Back at the very beginning of August, just a week before I was to begin my summer vacation, I stumbled upon this article in the Huffington Post, which contained incredible photos of abandoned churches. I am not religious by any means, but I am indeed a confirmed Desolationist, which by its very nature means that any decrepit and haunting images of abandoned structures draw me in. As two of these very structures are located in Alachua County, Florida - the county in which I currently reside - I decided that finding them would be my goal for my summer vacation. I kind of failed. But only kind of.
I identified the two Alachua County churches as being in the tiny "towns" (and I use that term quite loosely) of Island Grove and Rochelle. I set out one morning, intending to find both churches, yet found neither. Granted, part of this was due to the fact that it was August in Florida and the AC in my car has ceased to produce air that is even remotely cool. I never even made it to Island Grove. Instead, after exploring Rochelle, I sped back home in my rolling oven of a Toyota in order to bask in my home's glorious AC. But I did, however, make it to Rochelle. Some online digging had uncovered the fact that the church I'd planned to go in search of was on private property. As I didn't know where said property was located or who owned it, I'd hoped to stumble upon the church simply by driving around Rochelle. At the very least, I figured I'd be able to photograph it from a distance. Hah! I didn't so much as catch a glimpse of the structure. I did, however, find quite a few things that were interesting and surprising - and quite photogenic.
In case you have no idea where Alachua County, Florida might be (it's the home of Gainesville and the University of Florida), here are a couple maps to point you in the direction of Rochelle:
According to Mike Woodfin of ghosttowns.com, Rochelle was the home of Madison Starke Perry, the fourth governor of the state. He is apparently buried in the community cemetery which, sadly, I did not locate. At the height of its boom days, Rochelle was home to 175 people, and had a hotel, schools, churches, and mills. It was also a stop for a very active railway line in the late 1800s. However, the town fell into decline after the freeze of 1895 which destroyed much of Florida's citrus crops. Today there are several homes, one active church, and not much else. The railroad line has been converted into a rails-to-trails bike path, popular with local cyclists. Is there anything worth seeing in Rochelle? Well, you can be the judge.
This is the central "square" of Rochelle - dominated by some gorgeous old oaks, dripping in Spanish moss.
Several of the "roads" leading away from the central square look very much like this...
Down one of those roads I discovered the remains of an old homestead which, according to ghosttowns.com is the old Bradley family home, dating back to the 1920s.
Another glimpse of the Bradley family home
I drove down many dirt "roads" in an attempt to locate the Trinity ME church which had lured me to the town in the first place, but to no avail. I did, however, stumble upon this fantastic structure, which was quite a pleasant discovery:
This building used to be the Martha Perry Institute, an all-girls school established in 1885 and named for the wife of Florida's then governor. The Martha Perry Institute remained in operation until the 1930s.
The building is locked up quite tightly to prevent against trespassing, and the windows were too high off the ground for me to see inside. I've no idea of the current condition of the interior, although the exterior seems to be decently maintained. So far the only picture of the interior I've been able to locate is this one, taken in 1901.
While walking around the exterior of the building, I looked up and saw this hanging from the second floor balcony. From the ground and through my camera it looked like a noose. It looks a lot less like a noose on my computer, but it freaked me out a bit - especially as I was out there by myself.
As I was staring at the pseudo-noose through my viewfinder trying to determine if it really was a noose or not, I heard what sounded like someone attempting to sneak up on me through the grass. I whirled around to see these handsome birds (sandhill cranes) stalking towards me. To be honest, they kind of scared the shit out of me for a moment. Nothing like trying to determine whether or not that's a noose you see dangling there only to be startled by the sound of someone sneaking up on you.
I watched them for a good chunk of time; they were fairly oblivious to me.
There wasn't much else to see in Rochelle. This, I believe, is the old Spence family homestead, located just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Martha Perry Institute. I drove around a bit more, but I never did find the church.
The following links go to what few online resources pertaining to Rochelle I was able to discover:
Stephen Tabone Photography of the Trinity ME Church
The Forgotten Frontier (blog post)
Historic Rochelle, Florida (YouTube)
Ghost Town Rochelle (YouTube)