Cedar Key, located on the Gulf Coast of Florida, has for several years been on our bucket list. We have really enjoyed our time in Cedar Key and have taken advantage of the “chill” atmosphere after a busy summer of traveling. This town is the escape from the vacationing masses that invade Florida annually. There are no condo high rises, chain stores, golf courses, or even a movie theater and you get the impression that there is little desire to change anything. Instead of theme parks, there are some artists, writers, and quilters.
The narrow streets are lined with vintage homes that gives Cedar Key its charm. It is a small little remote community that has survived over the years and personifies “island time.” Less than 900 people reside here but it is easy to meet 4th or 5th generation residents who are happy to share about their lives and that of their children who have grown up on the island. We have also met several people who came here for a short stay and never left.
Cedar Key is a laid back place that sets its own rules. For instance a friend went to a local restaurant to eat and found it dark. She inquired what time the eatery would open and the response was, “When the lights are on”. She asked when that would be, “When we turn the lights on” was the answer. Few places have 8 to 5 weekday hours so it pays to call ahead to be sure that they are open when you are plan a visit.
The community of Cedar Key, which is not in the Florida Keys, was first brought to our attention via the wonderful blog of Technomadia, a non-retired couple whose home is not made of sticks and bricks and have traveled across the country in their RV while working. They have numerous blog posts about this area and the place we have stayed the past few weeks. Like so many others we have met, they kept returning time after time to Cedar Key. They have provided a lot of information about the environs in the associated link.
Cedar Key was a boom town between 1880 and 1890 with its population reaching almost 2000. One of the reasons for the growth of the self proclaimed “Venice of the South” was the construction of the first cross state railroad from Fernandina to Cedar Key which was completed in 1860. The owner of the train company was David Levy Yulee who became the first senator from the new state of Florida. He was also the first Jewish United States Senator. The county in which Cedar Key resides is named Levy county in honor of him.
Trains serviced the port of Cedar Key until 1932. During these years many goods passed through this area bound to and from the Gulf to the Atlantic and various parts of the country. Interestingly enough, the mail to Havana, Cuba, and Key West passed through Cedar Key since it was the terminus of the Florida, Atlantic & Gulf Central Railroad. Other cities such as New Orleans were directly connected to Cedar Key.
The type of pencils that are forever ingrained in our grade school memory also have a Cedar Key history. This area had abundant numbers of cedar trees which attracted the attention of the Faber Pencil Company. The company built saw mills to cut the slats used for the ubiquitous pencils that became so well known and popular. The cedar was shipped to a factory in New York City, near the current United Nations, for assembly. The logging eventually depleted the natural resources and the hurricane of 1896 finally ended the enterprise.
Cedar Key had more manufacturing opportunities in its future. A dentist started the Standard Manufacturing Company and built the Donax brushes that were shipped world-wide. These whisk brushes, which are produced from the fibers of the cabbage palm, are practically works of art. Even the handle was part of the fiber structure. The Cedar Key Historical Museum has an extensive exhibit dedicated to the brushes which were popular until the advent of synthetics. The brushes continued to be made until 1952.
This small town has two museums: the Cedar Key Historical Museum and the Cedar Key Museum State Park. Both record interesting tidbits of local history including such items as Cedar Key being the endpoint for John Muir’s A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. This Muir adventure started in Indianapolis and ended in Cedar Key. The book containing Muir’s notes is available on-line and has a chapter concerning his time in Cedar Key. He stayed much longer than planned as he developed typhoid fever and a local sawmill owner and his wife took him in for three months and nursed him to health.
With the manufacturing faltering the population declined but did not break. The main source of revenue became seafood. This resilient community, however, faced another challenge. In 1995, the use of gill nets were banned by a constitutional amendment and it adversely affected the local fishing industry. Many of the residents lost their livelihood which relied on the seafood industry. A few took advantage of the training provided by the government to produce farm-raised clams. The clam industry has grown amazingly in Cedar Key. The community provides 90% of the clams for the state of Florida totaling more than 30 million dollars a year.
View from Low Key Hideaway
One of the main draws of Cedar Key are the beautiful sunsets. Crowds gather at the Low Key Hideaway Tiki Bar to enjoy them on the relaxing pier and grounds. Even at Sunset Isle Campground, folks will gather at the waterfront each night with iphones to take photos of the glowing orange setting sun.
People are always surprised when I say that there are many rural sparsely populated areas of Florida in contrast to the assumed urban sprawl of a Miami or Orlando. This area embodies the term I have heard frequently this month, Old Florida. Cedar Key is not for everyone, but for those who like to “get away and find some solitude,” this is the place to be. Celia has been able to be outside painting most days and we haven’t missed many sunsets.
Hurrah for Old Florida.