I'M GOING TO JASPER 


EDITOR'S NOTE:

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; Summer's here and it's time to hit the road. But — what's this? — gas is ridiculously expensive. California is out. And you've already had your fill of the beach, done South Florida and wouldn't even consider a theme park. The Keys are too hot this time of year, and the mountains are too far away. Now what? How about exploring some of the less appreciated features of the Sunshine State, where the beaten path is overgrown because nobody uses it anymore? We've dubbed these places "crapholes" (with apologies to local chambers of commerce) and our state's full of 'em. Fill up the family truckster and let's go! First stop: Hamilton County, Jewel of the Suwannee.

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;"You know, Hamilton County is one of the poorest counties in the state."

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;That's a quote from a woman at the Hamilton County Chamber of Commerce, the folks whose job it is to attract businesses and bodies to this corner of north Florida. I was looking for a little background before a trip up there; it seemed like she wanted to talk me out of it.

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;Statistics provide a clue as to why. Twenty-six percent of Hamilton County's residents live below the poverty line. Its per capita income, as of the most recent census data compiled in 1999, was just $10,562, less than half of the statewide figure. In Jasper, the county seat, 35 percent of adults never graduated from high school; 10 percent quit before the ninth grade. Only 12.5 percent of Jasper's residents have bachelor's degrees. In the 1990s, Jasper's population dropped 17.5 percent, to 1,780.

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;But the axiom in Florida is you have to go north to get south, and Hamilton County is the Deep South, with all that implies. Institutional, if largely unspoken, racism and segregation are so ingrained in the local culture that people hardly notice it anymore, economic opportunities are few and boredom's handmaids — teen pregnancy and drug use — are problems.

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;On the other hand, there is a natural beauty to the place, an abundance of wide-open spaces and a sense of proud history and permanence that's absent in Orlando. It's a hub of eco-tourism and home of the annual Florida Folk Festival. Hamilton County was Florida's vacation hot spot in the late 19th century, long before Disney. Travelers from all over the country came to swim in a sulfur spring that abuts the Suwannee River. And, true to the tradition of the rural South, denizens of Hamilton County are very friendly.

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;"The people here are extraordinary," says Jim King, chef at the historic Telford Hotel. "Within a week of moving here, I was invited to four churches, three people's houses for coffee and the Ku Klux Klan. How's that for diversity?"

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;CHURCH ON SUNDAY

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;I wanted to stay in Jasper, but John Vassar, the chamber of commerce president, said the town didn't have any hotels. That isn't entirely true. As it turns out, there is one on the edge of town, the Triangle Motel, but it isn't the kind of place you'd want to hang your hat for a couple of days.

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;On Vassar's advice, I stay at the Telford Hotel in nearby White Springs, a three-story, 103-year-old hotel built of Georgia clay bricks and limestone from the nearby Suwannee River. Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft both stayed here in 1913, according ëo an old registration book the hotel keeps open for its guests. The Telford has been through several incarnations over the years, housing everything from a radio station to — rumor has it — a whorehouse. Now it's a bed-and-breakfast.

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;The accommodations are stark. The wood floor is original, and it creaks when you walk up the stairs. My room, No. 8, has two beds: a queen-size with a handwritten note asking me not to sleep or sit on it, and a twin. There is no phone, no Internet access and no television. Want to watch a show? Use the common TV set down the hall. Cell phone reception? Fuggetaboutit.

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;For two of my three nights here I was the only guest. Downstairs is the hotel's restaurant, which for about $10 serves a buffet of Southern standards: fried chicken, collard greens, corn bread, macaroni and cheese, ham and green beans, etc.

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;I had hoped to find a bar in either White Springs or Jasper, but saw none. So while I ate I perused The Jasper News, a small paper with a story about a "new arrival" teased on the front page alongside a cute-baby photo. Below the fold are stories about local students placing first and third in a safety belt poster-and-essay contest, and the state's Click It or Ticket! program. Other headlines: "Working and loving it: summer jobs for teens" and "Florida Boll Weevil eradication program."

;;Near the back is the paper's church directory, which lists 14 churches under the headline "Church and family go together." Assuming every single person in Jasper is a churchgoer, and every church in town is listed in the directory, that means there is one church per 129 people. (Only one of the 14 churches is Catholic; the rest are Protestant, most from traditionally evangelical, conservative denominations.)

;;Clearly churchgoing is the thing to do on Sundays, so I wake the next morning, put on my polo shirt and jeans and drive to Jasper to find a service. I narrow my many options down to two: the First Baptist Church across the street from the courthouse, and the First United Methodist Church on the south side of town near the Hamilton Correctional Institution, a prison that's one of the county's major employers. I opt for the latter because I've been to enough Baptist services to last me a lifetime, and the Methodist church appears to have a little more history to it.

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;And it does. A sign in the sanctuary reads, "Established 1827," which means the church formed as soon as the first white settlers staked their claims to this area. There are a few rows of stiff wooden pews, each sparsely populated. I count maybe 40 people in the entire church, most old and wearing suits (oops, I'm underdressed), all white.

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;As soon as I sit down, the Rev. Dale Ames approaches, hand extended, smiling ear to ear. I get the feeling they don't see many new faces. He welcomes me, asking if I'm new in town. At least a dozen other congregants follow suit, each walking up to me, shaking my hand, welcoming me to Jasper. Just before the service starts, Ames stands up and points me out to the entire group. "We'd like to welcome Jeff Billman. He's visiting us today." Forty pairs of eyes turn in my direction.

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;We sing, we read scripture, and Ames talks about the story of David and Bathsheba. During the sermon it occurs to me how bizarre this story actually is. David, a king with many wives and a penchant for voyeurism, spied Bathsheba, who was married to Uriah, one of David's top soldiers, at a bathhouse. He summoned her; they had an affair, and he knocked her up. Realizing his screw-up, he sent a message to her husband to return from battle, hoping that after a little rest and relaxation, Uriah would think the kid was his. But Uriah refused because he felt he had an obligation to stay with his men. So David had him killed, then married Bathsheba. Eventually, God forgave David and he remains a hero to Christianity today. Aren't these the same evangelicals who were up in arms when President Clinton got a hummer in the Oval Office?

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;The service ends and I head out in a hurry, before Ames or anyone else can inquire about the state of my soul. Later that evening, to balance things out, I hit up the most debaucherous place I can find: Hamilton Jai Alai and Poker, where you can drink beer (no liquor, though) and play cards. For the record, I placed third in a sit-&-go Texas Hold 'Em tournament and got nice and drunk doing it.

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;SIMPLE ECONOMICS

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;"Because there's not a lot to do around here, we make our own entertainment," John Vassar tells me. He's just finished lunch with his wife, Boots, and an associate in the Telford's restaurant. Vassar's the head of the chamber of commerce, an outdoorsy man who runs a kayak business. He's scruffy and mustachioed. He just came in from a lake. After lunch he's going back out.

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;The weekend after I leave, White Springs will host the Florida Folk Festival, a massive gathering of folk artists — headlined this year by Rosanne Cash — and aficionados that will take over the nearby Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park. Thirty thousand folk fans are expected, but Vassar doesn't anticipate much of an economic impact. The park is state property, so the admission money goes to Tallahassee. Most of the fans will stay in campgrounds, so hotels won't see a boost. The town has only a handful of restaurants; no luck there either. Boots points out that some businesses might make money: the Dollar General store, the gas station, maybe the town's barbershop, which is open two days a week.

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;The county's biggest employer is PCS Phosphate, a mining company located between Jasper and White Springs. PCS employs about 950 people, though at one point it had 2,600 on its payroll. Public relations spokesman Rob Wolfe says the reduction was a matter of streamlining; they're able now to do the same work with half as many people. The second largest employer is the prison and its associated work camp, with 606 workers, Vassar says. Logging is also big.

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;Between the mining and the logging companies, most land in Hamilton County is already in use, which limits the potential for new development. PCS, for instance, is Hamilton's largest landowner. It pays 52 percent of the county's property taxes, Wolfe says.

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;The local economy has dwindled away over the last century. There are withering settlements with "still" in the name — Blacks Still, Camp Still, Kennedy Still — but they weren't hotbeds of moonshine (sadly); they were turpentine stills. That industry has long since faded. Hamilton was also once a thriving agricultural zone, and while there is still a lot of farmland, particularly in Jennings, the cotton industry was ravaged by boll weevils and the tobacco crop was killed by declining sales.

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;There are hints of economic progress. Vassar says that a developer is considering a gated residential community between White Springs and Lake City, about 35 miles away. And the town is buzzing about a possible ethanol production plant, though some question how much an operation that relies on skilled engineers will benefit those who already live here. On the downside, it's unclear how long the phosphate mine will be operational. Wolfe puts the expiration date at about 2030; locals wonder what will happen after that.

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;Poverty is all around, but you have to know where to look. On my first drive-through, I stuck to U.S. 41, the two-lane road that connects White Springs to Jasper, Jasper to Jennings and Jennings to the Georgia border. On the main drag are quaint storefronts and houses, many empty, that in some cases have stood for a half-
;century.

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;Get off this main street, however, and there is want: single-wide trailers in disrepair, shacks and shanties, houses falling in on themselves, broken-down cars in overgrown yards. Much of the squalor exists in the black section of town, in both Jasper and White Springs, but not all. On rural side roads, you see the same things — rusting cars, houses and trailers in disrepair, though these often stand alone among vast fields of property.

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;Despite the poverty, you don't get the sense that this is a dangerous place. Hamilton County had just one reported rape from 2001-2003, no murders and 10 robberies in that same time span. Balanced against its low population — about 14,000, based on 2004 census data — the county has a higher per capita crime rate than the national average. But it's still pretty safe. Earlier this year, Hamilton County sheriff Harrell Reid says, a man robbed a convenience store and shot the clerk. In his five terms, that's the first time an armed robbery has ended with gunshots, he says.

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;Out on County Road 6, a sort of back road between Jasper and White Springs, there's an abandoned chicken farm. Beyond it are trees. Lots and lots of trees. Huge chunks of real estate that belong to either timber companies or PCS. Driving on a warm summer day with the sun setting, it's a breathtaking sight. And that's how Vassar wants to keep it. "We're going to have people come here," he says. "[But] we're working hard to see that we don't end up like the Clearwater-Tampa corridor, or Kissimmee-Orlando."

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;THE OLD SOUTH

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;Jim King is a trip. He's 58, a burly, motorcycle-riding, cigarette-smoking man with a wry wit. A chef at the Telford, he excels in Southern cooking (frying is always good). He's a natural storyteller and an amateur historian who enjoys slogging through swampland to examine old, decaying dwellings. He lived in the Keys and Orlando in the 1970s. He's here in White Springs for the wide-open spaces, perfect for a motorcyclist.

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;After lunch Sunday, he directs me to a church and cemetery established in the 1820s near what is now the PCS mine. The cemetery is about 15 minutes outside of White Springs, but unless you knew exactly where you were going, you'd never find it.

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;But I knew what to look for: the Swift Creek Methodist Church, established nearly 200 years ago, a stark and beautiful one-room place of worship. Across the street is the cemetery, which appears to have been in use primarily in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though there are a few tombstones dating from the last five years.

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;The next day, King takes me to Wellborn, a town about 10 miles southwest of White Springs in Suwannee County. When White Springs was the tourism hub of Florida more than a century ago, Wellborn was the business center. A major rail line cut through town, and from there tourists could hop a horse and buggy to White Springs.

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;We drive for about an hour on back roads that King frequents on his motorcycle; you can go for miles without seeing a thing, then come across a single-wide trailer on vast swaths of acreage. It's strange, coming from Orlando where it sometimes seems every piece of greenery has, or will soon be, plowed up and paved over. These property owners could sell their land for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Why don't they?

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;Because they don't want to, King says. In many cases, families have owned their land for decades or more, and they won't sell to a developer who wants to build something out of character with their way of life. They might sell to a friend, but not a developer. We pass a small house in the middle of nowhere. The property, King says, is an original homestead, meaning the family who settled it 150 years ago still owns it.

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;Segregation is still here too. I ask King about it, and he mentions that some local members of the Klan were in the restaurant with us that afternoon. On the whole, he says, racial tension is subtle; it exists under the surface. There are places white people go and places black people go, he says. The two don't often mix. There are cemeteries that are traditionally white, and those that are traditionally black. The white ones are almost all better-kept. Another person I talked with says he doesn't invite his black friends to parties, because doing so would get him shunned by the white power structure.

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;A book of the town's history, Hamilton County: Its History and Its People, published in 2000, sprinkles in the word "negroes" into its text, and not always in quotes. For instance, this passage on American Indians: "The Indians took in Negroes, sometimes as slaves, sometimes as equals. They intermarried with Negroes as well as with whites, though it was a much larger group of Negroes that joined them permanently."

;; The famous 1944 novel Strange Fruit, though placed in a small Georgia town, is actually based on a lynching that took place in Jasper, where author Lillian Smith lived. In a recent column for the Jasper News, Johnny Bullard, a descendant of one of the county's oldest families, lamented the fact that Hamilton County has never done anything to honor Smith or her work. After the column ran, Bullard says, a few town members told him he'd dishonored his class.

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;THE SPRING

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;Monday morning I meet with Walter McKenzie, a local historian who gives walking tours around White Springs. Our first stop is the Stephen Foster State Park, which for hundreds of years was an epicenter of life in northern Florida. Before white pioneers settled here in the 1820s and 1830s, Seminoles and other tribes considered the natural sulfur spring next to the Suwannee River sacred ground. War was forbidden near the spring. To the natives, the spring held healing powers.

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;"It's not an old wives' tale," Vassar says. The spring, he says, has real medicinal value because the sulfur acts as a wound cleanser.

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;War broke out soon after the whites settled in the area; some say the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) may have actually broken out at this very spring.

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;The Indians considered it sacred; but to Bryant Sheffield, who bought 1,000 acres in Hamilton County in 1835 for a plantation, the spring was a business opportunity. After bathing in the spring, he discovered he felt good, so he built a log hotel and began marketing the springs as a tourist attraction. A settlement soon sprang up around the spring. During the Civil War, the settlement allowed displaced Southern families to evacuate there and the place became known as "Rebels Refuge."

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;In 1851, Hamilton County's tourism industry got a huge boost from an unlikely source: popular songwriter Stephen Foster –— who spent most of his life in Pittsburgh and New York — mentioned a quaint timber town "way down upon the Suwannee River" in his song, "Old Folks at Home." Ironically, Foster had never visited the Suwannee, and originally he didn't even want to put the word in the song. Instead, on the original manuscript — featured in the museum in the park — Foster had the words "Pee Dee River" written in. He changed it after consulting an atlas, and the Suwannee was immortalized.

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;The museum, opened in 1950, features about a dozen dioramas depicting scenes from Foster's songs. In the "Camptown Races" diorama, you can see the horses running around the track. Foster was a racial progressive; he depicted black people as three-dimensional characters, which was uncommon in his time.

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;Behind the museum is a carillon tower sporting what the park claims is the world's largest set of tubular bells. They chime on the hour, then play Foster's songs. The bottom floor of the bell tower has more dioramas, but the fascinating thing about the tower is the room's acoustics. The walls are entirely marble, and they're designed so you can stand on one side of the room and whisper into a specific spot on the wall and a person in a specific spot on the other side of the room will hear your voice as if it's emanating from the marble.

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;But the highlight of the park is the spring and what's left of the tourism industry that popped up around it. These were the grounds of the Colonial Hotel and Sanatorium, where 100 years ago you could stay for between $3.50 and $5.50 a night. A sulfur bath in a tub went for just $1, and $2 bought you a colonic irrigation. The spring is just off the Suwannee's banks; it's 30 feet deep, surrounded on all sides by a 30-foot-tall wall, which makes the spring look like a swimming pool. A century ago, tourists would stand on railings inside the wall and watch the swimmers below.

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;White Springs took a major blow on Feb. 24, 1911. It was the last day of hunting season, so most of the townsmen were out stalking game. A fire tore through the town's business district, burning down 35 buildings — all but three of the town's 15 hotels — and causing $100,000 in damage. The next day's newspaper noted: "We also wish to mention the colored men who fought heroically from start to finish, and who were instrumental in saving many buildings and much valuable property."

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;The tourism industry went into decline, exacerbated by World War I, the Depression and then World War II. In the 1960s, the federal government built Interstate 75, which rendered U.S. 41 obsolete as the major thoroughfare. Then Disney came to Orlando, and the idea of White Springs as a tourist trap was quickly forgotten. It has since rebounded, and in a sense it's come full circle. People come here today to see the same sights and ride the same rivers that they did more than a century ago.

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;From the spring, McKenzie drives me around White Springs' nooks and crannies. We stop at the Adams Brothers Store, founded in 1865 by Robert Adams, a Confederate captain. His son Francis is the only man ever to serve two consecutive terms as president of the Florida Senate. Francis Adams helped alter Florida law, allowing pioneering developer Henry Flagler to divorce his first wife on the grounds of insanity. Consequently, McKenzie says, the two were friends and perhaps Adams got Flagler hooked on the concept of Florida tourism.

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;We drive into the traditionally black section of White Springs and, like Jasper, it's poor. The two sections are divided by train tracks. Historically, McKenzie says, blacks were pushed downwind of the tracks, where the soot from the steam engines would blow.

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;McKenzie served six years on the town council, so I ask him about the area's political demographics. Up here they're Dixiecrats, he says — registered Democrats who vote conservatively. In 2004, George Bush outpaced John Kerry by 532 votes out of 5,067 cast. In 2000, he beat Al Gore by 424 votes out of 3,945 cast.

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;As for economic opportunity, McKenzie's not overly optimistic. There's an effort to get a grant or a slight property tax increase to fund a $500,000 restoration of the Adams Brothers Store, he notes, but there's always a running battle between spending money on heritage and spending money to alleviate poverty. "Opportunity is not plentiful at this stage," he says.

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;CONVERSATE
;OR COPULATE

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;You can buy liquor in Hamilton County, but you have to do so at package stores, not in restaurants. There's a petition to change that, but for now any place you go to eat and drink serves only beer and wine. So for my excursion with Johnny Bullard on my last night in town, we drove 30 minutes north into a Georgia town called Lake Park, to a bar called Bayou Bill's Cajun Grill.

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;Bullard's family has been here since this area got its start. They own 2 percent of the county's land, he says, about 10,000 acres. Now 48 years old, Bullard was a principal at two local schools for 20 years, and still works for the school board's personnel department. Bullard is no hick; he went to Harvard University, Valdosta State University and, briefly, Rollins College. He likes Motown, and learned to dance to Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools."

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;If the Klan is active around here, Bullard doesn't know about it. (Also unlike King, he says he doesn't know anything about a meth problem, though in Jasper there is a lot of crack cocaine use. Hamilton County sheriff Reid says that both drugs are here, but "it's not worse than anywhere else.")

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;He does know about a few racial skirmishes. A decade ago, he says, some black high school students wore T-shirts declaring, "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand." The white students responded with their own shirts: "It's a white thing, you used to pick it," referring, of course, to cotton.

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;Bullard says that, despite appearances, Hamilton County has one of the highest per capita figures of millionaires in the country, because 10 percent of the families own 60 percent of the land. Hence, there's a huge economic disparity. Of all the cities in the county, "Jasper has the least going for it," he confides.

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;Jennings, the county's northernmost town, has an interesting past, though. The Jennings family came down the Suwanneee from Georgia on a raft. It capsized, washing all the family's belongings away, so they decided to settle where they landed. The Jennings married into the already-established, wealthy McCall family and started growing cotton. Until a few decades ago, Jennings was a big tobacco producer, but Bullard says increased government regulation and decreased sales killed that industry.

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;After a few drinks, Bullard laments the apathy that seems to run throughout the county. There's boredom, and consequently a high teen pregnancy rate. "All you can do is conversate or copulate," he says with a laugh.

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;OUR BLUE CALM

;;Tuesday morning, before I leave, I take another look through Hamilton County: Its History and Its People. In the prologue I found about as good a summary of the place as I could write myself:

;;"Hamilton County has been very fortunate in not being the scene of great battles and wars and the devastation and destruction of such, however famous and spectacular they may be in history. This is the ground of the diligent farmer, the common man, the backbone of the country.

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;"It is glamorous to think of Spanish galleons full of gold among the coasts, hurricanes which destroyed them, or pirates that plundered and killed. The huge plantations with hundreds of slaves, of which romantic writers like to tell covered the south, were not here. A very few planters had large number of slaves, but most farmers had one or two, or a few. Each man's job was important to him.

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;"The bright lights and excitement of the big cities is not here, but there is much of peace and quiet and room to stretch. We are happy with our blue calm rather than the red glare of excitement."

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;In other words, nothing happens here, nothing ever happened here, not much changes, and that's the way the locals like it, thank you very much.

; jbillman@orlandoweekly.com

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