Cedar Key offers island life, complete with ghosts, clams
Published: Thursday, August 7, 2014 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 1:40 p.m.
Cedar Key — The first thing about going to Cedar Key is you have to want to go there. This island community is on no beaten path. There are only three ways in: by land, by sea and by that small airstrip over yonder.
From Gainesville, it’s a straight shot southwest on State Road 24.
“The Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street: The Way We Worked” opens Sept. 13, with a new event every Saturday through Oct. 18; contact the Cedar Key Historical Society at 543-5549 or Chamber of Commerce at 543-5600 for schedule
Labor Day Auction, 12:30 p.m. Aug. 31
45th annual Seafood Festival, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 18-19, City Park
Cedar Key Christmas Boat Parade, Dec. 13
51st annual Old Florida Celebration of the Arts, March 28-29. For details, visit www.cedarkey.org
By land, there’s just a single road — Second Avenue, aka State Road 24 — that runs nearly 20 miles through Otter Creek, Ellzey, Rosewood and a whole lot of nothing else between the Suncoast Highway (U.S. 19/98) and the No. 4 Bridge.
Once here, you’ll find Cedar Key is about as isolated as it can get. It’s also as Old Florida as you’ll find in a 21st century Sunshine State, a step back to a day when sand and salt water were the main attractions before a walkin’, talkin’ mouse.
There are no McDonald’s, no big-box business, not even a stoplight. There is only one grocery store, the Market at Cedar Key.
And that’s the way residents and visitors like it. The easy pace is one of the island’s biggest attractions, one that draws day-trippers from all points of Florida for romantic weekends, shopping, seafaring or even just a scenic seafood lunch.
“It’s relaxed here,” said Heather Goff, who transferred here recently from Clearwater Beach to manage the Island Trading Post on Dock Street. “Everyone’s more down to earth.”
“It’s quiet,” agreed Dr. George Harrell of Gainesville, taking a lunch break recently at Tony’s Seafood in the historic Hale Building at the town’s main intersection.
Harrell said he discovered Cedar Key in the ’70s, and visited frequently until he left for a position with East Carolina University. He was saddened to learn when he returned that his beloved Captain’s Table Restaurant on Dock Street overlooking the Gulf of Mexico was gone; it had closed years ago.
“I used to come out here all the time,” he added before leaving to resume his hunt for a retirement condo on the key.
Once he finds a place, Harrell will join a permanent populace of about 700 — though that explodes each spring during the Fine Arts Festival when Second Street is lined end-to-end with white pop-ups and 20,000 visitors; and again in October, when just as many jam into the waterfront City Park for clams, blue crabs and the like during the annual Seafood Festival.
This year’s 43rd annual seafood fest is set for Oct. 18-19.
It was the Seafood Festival in 1981 that first attracted Tom Liebert.
“I fell in love with the town,” Liebert said — a sort of love-at-first-bite thing. He’d been in Florida only 90 days, a transplant from Bucks County in Pennsylvania.
“The quaintness of the town,” Liebert added, “that was the lure, the magic.”
With his wife, Sherry, he runs Kayak Cedar Keys — and he’s someone who looks an awful like Santa Clam, who presides over the community’s Christmas celebrations. He’s been renting kayaks from an umbrella-shaded patch of dock next to City Park for 10 years.
Liebert estimated he’s taught 20,000 people to paddle. Mainly, he said, they kayak to explore nearby islands such as Atsena Otie (pronounced “Sin-ay Ota,” he said), a key across the water that was the original name and site of Cedar Key. Or they paddle out to play with the 350 or so bottlenose dolphins that call Cedar Key home.
Whatever the destination, kayaking is big in Cedar Key now, said Donna Risker, who was born and raised here and is a shift manager at Tony’s Seafood Restaurant — which boasts a clam chowder named the nation’s best three years running from 2009 to 2011 at the Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, Rhode Island.
“Kayaking and clamming,” Risker said. “After they did away with net fishing, we went to clams. It’s what keeps our town going.”
Commercial clam farming began in 1994, according to the Cedar Key Historical Museum; by 2009, some 300 clam farmers held leases.
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Some travel sites maintain Cedar Key is the second oldest town in Florida, and there’s no question this collection of keys is historical. Human occupation goes back to 500 B.C., and the islands were charted on Spanish maps in the 1500s as “Las Islas Sabinas” — “The Cedar Keys,” according to a Historical Society guide.
It served as a port, hospital, dock and military depot in the late 1830s. Other historical texts note the first U.S. post office was established in 1845 on Atsena Otie — “Cedar Island” in the Creek Indian language — according to the Historical Society, and the Legislature chartered it as the “city of Atseena Otie” in 1859.
Augustus Steele and his friend David Levy Yulee, one of Florida’s first U.S. senators, brought the Florida Railroad to town just before the start of the Civil War. In time, cedar here was milled into planks for pencils, and Daniel Andrews devised a way to prise fibers from cabbage palms to make whisk brooms and brushes; some of them were on display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Hurricanes eventually ended both enterprises, leaving Cedar Key with just fishing and history. Of that, there’s plenty. Of the 53 historic homes and sites listed in the “Old Cedar Key Walking Tour Guide,” 33 of them date back to the 1800s; the oldest are the 1860-circa Claywell House on Fourth Street and the Island Hotel that dates to 1859.
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Pam Wadley, a volunteer docent at the Historical Museum, lives in Gainesville but has Cedar Key roots.
“My dad was born and raised here,” she said, “but he didn’t want to fish” — and moved inland.
Yet, the family would visit several times a year as she grew up; the 1880 Eagle Cedar Mill House was her grandparents’ home. Today, it’s the Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast.
“It’s still something pretty special here,” she said.
Wadley, the Historical Society’s docent of the year last year, said she always feels better after visiting Cedar Key.
“There must be something in the air,” she said.
Many have found that “something in the air,” including such notables as singers Jimmy Buffett and Tennessee Ernie Ford, writer Pearl Buck, and actors Myrna Loy and Richard Boone.
“Richard Boone would always stay in Room 36,” said Deana Lashley, day manager of the Island Hotel at 373 Second St. The room overlooks Second in an upstairs decorated with muted murals by the free-spirited artist Helen Tooker.
Her King Neptune mural dominates a popular lounge downstairs; it was so popular, in fact, that when one-time owner Marcia Rogers tried to change it to a coffee and juice shop, she was “burned in effigy in front of the post office, a dubious honor previously awarded only to politicians who lost,” notes a written history of the hotel.
The Island Hotel is enjoying a good summer, Lashley said, except for one thing: “Every room is full. Usually this is the time we do maintenance and renovations. We haven’t had time this year; we’re too busy.”
It’s probably that peace-and-quiet thing.
Though there is Wifi, there are no televisions and no telephones in any of the 10 guest rooms. The electronics probably would disturb the ghosts here. One paranormal group certified years ago that 13 ghosts haunt the hotel. One of them, a Confederate soldier, stands in front of French doors upstairs every morning.
“He’s been pretty active lately,” Lashley added.
The Harbour Master Suites at 390 Dock Street rarely go a night empty, even during summer lulls.
Opened 20 years ago by Brent and Margaret Brooks, these nine suites with names such as “Sea Pearl,” “Sunkissed” and “Forget Me Not” share a common trait: spectacular views of Waccassa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Some rooms are situated to catch both sunrise and sunset, said manager Leslie Landress.
“They really sell themselves,” she said. “People want to come back to stay in different rooms. You can’t get any closer to the water than here.”
Unless you’re actually in it; Lisa Willis and Ingo Heinz from Columbia, South Carolina, last month lounged in the scant shade of a palm tree a few feet from the water at City Park; it was their last day in Cedar Key.
“It’s wonderful,” Heinz said. “I’ve been doing a lot of fishing.”
Willis cut in: “And we’ve seen every kind of water fowl imaginable. An eagle flew over the other day.”
“We’re used to Myrtle Beach,” she continued. “This reminds me of Myrtle Beach 50 years ago.”
So, they’ll be back?
“Absolutely,” Willis said. “We’ve talked about retiring here already.”
Contact Rick Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 867-4154.