THE ORIGINAL FLORIDA

WAY DOWN UPON THE STEINHATCHEE

By Doc Lawrence

There are areas of Florida that the modern world doesn’t really know much about. This is where the air is clean and the water fresh and unpolluted; where abundant and omnipresent wildlife thrives. While so much of the Sunshine State has been overdeveloped and overpopulated, the north central portion, which covers almost seven thousand square miles, remains probably like it has always been. One observer said it is “what the earth looked like in the beginning.”

Dean FowlerMy journey began as an invitation from an ambitious state of Florida sponsored program called “The Original Florida.” With the best hosts and guides a traveler could ever reasonably hope for, we launched on the historic Suwannee River, whose meanderings and poetic name appears in song about as much as the Mississippi, dining on barbequed ribs on Bill Miller’s houseboat headed down to the Gulf of Mexico, and mesmerized by a stunningly beautiful sunset that will remain embedded in my memory. The dinner conversation featured an assemblage of likeable and colorful characters, and provided an opportunity to meet Dean Fowler, a part-time Atlanta resident and a fellow Emory University alumnus.

A cousin of former U.S. Senator and Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Wyche Fowler, Dean Fowler is perhaps the primary motivating force in stirring outside interest in this vast area of Florida’s natural beauty. His remarkable development, Steinhatchee Landing Resort, lies alongside the river with the same name and is a monument to good taste, environmental protection and respect for local culture. Fowler, who hails from Montezuma, Georgia, has deep Georgia roots as a businessman and political activist, and enjoys a close friendship with some big names like President Jimmy Carter and Senator Zell Miller. Several year’s ago, the Carter family vacationed at Steinhatchee.

CottageFowler, who likely considers Steinhatchee his main residence, engaged an architect who conceptualized one of the acclaimed resorts in the Florida Panhandle, to design Steinhatchee Landing Resort. The cottages are accommodating and comport amazingly well with the surroundings, the end result of not only remarkable architectural concerns but Fowler’s use of the ancient brick and wood from a pre-civil war hotel he dismantled in Montezuma and recycled into the buildings at Steinhatchee Landing. As a display of authenticity, Fowler, a genuinely decent man and a proponent of racial harmony, showed me ancient marks made by slaves in Montezuma long ago when the hotel was constructed entirely through the fruits of bondaged labor.

The stay at Steinhatchee, which included a memorable visit to nearby Hagen’s Cove and Keaton Beach, finished with a pontoon boat ride on the Steinhatchee River and the sighting of a huge bald eagle perched on the top of barren tree. There was more of natural north Florida to see and we departed Steinhatchee Landing Resort with a silent pledge to return soon.

We arrived at Ichnetnucknee Springs State Park at Fort White and boarded canoes for a trip along the primeval Ichnetnucknee River. We held a Mastodon tooth weighing a couple of pounds found recently by archaeologists, and encountered a cheerful group of Atlanta area families canoeing under the auspices of The Georgia Canoe Club. Their presence was startling because there was virtually no noise on the river.

DinerThe geography, development and culture of this North Florida paradise are inextricably tied to the Suwannee River. Whether a town or encampment is actually on or even near the river is irrelevant. The Suwannee is the reference point that guides and drives everything and is the stuff of legends. Little wonder that Suwannee River Music Park, a privately owned facility bisected by the Suwannee River, is so well known beyond the southeast. It, like Lanierland Music Park north of Atlanta, hosts huge music festivals regularly and can boast that the biggest names in bluegrass and country music perform there regularly. I visited the nearby Stephen Foster State Folk Culture Center at White Springs, and capped off the day with a catfish and grits dinner at the renowned Suwannee River Diner. For the uninitiated, this is the kind of food that Lewis Grizzard and his progeny searched the south for.

The final day brought the party to Dudley Farm near Gainesville, a state-owned and operated farm that reflects Florida’s unique “Cracker” culture that is arguably the oldest surviving indigenous culture in the southeast. Among the farm animals are cows and horses, both bearing the “Cracker” label whose ancestry goes back to the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon. The bulls in the herd bear a striking resemblance to those we see in the ring with Matadors.

Florida has long been a haven for writers including Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. After a tour of Micanopy, Florida’s second oldest city, I spent a good part of a Sunday afternoon at the home of fabled author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Her immortal novel, The Yearling, was my earliest introduction to Americana and was the literary work that introduced Florida’s “Cracker” culture to the world

Access to these wonders from Atlanta is surprisingly easy. A drive down Interstate 75 south to Lake City, Florida will get you started. Rather than do everything spontaneously, call The Original Florida at (904) 758.1555, or go online to http://www.flausa.com/destinations/location.php.

For Steinhatchee Landing Resort, (which I enthusiastically recommend!) visit them online at www.SteinhatcheeLanding.com. Wherever you go, the natural wonders will refresh you, the food will be simple and tasty and the people all smile and treat you like a long lost friend.

It’s all part of the “Cracker” way of life.
 

 

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