The railroad tracks are gone, the former depots replaced by modern restrooms and parking lots, now trail heads on the Withlacoochee State Trail. One can still imagine the conductor calling out the stops ... Owensboro, Nobleton, Istachata, Floral City. When I bicycled the trail recently, Floral City was the stop where I wanted to stay, could imagine putting down roots like the massive oak trees in this charming place.
Established 1883, Floral City in the southeast corner of Citrus County is a quaint community that has done an excellent job of preserving its historic past. Famous for its Avenue of the Oaks—live oaks planted in 1884 all along Orange Avenue and Aroostock Way—these majestic beauties are basis of Citrus County’s only National Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You’ll want to read the State Historical Marker at the original town site, which is about 150 miles north of Arcadia.
The two organizations that have spearheaded the preservation are the Floral City Heritage Council (a local branch of the Citrus County Historical Society) and the Duval Preservation Trust. On my Friday evening pass through I stopped and picked up some brochures from the rack in front of the Heritage Museum and Country Store. The museum is contained within the former Floral City Volunteer Fire Station, built in 1966. It was good to see a public building repurposed for this well deserving cultural organization.
On Saturday morning, a steady flow of visitors listened as volunteers shared stories of their community’s early days. Inside, carefully preserved artifacts and panels depicting the history and economy of the area provided plenty of opportunity to learn about the community’s beginnings. A small exhibit on the history of the Avenue of Oaks, the main street of Floral City and one of the most photographed roads in the state, includes a 5-foot-wide cross section of one of the historic 125-year-old trees that was sadly lost in 2008. In one corner, an old-fashioned general store displays more items from the past, as well as an eclectic mix of items for sale, publications about the history of the area and more. I could have spent all day there, but the trail was calling.
Since 1993, the Heritage Council has sponsored and managed the annual Floral City Heritage Days, held the first weekend in December, beginning on Friday evenings. The event showcases historic architecture, demonstrations of early Florida daily living activities, historical exhibits, country foods, outstanding acoustic music and the pride residents have in their historic town. Volunteers dress in period costume of the 1890s and act as guides to the historic home tours and the museum/country store.
The Historic Duval-Metz House built in 1863 is considered the oldest home in Citrus County. It is lovingly undergoing restoration by the Duval Preservation Trust and is open only during special events. Built by an ex-Confederate soldier, John Paul Formy-Duval was the son of a French physician, Jean Prosper, forced to flee Napoleon’s rule in France. John Paul built a two-story home which still stands where it was built on the southeast corner of Orange Avenue and Old Floral City Road. He had another home on Duval Island where he planted citrus groves, sugar cane and assorted produce. Steamboats served as the prime source of transportation for the local citrus growers until the Big Freeze of 1894-95.
Just before the Big Freeze, part of the Plant System Railroad was extended through the village in 1893 and hard-rock phosphate deposits were discovered in areas surrounding Floral City. By the late 1890s, the local economy was prospering from a phosphate boom. Steam shovels replaced the handpick and shovel, but still hundreds of workers were needed. Within a brief time the local population soared to 10,000 residents, more than the population of Miami. During this phosphate-boom period, Floral City grew so fast that it incorporated into a township in 1907. But four years later the incorporation was revoked, and Floral City remains unincorporated.
Remnants of the phosphate boom period can be seen in the stately old homes built by the phosphate superintendents. The Floral City Community Building, several houses, chimneys and foundations were built with rock from long closed mines. There is a marker along the trail at the site of one mine, other mine sites are preserved within the state forest.
The Heart of Floral City brochure lists more than a dozen other must-sees, including several other structures built before 1900, including two churches and a former school house, now a private residence. There are five murals, two cemeteries, and numerous art and gift shops to explore.
Floral City is a delightful destination for a Florida history day-trip.