Those who know I was born and raised in Florida often ask, “Where should I go to see the real Florida?” It’s a tough question because it depends on what you mean by “real” Florida.
I usually take it as, “What - other than Disney World - should I not miss?” A few places are so special in my mind…they practically define Florida. Most people have never heard of the places I consider captivating in the Sunshine State. One, a little town on the Gulf of Mexico - halfway between Tampa and Apalachicola in a stretch of coastline known as the “Big Bend” - is one of my favourite places in Florida…maybe anywhere.
The town is Cedar Key…founded in 1859, this island is home to 679 people at last count. It is more of a destination than most places in Florida…quite literally, it is not on the way to anywhere. State Road 24 - the only road in and out of Cedar Key - enters the east end of the town and dead ends at the Gulf of Mexico in the far west. It is more than a half hour’s drive to any other civilization…which is why no one shows up in Cedar Key by accident.
Cedar Key’s geography - as much as anything - insulates it against the ravages of commercial development. If there’s any proof that wealthy people can screw things up for everyone else…only look to Florida. Condos and hotels along most of Florida’s coastline sprout like mushrooms overnight…but not in Cedar Key.
I remember fishing there with my father and brother in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of the buildings on Cedar Key today were there a century ago and more…little has changed in my lifetime. My wife, Bonnie, a Canadian who had never been to Florida, proclaimed on her first visit - quite accurately - “Cedar Key is a treasure!”
Cedar Key is actually a chain of dozens of small islands in what are known as the “flats” of the Gulf of Mexico. You can boat a mile from shore and still be in six feet of water. And while It might not be a place time forgot…it’s a throwback for sure. Replace the car with horses and buggies and you’re in the 1800s. Cedar Key has more charm per square foot than any place I know in Florida…it is an adult Disney World!
A few statistics help paint a picture…and no other place on the water in Florida comes close to the livability of Cedar Key. First of all, you don’t have to be rich to live there…the median price of a home is just US$182,400. But why buy when rent is so cheap…median rental is US$ 670 a month…and two of every three homes are available for rent. The median annual income for the island…US$43,000.
The median age is 60…what I now consider the start of middle-age. But it’s a young 60 because the area is home to a lay-back, Bohemian culture…people who have a flare for colourful, inexpensive and often incredibly clever art and a love for simpler times. People fish daily for much of what they eat.
There aren’t many big-pay jobs…but it doesn’t take much to live well in Cedar Key. Some residents offer charter fishing trips…or rent kayaks…or work in restaurants…or tend shops that range from kitschy to artistic.
There are smiles on faces everywhere. It is a welcoming place. I can provide no scientific proof…but I’m certain you gain a day or so of extra life for every day you spend there.
If you’re a history buff…Cedar Key can hold your attention for a few days. White settlers might have “founded” Cedar Key just before the Civil War…but archeologists have uncovered artifacts in nearby Shell Mound - a 28-foot pile of oyster shells - that prove life was booming 2,500 years ago with Native Americans. It’s likely the original inhabitants are thousands of years older since the archeologists have only dug through the first ten feet.
But Cedar Key’s more recent history…since white settlers arrived in the mid 1800s…has witnessed alternating decades of economic boom and bust. Before the first shot of the Civil War, the Florida Railroad crossed the state from Fernandina on Amelia Island and ended in Cedar Key. The island provided most of the salt for Confederate troops early on, but Union soldiers captured the islands and held them the last two years of the war.
After the Civil War, the nation’s two largest pencil makers - Eberhard Faber and Eagle - had mills cutting the islands’ prized red cedars to make writing implements that didn’t splinter. Pencils were state-of-the-art technology in the day…and hundreds of people worked supplying cedar for pencils. Before the end of the century, devastating hurricanes and over-harvesting of cedar ended the boom years. Tampa became the big train depot on the west coast…so rail traffic to Cedar Key soon ended.
In the early 1900s Cedar Key was becoming famous for oysters and sponges, but a decade later, those industries, too, fell on hard times use because of over-harvesting. In early 1929, President Herbert Hoover established the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge as breeding grounds for colonial birds…but the area suffered - like most of the nation - through the Great Depression.
Cedar Key was a quaint fishing village from the end of World War II until 1995, when a ban on large-scale netting of fish put many fisherman out of business. In the years since, a government program taught fisherman how to farm clams…and today Cedar Key farm-raised clams are the world’s single largest source of the tasty bi-valves.
Today, you can eat better clam chowder in a variety of Cedar Key restaurants than most anywhere…including Boston or elsewhere in New England. Tony’s - a small diner that seats about 60 patrons - won the “World’s Best Clam Chowder” title in Boston three straight years and was asked not to come again.
Bonnie and I will be back in Florida in January…and you can bet we’ll be strolling the streets of Cedar Key every month until we return to Vernon in May. My suggestion: If you travel to Florida, don’t miss Cedar Key…I guarantee it’s as “real” as Florida gets.
— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.
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