Last Saturday, I rode east on Florida Highway 100 until I ran smack-dab into a sign reading: “Welcome to Palatka.”
Palatka is a faded town on the Saint Johns River, with so many mossy oaks it’ll catch your breath. There’s a downtown small enough to pitch a baseball through, and a diner named, Bradley’s—which boasts the most mounted deer in the tri-county area.
It’s political season in Palatka. Posters everywhere. One reads: “Elect Gator for sheriff.” The sign beside it: “Crickets, red wigglers, ammunition, and boiled peanuts.”
We stayed at a friend’s house. Miss Leslie rolled out a spread. Her husband, Tank,—a goodhearted man who resembles a piece of military defense machinery—operated the deep-fryer.
And by dog, we had a party.
The buffet line had all the trimmings you’d expect in the deep South. Field peas with enough ham to make a cardiologist nervous. Venison, casseroles, deep-fried everything.
The conversation didn’t follow any ground rules. One woman talked about the health benefits of cow pies. Miss Jane—distinguished English teacher and highly-decorated hell-raiser—recited a toast which made someone laugh so hard he swallowed his cigarette.
A group of fellas in the corner talked about the finer points of sausage. John told a story about when a hog bit off his buddy’s finger.
Then, there’s white-headed Nana, whose candy-apple red blouse and earrings matched her pocket book. She looks like the cover of a Better Homes and Gardens magazine—only sassier.
Nana said, “I feel lucky to have lived in Palatka all these years, it was a perfect place to raise children. And even though we don’t have many shoe stores, we get by.”
They do more than get by.
They live easy. Sure, they have problems, this isn’t heaven. But it’s pretty stinking close. If you don’t believe me, you ought to visit the curbside stand that still sells raw honey using the honor system.
No thefts since 1947.
Well. Except for the incident when three high-schoolers stole the honey-stand’s six-hundred-pound purple chicken with a pickup truck and towed it twenty-seven miles. One kid was spotted mounted on the bird, slapping its hindsection, riding down the road shouting, “Hi-ho Chicken, away!”
That kind of stuff doesn’t happen in New Jersey.
This is a small town. A place where kids go barefoot, and people keep windows open. Where you don’t need reasons to throw Saturday lawn parties. Where everyone knows everyone, where neighbors are cousins. Where out-of-towners get fed-to-death, and conversations end around two in the morning. Where love isn’t cheap, but it’s free if you want it.
You might think such things are a fantasy this day and age. They aren’t.
They’re just down the road.
Kitty - September 9, 2016 4:19 pm
I lived in a small town,Thomaston,Al. Until after I graduated from API. ? It was a great place to grow up. I found another “larger” small town to rear our three sons. Again a great place to live! Wouldn’t change a thing!
Candace Fuller Pfau - September 9, 2016 5:27 pm
My daughter lives in Palatka. We lived down the road in Interlachen in the woods for 15 years and commuted to Gainesville. I bet you missed the dolphin carved tree trunk on St. Johns didn’t you?
Susan Patterson - April 23, 2017 2:21 pm
My daughter went to Florida School of the Arts there at St. John’s State and lived there 3 years. She loved it and especially the people who never let her go hungry and picked her up to take her to church.The church folk raised enough money for her to get to Ohio to finish her degree and on top of that, enough to fit back to Palatka to be confirmed. Great people.
June Roulaine Phillips - April 23, 2017 9:10 am
Thank you for sharing your gift.
Jim Clees - April 23, 2017 10:16 am
I’m glad Palatka hasn’t changed. My Uncle Charlie and Aunt Lizette lived there and are buried there. They lived less than a block from Ravine Gardens. Lizette worked at the newspaper and Charlie was a draw-bridge operator on the old St Johns River bridge. When I was in college in Gainesville, I once arranged a talk with a North Florida environmentalist for my Landscape Architecture classmates. He spoke of many things, and Palatka was one. He said he could tell what a happy place it was, just by how few people were in jail.
Kathy Petersen - April 23, 2017 11:45 am
My grandfather grew up in Palatka. I remember visiting there and loving it. I am 72 so it was a long time ago. I don’t suppose there has been any Petermanns there for a long time. It was nice reading a story about it.
Susan - April 23, 2017 11:55 am
I grew up here. I remember Jane from high school(I am now an English teacher in Tallahassee), and believe you must be speaking of the same Tank I knew when I worked at Palatka bakery. My home was a half a mile from the honey stand. The chicken incident must have happened after I left. I miss the water more than anything.
Doug - April 23, 2017 12:10 pm
Thanks for the Palatka story. I’m a native & still live here!
Jeanette Odom - June 26, 2017 6:44 pm
Born in Palatka Fl (Glendale Hospital) and now down the road in Interlachen. Grew up in Orange Mills near the potato farms, worked in potato graders until I went to work at GP paper mill.
Deanna - April 23, 2017 1:46 pm
Fi live in a small town too, Gainestown, Al. And Jackson, al. Love these old memories! Our kids will miss out on so much!! Love the Good old days!
Bobbi - April 23, 2017 2:33 pm
I know Palatka, it was the big city I passed through on the way to my in-laws house from St. Augustine to Anthony/Sparr…:-)
Sally - April 23, 2017 3:37 pm
I sure do love your stories! We live a little north of Palatka in Green Cove Springs. You should visit us sometime, but hurry ’cause I’m 75 now. Visit us and I’ll cook you some collard greens, peas and okra, fried cornbread. 🙂
Pam - April 23, 2017 5:10 pm
Palatka! Home of Ravine Gardens State Park, where thousands of WPA-planted azaleas bloom from January through March. I’m a Northerner, but when I lived in Florida for 18 months (2003-2004), I was lucky enough to be taken to Palatka twice during azalea bloom season. So beautiful! I will always remember it.
Olivia - April 23, 2017 9:41 pm
I read your stories everyday. I’ve lived in Ptown my whole life. We have bonfire Friday every week. You are always welcome! We could tell you stories to match your own!!! Love you Deitrich!
Renee - April 23, 2017 9:59 pm
I love this! Made me laugh and smile. I was born and raised in Palatka and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. This is where all of my family is and we have raised a family here as well. Endless conversations with sweet tea and if the front porch could talk we would all be in trouble. Nothing better. ❤
Bill Pennington - April 24, 2017 12:55 am
I went fishing with my dad on the St Johns at Palatka and caught a 10 lb 2oz bass in 1951. It won the weekly fishing contest and I have a small trophy to prove it. It was the biggest bass caught in Putnam Co. that week. I was 14 years old at the time.
Pat - April 24, 2017 12:00 pm
Try Welaka next time you are in Putnam County. From Palatka take Highway 17 South through East Palatka, San Mateo, across the Dunns Creek Bridge into Satsuma, continue south past MeMas Restaurant, which has the best fried chicken special every Wednesday, continue past The Stand, our fresh vegetable spot, to the traffic light at County Road 309, turn right onto 309 and head west about 6 miles to the next traffic light at County Road 308B. You are now in the heart of Welaka, park your car and walk the town, the streets are mostly sand and the oaks shade them all day, walk down to the St Johns River, which will be 2 blocks to your right when you come into town. Blessings, closed on Sundays, our coffee shop where the locals meet for breakfast and lunch, and Shrimp-R-Us, closed on Mondays, and has a full menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner plus live music most Friday and Saturday nights. We have pickleball courts and the faithfuls are out there every week, summer and winter, tennis courts, basketball courts and 3 playgrounds for kids, the baseball fields have lights and the local little leagues make for good entertainment during the evenings. The Welaka State Forest Aquarium is there and also plenty of pathways to walk through the forest and see birds, deer, gators and maybe even a bear. Bring your boat and go out on the St Johns and maybe sightsee or fish. We have local guides that would be more than happy to take you out. And, did I tell you that we have campgrounds and that we are a golf cart community so you park your vehicle and golf cart it the rest of your visit. We have about 700 full time residents but during the winter season our population swells to almost 2,000. So, next time you are in the area head a little further south, about 20 minutes, and check us out.
Jimmie s - April 24, 2017 1:31 pm
I Lived in Interlachen for many years and commuted to palatka for work. I’m very surprised this article didn’t mention anything about the north side of Palatka. The Domino’s Pizza I worked for was robbed at gunpoint and average once every year. The drivers got robbed on the deliveries about twice or three times a year. Let’s just say I will not be moving back to this horrible City anytime soon
Doug - June 26, 2017 7:39 am
Yeah, it’s probably better for you to live in maybe Jacksonville, Gainesville, Orlando or Miami where the crime rate is so much better. And Interlachen, well, we all know how the crime rate there is. Crime is everywhere. I think you missed the whole point of Sean’s story. Doubt that you’ve been missed all that much.
Diane Rinaldi - December 16, 2017 3:35 pm
There always has to be one … you’re probably always it, aren’t you Jimmie?
Mary Stoeffler hinman - April 24, 2017 5:09 pm
I was raised in Palatka when I was growing up thereveverybody did know everybody it also has a place called ravine gardens that has every color of azaleas you can imagine it is a sunkin garden we used to play all over it people use it for a recuse now days and walk aroundd it the most beautiful garden you will ever see the also used to have miss azalea contest there I will always love Palatka it has changed so much
Dee Talty - April 25, 2017 3:14 am
When I was at FSU (1951-1954) I had 3 sorority sisters from Palatka. One was my roommate, Mary Doughtry and the other two, Donna McNab and B.J. Bailey. I believevDonna died a couple of years ago . Do any of the “old timers” from Plaltka know anything about the other two. I now live in Orange Park which is less than an hour from Palatka.
Dee Roys Talty
Carolyn - December 18, 2017 11:26 pm
Judy - December 16, 2017 8:48 am
I have memories of visiting my grandparents, and the resident aunt & uncles, in Palatka in the 60’s. My Grandfather worked in the paper mill…the smell there wasn’t fragrant when we visited him at work. I remember quick trips to St Augustine to enjoy the beach. I have one uncle that still lives there, and the others – even though they live in north Florida – still claim as Palatka as home.
Terri - December 16, 2017 9:24 am
We lived in palatka back in the eighties. The people were just as you described, so lovely! I worked at the hospital, and families would bring in fresh produce & gifts of food in appreciation to the staff who cared for their loved ones. Very nice place!
Lynda Crabill - December 18, 2017 9:05 pm
My family came to Palatka in 1946 to buy and run the Southland Provision Co. Azalea Meats brand. I grew up in the Mulholland Park area until I was 11 when we moved out toward Orange Mills and Federal Point area of the County. The downtown has changed from when I grew up and the habits of the kids have changed too with the dangers that are all around us now. It was such a wonderful time to play all day and only come in when you needed the bathroom or to have a meal. My girlfriends from age 5 have continued to be my best friends and of the 5 of them there are only 3 left to do out yearly trips to be together since we all live in different states or towns. I could not imagine a better ‘growing up place!” and tried to have my three sons live some of the wonderful ways of life as I had no matter where we lived while family was a military one and move often. I returned after being gone 39 years and am happy here since i feels comfortable to me in my old age!!
Ed Killebrew - January 10, 2018 2:23 am
I read your story several months ago and feel in Love with it !! I saw it on Facebook and tried to find it several times but failed.
When I did find it, I could not understand why our local paper did not publish it ?
I was born here and I am a member of a pioneer family here in Putnam county.
To me your story brings out the best of our community!!
You can’t go anywhere in the world ?
Without coming thru Palatka Fl. First !!!
I bought tickets to your show this coming Friday night in Palatka, can’t wait to hear your stories