Few communities can claim the uniqueness of High Springs — this is a city where history, nature, and education meet arts, culture, and community. Businesses and residents alike embrace the City’s charming and inviting personality and welcome visitors from all over the world to appreciate the beauty of a city centered around a vibrant, walkable historical downtown.
Beginning in the 1800s, High Springs was a core part of the Plant System rail yard and roundhouse. High Springs grew into a busy town because of the railroad and the phosphate mining industries that the trains supported. In 1888, the Plant System Railroad built a railroad center, which consisted of three branches of rails converging in a huge roundhouse. By the end of the 19th century, the town was booming with two airports, three theaters, repair shops, and a two-story district hospital. But as the railroads dissipated, miners and workers left as well. High Springs, however, is dedicated to preserving its history and embracing its past.
The High Springs Museum is open on select weekends of the month and is dedicated to preserving the history of “The Railroad Center” and the life and times of the 1800s to early 1900s. The museum features railroad memorabilia as well as Native American artifacts, clothing and items from the original general store.
“High Springs is blessed in so many ways,” said Kristina Wright, Director of the High Springs Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). “We have so many specialized niche markets within our community that other areas cannot match. Our history with the railroad underpins our story and continues today with the renovation of the historical Depot building that houses the CRA office and we are eager to implement the High Springs to Newberry Rail Trail.”
The High Springs CRA is spurring the development of several projects while encouraging visitors to experience what sets High Springs apart as the gateway to the springs – the high-quality shops and eateries featured in its historical downtown, the self-guided walking tour that highlights the murals within the Florida Quilt Trail and the history and culture of this former railroad hub. The Rail Trail will feature 13 miles of abandoned CSX rail corridor between High Springs and Newberry, which will be converted to a paved, multi-use recreational trail.
Another major attractor to the High Springs area is the quality of the High Springs Community School, which serves 893 students in grades Prekindergarten-8th grade. The High Springs Community School placed in the top 30 percent of all schools in Florida for overall test scores in math and reading proficiency for the 2015-2016 school year.
“First and foremost, contributing towards growth and economic development is the quality of our schools within proximity to our walkable, historical downtown,” Wright said. “We consistently have A-rated schools in our community, and that is something of which we are all proud of in High Springs.”
Come for Nature, Stay for Culture
A major draw to the area is the beautiful springs, all within 30 minutes of the city. These include Poe Springs, Blue Springs, Ginnie Springs, and O’Leno State Park. Florida’s springs and rivers have long been known as premiere natural vacation destinations, bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy.
No matter how hot the summers get, the water in any of Florida’s hundreds of freshwater springs is never warmer than 75 degrees. Most spring water ranges from a refreshing 68 to 72 degrees year-round. The most local spring to High Springs, Poe Springs, is listed as one of the major springs in Florida.
The Florida Springs Institute is located in High Springs and represents all of Florida’s springs. The Institute is committed to conserving Florida’s springs through science and education and has spent the past eight years monitoring the water quality of springs throughout Florida.
The Institute hosts several charity events to benefit Florida’s springs as well as educational programs for adults and children who want to learn more.
The springs also attract divers from around the world. Cave County Dive Shop is happy to welcome and educate these visitors.
“We are centrally located within 30 minutes to several world-class natural springs,” said Kristi Bernot, manager of Cave County Dive Shop. “Many divers from all over the world travel here to visit, dive in, and enjoy our springs and caves.”
Cave County Dive Shop offer fills, repair, gear rental, service, and diving courses, from basic open water up through instructor, cave, and rebreather training. The shop’s professional staff can handle all diving needs. Although it may attract global customers, the local community atmosphere is what makes the employees at Cave County so happy to pursue their “labor of love.”
“We love the small-town feel; our customers are like family and we enjoy all the wonderful outdoor activities to be found in the area,” Bernot said.
While the springs may attract visitors, the unique vibe and culture of High Springs are what entices them to explore. There is a thriving arts scene in the town that has been developed and grown by a group of committed local artists and art enthusiasts. Tina Corbett, owner of Lanza Art Gallery, organized the original art co-op of 21 local artists, jewelers, potters, and painters.
“Of course, a lot of the art that is popular in the gallery are [paintings and] photos surrounding the springs, because that is what attracted people to the area in the first place,” Corbett said. “We have people who come here from far-off places from around the world, even as far as Lithuania.”
Corbett’s store is also part of the Quilt Mural Trail, which was created to join with Trenton’s Mural Trail. A quilt trail is a series of quilt squares – painted wood or metal, hung or free-standing – installed at various locations along a route, emphasizing significant architecture and/or aesthetic landscapes. The other locations in High Springs include River Run Olive Oil, the Antique Center, the High Springs Historical Museum, and Bennett’s True Value Hardware.
These High Springs merchants and places embraced the quilt trail to attract more visitors to High Springs and enhance the arts culture in the city. Merchants and the CRA have also embraced the First Friday’s events where downtown merchants, such as Lanza Art Gallery, antique shops, unique craft stores, and restaurants like The Great Outdoors and Bambi’s Café stay open late with live music to accompany the ambiance. In fact, Bambi’s has begun hosting five-course meals throughout the evening and frequently sells out. The self-guided walking tour highlights the quilt murals, and there is often music, sampling, discounts, and giveaways. Lanza Gallery even hosted a sidewalk chalk event during the event as well, which was a huge success that they hope to continue on an annual basis.
“High Springs is growing, and I would love for the arts scene to continue to grow with it,” Corbett said. “We host the Santa Fe Springs Plein Art Paint Out, which is an annual event with over 20 artists painting the beautiful North Florida Springs for several days.”
The City, Chamber of Commerce, and community partners host several popular festivals, including Pioneer Days, a family-friendly event featuring handmade art and crafts, pony rides, costume contests, and a reenacted shoot-out twice daily. Each summer the city is filled with music with Folk in the Springs, a series of performances that showcase several venues throughout the High Springs Historic Downtown District.
Small Town Feel and Community Vibe
The High Springs population is estimated to be about 6,000 people, growing by 66 percent in the last 15 years. There are about 600 businesses with most being small, unique shops that give High Springs its small-town charm. In the center of downtown High Springs is the Priest Theatre, the oldest operating movie theater in the state. Opened in 1910, the Priest Theatre has been a constant in the community throughout the past 118 years, where community members gather and families meet.
“The Theatre is such an important part of High Springs to its residents,” said Janet Alligood, who owns and operates the theatre with her husband; her parents ran it for 28 years prior to that. “It feels like home to so many people and has a lot of historical significance. Now we have adults who went there as children whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren also were patrons.”
The theatre includes a balcony, a large, open lobby, and an auditorium that seats 240 people. Two great columns flank the stage with stairs on each side that had originally led to the actors’ dressing rooms. All of these features still exist, and most are functional.
In the beginning, the venue was host to vaudeville and traveling acts. There were many impressive performances on stage at the Priest such as Smiley Burnett, who worked with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and his horse, Trigger, as well as on television’s Petticoat Junction. By the 1950s, the Priest Theatre screened up to five different movies each week.
Parents never worried when their children visited the Priest Theatre because Alligood’s mother was famous for telling teenagers to “mind their manners,” Alligood said. That family-friendly environment continues today.
The Priest Theatre now hosts a new film every weekend at a deeply discounted price, as well as special events, field trips, and summer programs. Alligood said she would like it to become more of a live performance venue during the week if she can find the right partner who would be willing to manage that side of it.
“A strong sense of community and a well-established historical downtown, in addition to the natural springs, all attract people to our area,” Wright said. “High Springs has such a special ambiance and our niche creative, recreational, and environmental markets complement these treasured, pristine springs.”
Another hidden gem is Camp Kulaqua, which offers lodge-style rooms, cabins, banquets, cookouts, seminar rooms, outdoor activities like horseback rides and zip lining, as well as an extensive water park. River Ranch Water Park is an aquatics facility that provides a safe atmosphere with a 15,000 square-foot wave pool, a 600-foot-long lazy river, a water slide, sand volleyball courts, and covered picnic areas.
River Ranch is open from mid-April till the end of August. It’s available by reservation only, except during Community Event Days, when the water park is open to the public. No reservations are required, and you can pay at the front gate upon arrival.
Stay and Play
The Grady House Bed and Breakfast is a significant High Springs’ destination. Located in the heart of downtown, this B&B recognizes that the main attractions to the area are the beautiful springs and rivers.
“As businesses, we join together to meet the needs of visitors with our downtown area, our antique shops, restaurants like The Great Outdoors, and historical attractions like our bed and breakfast,” said owner Bobbie Sabo.
Bobbie and her husband are the fourth owners of the 101-year-old home. Born out of the need for housing for people working on the railroad, the home began as a boarding house and evolved into a bakery and apartment. As a bed and breakfast, there are six beautifully decorated rooms, each painted and named after a different color. Guests can enjoy a gourmet breakfast and relax with a cup of tea or coffee in one of the sitting areas.
A previous Grady House owner purchased the 122-year-old Easterlin House next door and transformed it into Skeet’s Cottage, a beautiful two-story Victorian home. With two spacious bedrooms upstairs and one bathroom downstairs it also features a clawfoot tub with a shower. Guests have access to a full kitchen, a family room, a parlor, and a spacious dining area.
One of the Sabo’s major undertakings is renovating the gardens, so they are a more accessible and beautiful experience for guests. This will help the business as it moves into what will be one of its next ventures: making the Grady House a venue for couples to get married.
“We go all-out for our guests, based on their needs. If that means fresh flowers in the bedrooms or champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries to meet them in the evening,” Sabo said. “We also can work with guests to recommend local businesses and vendors who can help with their wedding or vacation needs.”
Sabo said there is truly no busy season and business can be affected by many things.
“If the rivers or springs are too high, we may have less visitors,” Sabo said. “The performance of the UF football team even affects people attracted to the area. If a hurricane affects another part of the state, we may get traffic from people who are leaving the storm. It’s variable depending on the year.”
High Springs continues to flourish and grow, and the Community Redevelopment Agency is creating and implementing plans that will achieve and advance the vision of the community. One element of these plans is to create more workforce and affordable housing and solid plans are in place for the near future. The CRA is eager to embrace the construction of the Market Pavilion with funding provided through a grant obtained from the USDA. Within the next year, downtown will begin an aesthetic transformation that will further promote and enhance this exceptional community to further attract commerce while embracing and enhancing the quality of life for residents and guests.
“We are growing and need additional quality development, including workforce and affordable housing, to better address the needs of ‘the missing middle.’ So many are attracted to our community and want a simple, high-quality lifestyle where it is possible to walk and bike to town and even out to the Springs,” Wright said. “We are putting plans in place to best achieve these goals.”
In addition to providing housing, the CRA is seeking to assist a non-profit organization to expand community resources into a larger center to help make it possible to provide additional services for those in need. In the future, the hope is to implement a model of expanded services similar to the Tri-county Community Resource Center in Chiefland or the Southwest Advocacy Group (SWAG) Family Resource Center. Wright said their hope is to eventually build an even larger multi-purpose facility to include a Boys and Girls Club or a similar facility for the youth in the area.
One of the major development projects on the horizon is the construction of the High Springs Market Pavilion, which will be funded by a $199,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The CRA also intends to create a master plan that will feature professional landscaping and architectural and landscape lighting and irrigation. Other improvements could include a marquee, a fountain, extra lighting, outdoor seating, a café, and play spaces.
“We are in the midst of developing our city center to showcase and enhance all of the amazing things that we have in High Springs, including our unique history and a number of well-designed programs and future economic development,” Wright said. “We truly are a special community and a true hidden gem, and we are developing to best support our community while embracing the future.”