Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Lee: Little but Proud

The tiny community of Lee is located in eastern Madison County, between the towns of Madison to the west and Live Oak to the east. I’ve had a hard time finding much information about the history of the small town, but judging from the number of photographs I was able to find in the Florida Archive, it was once much bigger than it is today. Here’s what I was able to learn:

Settlement of Madison County began in the early 1800s, initially led by cotton planters clustered around the city of Madison. However, the area where the community of Lee sprang up began to coalesce into a community in the decades following the Civil War. As with many of the small communities that emerged across north Florida in the late 1800s, the settlers of eastern Madison County made their livings off of lumber mills, cotton, farming, and the railroad. The first sawmill in what would later become known as Lee was established in the 1890s, although the community itself wasn’t formally incorporated until 1909. During the early decades of the twentieth century, Lee had an active depot on the Seaboard Air Line Railway, a drug store, shoe store, gas station, barber shop, bank, post office and grocery. 

First sawmill in Lee, 1890s

J.E. Whitty and Son Drugstore,1918 (store built 1910)

Interior of shoe shop, early 1900s

Kinsey's Barber Shop (left); Emory Turlington's store (right), early 1900s

Farmers Bank, Early 1900s

Interior of Farmers Bank, early 1900s

Lee School, 1920s

JC Black Cotton Gin, 1934

Seaboard Air Line Railway Company Depot, 1938

When you arrive in the modern community of Lee, one of the first things you will see is the town motto - Lee: Little but Proud. The town is indeed little, with fewer than 400 residents. Not much remains of the businesses that once clustered along the railroad; however, signs of the town's former glory can still be seen.

Formerly Kinsey's Barber Shop

Formerly Kinsey's Barber Shop

Formerly Emory Turlington's store

The view from Kinsey's Barber Shop towards Turlington's store

I am not sure what kind of business is (was?) run by David Joseph, but it is nice to see the Farmer's Bank still stands. It also served as the location of the Lee Post Office for a time.

Across the street from the remains of Kinsey's Barbershop is the picturesque old Fry Grocery Store.

I wish I had been able to find an old photo of this structure because it was quite fun to photograph, and I'd love to see it in its former glory.

Looking north from the former Farmers Bank

Sadly, there was no sign of many of the former businesses, such as the sawmill, drugstore, shoe store, or the railway depot.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Dixie Mainline and Shired Island

The area of Florida known today as Dixie County remains sparsely populated – with fewer than 20,000 residents – and filled with vast swaths of picturesque desolation. While the county itself wasn’t formed until 1921 (when it separated from Lafayette County), the area was first inhabited by non-indigenous settlers in the 1820s. However, it is the period of the 1920s where today’s story begins. During that time, Florida’s logging industry had begun expanding into the swampland near the coast of the state’s Big Bend region. Due to the swampy nature of much of the land, raised rail-beds for small-gauge trams needed to be constructed in order to bring equipment in and to haul logs out. The longest of the former tram-beds, which ran from the town of Suwannee northward nearly to the community of Horseshoe Beach, was known as the Dixie Mainline.

The following three photographs are from the State of Florida Archives. They are labeled as logging from this time period in Dixie County, although whether or not they are from the Dixie Mainline is unknown. However, this should give you a good idea of how the logging operations in the area at that time looked. All three photos are from the 1920s.

The boom-years of the Dixie County logging industry were from the 1920s through the 1940s, after which point the area was nearly entirely denuded of old growth forest. The rail lines were pulled, but the raised beds remained. The area was purchased in the late 1970s by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and turned into what is now the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. In the 1990s, the Dixie Mainline was made navigable once again: the lime-rock was shored up, and concrete bridges were erected over the various creeks. It was opened for public use in 1998.

The Dixie Mainline Trail extends 9 miles through the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. It continues a further six or so miles as a county road. The Mainline can be driven, hiked, or cycled. There are several places along the Mainline where one can park in order to explore trails that can only be traversed on foot. However, when my mom and I visited in October 2016, little more than a month had passed since Hurricane Hermine had struck the area. As such, while the Mainline itself was perfectly passable, not all of the trails were.

Much of the Dixie Mainline looks like this.

One of the first places to pull off the Mainline (if you're heading north from Suwannee) is at Salt Creek, where there is a nature trail as well as a boardwalk. However, while the boardwalk has clearly been repaired following Hurricane Hermine, the trail... hadn't exactly been. The beginning of the trail has recently been bushhogged, but only a little ways into the woods. At that point everything remains covered in storm surge detritus. The did re-hang the sign, though!

The view from the boardwalk over Salt Creek is quite lovely, however:

As the Mainline continues, you move away from pineforests and into palm-filled marshland:

The map provided by the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge shows available canoe launching where the Mainline crosses Sanders Creek and Shired Creek; however, there didn't appear to be a visible launch point as such. While these would be gorgeous places to launch a canoe or kayak, getting into the water might be an adventurous process!

The rather rocky "canoe launch" at Sanders Creek

Sanders Creek

Shired Creek

Shired Creek

The official Dixie Mainline Trail ends at its intersection with Hwy 357. Turning left onto this highway will bring you to Shired Island (pronounced share-ed, BTW). The county park and campground at Shired Island is incredibly popular with locals during the summer, and is typically the opposite of desolate. However, the fact that Hurricane Hermine had done a number on the park's few facilities combined with the fact that my mom and I were there on a Friday in October meant that it was desolate indeed.

The dock at Shired Island was destroyed by Hurricane Hermine, as were several of the picnic shelters on the site. There were a couple of headless palm trees as well.

However, for much of the area, you would never guess that it had recently taken the brunt of a hurricane.

There were fiddler crabs everywhere!

The shell-mound island to the north was covered in driftwood, although much of it clearly predated Hurricane Hermine.

We spied an osprey with its dinner...

....of which it was very proud!

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Telford Hotel of White Springs

In my previous post I wrote about the town of White Springs and the spring which gave it its name. I mentioned that in the town’s heyday it had fourteen luxury hotels, only one of which survives today. That surviving hotel is the Telford Hotel, and it is the subject of this post.

The Telford Hotel was built by WB Telford in 1902, and was the seventh hotel built in the town. In 1911, the town was ravaged by fire, which destroyed nearly all of the town’s luxury hotels. The number of hotels destroyed differs depending on which website I check; some say four remained while others say only two survived. Needless to say, the Telford Hotel was one of the survivors. Famous visitors to the hotel back in its prime allegedly included Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Howard Taft. As time passed, however, and the popularity of White Springs as a tourist destination began to dwindle, and the community became unable to support luxury hotels. The Telford changed hands numerous times over the years, most commonly operating as a bed and breakfast and/or restaurant. 

Telford Hotel, ca 1903 (source)

Telford Hotel, ca1910 (source)

Telford Hotel. ca1903 (source)

Telford Hotel. 1974 (source)

Telford Hotel. 1978 (source)

As someone who grew up in north Florida, I have two distinct personal memories of the Telford. I’m not sure when I first visited White Springs, or even exactly when my first memory of visiting the town happened, but I certainly remember the event. My mother is a retired history professor, and although she was a stay-at-home-mom at the time of my first Telford memory, she possessed an MA in history. The Telford Hotel was open in one of its many modern day incarnations. The owner had hung portraits of all the US Presidents from Washington to whomever was President at the time (Reagan, I believe) in order around the hotel’s restaurant. He had a standing offer that if anyone could correctly name all of the presidents in order from memory, that person would receive a free meal. My mother, expert on all things historical and lover of all things free, was the first (and for all I know, only) person to take him up on his offer and receive a free meal. After we ate, he gave us a tour of the hotel’s facilities.

Several years later my parents and I returned to White Springs and decided to pop into the Telford on the off chance that my mom could score another free meal by naming all the presidents. Unfortunately for her, the hotel was under new ownership. I don’t recall if it was operating as either a hotel or a restaurant at the time, but what it was operating as was (of all things) an alien conspiracy radio station. I have always been fascinated by the concept of space aliens, and have loved reading science fiction from an early age. However, instead of being fascinated or excited, I remember this absolutely creeping me out. Unfortunately, I don’t remember too many details, other than a man telling us that there was a face on Mars constructed by aliens and the US government knew about it and was keeping it secret. This is such a weird thing to remember that I had actually begun thinking it was some sort of childhood fantasy.

I went down quite an internet rabbit hole researching this, and it turns out that I really can trust my memories. Apparently a fellow named Chuck Harder and his wife purchased the Telford sometime in the late 1980s to serve as the studios for the Sun Radio Network/Talk Star Radio and the production location for his show, “For the People.” Harder went off the air in 1996, although I do not know if he had continued to broadcast from the Telford up until that time or not. A fellow named Richard Hoagland was, for a time, the Science Advisor for Harder’s For the People. This is important because in 1987 Hoagland published a book entitled “Monuments on Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever” which was intended as fact, not fiction. He claimed that there was evidence of the remains of a civilization on Mars, including a giant monument in the shape of a face, pyramids, and the ruins of a city. (A defunct civilization on another planet? Talk about Desolation Travel!) There are even audio archives of Harder and Hoagland discussing various alien conspiracies. Apparently they also offered a TV version of For the People for a brief period; below I've added the introduction to the TV show, which features video of the hotel and the radio station. I do not, however, know when the footage was shot. (Warning: the tune will get stuck in your head.)

As I mentioned above, I don’t know exactly when Harder and his radio program left the Telford, but I do know that it was recently refurbished and operating as a restaurant and bed and breakfast. Unfortunately, the most recent incarnation of the Telford went out of business last year, and as of my visit to White Springs last month, it sat empty with a For Sale By Owner sign on the front door. The interior pictures shown below were taken from the Facebook page from its most recent period of operation, and were first posted online in 2014

The following exterior photos of the Telford were taken by me
during my August 2016 visit to White Springs: 

For more information on the Telford Hotel:

And on the off chance you want more information on Harder or Hoagland: