By Nancy Moreland
When you see the Micanopy exit off I-75 in North Central Florida, it’s tempting to drive on by. Especially if you think it’s just another nondescript stop or small Florida town along the highway. That would be a mistake. Take exit 374 (about 20 minutes south of Gainesville) and within minutes, you get a break from the billboards and traffic gives way to trees. Driving into town, you pass picket fences and tin-roofed Florida Vernacular Cracker cottages. If that doesn’t slow your pace, the 15 mph speed limit and speed bumps will. Before you know it, you’re immersed in the small town miracle of Micanopy (mick-uh-no-pee).
And, no, “miracle” is not overstated, at least from my perspective as a long-time Floridian. When the New York Times describes a destination as“the way Florida used to be,” and Huffington Post calls it “one of the 12 cutest small towns in America,” I expect to encounter a crush of crowds. Not even the filming of Doc Hollywood or being immortalized in Tom Petty’s “A Mind with a Heart of Its Own” has changed its charm. The town ages gracefully under a canopy of live oaks, their sprawling limbs covered in resurrection ferns. It’s true old Florida, from the moss-covered buildings to the Native American street names.
Florida’s Oldest Inland Community
There’s a reason Micanopy’s sense of place is as strong as the cacophony of cicadas on a summer night. Native Americans were well established here by the time Hernando de Soto visited in 1539. When Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821, the area was already being farmed for sugar cane and citrus. Named for the Seminole Chief Micanopy, head chief during the Seminole War, Micanopy has been continuously settled since 1821, making it what many consider Florida’s oldest inland community.
Delve into this history at the the Micanopy Historical Society Museum on Cholokka Boulevard, a former Indian trading route. The museum is housed in an 1890 warehouse that once served as a general store. It’s one of 39 buildings on the town’s National Register of Historic Places – an impressive achievement for a place with 600 residents. Inside this rustic structure, museum displays convey what life was like for early settlers.
Parents take note: Enjoy the exhibits while your kids entertain themselves in the Children’s Corner. This section encourages young visitors to inspect arrowheads, turtle skulls and other artifacts or dress up as pioneers and Indians. The Museum is open seven days a week for limited hours: 1-4 p.m.
Take time to take it all in, then wander next door to Mosswood Farm Store and Bakehouse for organic coffee and baked goods. Housed in a 1910 Cracker cottage, it’s a bit of country with a hint of hippie, a nod to Micanopy’s mix of agrarian and artistic cultures. A gathering place for locals interested in sustainability, it’s worth calling ahead to ask for the date of their next music jam night or workshop – wood-fired pie baking, anyone?
A walk-don’t-run Destination
Strolling along Cholokka Boulevard through the historic shopping district, you detect a quiet quirkiness. It doesn’t need neon to get your attention. It waits to be discovered. You might find it in a larger-than-life pink flamingo statue holding a lunch menu or stumble upon it at a tiny log cabin tucked among the storefronts.
Downtown Micanopy is best known for antiquing, but you’ll also find books, arts and crafts and home furnishings. A few empty storefronts don’t deter photographers and artists, who appreciate the town’s mix of 19th century architecture.
If you need an escape from the madness of modernity, Micanopy fills the bill. On a recent Sunday, I stood in the middle of Cholokka Boulevard with my camera, hoping to capture the ideal angle of a gracious old brick façade. I never once worried about getting run over. The town was so quiet, I heard bits of conversation drift over from an outdoor café across the street. Later, as I paused to photograph a vintage tractor in its fern-laden resting place, a neighborhood cat sidled up to greet me. I enjoyed resting in the shade on one of Micanopy’s many park benches, knowing I didn’t have to rush back to feed a traffic meter.
An Elegant Overnight Stay
Within easy walking distance of downtown, the Herlong Mansion Bed & Breakfast harkens to a time of timber tycoons. Built in 1910, the Greek Revival/Southern Colonial home welcomes travelers with 10 guest rooms, two cottages and a three-course breakfast.
As much as Micanopy feeds the spirit, it doesn’t overlook the appetite. Locals feel a special affection for Blue Highway pizza. If you’re craving ‘cue, don’t miss Pearl Country Store and Barbecue. Foodies travel from near and far to savor their slow-cooked goodness.
A Walk on the Wild Side
If you’re up for adventure, spend the night at Herlong Mansion and explore Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park the next morning. The Park is within a mile of Herlong Mansion, but feels like a landscape you might experience out West. Much of Florida was once covered with this biologically unique prairie habitat, known as savannah. Wear long pants and sturdy closed-toes shoes to hike or bike the park trails. Afterwards, climb the 50-foot observation tower for a bird’s eye view of the prairie. If you’re lucky, you might spot bison like those that once roamed this part of the state. The breed was reintroduced here in the 1970s and roam freely, as do wild horses. Bring your camera – no one back home will believe you saw bison in Florida. When nature is your theme park, anything is possible.
Even if you don’t see any bison, Micanopy will linger in your memory as the perfect place to savor life in the slow lane.
For more information on Micanopy, call Visit Gainesville at 866-778-5002 or visit their website.