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Wholesale Observations: Rafe and his better half go to Palatka, Fla.
Rafe Semmes
Rafe Semmes

My wife and I recently made a short weekend trip to one of our favorite nearby towns, St. Augustine, Fla. From our house south of Richmond Hill, it’s only about 165 miles, which is not too far. We have enjoyed many trips there in the past, some just for a short weekend, and some for longer ones.

The St. Augustine Art Association used to hold two big Arts & Crafts festivals, one on Palm Sunday weekend, the other over Thanksgiving weekend, both well attended. We always enjoyed going to them when we could.

The festival was originally staged in the park in front of Cathedral Square, on King Street, the main downtown street, but it quickly outgrew that space; so moved to St. Francis field, several blocks north, across from the Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” Museum. (Another very interesting place to visit.)

St. Augustine is in many ways very similar to Savannah: an old historic town, with lots of historic buildings; home to a local college in repurposed buildings; a major tourist attraction; and home to many art galleries and restaurants, in addition to everything else. We have always enjoyed going there.

This particular weekend, we made a side trip to nearby Palatka, about 30 miles west. We were a bit surprised to see the number of large cornfields on that particular stretch of FL 207; we hadn’t realized that area was that big on farming.

My family wholesale hardware business once had a customer in Palatka, many years ago, a Western Auto store, I think it was.

It wasn’t a big customer, and we had a lot of Western Autos as customers across our three-state territory, so I don’t remember much about that one. They are all gone now, along with Woolworths and Sears, sadly.

We had been through Palatka a few months earlier, on our way to visit my wife’s folks in Clearwater over Christmas. We had intended on looking around a bit on that trip, as Palatka has an old Victorian house district that dates to the early 1900’s, but we got there too late to have time to look around.

We did stay overnight at a Best Western hotel that happened to be right next door to Musselwhite’s Seafood Restaurant, and we highly recommend that! The food was delicious, the prices reasonable, and the young man who was our server was very attentive. We would definitely go back.

The one surprise we had there came when we ordered a glass of wine with dinner. They came in wineglasses embossed with “Rotary Club of Palatka.” We had never seen that before.

Our waiter said that the owner was a member of that club, and they had a whole box of those wineglasses in the storeroom. We told him that we were members of Rotary Club, too, and had two similar pairs at home we had been given in thanks for contributions to the Rotary International Foundation, several years earlier.

Palatka is a small town of about 10,000 that was long a major port and vacation destination, because of its location on the St. Johns River, which runs south from Jacksonville through town. We discovered the ruins of an old furniture factory, on the southwestern side of town, built on the site of an old cypress mill. At one time it had been the second-largest cypress mill in the world, producing 80,000 feet of lumber and 60,000 shingles daily! A major employer.

Florida Furniture Industries later produced some 2,000 bedroom furniture sets weekly on that site, sold through 4,000 retail stores across the country, before closing in 2002. Another major employer. The land that once housed Selden Cypress Mill is now home to a major residential neighborhood, adjacent to the historic downtown. The 80 acres left are now slated for redevelopment.

Another interesting building downtown is the E. W. Lawson Funeral Home, the original Black funeral home in Palatka, now run by the granddaughter of the founders, who also started the Mary Lawson Hospital in 1918. It was integrated in 1922, and served a variety of White and Black residents until closing in 1958.

A dozen years ago, a mural was painted on the side of the funeral home building to honor the doctors and nurses who served at the Mary Lawson Hospital. I have never seen anything like it before. It’s a wonderful tribute to the folks who gave many years of dedicated service to the community.

Small towns often have many interesting stories to offer, if one knows where to look! And sometimes we just stumble across them by accident.

I am glad we made that side trip to Palatka.

Rafe lives in east Liberty County and drives through Richmond Hill frequently. He is a Savannah native and UGA alumnus.

The E.W. Lawson Funeral Home in Palatka, Fla.
The E.W. Lawson Funeral Home in Palatka, Fla. Photo by Rafe Semmes.
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