Madison County is 716 square miles crammed full of small towns, forests, rivers, lakes, and rolling hills. All of these give you countless opportunities to get outdoors and, as they say here, “move at the speed of nature.”
Madison County, like Jefferson County, was named to honor a president—the fourth United States President, James Madison, another Virginian. Madison County was chartered in 1827, 18 years before Florida became a state. Madison was the largest county in Florida but contributed land to form three new counties: Taylor, Lafayette, and Dixie. The county seat, the Town of Madison, was actually named for Madison C. Livingston, a resident who donated the first plot of land in 1838 to form the city.
1. Water, Water Everywhere
Madison County is bordered on three sides by water. The Aucilla River separates the county from Jefferson County. The Withlacoochee River divides part of Madison County from the state of Georgia. And the Suwannee River streams along the eastern side, bordering the counties of Hamilton and Suwannee before it flows through Lafayette on its journey to the Gulf of Mexico. The views while floating on local rivers are breathtaking.
2. Go With the Flow
With all those rivers, naturally, there is an emphasis on water sports. All three rivers offer beautiful, but very different, scenery. Take a trip with Madison Outpost Adventures—they provide kayak, canoe, or tube rentals. for adventures in the great outdoors. Just know…the food is worth the trip! LOL. No, seriously, the kayak trip was fantastic; with so much variety in the landscape, you will think you’ve changed rivers. And the guides had coolers with drinks and snacks for picnicking along the way. You know how I love food, so they had me at “snacks!” Tell them I sent you—I can promise a 10% discount! *smile*
3. Enjoy the Outdoors with the Wind in Your Hair
Bring your bike, strap on a water bottle, get outdoors, and ride awhile. Madison County has bicycling lanes alongside picturesque country roads shaded by live oaks and giant pines. In fact, you could ride the circumference of the county–all 100 miles of it. Talk about your tangled hair!
The Four Freedoms Trail is the area’s paved Rails-to-Trails project, starting just north of the city and ending a little over 12 miles later at the Withlacoochee River overlook. So the round-trip will net you a 25-mile day trip.
Then there is U. S. Highway 90, which starts at the Jefferson County line and links the communities of Greenville, Madison, and Lee before reaching the Suwannee County line. This trail is a portion of the American Cycling Association Southern Tier, section 7 of their Coast-to-Coast route. You’re probably going to need more water bottles.
4. Walk Around Town
The town is anchored by the 1912 Madison County Courthouse, built on land deeded to the “County Court of the County of Madison” back when Florida was a territory. The crowning top of the Courthouse, a beautiful dome, can be spotted from anywhere in Madison.
You will find a huge oak tree on a side street—right in the middle of the road! This tree was saved by Theodore Livingston Fraleigh, who sat under the tree, refusing to move and allow it to be destroyed. Her home, the A. E. Fraleigh House (1895), is on the walking tour map.
5. Thank a Veteran
Visit the Four Freedoms Park. It’s easy to find—it is across the street from the Courthouse. The park was the original site of a blockhouse that served as a “safe house” for women, children, and the elderly between 1835 and 1842 (the Second Seminole War.) Later the building was used as a courthouse before the land was donated to the city for use as a park. The park is what you dream of when you picture a small town: monuments to heroes, azaleas, oaks dripping in Spanish moss, and a gazebo for bands (it has near-perfect acoustics.)
The Four Freedoms Monument stands on the southwest corner of the park. The marble marker was designed by Walter Scott Russell and is dedicated to the memory of native son Colin P. Kelly, Jr., the first declared hero of WWII. This heavy bomber pilot sacrificed his life to save his Flying Fortress crew in the Philippines. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery and valor in combat.
Interesting Fact: The name comes from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech about the Four Freedoms that describe core American values: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.
6. Stay in a Victorian Inn
The Unity House Bed & Breakfast in Madison is a charming Victorian home built in 1890. Beautifully decorated, the Inn has received a five-star rating from TripAdvisor—and trust me, they’re right! My room was comfortable and quiet, and the Inn is only a block from downtown (and across the street from the fire department.) I didn’t even hear the A/C unit as it cycled. What a relief! Each guest has a code for the front door, so you feel very secure. Ms. Linda serves breakfast in the sunroom. And her banana bread—well, I’ll let you judge that for yourself!
7. Visit a Unique Fire Engine
In 1926 the Madison Engine Company purchased a brand-new American LaFrance Pumper truck. It was a workhorse, fighting fires until 1963. The company had the foresight to hang onto that truck, and in 2000 beautifully restored it. The wooden spoke wheels and original equipment will surprise you. Now housed in the glass-front Fire Department, it is still a workhorse, continuing to be a stunning addition to the town’s three parades. The station is conveniently located across the street from Unity Bed & Breakfast.
8. Circle the Lake
The city’s Lake Frances is lovely and a great place to get outdoors and walk. This spring-fed lake is surrounded by a path for biking, walking, and exercise. There are exercise equipment stations periodically as you circle the lake for the truly motivated. Birders will find a variety of waterfowl and birds in a beautiful setting for photography.
Be sure to stop at Holmes’ Produce Stand and pick up a snack for your walk. I’d recommend the Blood Oranges, but you’d need a roll of paper towels for those juicy treats!
July fourth, street vendors surround the lake, as the Lions Club’s God and Country Festival fills the town with activity. And, like Greenville, they set off fireworks. Hmmm…now how can I be two places at once?
9. Visit a Movie Set
No, I’m not kidding. Little Madison has a claim to fame in the movie Prayer Never Fails. A local favorite, Sunrise Coffee Shop & The Wine Cellar Tasting Room, is featured in Den of Thieves. It is an eclectic spot filled with unusual items and antiques (most are for sale.) It is also an excellent spot for unique drinks. Warning: their Blackberry Mimosa is addictive!
10. Escape to the Caribbean
Well, escape for dinner at least! The Unity House Inn & Caribbean Restaurant serves up tropical delights; every week, the menu changes. The servings are generous, and the ribs melt in your mouth. If you are fortunate, you will see Oxtail on the board. Don’t ask, don’t hesitate, just order it! Go ahead and ask for a “to-go box” so you’ll have room for dessert!
11. Enjoy Italian
Dinner at La Piazza Bella Italian started with Garlic Knots (warm and dripping in garlicky butter) and moved right on to a delicious Italian Vegetable Soup. The main courses were tasty dishes—Fettucini and Baked Lasagna!
12. Mexico in Madison
The Rancho Grande Restaurant is bright and festive. The furniture is carved and painted with scenes from Mexico. They have a sign on the wall, “You can’t make everyone happy—you’re not a taco!” They don’t mention whether their Mango Margarita can make everyone happy—but I promise you—it can! The shrimp tacos were fresh, hot, and oh, so good!
13. Tour Historic Madison
Pick up a Walking/Driving Tour brochure at the Visitor’s Center if you like history, and get outdoors and explore! More than 50 historical places are mapped, with pictures and brief descriptions. Only a few of my personal favorites have been listed in this article because I don’t want to spoil the fun you’ll have finding your own favorites. The town is filled with various architectural styles, such as Victorian, Federal, Queen Anne, Mediterranean Villa, Italianate, and Greek Revival.
The parks have benches perfect for relaxing or eating your lunch while smelling the flowers—azaleas and daylilies abound. What? You say you hear bells? Why, yes! You are indeed—that beautiful Courthouse has a bell tower in the top of the dome (behind the clocks), and local church bells chime in along with the courthouse bells—on the hour and half-hour every day. It is a beautiful sound.
14. Blue Waters
A first-magnitude spring draws visitors to the town of Lee to swim in the beautiful waters of Madison Blue Spring State Park. In 2015, U. S. A. Today’s readers named Madison Blue Spring the “Best Swimming Hole” by a considerable margin. When you see it, you will agree. The spring feeds into the Suwannee River and provides a variety of activities for visitors to enjoy; they can canoe, kayak, fish, swim, snorkel, or dive. Or like me, walk around, clamber over the banks, and take great photos—especially of the divers as they appear like magic from the caves below. The spring is over 80 feet wide and 25 feet deep and flows at a rate of 150 million gallons a day!
15. Rainy Day Blues? Can’t Get Outdoors?
A rainy day is a perfect excuse for a long afternoon nap. It is also an excellent excuse for antiquing! Madison is home to four antique markets, and one has a coffee shop, and…wait for it…a wine bar!
16. Do You Know the Muffin Man?
I do! I know the Muffin Man! His name is Erik Johann Wolfe. His business, Muffin Man Mania Mess Hall in Lee, has a drool-worthy brunch on Sundays and a case full of baked goodies every day. But I am sure sorry I missed Prime Rib Thursday. Next trip, I need to plan better! There is even a “sides” buffet to pick what you want to go with that luscious 14-ounce prime rib. *drool* Be sure to get one of his cookies. Oh, what the heck—get two! (You’re welcome!)
17. Stop a Spell
A drive to Honey Lake Plantation in Greenville is an easy hop from Madison. The plantation has been reborn as a rehab clinic. Today, people from all over the county come here to relax and heal. There is a quaint church by the lake, with the oldest stained glass windows in Florida—they were reused from an old church in Madison.
18. Famous Resident
A well-known county resident was Ray Charles. Born Ray Charles Robinson, in 1930, in Albany, Georgia, he was reared in Greenville. He dropped the “Robinson” to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. A life-sized monument beside a small city lake in Haffye Hayes Park leaves a peaceful feeling in your heart. I couldn’t help but think of him tickling the ivories and singing Georgia on My Mind.
Ray Charles’ music crossed several genres, including R&B, Rock, Jazz, and Country. He received 12 Grammys and was inducted into both the Rock and Roll and the Jazz Halls of Fame.
Ray’s childhood home is also open for tours. Just give them a call.
19. Visit Greenville
Haffye Hayes Park, in Greenville, isn’t just the home of Ray Charles’ memorial; it also is the home of The Spirit of Greenville fireworks show. Vendors and local churches provide food and drinks as well as home-town fellowship. Just up the hill, the Town Hall has been restored. Take a walk and enjoy the view. If you’re there in December, there is an event with craft and food vendors, a parade, entertainment, and a cake auction. Now they have my attention! Yum!
20. Light Up Madison
Plan your visit during December. You are going to want to see Madison lit up for the holidays. And that nighttime Christmas Parade—oh my! What a spectacular way to usher in the holidays. All the shops are shining with festive décor, and trees are placed along the town’s main streets for local businesses to decorate, and Santa arrives by horse-drawn wagon. This town will give any Hallmark movie a run for its money.
21. Spend a Night—Or a Month!
Among the places to stay in the Madison area is Ragan’s Family Campground. Besides camping and RV sites, Ragan’s also has cabins available. The campground is conveniently located. Every month, they have special activities ranging from the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge (a fundraiser for Relay for Life) to Winterfest (snow, snow slides, and train rides.)
The Madison RV & Golf Resort is a relaxed spot on 150 acres just outside town. It offers a beautiful 9-hole course, golf lessons, dog park, catch & release fishing, pickleball, swimming pool, and bathhouse. If you stay for a month, they’ll even throw in golf cart rental.
22. Hangry? Stop at Grumpy’s!
When hunger pangs hit, hit back! Even if it isn’t yet time for dinner, stop in Grumpy’s Diner for Corn Nuggets and a margarita. All these activities outdoors make a woman (or man) hungry! And if you don’t eat, well, you know…you get hangry! Note: There is a warning on the menu—the Corn Nuggets are addicting. Their pies are pretty famous, too! Just sayin’!
23. Carpenter Gothic Church
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Madison is a beautiful example of historic Carpenter Gothic architecture. The congregation formed in 1859, but the building’s cornerstone wasn’t laid until 1879, and the finished church was consecrated in 1883. It was placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
24. Take a Step Back
Treasures Museum lives up to its name; it is a treasure-trove of local history. From the proclamation for Colin Kelly Day, April 17, 1942, to the building itself, you will find the area’s rich history on exhibit. The W. T. Davis building was built in 1892 and is one of only three remaining Florida examples of galvanized sheet metal facades, known as Mesker Metal Front.
25. Annual Events
I do believe Madison is working on a claim to the title “Festival Town”—just wait till you see this list!
Madison’s Chamber of Commerce holds a big Martin Luther King Day Festival on Monday, January 17 this year. So hurry on down to Madison for vendors, food, games, and a parade (wave at my firetruck!)
Then on February 10, the Best of Madison/Taste of Madison event is held by the Madison Church of God.
Madison’s Chamber of Commerce hosts Down Home Days every April. This event draws vendors, music, dancers, and a fantastic parade in downtown Madison.
Founder’s Day is another annual event held at the Hickory Grove United Methodist Church each October. Locals participate in 100-year-old activities outdoors like cane grinding and syrup-making, sausage-making, a classic car show, a hog calling contest, and Dill Pickle Spitting Contest (I know, right?!). There is a stage for singing old-time songs and a bit of inspirational preaching. What a great way to keep the old days alive for future generations!
Speaking of October, the spooks and goblins will be out in force every weekend of the month at the Halloween Haunted House. And the downtown merchants hold a trick-or-treat event not to be missed!
The annual Christmas Parade and Tree Lighting are already scheduled for this year—so plan to be in town on December 3, 2022!
For information on these events and more, keep checking Madison’s Events Calendar.
Madison County offers so many things to do and see outdoors; you’re going to need more than a weekend stay. Ms. Linda at the Inn will be happy to accommodate you for an extended stay, and Marlene at the Chamber will give you a to-do list even longer than this one! Have a great visit – and take a picture or two for me!