porches have columns all around. The house can best be seen from the lake or by peeking through the trees. It is private after all. This house happens to be the inspiration for our home in Archer.

Melrose has the Melrose beach and Lake Santa Fe views along with old Victorian home and a quaint hometown feel. Big Lake Santa Fe is a beautiful, “Spring fed” lake which has clear water that does not rise and fall with the droughts as other lake can. It is the source of the Santa Fe River which winds out of the lake toward the Gulf of Mexico past countless blue springs and scenic spots.

Sante Fe River Kayaks and Canoe Outpost — Visit Gainesville, Alachua County, FL

Let’s head for Hawthorne. Been fishing or camping recently? Well this is the spot. Lochlusa, Cross Creek and Orange Lake have been famous for bass fishing. Just down the road is Marjorie Rawlings House in an orange grove. She was the author of the novel, “The Yearling,” portraying the family life of a civil war veteran. This park like is a time capsule back to the 1930’s. So9 much of her life has been saved. Her car; her belongs; the photographs, as well as the appliances used. It is a 1930’s treasure chest.

Motoring on to Micanopy a great place to dine and shop for old stuff like antiques or stay at the Heirlong Mansion for the night. Micanopy is the oldest inland town in Florida. David Levy Yulee’s father, Moses Levy, acquired an enormous track of land here and sought to establish a colony for displaced Eastern European Jewish people in the early 1800s.

Levy changed his name David Levy Yulee to further his political career. It sounded less “jewish” and he was courting a very sought after young woman in Washington. He was known as “Florida’s Fire Eater” because of his oratory ability. She was known as “Washington’s Madonna” because of her beauty and goodness. Nan Yulee has a womens’ dorm named after her on the University of Florida campus. The University of Florida Library has Senator Yulee’s legacy collection.

Micanopy has been featured in numerous films and has a glorious hometown all over the American 4th of July Parade and a great fall art festival. Downtown Micanopy is especially authentic and picture perfect.

You could continue back to Gainesville passing a very historic cemetery with Florida’s Civil War Governor’s grave as well as my native American relations and on by Rochelle a town long abandoned on your way back to Gainesville.

A bird flying Paynes Prairie — Visit Gainesville, Alachua County, FL

Or try traveling on US HWY 441, passing Payne’s Prairie’s Main South Entrance and cross the prairie. Stop to view the vistas from one of the lookouts. Payne was the chief when W. Bartram the famous naturalist explored our area in the late 1700s describing it as being a kind of Eden.

But if you are a genuine nature lover, then make a detour to see the Barr Hammock Preserve just west of 441. It is a walk on the natural side through a birding paradise. Another option would be a jog through Evinston. Make sure to get a sodie at the antique cracker post office general store.

Bar Hammock South Bridge — Visit Gainesville, Alachua County, FL

Ultimately all roads lead back to the University of Florida and under the stunning helix overpass, another relic souvenir left behind by Yulee’s Railroad. Ta ta! Now you are back at Archer Road. The Alachua County Circle has been completed. What a RIDE! Y’all Come back, ya hear.

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