It didn’t take long after we became fulltime RVers to realize that the best parts of America are on the two-lane back roads, away from the interstate highways. This is where you will find small town America, a world away from the generic shopping malls, big box stores, and chain restaurants of the big cities and their sprawling suburbs.
One of the most delightful small towns we have visited is Palatka, Florida, which is best known for the amazing collection of murals that adorn so many of the town’s buildings. It is also a place with a lot of history, and there is enough to see and do to keep anybody occupied for a long time.
Located on the St. Johns River, Palatka is the perfect place for all kinds of boating, fishing, and kayaking opportunities. Ravine Gardens State Park offers picnicking, hiking trails, bird watching, and more. The area is also known for its many festivals, including the Florida Azalea Festival and the Blue Crab Festival.
But it was the murals that brought us to Palatka. Over 20 of them tell the history of the town and its people in vivid color. One could spend an entire day just admiring all of them. This one, located near the visitors center at St. John’s Avenue and N. Seventh Street, is tilted The Georgia Southern and Florida Railroad and celebrates the history of the region’s railroads and how they helped the city grow.
The High Time in Palatka mural at South 7th Street and St. Johns Avenue honors the traveling circuses that came to town, with a crowd of people watching a high wire walker performing his death-defying feats on a line stretched between two buildings.
Not far away, at South 3rd Street and St. Johns Avenue, The Battle at Horse Landing mural commemorates a Civil War skirmish on May 23, 1864 between the Union gunboat Columbine and a squad of dismounted Confederate cavalry troops on the shore of the St. Johns River. The battle was over in just 45 minutes. By the time the shooting had stopped, over two thirds of the Columbine’s 148 troops and crew had been killed or wounded. The Columbine surrendered and the Confederate troops stripped her of anything valuable, then burned the gunboat to keep it from being recaptured by Union forces.
Confederate and Union soldiers weren’t the only ones who did some shooting in Palatka in the old days. On February 21, 1908, sharpshooter Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler came to town and put on a shooting exhibition. The Wild West Comes to Palatka mural at St. John’s Avenue and South Eleventh Street recalls the visit by these two stars of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
The Bygone Days mural at Fifth Street and St. Johns Avenue might fool you at first, because the staircase and balcony are not real, they are painted but have a 3-D effect. The only “real” things you see are the six windows above and below the balcony and the window on the left with the red-and-white striped awning above it.
One of our favorite murals is titled Harlem Nights in Palatka and is located at St. Johns Avenue and North Eighth Street. It tells the story of the Belton’s Society Syncopators, a jazz band created in the 1920s by brothers Cortland S. Belton and Wilbert Belton, young black musicians from Palatka. They started out with a 4-piece combo that eventually grew into a large band that was rated as one of the top ten dance bands in the country, often compared to Duke Ellington’s orchestra. They performed everywhere from Harlem’s Cotton Club to Key West, always to sell-out crowds.
These are just some of the many murals to see in Palatka. Take your time and enjoy them all. But there is even more to see and do in this charming small town. Stop at the visitor center or Chamber of Commerce and pick up a free guide map to the Reid’s Garden Walking Tour through the town’s North Historic District. The tour highlights eight beautiful old homes and is a relaxing way to get to know a little more about this interesting town.
The Bronson-Mulholland house (below) was built in 1854, and stands as a reminder of Palatka’s rich history. This beautiful antebellum home is located on two acres of live oaks and magnolias near the St. Johns River. It was built in 1854 by attorney and US Congressman Isaac H Bronson, the man who proposed the act to admit Florida as a state, back during Territorial days. The home is owned by the City of Palatka and furnished with period items. Free guided tours are available by appointment.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, located nearby, was established in 1846. During the Civil War the church was used as a barracks by Union troops and suffered considerable damage. But the building survived and is still in use today.
All of that sightseeing probably helped you work up an appetite. That’s good, because Palatka is also home to Angels Diner, which bills itself as Florida’s oldest diner. The restaurant opened in 1932 and is popular with both locals and tourists alike.
And if all that isn’t enough to get you interested in a trip to Palatka, wait until my next blog, when I’ll tell you all about our visit to the haunted antique shop!
Thought For The Day – Once you see a woman take her bra off without removing her shirt you understand why it makes more sense for them to be in charge of things.