STARKE – The county seat of Bradford County, Starke is a prison town, and makes no bones about it.
At the intersection of the busy U.S. 301, which runs right through this small town, and State Road 16 — also known as Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard and Corrections Officers Memorial Highway – is the green highway sign that points to the direction of “State prisons” – almost as if the site of those prisons was in some ways a unique tourist attraction, eerily similar to the way that Auschwitz, the former Nazi death camp, is now preserved and open to the public for tours near the medieval city of Krakow, Poland.
Along SR 16, there are pleasant homes pushed back from the road, a reminder there are still parts of Florida where development never ramped into full gear and there remains a distinctly rural feel. As the road gets even more rural, there’s the first sign: “State Prisoners Working.” It’s not clear if that’s meant as a note of caution for motorists, in the same way that signs advise that highway construction workers are present up ahead – or a warning to keep their car doors locked. Just beyond that sign are state prisons like the New River East Correctional Institute and the New River O Unit across the street, where high metal fences are topped off with razor-sharp barbed wire.
Back in Starke, there are other reminders that this community earns its living in part by housing so many prisons. The Bradford County Sheriff’s Office is right on U.S. 301, conveniently next door to the new Bradford County Courthouse. Across the street, a brightly lit neon sign advises that AAA Bail Bonds, operating since 1986, is open 24 hours a day, so no matter how late someone gets arrested, they can easily get bailed out – assuming they have the cash to put up.
Tri-County Probation is next door, and close by in the Bradford Executive Center is the State of Florida Department of Juvenile justice and the Bradford County Teen Court — all of this clearly making criminal justice big business in this town — and clearly the main employer.
And not far away is a clear sign that in this conservative Deep South county, law and order doesn’t have to mean the sheriff’s office, the courthouse or those prisons – it could be the average citizen in a state with very relaxed concealed weapons laws. Bradford Gun & Pawns has a big sign that reads, “Buy and sell guns and jewelry.” Decorative items for the wife, perhaps, and armed protection for both husband and wife to carry.
Starke, though, has more to offer than simply a cautionary warning that those who violate Florida’s laws and get convicted could end up here – at least as long as the term of their incarceration. Tourists who flock to Central Florida year after year for a big theme park fix, and who don’t have memories much beyond the construction of Universal Studio’s CityWalk, may not be aware that before thrill rides, Florida attracted visitors with two other novelties: natural beauty, with its pristine beaches, shoreline and lakes, and history.
Starke, a town that crosses Alligator Creek, definitely has history, and a lot more of it than can be found in the brand new mixed-use subdivision communities that seemed to be all the rage in Central Florida throughout the past decade. The history books note that Starke was named in honor of Madison Starke Perry, a Confederate States Army colonel and the fourth governor of Florida. That’s the kind of history that dates back much further than what communities like Celebration and Harmony in Osceola County have to offer.
Starke also has a historic district that captures the look and feel of that history, even if it does now house such things as a movie theater, art studio and fitness center.
It starts at the intersection of U.S. 301 and Call Street. Don’t be fooled by the large, very modern looking WalGreens across the street, because right at that corner is the old Bradford County Courthouse, a still impressive and stately looking red brick building that now serves as part of the Santa Fe College Andrews Center. A sign out front notes that this is “Historic Call Street, Starke – 1870” – a date that goes back to just a few years after the end of the Civil War. But it isn’t even the end of the historic buildings.
Taking a stroll along Call Street, with its red brick walkways, there’s a lot of historic property to pass by, including the home of The Bradford County Telegraph, established 1879, and a reminder of how people got their news in the days before Cyberspace changed the rules. The paper is still operating today, and easily available at 75 cents a copy.
The Bradford County Bank building was established in 1889, the signs note, and erected in 1914. Today it’s home to the Bradford County Welcome Center, the North Florida Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the Bradford County Tourism Development Council, among other shops. This property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Take a left on Walnut Street, and the downtown historic district is still home to the Woman’s Club of Starke, a building that is among the Florida Heritage sites. The Woman’s Club was originally known as the Mother’s Club, and was founded in the late 19thcentury to assist the development of the Bradford County High School. Back on Call Street is the Eugene L. Matthews Bradford County Historical Museum, complete with a pavilion in the back for relaxing on a mild fall day.
Train tracks run through the center of Call Street’s historic district, giving this section of town a distinctly different look and feel than U.S. 301, with its chain restaurants and hotels. It becomes modern conveniences on one side, historic preservation on the other.
The four blocks of Call Street’s Historic District have flashes of the modern world, including a bunch of empty storefronts that are a sad reminder of how hard hit Florida has been by the collapse in the housing and credit markets.
Also modern is a shop like Starke’s Art Gallery, Studio .. Or Just Whatever LLC, a novelty gift store that advertises that it will be open on Black Friday from 9-4 p.m. – and is offering bargains.
“Bring in ad from newspaper and receive from 5 percent to 50 percent off your total sale, Black Friday only,” the signs advise, while some of the gift items sitting in the window are already geared toward Christmas.
Next door at S&J Fitness, the signs out front note that the studio is offering self defense courses, along with individualized person training – including the “Rugged Warrior Challenge.”
“Do you have what it takes?” the signs tease. “The Rugged Warrior Challenge is just what it says, it’s a challenge for you to see what your (sic) made of. This is an adventure obstacle challenge event that’s designed with rugged terrains, mud pits, barbed wire and other crazy obstacles that test your grit.”
Across the street is a dining option known as Mamma Mia Ristorante Italiano, where the day’s special was Chicken Ala Florentina – billed as “sautéed chicken and spinach in a garlic cream sauce over a choice of pasta.”
But there are also reminders here in small towns, some things are just easy to find – like the neighborhood barber. At Barber Cay’s Shop, the signs proudly boast, “Bald? Hair Cut $5.”
The town also has special events coming up. On Dec. 6, the Starke Golf & Country Club will be hosting a Holiday Bash to Remember, featuring Gabriel “The Storm” Jarrett and other performers. Doors open at 6 p.m., and dancing continues until midnight. Call 904-263-2770 to learn more.
There will also be Revival Services from Nov. 27 to Dec. 2 featuring Evangelist Matt Downs at the Bradford Baptist Church. And Call Street, just a short distance from the historic district, is already getting into the holiday spirit, with a huge lighting display above the roadway that says “Season’s Greetings,” and street lights decorated with bows and bright lights.
And a short distance away, in those correctional institutions off SR 16, inmates share cramped cells with toilets that are in view of everyone, wear blue jump suits, eat low cost soy products, live without heat or air conditioning … and wait as patiently as they can for the day they’ll get released and sent away from Starke, and back to what they once called home before first landing in jail.
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