Most people cruise through Umatilla on the way to the Ocala National Forest or Alexander Springs without stopping. Venture off the State Road 19 corridor, though, and you will find a unique town with lots of civic pride and a commitment to nature.
STORY: Mary Ann DeSantis / PHOTOS: Fred Lopez
Umatilla may be tiny but ask anyone in North Lake County about growing up there and they’ll recall special times playing outdoors with friends, helping their hard-working parents in family businesses, and even watching seaplanes land on Lake Umatilla.
“The only real change is seeing the number of people who come through,” says Keri Key Greer, who grew up in Umatilla and owns The Mason Jar, a restaurant her parents started in 1979. “Umatilla retains that old-time feeling with salt-of-the-earth kind of people.”
Retired school teacher Ann Martin Williams moved to Umatilla with her parents in 1945 and attended the small schoolhouse that later became the Umatilla Historical Museum, which she helped organize. She remembers when railroad tracks ran down the middle of Central Avenue, also known as State Road 19. “Cars parked at an angle on the west side of the tracks, and the road ran both north and south on the east side,” she says.
She’s seen a few other changes, too. “We used to have one stoplight; now we have two,” she says with a laugh. “Seriously, the biggest change has been the size of the schools. When I taught, there were 345 students in grades one through 12. Now there are more students than that just in the elementary school alone.”
Umatilla’s popularity stems from easy access to some of Florida’s most pristine natural environments. Known as the southern gateway city into the Ocala National Forest, Umatilla is only a stone’s throw from the popular Alexander Springs. Avid nature seekers have already discovered that the town’s many family-owned restaurants are great places to stop either before or after a day on the water or a hike along one of the area’s trails, including a portion of the Florida National Scenic Trail.
CURRENT POPULATION: 3,533 (2012)
SIZE: 3 square miles
Mayor: Laura Kelley Wright
City Manager: Glen A. Irby
Police Chief: Adam Bolton
Fire Chief: Mike Vitta
NOT THE FIRST
Founded in 1856 by Nathan J. Trowell, Umatilla is actually the second American city with the unique Native American name that means “laughing waters.” The first, for which the Floridian settlers named it, is in Oregon. No one quite knows for sure why that name was selected, but the area’s many lakes sparkling with sunshine probably had something to do with the choice.
Less than 30 years later, the first railroad — the St. Johns and Lake Eustis line — ran from Astor to Eustis through the settlement and the area experienced its first real growth when settlers began dividing their properties and selling lots. By 1900, the town had a hotel, grocery store, post office, blacksmith shop, citrus packing house, and four churches. The main industries were cattle and citrus farming, and today, many parts of Umatilla still reflect the rural landscape with wide-open spaces and curvy country roads.
This area has the highest density of bears in the state, so it’s not surprising that Umatilla has hosted the Florida Black Bear and Wildlife Conservation Festival for 15 years. Held each October in Cadwell Park, the festival promotes safe coexistence between humans and all wildlife, but especially the black bear. The free event is fun and educational at the same time.
Providing more than 60 miles of exploration by car, the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway — a National Scenic Byway — is a network of scenic roads through the heart of the Ocala National Forest. Although the route is primarily along State Road 40, it also includes State Road 19 to Alexander Springs. The byway connects most of the national forest’s major recreation areas and springs.
LAKE’S TROPICAL SETTING
The ever-popular Alexander Springs is considered one of Florida’s best springs for visitors because of its broad and naturally sloped spring pool and the constant 72-degree water. It truly is a natural water park where visitors come to picnic, swim, and play in the extraordinarily clear water. The recreation area feels almost tropical with its dense forest of maples, sweetgums, and cabbage palms.
Forget all those jokes about old-time moonshiners hiding out in the Ocala National Forest. It’s all out in the open at Florida Farm Distillery just outside Umatilla and across the highway from the forest. Dick and Marty Waters were looking for a way to save their farm a few years ago when they hit upon the idea to create a microdistillery. Today, their Palm Ridge Reserve whiskey is served at some of Florida’s most elegant eateries, and visitors can see the distilling process firsthand on the monthly tours — all legal, of course. Watch the Palm Ridge website for tour dates. Reservations are required.
ASTOR – The Jewel of the St. Johns River
The tiny community of Astor is only 19 miles from Umatilla, and it’s the destination for many folks driving through Umatilla who want to launch boats on the St. Johns River. Lake County’s northernmost town is home to the Blackwater Inn Restaurant and Lounge, where you will feel as if you are on a riverboat overlooking the St. Johns. And just in case you want to cruise the St. Johns and its tributaries before or after your meal, book a scenic boat tour with Captain Ernie right at the Blackwater Inn dock.
Astor may seem like just a small river town now, but it has quite an illustrious history. Its biggest claim to fame is possibly its connection to the RMS Titanic that sank in 1912. New York’s wealthy Astor family bought 12,000 acres of land on the river in 1874 where William Astor Jr. established and endowed the town with a school, botanical garden, church, and a free cemetery. He eventually built a hotel and a railroad.
When William died in 1892, his son John Jacob Astor IV inherited his father’s estate and continued to promote the family’s business interests in Florida. However, when John Jacob Astor went down with the Titanic, his heir was not interested in continuing the family’s Florida enterprises. This, along with a decline in steamboat travel, was the end of the town’s prominence. By 1928, the hotel had burned and the railroad was abandoned.