Driving along the Scenic Sumter Heritage Byway may seem like you are on a road to another time, another place. The country roads reflect Florida’s past way of life when fishing, farming, and knowing your neighbors were the norm.
STORY: Mary Ann DeSantis / PHOTOS: Matthew Gaulin
Acres of pastureland, expansive cattle ranches, locally owned restaurants, and weather-beaten fishing cottages flash by while driving the Scenic Sumter Heritage Byway, 62 miles of open roads that perfectly illustrate the character of this county. Starting at Rutland Park on State Road 44 at the Withlacoochee River and winding down to the General James Van Fleet Trail State Park off State Road 50, the byway passes through several unique and historic towns where visitors will come to understand what “Old Florida” means to the locals.
“It’s tremendous to live in a county where you have a laid-back quality of life yet be close enough to enjoy more urban areas when you want,” says Samantha Merritt, executive director for the Sumter County Chamber of Commerce. “Sumter is rich in history with many old families still here.”
NORTH SUMTER: Royal • Coleman • Wildwood • Oxford • The Villages
The county borders Marion County to the north and Lake County to the east and has two very separate identities. The Villages fuels rapid growth in the northern end, especially the Wildwood area. In the southern end, according to Merritt, the focus is to keep and maintain the natural resources and quality of life that long-time residents have enjoyed for generations.
Jim Veal Jr. is one of those locals who grew up in the town of Lake Panasoffkee and chose to stay. His family, beginning with his grandfather, has owned the Pana Vista Lodge since the 1940s. His parents, Jim Sr. and Eloise, took over in the 1950s, and now Jim Jr. operates the iconic landmark on County Road 421 and part of the Scenic Sumter Heritage Byway.
“We try to run it as an ‘Old Florida’ fish camp,” he says. “We don’t want — nor do our customers want — a condo-type environment.”
Veal says there have been changes in the area since his boyhood in the late 50s and 60s. He says with a chuckle that no place survives without some change. Pana Vista Lodge’s presence on the Internet is one example of how social media has created awareness among a new generation of fishermen who are discovering the area.
“People come from all over the country and it’s still mostly a lot of word of mouth,” Veal says. “Facebook and the website certainly bring in people from different places, but we have a lot of regulars, too, especially from The Villages, who come just for the day.”
Lake Panasoffkee plays a big role in Sumter’s push for more agritourism. “There’s been a heavy investment in Lake Panasoffkee,” explains Merritt. “All of the access ramps have been redesigned and updated with parks and playgrounds.”
The 5,500-acre lake, which underwent a $26.9 million restoration that was completed in 2008, is stocked with large-mouth bass, shellcrackers, and bluegill. Two-thirds of the property around it is state-owned and will remain undeveloped, according to Veal. “The focus will always be on fishing and fish habitats,” he says.
Travel a little farther south on the scenic byway and you’ll find more than just fishing. You’ll see South Sumter’s other big industry: cattle. South Sumter is home to one of only 11 surviving cattle markets in the nation, according to Merritt.
The cattle market is part of the Sumter County Farmers Market, which was established and chartered in 1937 by local farmers. The area also includes the Webster Flea Market, the oldest and largest flea market in Florida that is listed as a Top 10 tourist attraction in the state. The 40-acre market is open every Monday from 7a.m. to 3p.m., and it’s not unusual to see RVs and tour buses lined up for the event.
NATIVE AMERICAN HISTORY
No mention of Sumter County is complete without mentioning its major role in the Second Seminole War. The eastern portion of what became Sumter County was part of the original Seminole Indian reservation established under the Treaty of Moultrie, but as soon as the U.S. acquired Florida from the Spanish, the government began urging the tribes to relocate to what is now Oklahoma. Some leaders signed the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1832 that required the tribe to move within three years. When U.S. troops arrived in 1835 to enforce the treaty, 180 Seminole warriors ambushed two companies of U.S. Army infantry under the command of Major Francis Dade on Dec. 28, 1835, near Bushnell.
The Second Seminole War (1835–1842) was the fiercest war waged by the U.S. government against American Indians, leaving more than 1,500 soldiers and uncounted American civilians dead.* Today, the Dade Battlefield Park marks the site of the historic ambush, and annual re-enactments attract thousands of history buffs and local spectators to one of the most popular stops along the scenic byway.
FLORIDA’S 29TH COUNTY
The Florida Legislature chartered Sumter County from a portion of Marion County in 1853 and named it for General Thomas Sumter, a Revolutionary War hero. The area had already been settled for several decades by farmers, and the county’s first census in 1860 showed 1,429 residents. Leesburg, originally part of Sumter County, was the location for official county business until Sumterville was established as the new county seat in 1881 when Lake County was formed from portions of both Sumter and Orange counties.
More than 100 orange growers made Sumter County home until a severe freeze in 1894–95 destroyed the citrus industry. Most of the growers converted to cattle ranching and the success of the industry doubled the county’s population. The cattle industry continues to be one of Sumter’s largest assets.
Although Bushnell was founded in 1884, it was not incorporated until 1912 when it became the new county seat. Being chosen as the county seat did not come without a close fight, however. After the Sumterville courthouse burned in 1909, destroying two decades of county records, political infighting was so bad that a countywide election was held to decide whether Bushnell or Wildwood would be the new county seat. The vote was close: Bushnell 657, Wildwood 648.
DRIVING ALONG THE SCENIC BYWAY
Designated the Scenic Sumter Heritage Byway by the Florida Scenic Highways Program on May 2, 2013, this corridor through Sumter County encompasses places that offer a variety of activities for local residents and visitors. In fact, the idea for a byway was born in order to enhance visitors’ experiences when they traveled to the Florida National Cemetery near Bushnell. The byway promotes and protects the area’s natural beauty, recreational opportunities, and historical resources. In addition to fishing and several parks around Lake Panasoffkee, other highlights along the byway include the following:
Bushnell Historic Courthouse
Designed by William A. Edwards, the architect for several Florida State University campus buildings, the courthouse was completed in 1914. It continues to be the heart of Bushnell’s downtown area.
Florida National Cemetery
The Withlacoochee State Forest is the backdrop for this serene cemetery that honors America’s veterans. Established by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, the cemetery has had more than 97,000 interments since it opened in 1988. Special ceremonies are held on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
Richloam Wildlife Management Area
A birdwatcher’s paradise, this 58,000-acre tract is on the Great Florida Birding Trail and is part of the Withlacoochee State Forest in southeast Sumter County. Eight miles of shared equestrian, bicycling, and hiking trails attract outdoor enthusiasts, as do the three loop trails ranging up to 14 miles for hikers. Hunting and fishing are also permitted.
Florida Bass Conservation Center
Visitors can get a close-up look at modern research practices that protect and conserve the largemouth bass. This state-of-the-art freshwater fish hatchery and research facility has an aquarium and visitors center. For hours and information about the self-guided tours, call 352.732.1225.
General James Van Fleet Trail State Park
This old railroad corridor is a 29-mile trail that is part of Florida’s Statewide System of Greenways and Trails. The rural hiking and bicycling trail runs from the Mabel Trailhead in South Sumter to Polk County and offers excellent wildlife viewing opportunities as well as a great place to ride or hike without cars and traffic.
Catfish Johnny’s Restaurant
It’s hard to miss Catfish Johnny’s because of all the cars in the parking lot on County Road 470 in Lake Panasoffkee. A local landmark for more than 23 years, the restaurant has a wide variety of seafood, including gator nuggets, crab legs, frog legs, oysters, shrimp, and fish. From November through April, the Tuesday night jam sessions with Catfish Johnny and the Hushpuppy Band pack the restaurant’s “party barn” with country music fans
If you are looking for a fresh seafood buffet with a quiet, waterfront view, head toward the shores of Lake Panasoffkee for Harbor Lights Restaurant & Lounge. Open Thursday through Sunday evenings, the restaurant has a backdoor landscape that looks like an artist’s canvas.