Old Florida

March 18, 2017

by Steve

This is a contemporary post. When we started the blog, we weren't sure if it would be a series of sequential posts about places that we visited, or if it would be topical. It's turned out to be a mix, and often we don't post about a place until long after we have left it. This could be because we want our thoughts about a particular place to "mature" before we write about it, or more likely it's due to laziness. In any event, this is an exception. I'm writing about Cedar Key, or "Old Florida," while we are still here.

Now you may be saying to yourself, "Isn't all of Florida 'Old', as in old people?" Well, except for maybe Miami Beach and South Beach where everyone is young or trying to look young, yes, there are many old people in Florida, especially during the winter months. But that isn't what this is about. This is about how Florida used to be, pre-Disney, pre-1950, pre-chain restaurants. It's a certain style and feel, and where we are has tons of that feel.

We are in Cedar Key. This is a "key," meaning an island, but not part of "The Keys," which are the string of islands that lead all the way down to Key West. Cedar Key is on the gulf side and is considered "North Florida" because it is north of Interstate 4. 
Cedar Key feels like it's at the end of the road, probably because it is at the end of the road. There are no chain restaurants here, no chain stores. No Walmart or Publix market. There is a small local grocery store, but if you want something closer to a supermarket, you'll have to drive 30 miles to Chiefland. Cedar Key does have a local  hotel with 10 rooms.
And a lot of shops selling somewhat unusual combinations.  For example:
I don't usually think of bourbon, art, and ammo going together, but here they do.

And this next one speaks for itself, I think.

Cedar Key is relatively small, around 900 residents, 1800 during the winter. But it had at one time been much larger. Depending on what you read/who you talk to, the heyday of Cedar Key was 1885 when there were around 5000 residents on all the local islands. Or it was when there were 1900 residents some time later. No matter, the history of this place is one of setbacks and rebuilding. When you read the history, you find a recurring theme. It goes pretty much like this:  "The railroad was completed in 1861, bringing daily trains to the town. But then in 1862 the Union Army took over the town and burned the railroad depot down." And "The island was home to a factory and many homes, until the hurricane of 1896 destroyed the factory and 40 of the houses," and "...until the hurricane of 1910 destroyed...," and "...until the hurricane of 1935 destroyed..."

Seems that whenever things were going well, another hurricane showed up and wrecked a bunch of stuff. I think when you keep getting wiped out every 10 or 15 years, you don't bother to try build too fancy.  As Jane said, "this town takes 'rustic' to a whole new level."  Currently they are rebuilding from the hurricane of 2016. That one was called Hermine.

In a town this small, you don't really need a car to get around. It often seems that golf carts outnumber cars and are the preferred mode of transportation for the locals.
Even the police department, which has at least two cars and two trucks, also uses a golf cart. How would you feel about getting pulled over by this:
In any case, the golf carts are everywhere, and especially on Dock Street, which is the old railroad dock, elevated over the water.

Dock Street is mostly restaurants and gift shops catering to tourists.  No chain restaurants, even though these local birds looked to be lined up on the remains of an old dock like retirees outside the Old Country Buffet at 4:00 pm.

One of the main industries of Cedar Key in recent years was the fiber plant. Cedar Key was home to the Standard Manufacturing Co., which made the fibers for making whisk brushes and hat brushes. These fibers were extracted from the sabal (or cabbage) palm tree and exported all over the world to brush makers, including the Fuller Brush Company (you have to be over 50 to know about them). They also made their own under the brand name Donax.

The company got started in 1910 when a dentist from Indiana came for a visit and met a local who knew how to extract palm fiber and make brushes. The dentist he quit his dental practice to set up manufacturing in Cedar Key. The company was quite successful, employing over 100 people and operating from 1910 to 1952 (...until the hurricane of 1950 wiped out most of...). There's not much left of the factory site, the land having been sold and converted to condos in the 90s, but there is one building left, and the house that the owner lived in was saved and moved near the Historical Museum.

And speaking of the owner,s house, it turns out that the son of the factory founder still lives in the area and likes to hang out in his old childhood home, now part of the Historical Museum.  So we got to meet him and get a personal tour and explanation of the whole process of extracting fiber and making brushes.
We're still in Cedar Key. We'll be here until the end of the month. I'm not sure if there's much left for us to see, but we do want to kayak out to some of the islands. And maybe take in more of the Fine Art and Smoked Mullet.

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  1. Steve - Mary and I have been following your posts since the start. Thank you for keeping us up to date. We looked at RV's a few weeks ago, you have inspired us for my second 'retirement'. :) Take care and safe travels. Mike (Antenore).


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