Pat’s Wildways: Old Florida

By Pat Foster-Turley

The old Stuckey’s building on Highway 301 is now surrounded by old cars.

Whenever Bucko and I feel like getting away from the hubbub that Amelia Island has become we try to find remnants of Old Florida to escape to. There are still a number of places that fit this description, but from my many years as a student at the University of Florida, it is that area mid-state down U.S. Route 301 that I head for. Getting to the areas I seek is quicker than ever what with the newish bypasses of Baldwin and Starke. In about an hour and a half from our home, I can be in Melrose, where I once lived.

Traces of Old Florida still exist along Highway 301. The old Stuckey’s shop just past Lawtey has undergone a few changes since its “live alligator” sign and its days as a tourist paraphernalia store. It’s been abandoned for a long time now, and the building is crumbling, but inside the windows, one can still see dust-covered Florida souvenirs on the shelves. A recent change has made this abandoned building even more interesting. Scores of antique, but junked, cars are parked all around it. Perfect.

Various businesses along 301 still have a backcountry twang. Produce stands featuring whatever is in season along with local honey, homemade jams and hot boiled peanuts are there to be explored. You can buy “African rare woods” from one place, sometimes can choose your own calf to be slaughtered at another and of course, just off the Starke bypass, there is still the largest fireworks store in the state. And if Jesus is not yet in your heart there are many signs along the way reminding you.

Farmer Brown may represent the last generation to run Brown’s farm in Melrose.

Melrose itself, an unincorporated community with a population of less than 6,000 people, is a slight jog off 301 at Orange Heights on Florida State Road 26. When you leave 301 the first thing you will see is Brown’s Farm, one of those produce stands, which grows their own vegetables, strawberries, and geraniums for sale when the time is right. The Browns have operated their farm and produce stand for generations, but the last time I talked to Farmer Brown, the last patriarch, he bemoaned the fact that his kids and grandkids have no interest in farming. Another old icon is on its last legs.

Robin Chiapinni greets his customers at Chiapinni’s Gulf Station in Melrose.

The cornerstone of Melrose, actually on the corner of Highway 26 and Florida State Road 21, is Chiapinni’s Gulf Station. Well, this place, like the similar T-Ray’s gas station in Fernandina, no longer sells gas. But it is alive and thriving, the center of the community in this area. Robin and Mark Chiapinni, second-generation store owners, run their store with the kindness that rural life brings out in the best of people. The shop sells fishing gear and bait, beer, smoking supplies, and various other sundries beyond that supplied by the nearby large grocery story. But more than this, the place serves love.

Locals in their holiday costumes dole out free toys in Melrose.

On a recent day Bucko and I whiled away some time on two of the four barstools at the counter and chatted with Robin while he served his constant parade of customers. One regular came in, forlorn, as he asked if Robin could front him a case of beer for his Christmas guests since he had run out of money buying them presents. Yes, Robin could, and did. A small family group came in and the youngest girl was happily showing off a small white pompom (“a snowball” she called it) that she had just received from the costumed Christmas group outside that was doling out gifts to kids. Robin came out from behind the counter to chat with her, to show them his taxidermied “skunk ape” and before long all of the kids had free lollypops. People streamed in to buy last-minute Christmas gifts—jars of “Micanopy Gold” pickled garlic were flying off the shelf. One woman bought a gift card for “a dozen shiners” so her young son would feel like a big guy buying his own. And behind the store Roscoe the cat has been there for years greeting all arrivals too.

For years we have never missed a stop at Chiapinni’s on our way to and from Gainesville, and always leave with a warm glowing feeling, and not just from the beer. Our destination on this day was another Old Florida icon, The Yearling Restaurant and Cabins, in Cross Creek just down the road a piece. The cabins are as rustic as you’d expect but the sheets are clean and the restaurant is perfect, we think. You can eat frog legs, venison, catfish, fried green tomatoes, and other Old Florida fare, while listening to live music from a low-key guitarist and surveying their collection of old books and taxidermy displays that line the walls.

At The Yearling Restaurant in Cross Creek you can listen to live music and eat Old Florida fare while surrounded by taxidermied animals and old books.

If you, too, like to reminisce about Old Florida, head down Highway 301 and see what you can see and stop at The Yearling for lunch or dinner, Wednesday through Sunday. And if you go to Chiapinni’s tell them Pat and Bucko sent you!

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

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Noble Member
5 months ago

I love all this same Old Florida stuff too, Pat. Thanks for featuring it. I have been to Melrose but not to that store. On my list now! Let’s hope some of Old Florida continues to bring joy to future generations.

Noble Member
5 months ago

Thanks for another great travel experience Ms. Pat. I too enjoy Old Florida and hate that so much if it is getting scooped up by developers and destroyed. These little pockets of beauty need to be cherished while they are still around, for sure!!