Umanhattans in Umatilla with the Girls

I’ve made reference to my friend Becky on this blog site. She’s related to just about everybody in Florida who’s been here forever, and so you have to be real careful what you say to her: there’s a cousin under every bush. We recently went to find one of her ancestors in Geneva, and a couple of weeks ago we set out to find some more– this time in Umatilla.

Umatilla is an ancient Florida town located way up north of Orlando on the fringes of the Ocala National Forest. To get there you find 441 through Apopka, and then avail yourself of the Eustis By-Pass. That sounds rather like open heart surgery, doesn’t it? But I love Eustis; the By-Pass actually takes you thorough some beautiful farm country. After bypassing Eustis in a nice way, you get on 44A and then 19 north to Umatilla.

Now, Becky had told us that there were plantation houses in her family, but we weren’t quite prepared for The Palms… you can just about hear Melanie Wilkes opening the back doors onto the porch at Twelve Oaks and saying “I love it as more than a house… it’s a whole world that just wants to be graceful and beautiful.” And then Ashley takes her in his arms and kisses her in a cinematic moment of innocence and foreshadowing. Smash cut to Scarlett sitting under a tree surrounded by a dozen randy bloods: “I’m glad I sat here instead of at a table… a girl’s got only two sides at a table!”

The lady of the house, Becky’s Cousin Sister, is just as gracious and beautiful as the home she lives in. That day she was getting ready to root for the Gators on TV with her friend Dixie, both of them proudly wearing the orange and the blue. Sister let us roam up and down the two stories, poking into rooms and basking in the sheer simple beauty of The Palms.

Yes, I go into people’s homes and photograph their mixers. Someday the Umatilla Historical Society is going to be wanting a photo of this!

In the neighborhood of this fabulous house, which is situated downtown, you’ll find this old Methodist church, now occupied by another sect. You see it pictured in just about any historic treatise dedicated to Umatilla, and it was built in 1922. Methodist churches are always so solidly-built, as they plan on sticking around for a very long time.

Later we drove north to the family camp on Lake Beakman, which is quite a distance away. We drove through Altoona and Pittman, Linda and I glancing at one another in the car as the sky darkened. On either side of us, nothing but banks of trees and green isolation… … and then Sister says something to us like “there are still plenty of people living in these woods.” Which immediately brings to mind every horror movie you’ve ever seen. But, we were well taken care of. We weren’t dragged from the car by triple third cousins intent on introducing us to the rest of the family.

Beautiful Lake Beakman.

There’s a wonderful little restaurant called the Blackwater Inn on the St. John’s River just east of the camp, in Astor, just below Lake George. (Daytona Beach was due east as the crow flies.) We watched a rain shower sweep toward the big glass windows and had a couple of drinks to top off the ones we’d had earlier at The Tavern in Umatilla, which was another type of place entirely.

The Tavern has a sign on its front door imploring  bikers to refrain from displaying their colors while inside the joint. That was our first reminder that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. The second reminder was a karaoke set-up, thankfully shut down for daytime or I would have been up there crooning, after my two “Manhattans,” everything that Tammy Wynette ever recorded. And she’s a girl.

Our little boy is four years old and quite a little man
So we spell out the words we don’t want him to understand
Like T.O.Y or maybe S.U.R.P.R.I.S.E
But the words we’re hiding from him now
Tear the heart right out of me.

Our D.I.V.O.R.C.E becomes final today
Me and little J.O.E will be goin’ away
I love you both and it will be pure H.E double L for me
Oh, I wish that we could stop this D.I.V.O.R.C.E.

Watch him smile, he thinks it Christmas
Or his 5th Birthay
And he thinks C.U.S.O.T.D.Y spells fun or play
I spell out all the hurtin’ words
And turn my head when I speak
‘Cause I can’t spell a way this hurt
That’s drippin’ down my cheek.

Our D.I.V.O.R.C.E becomes final today
Me and little J.O.E will be goin’ away
I love you both and it will be pure H.E double L for me
Oh, I wish that we could stop this D.I.V.O.R.C.E.

Right? Even before the first refrain, I would have been tied to a motorcycle muffler and given an involuntary tour of Umatilla– from the ground up– past the car parts emporium and the Collins Building that’s being restored, around the square, and finally deposited in the parking lot of the feed store.

Let me tell you about those Manhattans. First, let me begin by saying that I and my friends are in no way elitist; we love everyone and treat everyone according to our political and societal mores. That said, our waitress at The Tavern– smiling, big-hearted, friendly– came to take our drink orders. A Maker’s Mark Manhattan straight up for me and Becky, and a Ketel One Martini (very dry) for Linda, with a twist. I tell you, the friendly light blinked out in our server’s  eyes, replaced by a haze of unknowing, but she brought our drink orders to the bar and started to make them with much clattering, fizzing, and ice picking. She hollered over to us at one point and asked which kind of glasses we wanted, and we chose martini glasses. But.

Time passed. The other waitress finally stopped by and whispered conspiratorily that SHE would be making our drinks: what were they again? Becky and I eventually got our Manhattans: straight up bourbon on the rocks, with lemon slices and straws; no vermouth; no cherry. Linda’s turned out to be just vodka on the rocks, with lemon. Was there a straw? I have no recollection.

And we ordered another round, with nary a complaint. Why complain? The cycles and the chains were parked just a few yards away, their owners seated mere feet from our cynical backs.

Through a Manhattan glass… darkly.

… and we tipped very well.

Artist Doug Rhodehamel in Eustis

I hadn’t been to Eustis in years. The last time I visited was sometime in the early 1980’s; I shot a roll of black and white because the town and the country around it were old and “wooden” and deserving of that type of film. It was a bright, sunny day and the shadows were great. I still have those pictures somewhere, which I will try and find and then post on here.

I went up there today, twice, once to wander around the old streets of town, and then to pay a call on artist Doug Rhodehamel, who has an installation at the Lake Eustis Museum of Art. His fascination with sea life and all things scaly and crustacean often finds these denizens of the deep (why are things living underwater always called denizens?) figuring heavily in his work. (Go pay a long visit to Doug to see what I mean. He’s also the mushroom guy.)

This current installation, running through November, features a true sea of blue and green fishes which you can walk through. They are plenty charming in daytime, but at night, when Kirk and I returned for the debut, they were magical.


Here they are being installed.

Like all of Doug’s efforts, you are compelled to get directly involved with his work: with fish floating above you, below you, and on all sides, you can’t help but get close to them. You find yourself making underwater swimming motions as you float around the room, or you stare at one face-to-face, blowing on it until it spins merrily. It’s all such innocent fun, yet there’s a note of seriousness: each fish is made from repurposed cardboard  and recycled container lids. Doug is truly a green original.

Eustis is another little town that seems to be doing pretty well downtown. There are lots of little local shops and independent business, and careful architectural restoration. I had no idea; I would definitely love to spend a long, loazy Sunday at Olivia’s Coffeehouse on Bay Street. When I went in, they offered me a free coffee– they and a bank were doing a cross-pollination– but, pleased as I was, I opted to buy a larger serving. Free coffee! It was like being in the Twilight Zone. What a neat little place!


Here’s the sign for Dunnston’s Shoe Hospital. Remember in more innocent days when things were named that way? When personal items were respected and not replaced every fifteen minutes, there were places to bring them to for reconditioning or repair: shoe stores, television stores… even doll stores. Where I lived in Bay Ridge was a Doll Hospital, its windows filled with dusty babies and shrunken adults whose limbs and faces had been repaired… it was a creepy kind of place and I never felt the urge to go in. Even If I did  have a doll in need of surgery, I probably would have let it expire quietly rather than go inside the sinister looking Doll Hospital…

I love this wall! Think of everything it’s witnessed over many decades. It also looks very fragile, though I am sure it’s not. It’s the sort of wall that might have starred in a 1952 newsreel:


… though they would have all been saved thanks to the industriousness of the entire citizenry, who would have all pitched in and carried off a brick or two until the little girls were freed.

Here’s a house typical of the old neighborhood just south of downtown. The streets are named Lemon and Citrus and Grove and Key, and you’d swear you were in Pleasantville.

A dreamy sidewalk setting where Grove meets Key.

I love this little place. No Radleys here !

Lake Gracie, downtown.

Perfect. But does it look like the house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

The stolid old Presbyterian Church.

And here’s Sea of Green at night, and you can see the shadows and the reflections. It really was like being inaide a tropical fish tank! It had everything but some grubby catfish feeding on aquarium waste.

Where to next… Palatka, I think !