Festival celebrates Haile Homestead and railroad that served it

Published: Sunday, June 1, 2008 at 7:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, June 1, 2008 at 7:01 p.m.

Long, long before Archer Road was home to RTS, road rage and afternoon traffic jams, it was home to the single largest factor in the early development of North Central Florida.

More than 100 years ago, 120-ton trains would billow smoke as they traveled down the south side of present-day Archer Road carrying lumber, passengers and a variety of crops across the 155 miles of cross-peninsula railway that stretched from Cedar Key to Fernandina.

Although it's been many decades since the coal trains chugged through Gainesville, a small piece of that history still sits tucked away in the woods along Archer Road.

The Historic Haile Homestead at Kanapaha Plantation is just one such reminder of the plantation homes that the railroad made possible and it played an important part of the Yulee Railroad Days celebration this weekend a tribute that continues through next weekend.

The Haile Homestead was open free to the public this weekend in celebration of David Levy Yulee's contributions to the development of North Central Florida by bringing the railroad through the heart of Alachua County.

The Haile home, which sits off Archer Road just west of SW 75th Street, is unusual in that every visitor is greeted not only with a history lesson, but a century-old visitor log on almost every wall in the house.

Karen Kirkman, president of Historic Haile Homestead, spent more than six months transcribing the 12,500 words that cover the house.

The walls tell the story of Thomas and Esther Haile, the first owners of the 6,200 square foot home.

The home sits on what was originally a 1,500-acre Sea Island cotton plantation.

According to Kirkman, the home is unique not only because it is still standing but that the walls are still preserved to this day.

"There is no other home like it," Kirkman said.

For Thomas and Esther Haile and their 14 children, the railroad provided a means of travel as well as the main transport for the crops that were grown on the plantation.

According to Harold McGee, the railroad history specialist for the Alachua County Historical Commission, the Haile family's use of the railroad was commonplace in those days.

It was the railroad that provided the background to all other businesses in Florida, McGee said.

In Alachua County alone, there were 54 train depots, many of which are the small towns still standing today, including High Springs.

According to Kirkman, the home had a dynamic history of uses. Along with providing housing for the Hailes, the home was later used as a party house by one of the Haile descendants, Kirkman said.

Evans Haile used the property as a getaway from the city. To this day, the writings of the various houseguests can be seen on the bare interior walls of the house.

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