Palatka, Florida

Palatka sits on the Saint Johns River, the longest river in Florida. I’m sitting at the river’s edge, eating lunch, watching the seagulls beg for my bread crust.

“It’s not polite to beg,” I tell the gulls.

They simply stare at me with sad eyes because deep in their little bird hearts they know I’m right.

On the shore is an old guy, fishing. He has a white beard down to his navel. He is shirtless. He looks exactly like a Biblical prophet would look if that prophet had also been a founding member of ZZ Top.

The man waves at me. And even though I don’t know this man from Adam’s stepson, I wave back.

“How’re you today?” he says.

“Fine. You?”

“I’d be a lot better if they were biting!” he says.

Then he casts.

And basically, I’ve just described Palatka in a nutshell. Friendly. Small. Nice. Lots of fishing.

Palatka proper is behind me, brilliant in the noon sun, painted with the vivid pinks of a million azaleas. The brick edifices look the way they did 150 years ago. The bell in the First Presbyterian church rings out a tune. And the town is overrun with walkers. Which I find absolutely wonderful.

You don’t see people walking much anymore. And yet that’s how America used to be. People walked everywhere. These days, however, if you walk as a means of transportation you take your life into your hands.

If you don’t believe me, just take a stroll to your local Walmart on foot. You’ll have to hop eight lanes of traffic, jog across 23 culverts, and dodge at least 450 sleep-deprived truck drivers. By the time you get to Wally World you will be out of breath, covered in mud, and suffering PTSD.

But in Palatka you still see people walking.

“You from around here?” asks ZZ Top, cranking his reel.

“No sir,” I say.

Back to fishing he goes.

The truth is, I’m not a stranger to this town. I’ve visited several times, and it’s always like today. Laid back. Nobody ever seems uppity. Nobody is ever shrill. Young people aren’t afraid to talk to you. Nobody shys away from striking up a conversation.

As I was writing this column on my laptop, for example, I spoke to six different strangers who participated conversations with me. Six.

I remember the first time I ever visited Putnam County, I had no writing career whatsoever. I breezed into this town with my friend Lanier Motes, who is from Palatka. Lanier’s family was having a party, and my wife and I were invited to partake in the festivities.

We had such a great time that I ended up falling asleep on the Motes’ coffee table wearing a lampshade for a hat.

The next morning they took me on the grand tour across rural Florida. I met men who hunted hogs on horseback. I saw campaign signs in alfalfa fields, reading ELECT GATOR FOR SHERIFF. I met old men with names like Mole, Tank, and Weasel.

I touched the roughened clapboards on the country chapel where Billy Graham first beat his King James, the same church he was baptized in.

I visited the nine-foot tall purple chicken which sits at a roadside stand in San Mateo. The chicken is locally famous for once being stolen by three young men who strapped the 600-pound statue to the back of their Chevy truck and dragged it down the road.

The chicken’s owner recalls seeing one young man riding the chicken, hollering and waving his hat around like a barrel racer. The boys were charged with grand theft, property damage, and riding a chicken on the highway without a permit.

So anyway, after that first trip to Palatka, I wrote 600 words about some of the things I just told you, then I shared them online. I didn’t really think much about it.

The next morning I received thousands of friendly emails and messages from Palatkans.

That was many years ago, and since then the emails have not stopped coming. Over the years I’ve gotten to know the people in this fine town. I’ve met the city’s worst critics and her most ardent boosters. These are good people.

In some ways these people are responsible for this writing career I find myself with.

“Hey,” says the fisherman. “Lookit! I got one!”

His rod arcs toward the water. His reel is zipping. He yanks the great fish out of the river. And after his moment of triumph, this perfect stranger says, “You want it?”

I am a little surprised by this. So I ask if he’s serious. Is he really offering me his fish?

“Of course I’m serious,” he says. “I’m just gonna throw it back anyway. But it’s yours if you want it. Hey, pay it forward I always say, dude.”

And that’s Palatka in a nutshell.


  1. Sandi. - March 4, 2022 7:08 am

    Well, Sean, I do hope you accepted the old fisherman’s offer and took his catch home to cook!

    • Michelle R Giorgio - April 5, 2022 6:18 pm

      Moved up here almost 3 years ago. I was raised in Palm Bay. Palm Bay has been on the rise for the last 20 years… growing… and growing some more. Trees are coming down… nature disappearing… and just more brick going up everywhere. I watched it happen. It used to be something like Palatka, but now it’s hard to believe it ever was. Anyway, I moved here for love… and fell in love with so much more than just my ol man! I love this town. For everything you described here. I want my kids to grow up here, and learn to be simple. I don’t think there’s a better place to be… simple. My ol man is everything Palatka is. Simple, fisherman, outdoors, dirty and tough! And I absolutely couldn’t be happier anywhere else, with anyone else!

      I hope Palatka stays Palatka! Great read! I’ve subscribed. Thank you for reminding me of why I chose to be here!

  2. leoladyjane - March 4, 2022 10:45 am

    I loved your article. I live in St Augustine but used to work in Palatka. I still go to Corky Bells and the County Line farmstand. It’s almost Azalea Festival time and we still look forward to the Blue Crab festival. Great place to just walk and then sit a spell. Every morning, the first email I read is yours. Thank you.

  3. Debbie - March 4, 2022 10:50 am

    Sounds like a wonderful place to be.

  4. Amy Wells - March 4, 2022 11:13 am

    My dad fished many hours in Palatka. Even though I have never visited, I understand why he loved it through your writing. Thank you!

  5. Te - March 4, 2022 11:44 am

    I lived near Palatka on 2 separate occasions. It always surprised me, after I left, the number of people who were intimately familiar with or actually wanted to retire there. Putnam county has the highest incest rate in the state, so much so, it’s a cultural norm. I saw more Downs Syndrom and mentally-challenged people, usually accompanied by an aging adult, than anywhere I’ve been. I discovered a roach that flies, for Heaven’s sake, and that coral snakes were commonplace, especially if you lived next to the cemetery — which I did. Once I was invited to go boating, but I arrived to find everyone standing in a row, staring at the dock and debating what to do about the huge gator on the dock. St John river sported bass, manatees, and gators. I couldn’t wait to get out of there as soon as I arrived, but it took 6 years the first time, and 3, the 2nd!

    • Bob E - March 4, 2022 12:18 pm

      Your incest comment is crude and uncalled for.

      • Te - March 4, 2022 12:29 pm

        It’s a well-known fact much commented on by the locals, or else I’d have never known! Sorry if it offended you.

        • turtlekid - March 4, 2022 1:04 pm

          Te, don’t want to start anything, but the Amish intermarry and have the same problem. So they send their young men away to marry non-local females. I love small towns, and live where there are no traffic lights at all!

        • Beverly - March 6, 2022 2:09 am

          I think most everyone is offended by an offensive remark………

      • Harley Monian - March 5, 2022 4:56 am

        Lighten up and go to Man O War Cay, Abacos. You’ll understand if you learn their history. This is for understanding and acceptance.

      • Justin Payne - April 5, 2022 12:15 pm

        It’s true

    • Kathryn - March 5, 2022 2:43 am

      I lived in Palatka for a couple of years, teaching high school. I never heard of any incest or saw any visibly mentally challenged people, unless I, unknowingly, ran into you or some of your kin.

    • Martawn Reese - March 10, 2022 5:21 pm

      Florida is NOT!!!!!for everyone

  6. Paul McCutchen - March 4, 2022 12:41 pm

    Sounds like your friend likes to fish, not catch, just fish. I used to solve the world problems along with a few of mine when all I was doing was watching a river run by with a hook in the water.

  7. flagal44 - March 4, 2022 1:04 pm

    I grew up in Crescent City, a small town south of Palatka. We had to to drive through Lake Como, Pomona Park and San Mateo along US 17, passing the turnoff to Welaka to reach the “big city” of Palatka. We hung out at Angel’s Diner and the Linda Drive-In, which my mother called the passion pit.” Crescent City was the Mayberry of Florida, until the citrus industry froze out and malls in Daytona ended the small merchants on Main Street. When the wind was right, we could smell the Hudson Pulp & Paper mill, Putnam County’s largest employer. Folks called it the smell of money, since it provided employment for so many. In the pre-Disney years, we waited all year for the Putnam County Fair, held at the fair grounds in Palatka. We all lined up to ride the Bullet, the scariest ride in the midway. 4-H Club Members (motto is Head, Heart, Health and Hands. The pledge, recited with hand gestures: I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my my hands to larger service and my health to better living for my club, my community and my country” exhibited everything from poultry to pickles. I won blue ribbons for my sewing, and won the Putnam County Dress Review, with a trip to Tallahassee and the statewide-competition (I lost). With crystal clear, white sand-bottomed lakes to swim in, no one had a swimming pool in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. We had orange groves, rivers, many oyster shell and dirt roads outside city limits, and could ride our bikes anywhere in town in safety. Directions went something like this: Take the sand road to the shell road, turn right and drive straight until you hit the hard road, Homes were called by the names of long-deceased previous owners. The Steeles hadn’t lived in “The Old Steele House” for decades, that’s what everyone called it, even the Parish family, who lived there. We not only knew the name of everyone in town, but their dogs’ names. A lot of folks weren’t happy when home mail delivery started. Everyone was used to picking up their mail from their boxes at 10:00 and 3:00. It was a grand social event, where everyone gossiped and caught up on the latest, Local stores closed on Wednesday afternoons so merchants could attend the Rotary Club meeting. My 1961 high school graduating class was the largest ever, at 42, twice the usual, a due to bumper crop of “war babies.” Our fathers were still-young men ( although we thought they were old) just back from fighting WW II, and many of our mothers had worked in defense plants or served as WACS or WAVES. My father always said, “We’re living in the best times this country will ever know.”

  8. gatormom52 - March 4, 2022 1:49 pm

    I love your stories…. why were you visiting Palatka? I will be 70 soon, born here and all my years have been spent right here. As a young child, we swam at Silver Lake, fished the Saint Johns River and cruised Lake George. The Azalea Festival was a highlight, as was the Catfish Festival…. we have been lucky enough to travel but like Dorothy famously said”…there’s no place like home!” Enjoy your weekend!

  9. Ann - March 4, 2022 2:00 pm

    I have been there a couple of times…it’s delightful!…we went there just to get a DQ😂

  10. Bob E - March 4, 2022 2:04 pm

    May I add ‘unnecessary’?
    People are free to comment on any topic, however ‘much commented on by the locals’ does not make it factual, true, accurate and especially worthy of repeating. This is not a forum which should be used for this subject matter even if completely true.
    Be civil.

    • Bob E - March 4, 2022 2:07 pm

      The above is a response to Te ‘s above comment.

    • Doug - March 10, 2022 5:40 pm

      I agree! Rude and not true.

  11. Stacey Wallace - March 4, 2022 2:45 pm

    Thanks for making me laugh and smile, Sean. I really needed it. I LOVE small towns, and now I want to visit Palatka and see that purple chicken.

  12. Kathy Ann Reaves - March 4, 2022 3:11 pm

    Just in case anyone thought the ELECT GATOR FOR SHERIFF sign was a joke, Gator Deloach is still Sheriff of Putnam County.

  13. Patricia Gibson - March 4, 2022 3:17 pm

    I would like to live in a small town like that.

  14. Dave H - March 4, 2022 6:43 pm

    We moved to Palatka 5 years ago and have enjoyed it except for hurricane Irma. I recently saw the movie “Easy A” and laughed loudly at the scene where the young man was sent to live with his grandparents in “Palatka” as punishment. Sitting on the front lawn in rocking chairs with 2 bright pink plastic flamingo’s also rocking and the grandparents lecturing – I guess that’s Hollywoods idea of the ultimate boonies torture for teens, LOL

  15. Jo Ann Ballantine - March 4, 2022 8:45 pm

    My cousin in Birmingham just informed all the cousins of your blog. This is only my third time reading it and you write about Palatka! Wow. I was in elementary school in Interlachen – between Palatka and Gainesville. I had to attend 7th grade in Palatka because there was no high school in the outlying areas. The bus parked at my dad’s store and we kids in my neighborhood were the first ones on and the last ones off! We eventually moved up the road to Keystone Heights but Palatka was always part of our neck of the woods. Lots of friends from there and we still go back. Definitely Corky Belles for dinner especially by boat. Palatka certainly has its own vibe and culture. Question — is your friend Lanier Motes related to Chad Motes (now deceased) or his sister Priscilla? Priscilla interned at our little school in Interlachen and her mother or brother drove her to school each morning. All the little girls thought Chad was gorgeous! One more thing — I remember going to Silver Lake near Palatka and Grandin often. There is a much larger Silver Lake near Leesburg. That may be the one Billy Graham was baptized in. I’m a little confused on that. Would love to have clarification. And, have you ever written about East Palatka?

  16. Linda Moon - March 4, 2022 10:38 pm

    I’ve never visited Palatka. My Florida trips were usually to the Panhandle. Names like Motes, Tank, and Weasel are like reading an O’Connor novel or short story…..and I’d like to read your 600 words about Palatka because those Palatkans helped me find your writing. They paid forward, Sean, to you and lots of us readers!

  17. Fred - March 4, 2022 10:54 pm

    Pay it forward bid such a great idea!

  18. Harley Monian - March 5, 2022 5:00 am

    Sean, you need to spend a few days in Grass Valley and Nevada City, California

  19. Susan Sutliff - March 7, 2022 1:42 pm

    Thank you so much for doing your show at the Florida School of the Arts in Palatka in support of One Book One Putnam! I thoroughly enjoyed the show! Wow, you can play that guitar and sing! Thank you for sharing your wonderful gift of storytelling.

  20. Rebecca - March 7, 2022 4:48 pm

    As a child and teenager, I was part of a group of families from South Georgia who often went to a fish camp owned by my father’s cousin. The camp was located on the St. John’s in Palatka. The men fished, our mother’s played bridge, and the children explored and developed a healthy respect for the native reptiles. It was a great time with wonderful friends, great fishing, and fish fries where we ate what we caught.

  21. Jane - March 10, 2022 1:20 pm

    My grandparents lived in Palatka from the 50’s to the 70’s. The actually lived in East Palatka on the St John’s River – the cousins refer to this as our Camelot. So many wonderful memories and adventures.

    • John - March 10, 2022 10:05 pm

      I heard that Jane. So many great memories for all of us!!

  22. Vern - March 10, 2022 6:23 pm

    I had two job offers coming out of college in 1962…Pascagoula, MS and Palatka, FL. Chose Pascagoula because closer to home. Always wonder where taking the job offer from Ralston Purina In Palatka would have taken me.

  23. Sharon - March 10, 2022 6:54 pm

    My aunt lived & worked in Palatka for 40+ years as educator in Putnam Co schools. She loved the people & the area. Our family had many opportunities to visit & enjoy this beautiful area of Florida

  24. Nancy Beaudoin - March 11, 2022 2:34 am

    Born and grew up there. Still have family in Florahome west of Palatka. My dad owned an auto parts store on Reid Street.

  25. Mary Lou Dawson - March 12, 2022 1:52 am

    I live in Interlachen and have enjoyed reading your stories and attending your performances. You tell wonderful stories. My favorite was the one about picking up a boy with an unpleasant father, to play baseball. We used to be foster parents and this story sounded like it could have been true.

  26. Suzy Massey - March 12, 2022 8:21 am

    Had to work or I would have been right up front listening to you! I compare you to Lewis Gizzard. My dad loved Lewis! I’m sure you have heard of him! Anyway my dad moved to Palatka in 1954. From Tampa where his parents resided until their deaths. Met my mom in 1955 and they got married in July of 1955. He took over a jewelry store on St. Johns Ave. Kept working until March of 2011 when he passed away at the age of 96 1/2! And he was born in a little town in Alabama called Gothite. Not sure of the spellling but understand it was near Birmingham! Mining town. My daddy would have loved you Sean. I know I sure do! Enjoy your new hometown in Alabama but don’t forget to come back to see us again real soon! I’ll play hookey from work!

    • Athena - March 13, 2022 6:52 pm

      Glad you are doing well Suzy. I loved visiting GrandDad when I came home for the weekends from FSU. I loved when he came to watch the CC Raiders play (that’s where I met him when I was in high school). I miss him and think of him and you often. ❤️✝️🙏

      • Suzy Massey - March 16, 2022 7:49 pm

        Athena! Great to hear from you! My daddy thought the world of you! So did Johnny and Mary. Not sure if you heard but Johnny passed away in 2020. Not sure from what. Sad when the family falls apart when the glue holding it together dies! Still have the store but just a storage space now. Might open back up one day! Who knows? Where are you? Are you still teaching? Hope and pray that you and your family are happy and healthy!

  27. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - March 16, 2022 2:42 pm

  28. Ronald Albert - March 18, 2022 12:49 pm

    Wonderful story! We recently visited palatka (actually we were in the Ocala National Forest) for 5 weeks and thoroughly enjoyed our stay. I loved reading the comments and was surprised no one mentioned Ravine Garden. We visited that place 3 times! We ate at both Angels and Niko’s Pizza several times. We agree that there are so many friendly people.

  29. Brenda Tugwell - March 19, 2022 11:53 am

    My Grandson and his girlfriend moved to Palatka about 4 and a half years ago. We have visited there a couple of times and I found it like you said laid back and friendly, Our plans are to visit whenever we can. We live in Newport News , Virginia.

  30. Michele Hill - March 20, 2022 12:41 pm

    I was born and raised in good ole Palatka. Although I haven’t lived there for over forty years, I always claim its borders as my roots. We are rednecks, down to earth, hard working, simplistic with a touch of class, enjoy our heritage of fishing and the outdoors, and will support the Gators until the cows come home! Never forget Angel’s diner that has been there, some think, since the big sea was parted. While there are so many wonderful mentionables about that little town, and countless changes that have taken place, it remains a sleepy place not found on the “greatest tourism stops of Florida,” and that may be a good thing. 😉

  31. Justin Payne - April 5, 2022 12:22 pm

    I’m from Palatka and some of my family has been there since before the Civil War. Thank you for this article. You captured the best of this place. It does have real problems that have been pointed out in some of the comments but it is important to remember the good. Thank you.

  32. Sarah Melvin - April 7, 2022 4:20 am

    Thank you for this. I am a recent transplant from the DC area and was originally looking in Ocala (horse country), but in today’s market I had to widen my search and ended up buying a house in Palatka. I have only been here about a month, but I love the history, diversity, and peace that seems to abound here. I hope to make some friends soon and enjoy many years here!


Leave a Comment