Get to know Gainesville This northeast Florida city may not have the best-known name in the Sunshine State but once visited it won't be forgotten (published in Forever Young Southbound)
(Florida Museum of History photo)
By Ellen Ashton-Haiste
Orlando, Tampa, Miami or even Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Sarasota.
People instantly get the reference: Florida, the Sunshine State.
Gainesville? Where’s that again?
It’s a city of about 125,000 in
north central Florida, a little more than 100 miles north of Orlando
and about 150 miles southeast of Tallahassee. It's home to the state's
oldest and largest university, the University of Florida (not to
mention its famous football Gators whose home games consistently sell
out the 90,000-seat stadium), and to several famous former residents
including Bo Didley, Tom Petty, River Phoenix and Bob Vila.
Fine. But what’s it got to offer visitors?
plenty. There are historic sites and quaint villages a stone’s throw
away, excellent eateries, intriguing bed and breakfasts, and — not the
least — the Florida Museum of Natural History, with its famous
butterfly rainforest and world’s largest research facility devoted to
Lepidoptera. A visit here can easily eat up a day — and more.
is at the heart — and the seat — of Alachua County, with its collection
of historic sites and picturesque towns that market themselves as
perfect for film projects. In fact, Doc Hollywood was filmed in
Micanopy, just 10 miles south of Gainesville, a charming town exuding a
1930s-'40s atmosphere. Its entire downtown is listed on the National
Register of Historic Places.
Micanopy is actually the oldest
inland town in Florida, originally inhabited by the Timucuan Indians
and later a Seminole village and then a 19th century trading post and
fortress against hostile natives.
The town’s majestic centrepiece
is the Herlong Mansion, one of the first homes built by local settlers
as a wood-frame cracker cottage, then renovated over the years to a
stately classic-revival-style mansion complete with Corinthian columns,
and now surrounded by lush gardens bordered by old oak and pecan trees.
It was inhabited by founding family members until the late 1960s, then
fell into disrepair until it was purchased and converted to a bed and
breakfast in the mid-eighties. After several interim owners, it remains
popular for overnight accommodation and for weddings and special
events, thanks to a wealth of original features — such as the leaded
glass windows, mahogany inlaid oak floors, walnut and “tiger oak”
panelling and floor-to-ceiling windows in the dining room.
11 miles to the southeast the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State
Park, at Cross Creek, home to the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The
Yearling (1938) is open for touring.
Rawlings moved to the farming
town of Cross Creek in 1928 and fell in love with the countryside. All
her major novels were written there — on a typewriter that still sits
on a table in the front verandah — and she incorporated the landscape
and her neighbours into many of her works.
Equally at home with
noted writers of the day, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest
Hemmingway, political figures such as Indira Ghandi, and her Florida
Cracker neighbours, Rawlings was a consummate hostess, well known for
her culinary skills — though cooking on a wood stove — and her dinner
Two of her later works, the semi-autobiographical Cross
Creek and its companion Cross Creek Cookery, containing many of her
recipes peppered with anecdotes, brought the world's notice to the
north Florida town. Today her property, originally bequeathed to the
University of Florida as a writer's retreat, is managed by the Florida
Parks Service and is being restored to give visitors a living picture
of its past. In the past year, it has been designated as a National
Historic Landmark, the highest recognition by the U.S. for historic
properties determined to be of exceptional value in representing or
illustrating an important theme, event or person in the history of the
nation. Fewer than 2,500 historic places carry that designation.
step into a past can be experienced at Dudley Farm Historic State Park,
a working replica of a farm owned by three generations of the Dudley
family who worked the 640 acres for some 150 years. The property was
donated to the state by Dudley’s granddaughter Myrtle in 1983. Eighteen
original buildings remain, including a general store, canning house,
smokehouse, and 1880s kitchen. Park staff, in authentic clothing, go
about performing daily chores and activities, as they would have in the
After exploring sites around the county, not to be
overlooked is the Florida Museum of Natural History. Greeted by giant
skeletons of a mammoth and mastodon, visitors can explore Florida's
history and prehistory. Permanent exhibits include an internationally
acclaimed collection of some 500 fossils — many discovered within 100
miles of Gainesville — illustrating 65 million years of history; and
Waterways and Wildlife, where visitors can explore the unique
biodiverse environments of northern Florida, including a life-size
limestone cave. An award-winning people and environments exhibit
celebrates those who inhabited the region for thousands of years,
including the Calusa, Miccosukee and Seminole Indians. Visitors can
marvel at the lifesize dioramas depicting an earlier age, including one
of a Calusa leader's house.
Also housed at the museum is the
McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, opened in the summer
of 2004. Its centrepiece is the 6,400-square-foot butterfly rainforest (pictured above)
in a screened enclosure with lush tropical and subtropical foliage,
waterfalls and a 400-foot trail where visitors mingle with hundreds of
the winged creatures, flying freely.
There's also the "Wall of
Wings," more than 200 feet long and nearly three stories high,
containing thousands of scanned images and actual specimens along with
information panels and video screens. As well, visitors can view
butterflies and moths in various stages of their life cycle.
Gainesville offers the usual selection of full service hotels, tourists
who want to continue to immerse themselves in the culture and history
of the area might well choose one of several unique bed and breakfast
inns, each with its own story and history.
The Laurel Oak Inn, for
example, began its life circa 1885 as a Queen Anne Victorian style home
in what was then a city suburb. It changed hands in the 1920s and was
converted to two apartments and in the late thirties was again divided
into four apartments. In the sixties, when the area was known as
"Hippie Hill," it's rumoured that Tom Petty — when his formative band,
Mudcrutch, was the local rage — occupied the apartment in what is now
the expansive kitchen.
Two sets of owners since the early nineties —
the latest, current hosts Monta and Peggy Burt — have succeeded in
restoring the home to its original grandeur. It offers five
bedchambers, each with its own personality. Some include thermo-massage
tubs and all have gas stoves or fireplaces and complimentary broadband
internet access. The Lilac room features its own second story covered
porch, complete with gas lamps, wicker rocking chairs and lap duvets.
door, the Magnolia Plantation Bed and Breakfast Inn, operated by Joe
and Cindy Montalto, is also a restored Victorian home, built in the
same period as the Laurel Oak. It suffered the same ravages of hippie
and student tenants in the sixties and seventies but was completely
restored by the Montaltos who purchased it in 1990. They have also
added several cottages in a variety of styles, connected by brick
walkways accented by ponds and fountains.
More information on local
attractions and accommodations is available from the Alachua County
Visitors and Convention Bureau at 352-374-5260, on the internet at