Rural residents savor the laid-back lifestyle
Rural residents across North Central Florida savor the laid-back lifestyle
Cast net fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Horseback riding and playing bluegrass music.
Cheering for the hometown football team on Friday nights, or singing for the church choir on Sunday mornings.
Those are seasonings that provide unique flavors to the small towns of North Central Florida. While many of the activities are unique to a specific community, others can be found in several places.
Rural North Florida has features that have attracted equestrians, anglers, farmers, and others who are willing to eschew the conveniences of nearby shopping, medical care and schools for the freedom to pursue their outdoor interests.
In some cases, those who left the area to pursue a job or an education or for some other reason find themselves returning again and again for the atmosphere they associate with rural life.
A big draw each fall is Friday night football, regardless of the weather. With few exceptions, rural high schools have football teams that play under the lights on Friday nights, drawing hundreds of local residents to the stadiums.
Valencia Mells, a 1985 graduate of Newberry High School, is among those still sitting in the bleachers every Friday night.
"I am here every year, every game," said Mells. "It's Panther pride in this small town. It's like a close-knit family."
Newberry High School graduate Tommy Hemphill, who played tight end for the Panthers nearly 20 years ago, brought his 13-year-old daughter, Taylor, from Orlando to attend this year's homecoming game on Sept. 28.
"This field brings back memories," said Hemphill. "The family brings you back to town and back to the game."
In some communities, there is a specific bit of geography that draws residents together regularly. In Orange Lake, it's the lake.
"We are swamp rats in this community," said Troy Abner, a native of the area. "When we get up, we go down to the lake. We like frog legs instead of filet mignon."
Abner said he has seen the lake go dry four or five times since he was born in the area in 1962. The bouts of drought can have a significant effect on those who rely on anglers and other visitors. But in good times and in bad times, Orange Lake has a place just like the place found in most small towns — the local pub.
In the Orange Lake community, the pub is U.S. Veterans Post 102 on U.S. 441. It is part bar, part restaurant and a total social club for patrons.
"We don't have nothing," said Joe Kutcher of McIntosh. "But we sit here and we socialize. This is a gathering hole for us. It's socialization — being friends with people you can talk with whether it be right, wrong or indifferent."
With daily drink and lunch specials, frequent karaoke nights and special events like the annual Christmas party, the post is a place where guys like Rod Walker of McIntosh feel comfortable and accepted.
"I live up in the big city (McIntosh). We have a flashing light," Walker said. "I wanted to come back to the country people. People around here are just trying to get along."
Cyndi Purvis has been bartending at the Orange Lake post for a few years, serving an older crowd, weekend visitors escaping boredom, boaters and locals, she said. "We have a preference for country western music here," she said. "They come for steak dinner, and stay for karaoke and dancing."
Another activity that draws North Florida residents in droves is an annual festival. The region has only a few months each year that don't offer at least a couple of weekend festivals. Windsor has its zucchini fest. Trenton hosts a quilting extravaganza, and in Williston, it's the Peanut Festival on the first Saturday in October.
Mary and Walter Duvall of Lecanto drove about 40 miles to get to this year's ode to peanuts on Oct. 8.
"We haven't seen peanuts this big in a long time," Walter said to Mary as they sampled a few. "We come because we like the local, old-time color here. It's all like folks back home. The people are nice, they are country."
The feeling of back home or down home is what draws many to other festivals as well, such as the Bluegrass Festival held in Palatka at the Rodeheaver Boys' Ranch.
Sitting in a rocking chair at this year's event was Beaufort, S.C., resident Barbara Body. She was munching on fresh popped kettle corn while listening to one of the first bands play.
"We come to this event faithfully," said Body. "My husband (Lou Body) enjoys the music."
Lou enjoys the music so much that now his trips to the festival include arranging time to take finger-picking lessons on a dobro.
Robert and Shirley Williams of Lake City like to get front-row seats and spend their time between performances reading.
"We come for the music and the atmosphere," said Robert. "The nice thing is you can sit in the front row and you can still hear."
The front row is often a preferred seat for another sort of small-town fun. Horse events ranging from trail rides to rodeoing to dressage attract enthusiasts to live, work and play in North Florida.
Horses are big animals that require big spaces to compete in. The owners, trainers and fans who are at the events also need big spaces to accommodate the motor homes, travel trailers, horse trailers and other gear they travel with. North Florida, especially Levy and Marion counties, have plenty of space that has proven ideal for all sorts of horse events.
At the Florida Horse Park in Marion County, an October event drew riders and trainers from across the state. The three-phase competition involved dressage, jumping and running a cross country course.
Paige Ammons, 14, a cross-country rider from Land O'Lakes, arrived confident and excited to show off the skills she has acquired since beginning to ride five years ago.
"Horses are my favorite animal," Paige said. "They really catch my eye. I like jumping. I like flying through the air."
Not every small-town event is structured and organized. A big part of rural life includes time to just enjoy local, everyday activities.
For teens in Dixie County, a favorite way to spend time is to cruise along U.S. 19 after the sun sets while looking for their friends. The teens tend to cluster around their pickup trucks in a business parking lot where they can swap stories, laugh and generally enjoy each other face-to-face without constant texting.
In tiny, coastal Cedar Key on a sunny after-school afternoon, the preference is often walking through town in bare feet just to see what's going on.
Cassie Lozier, 11, and Ciera Beckham, 13, who have been best friends since toddlerhood, routinely leave their shoes behind. "We go bare-footed because it's just like home," said Ciera. "Nobody cares."
Instead of shoes, the girls said they like to carry cast nets when they head out onto a dock or boat in search of mullet, catfish, pinfish and yellow tip.
"You never have to go anywhere," said Ciera. "You can fish right off your own deck with your own cast nets."
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