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Cedar Key offers island life, complete with ghosts, clams

A pelican perches at the docks along the bay in Cedar Key in 2010.

Erica Brough/Staff photographer

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.

Facts

Cedar Key

From Gainesville, it’s a straight shot southwest on State Road 24.
Upcoming activities
“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 http://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.

Commercial clam farming began in 1994, according to the Cedar Key Historical Museum; by 2009, some 300 clam farmers held leases.

■ ■ ■

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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