Pat’s Wildways: An ‘Old Florida’ Birthday

By Pat Foster-Turley

Bucko had a milestone birthday last week, and he wasn’t happy about it. And, moreover, he hates celebrations of all kinds and prefers not to participate in gatherings of people. We have been together for half a century and share all our finances and wish lists so there is no gift I can buy him that we haven’t already purchased. How on earth could I celebrate this event with him in a way that he would enjoy?

And then I thought of it. Old Florida! Perfect! So, on the fateful day of May 11, I worked to make this happen. For starters, I gave him a T-Ray’s baseball cap. This Fernandina Beach gas station-turned diner is a community hub of sorts that draws a local crowd for their great breakfasts and lunches. It’s Old Florida at its finest. A perfect gift.

The berries at Brown’s Farm in Orange Heights are just some of the fresh produce they sell until they close for the season mid-July to mid-October.

And then we set off for an overnight trip to The Yearling Restaurant in Cross Creek. This old-time place had been in business for years and is fully furnished with Old Florida memories, particularly honoring Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who once lived nearby in what is now a state park that honors her memory. This restaurant is located in a rural, still undeveloped area and is the only thing around for miles. We love their frog legs, venison and gator tail meals. And they have cabins on the grounds, clean, ‘50s decorated and comfortable. A perfect overnight stay for his birthday.

And wait, that’s not all. We have an often traveled route to get to The Yearling, all full of Old Florida places. So, once again, we traveled down U.S. 301 to the town of Orange Heights, where we exit on State Road 26 to Melrose. Right at the exit is another favorite place of mostly mine, as the home chef. Brown’s Farm is a place I’ve written about before. This multi-generational family farm grows produce of all sorts, sold from a stand beside the road; the same friendly people have been manning this place for all the 40 or so years I’ve been stopping by. It was berry season, and their blueberries, strawberries and blackberries were beautifully displayed beside a long row of fresh vegetables and even some flowers and plants for sale. I enjoy their Facebook group, and was happy to drop by and tell them that in person.

Robin Chiappini watches Bucko (in his T-Ray’s cap) receiving his “Georgia-wrapped” present.

Our next stop was a few miles away in Melrose at Chiappini’s Gulf Station, which, like T-Ray’s, is a former gas station with a changing mission. Now Robin and Mark Chiappini, third-generation store owners, have turned this place into a combined bait, beer and sundries shop that is the heart and soul of Melrose. We love sitting on two of their five stools at the counter, drinking a cold beer and chatting with Mark or Robin and their steady parade of customers of all ages and persuasions. This time, by my advance arrangement, Robin was expecting us and had two of Bucko’s favorite Chiappini T-shirts with pockets wrapped up “Georgia style,” he said, to present to Bucko. Although I purchased the shirts, Robin did the wrapping: a brown paper bag, with orange and blue Gator colors drawn on instead of ribbons. Perfect!

The boat dock at Lochloosa Harbor affords a great view of gators and aquatic vegetation on Lake Lochloosa.

We still had one more Old Florida stop before getting to The Yearling for dinner and our night in one of their cabins: Lochloosa Harbor Resort further south on U.S. 301. Despite the lofty name, this place is still a basic Old Florida fish camp, with RV parking, a few cabins, a boat ramp, a fishing supply shop and, sometimes open, a restaurant serving country food and beer. We were lucky this time. Or at least I was lucky. One of my favorite foods in this region is frog legs, and that was their special of the day. Another perfect but unplanned Old Florida experience along our path.

The Yearling has live entertainment. Although old-time “real deal” blues singer Willie has passed on, he is still memorialized here.

At The Yearling, we parked our car for the night and settled in. After many years of staying with them, the same waitresses served us and the same owner greeted us. When we finally could eat again after gorging on frog legs earlier, we dove into our plates of venison, fried green tomatoes, collard greens and cheese grits and were treated to a big piece of chocolate cake for his birthday.

It was a perfect Bucko birthday — hard to top, even he admits. But thank heavens his next milestone birthday is five years away and I have time to think about it. But now Bucko has to plan my own birthday June 8. Poor Bucko …

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

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anna
Noble Member
anna(@anna)
19 days ago

Love that!!! Happy Birthday to you both!!

JJC
Trusted Member
JJC(@jjc)
19 days ago

The best kind of birthday – laidback and easy. All of the Old Florida highlights bring back memories for me. Have seen all of those other than Chiapinni’s. Great job!

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