Suwannee probably comes from an Indian word, “Sawani,” meaning “echo river.” Since the Suwannee River creates the northern, southern, and western borders, the county is almost an island! It is actually in the shape of half a heart (aawwww…) Even more water flows through Suwannee County; both the Ichetucknee River and the Santa Fe River make their way through the county.
Suwannee County was officially formed in 1858.
1. A Historic Town
Live Oak, the county seat, embraces the past. The old buildings haven’t been demolished to make way for more modern structures. Instead, the buildings have been repurposed. The Chamber of Commerce is found in the 1908 Italianate-style City Hall, Police and Fire Department, and jail—the two jail cells are intact. The center tower was used as a fire lookout.
The Live Oak Union Depot was built in 1909 and moved in 1985 when threatened with demolition. That passenger depot is now used for meeting space and displays of historical photographs and used as a satellite campus by North Florida College. Next door, the Freight Station houses a beautiful museum. Plan on a couple of hours learning about the history of Live Oak and Suwannee County.
The Downtown Heritage Trail map of the Historic Business District will guide you through a three-block area. Most of the town’s oldest structures (built before 1925) are located in this area. Many are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and some are listed on the Florida Heritage Trail. One home was ordered from the Sears-Roebuck catalog, arrived by rail, and was constructed by the homeowner.
The few sites outside this area can be reached by car. There are 31 locations marked on the map, and the first 17 are an easy walk. Time it right, and you’ll be passing by one of the great downtown eateries just before the lunch rush!
2. Stubborn Southern Determination
One of those historic houses (built 1915) deserves its own paragraph. In a testament to his determination to win an argument with the government, homeowner R. P. Hopkins had a bedroom added for a particular reason (no, not that!) Mr. Hopkins was told he could not run for City Council because his house was not within city limits. He added a bedroom on the north side of the house, placing it squarely inside the city limits! Genius!
3. Piece Together a Quilt
Live Oak has Quilt Squares, like the ones you see on barns throughout the South, on businesses in town, and even making their way onto private residences. The trail has its own Facebook page! You can download a map for the Live Oak Quilt Trail, but it is really more fun to make a scavenger hunt of it! At last count, there were 50 squares on display. At the Suwannee County Tourist Development Department, Charissa told me that local merchants who want a square are matched up with a Live Oak Artists Guild member who constructs and paints the customized square. When the quilt is completed, it is installed on the exterior wall of the business.
4. Got Gas?
I know you’re thinking, “Great? You’re going to tell me where to buy gas??” Well, kinda-sorta. I’m going to tell you where to spend an hour or two getting gas! *smile*
You may have guessed this isn’t your run-of-the-mill gas station or even a fancy truck stop. The only way to describe the Busy Bee Travel Plaza is an—experience! Honestly, when have you ever bought gas, charged your phone (for free), watched a ball game (IN the potty), had a sit-down burger lunch, bought a birthday gift for your favorite aunt (shhh…don’t tell Aunt Shelby!), and left with a box of 16 kinds of handmade fudge? My hand is raised—is yours? Since it is a travel plaza, you could do a load of laundry and have a shower too.
I hear that the people traveling on I-10 even bypass the interstate rest stop just to visit the Busy Bee. What a great decision! After all, it has been nominated several years as one of Trucker Path’s “Stop of the Year.”
5. Explore A Home and Family’s History
The Crapps family bought Heritage Park & Gardens in 1951 and raised ten children there. In 1954 a fire tragically destroyed the home. Two of the boys smelled smoke and alerted their father. Thankfully, the children were lowered to the ground from the master bedroom. When Mr. Crapps rebuilt the home, he added innovative features to make the house nearly fireproof, an advanced concept 70 years ago. The outside walls are solid brick; interior walls, floors, and beams were structural steel and concrete.
The kitchen was state-of-the-art, and since most fires in homes start in the kitchen, Mr. Crapps, understandably paranoid, tiled the walls and ceiling for fire protection. He had a steel door installed between the kitchen and the rest of the house, operated automatically by a heat sensor.
Mr. Crapps had a teacher’s mind; the desk chair in his home office has a bullet hole in it. A visitor thought a gun was unloaded and discharged it. The only casualty was Mr. Crapps’ chair. He refused to repair the chair and instead left it to remind the children of how dangerous a gun can be—even an “unloaded” one!
Today, the house and grounds are available for meetings, events, and weddings. Tours can be scheduled in advance; just give them a call.
6. Kiss a Tiger!
Maybe kissing a tiger isn’t for everybody. Still, after being behind the scenes at Mystic Jungle, I knew he deserved a kiss! I watched Spike play with the handlers and “huff” at me countless times (huffing is a good thing). It is easy to forget he is a wild cat and not a friend’s house kitty. He was born in captivity and raised in the rescuer’s home.
Each animal at the center has a different story, like the parrot taught by his former owner to say inappropriate things like, “Grandpa is an ***!” Unfortunately, it’s a hard habit to “untrain,” and he is a friendly, easy-to-handle bird who could visit schools—but what would the teacher think!
Mystic Jungle is a wildlife sanctuary and educational center. The animals are well cared for and well-loved. There is none of the anxious pacing you see at many facilities and zoos. One reason for this is there is a limitation on the number of tours each week. So be sure to call and reserve your time to visit.
The owner told me a touching story. During the height of Covid, when visitors were not allowed, they noticed the animals were lethargic—they were depressed because no one was visiting. So the workers had to put on their khaki uniforms and bring their family members through on “tours” to cheer up the animals.
7. Eat by Lantern-Light
A group of us had a scrumptious lunch at the Brown Lantern (thanks for joining us, Mr. Mayor!) My favorite thing about the Brown Lantern? They clearly understand what the “B” in BLT stands for! Yum! That was the Mayor’s dish, but I stole a picture (okay, and a piece of bacon!) My VooDoo Shrimp was perfectly seasoned, lightly breaded, and fried to perfection. Being a wimp, I asked for their VooDoo sauce on the side, and light dips were all it needed to tantalize my taste buds!
Open since 1977, the Lantern is downtown. Which means it closes on weekends. Plan accordingly. You don’t want to miss out!
8. Learn to Dive by the River
It turns out that this area has THE. BEST. CAVES. In the world!! Who knew? I talked with cave divers from all over the world who come to Suwannee County to cave dive! Florida has more than 1,000 springs—more than anywhere else in the world. And 46 of those are in Suwannee County! Some are only accessible by water (I’ve been in a few of those!) and some are on private property; you can own your own spring—how cool is that? Lots of them also have caves. One of the longest underwater cave systems in the United States is Peacock Springs—right here in Suwannee County!
And Georges Gawinowski is one of the best cave diving instructors around! He was on a cave-diving expedition in Mexico from his home in France when someone said, “Man, you need to go to Florida!” He did, and the rest of the story is that he and his wife moved to Suwannee County started a cave diving school, WDT Dive Scuba Diving School. When students needed a break from long days of diving, he adopted a rescue horse and trained it for riding. The students, or their family members who stayed behind each day, started to ride. Soon Georges needed another horse, then two!
The Dive Outpost in Live Oak is another place to learn cave diving or just pick up supplies. The Outpost has a fill station, cabins, dorms, campgrounds, and access to springs. There are six springs less than 8 miles from the dive shop. And two other springs in a 30-minute drive.
9. The Bells Are Ringing
The First United Methodist Church was established in 1865; they built this building in 1928, with beautiful gothic stained-glass windows. They installed organ pipes from the original church’s organ and laid the foundation from stones taken from the original church. The church bell was placed in the memory of Wallace W. McCormick by his family. The beautiful inscription on the plaque says, “May your people hasten to your church when they hear the call of this bell.”
10. Restaurant, Bar & Music on the Deck
The Dowling House was built in 1904. The Greek Revival house’s massive columns support a wrap-around porch. Today the renovated house is home to The 406 and a bar with live music on the main floor. There is a more laid-back prohibition-style cigar bar upstairs. Renovations wrapped up in time for New Year’s Eve!
11. Escape to the Past
Have you ever seen an Amish buggy and wondered what it would be like to have lived in a simpler time? At the Dragonfly Ranch, you can find out! Owner Georges will prepare a picnic lunch and drive up to three people to Charles Springs in a comfortable buggy. The trip takes about 2 hours; then, you stop for lunch before returning to the ranch.
Or you can go horseback riding on trail rides designed for various levels of skill. There is a beginner’s 30-minute ride. Advanced riders can enjoy a 1.5, 2, 2.5, or a 6-hour ride on the Suwannee River trails, the Christian Tract (338 acres of woods along the Suwannee), or the all-day Charles Springs ride, which includes lunch.
Georges is a natural tour guide entertaining and educational (with an endearing French accent) and will tell stories about the Suwannee River area, springs, and sinkholes. Be sure to tell him hello for me!
Oh, and if you’d like to take your horse and stay nearby, all you need to do is ask. Georges will make it happen.
12. Pack Your Hiking Boots For a River Hike
The Nature Trails at Suwannee River State Park offer paths of varying lengths. You only have to decide how many miles you have in you on any given day! Wildlife such as white-tailed deer, turkey, fox, and gopher tortoise are frequently spotted as you hike by sinks, streams, springs, limestone outcroppings, and the river. There is also the Branford Greenway in Branford. It is part of Florida’s rail trail.
You can also walk the Heritage Trail in Live Oak. It is part of Suwannee Parks and Recreation.
13. Visit Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park’s Chapel and Grande Hall
Destination weddings. You hear the term more and more. People want to say “I do” in a beautiful place, stay in a beautiful place, have a beautiful wedding—and have it all arranged by someone else! The Grande Hall overlooks the Suwannee River and is the ideal place for the reception.
14. Blue Water
Beautiful blue-green springs, so clear you can see your toes. And I don’t mean just one spring either! Suwannee has 46 of these hidden gems within the county. Peacock, Royal, Little River, Charles, Cow, Branford, Falmouth, Anderson, and Suwannee. WOW! What a richly-blessed area this is. Bring a bathing suit and towel; you’re going to want to get wet! Many of the springs have port-a-potties, but few have bathhouses.
15. Stay for a Night—or more!
Want to stay in a rustic cabin? A modern motel? An RV resort? (in their cabin or your camper…or even a treehouse!) The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park (SOS) isn’t just an entertainment venue. It is also a fantastic resort, with 800 acres and over 1,000 improved campsites and the capacity to handle 40’ and longer RVs. And you can bring your horse! The park has horse camping available, with paddock sites or stalls. Non-campers can pay a day-use trail fee. The park has 4 miles of trails for you to enjoy and access to another 50 miles of trails. You can ride along the banks of the Suwannee or explore eight ecosystems within the park.
The friendly folks at SOS can arrange for your needs during your stay; a canoe or kayak so you can paddle the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail; a tour; an art class.
Attend a music event at SOS. You will enjoy that concert in the amphitheater shaded by a canopy of oaks. A list of artists who have performed at SOS includes Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson, James Brown, and The Allman Brothers. There are several stages throughout the park and an indoor Music Hall.
The park’s Christmas Lights display is not to be missed. There are walkable parts, driveable parts, and even an animated band playing with no breaks!
Oh, and if you are into geocaching…well, never mind. I’ve probably already said too much!
16. Graffiti Bridge
The Suwannee Springs Bridge, built in 1931, has been abandoned for over 50 years. It has become known as The Bridge to Nowhere and a canvas for graffiti. The bridge spans 160 feet over the river and is open for foot and bike traffic. The bridge leads to the Florida Trail, and it will take you down by the river and underneath the bridge.
Make a quick detour to see this bridge. I did, and I met two guys, friends for 50 years. A friendship that has stood the test of time, they were there recreating a photo taken in the same place 40 years ago. The spot is marked where a proposal took place—she said “Yes!”
17. Climb Your Family Tree
The Suwannee Valley Genealogy Society was formed in 1992 to discover and preserve the region’s heritage and the area’s people. The research available includes eight Natural North Florida counties plus most other states and several European countries. The library is free for SVGS members; non-members can pay $10 a day to use the resources.
18. South of the Border Taste
The newest spot to eat in Live Oak just happened to open the week I visited. (Wasn’t that nice of them!) Latin Flavor Café Fl serves three meals a day and has American- and Latin-style sandwiches, wings, shakes, salads, vegetable juices, and bakery items. Tell Rosemary I sent ya! If you’re on the run, empanadas make great hand-held food for the road. And for goodness sake, get a guava & cheese pastelitos!
19. Cycle the River Trails
The Suwannee Bicycle Association has a plan—whether you want to pedal, paddle, or play! The SBA was formed over 25 years ago to promote awareness and usage of the Suwannee River Valley. They publish cycling maps with QR codes; pick one up! There are ten mapped routes on 270 miles of low-traffic country roads. You can’t beat the scenery in the Suwannee Valley. The SBA has also put together one-day or even multi-day paddle trips. The SBA sponsors events nearly every month and away trips. You may want to apply for membership.
20. State Parks in the County
The 1,800-acre Suwannee River State Park is found where the Withlacoochee River and the Suwannee River join forces. There is an overlook with a panoramic view of both rivers as they flow together. The park has a boat ramp, fishing locations, campsites for either tent or RV camping, restrooms, showers, and five full-service cabins.
The park has nature trails that take you by sinks, streams, springs, limestone outcroppings, and the river. Wildlife is found in abundance.
A second state park is the Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park. Wes was a famous cave diver who passed away a few years ago. Peacock Springs State Park amended its name to honor him. His daughter is a free diver. Her fiancée wanted her dad to “be there,” so last year he proposed underwater at Peacock. As Charissa says, *I’m not crying.*
21. BBQ – It’s a Southern Thing!
Yes, southerners love their BBQ. We’ll BBQ anything that stands still! Big Woods BBQ in Live Oak served me some top-notch pulled pork, dry-rubbed and dipped in their house-made sauce. Dished up beside their signature BBQ beans, mashed and Texas Toast, with my glass of Pinot, and I was a happy girl!
22. Way Down Upon the Suwannee River…
You know Stephen Foster’s song. Now visit the river that bears the name and the bridge with lyrics from the song. The sun sets over the Hal W Adams bridge, and with good clouds, it makes a beautiful sight—that blue suspension bridge and pink sky. On your way to getting this shot, you will pass through Luraville. Go ahead and stop for a dog at the Luraville Country Store. But eat it with a fork. You’re welcome!
23. Lunch with Locals
The Dixie Grill has been a Live Oak fixture since 1959! Charles and Myra Thomas bought the place in 1984 and haven’t slowed down. Son Robbie is known as Chef Boy RT—you know, like Chef Boy-ar-dee *smile* and is now putting his spin on the dishes with what he calls New South cuisine. Let me tell you—it works! Much of the produce comes fresh from the local farms (try the fried green tomatoes!) But save room for pie! You’re forewarned (and the cooler of pies by the front door doesn’t hurt as a reminder!) And get there early, or you will be waiting for a table.
24. Famous House
There is a famous house in Live Oak. No, I’m not talking about the historic downtown houses (although there are plenty of those!) I’m talking about a house that was built on television! Yep. If you’re a fan of the program Treehouse Masters, you’ll be interested to learn that they came and built a treehouse on the river at Spirit of the Suwannee! It is amazing! It isn’t rented out (yet!) but my name is on that list!
25. Visit Suwannee Springs
Natural North Florida is all about rivers and springs. But did you realize that Suwannee Springs was one of Florida’s first tourist destinations? The original springhouse was probably built before the Civil War. The “healing waters” were rumored to cure anything that ailed you, from gout to marital discord! Up until the 1920s the site had hotels, a bath house, and private cottages. There was even a private spur on the rail line! When the last hotel burned in 1925, the property was left to return to nature. But you can still imagine the hushed voices in the walls of the springhouse if you listen closely. Or, maybe it is just the gurgle of the river. I’ll let you decide.
26. Go for the Cheese
I’m still dreaming of the Garlic Knots from the Italian Pizzeria in Live Oak. And that pizza! Three of us shared it, and sent nearly half home with Jimmy Norris, Director of Economic Development. The cheese alone would fill up a normal person! We arrived starving after a day chasing springs, and jumped at the first thing we saw—pizza!! Too late I learn about their Stuffed Meat Pizza—five kinds of meat covered on both sides with a thin crust, like…pizza meets quesadilla! I’ll be baaaaack!
27. Join in the Festivities
You already know Natural North Florida is all about the festivals! But Suwannee County takes it to a whole ’nother level! I mean, these people can par-ty!!
Christmas on the Square’s ribbon-cutting was on Thursday night before the first weekend in December. It was the 37th year for the event! The festivities begin with the tree lighting, a Fun Run, and live entertainment. The next evening there is a downtown-wide arts and crafts show, live entertainment, fireworks, Santa Land, and Snow! 30 tons of the white stuff! Saturday, the events continue from 8 am until 4 pm, and a car and truck show is added. At 4, everyone rushes to clear the streets for the Grand Finale—the 6 pm Lighted Christmas Parade!
28. Snow on the Square
But, let me tell you about Snow on the Square. This town closes the streets for two whole days to make room for vendors (over 200) and food trucks. Oh, and snow. Yes…snow…in Florida. There is a huge pile just for the little kids (and Charissa).
Then there is the sledding hill. An entire block is devoted to a three-lane-wide hill of snow. There was a line starting before 5 pm, and it was still a line after 8 pm. Charissa, Marshall from the Busy Bee, and I had to ensure it was in proper working order, so we made a couple of test runs. Snow on the Square is a fantastic community effort to provide a snow experience for every child in Live Oak and Suwannee County. Three years ago, when someone suggested charging $2 per child, it was Marcell who said, “No, absolutely not. If that charge keeps just one child from enjoying the snow, we have failed.” He then pledged that the Busy Bee would sponsor the snow that year and every year since. That is the kind of community you find in Suwannee County. That is the Live Oak spirit.
And Santa! The official Coca-Cola Santa arrives in a light-up semi just after dark. The whole town turned out for this! Being the town’s writer for the event, I got to sit on his lap first—I know, it’s a tough job! *smile* The crowd was patient as they watched the set-up for the children (every child got a toy!) If you want to recover your childhood Christmas spirit, you need to be in Live Oak in December!
The evening wraps up with a fireworks display that would put July 4th to shame! Oh, my goodness! They were scheduled to start at 9 pm, but true to form, Marshall just couldn’t wait. The biggest kid in Suwannee County shot off the first burst at 8:55! And the displays continued, not one at a time spaced out like most places, but two, three, or four at once, and continued for more than 20 minutes!
29. Other Festivals
I know—I’m reeling at all that festival offers, and yet, there’s more! I warned you, this place is party central! During the year there are festivals at SOS and in the community; like:
- Suwannee Roots Revival Music Festival
- Suwannee Hulaween – biggest festival of the year—people come from other countries!
- Old Tyme Farm Days
- Wedding Expo
- Suwannee Spring Reunion – bluegrass and string music
- Suwannee Rising – music festival
- Suwannee River Jam – country music and camping festival
- Wings Over Suwannee – festival to inspire kids to consider aviation careers
- Wellborn Blueberry Festival
- Suwannee River Riding Club Rodeo
30. Thank a Vet
Before you leave Live Oak and Suwannee County, stop downtown, and pay your respects at the Veteran’s Memorial—you can spot it by the Spearmint mural! The grounds of this block are well kept, peaceful, and respectful. There is a plaque dedicated to Live Oak’s Vietnam hero, Army pilot Captain Charley James Ford. He was a highly decorated Special Forces Green Beret.