THE CHARMS OF MADISON COUNTY

Ever just want to get away from it all? The crowds? The news? The noise? The traffic?

Of course, you do.

An escape from civilization, whether for a weekend or for retirement, is an elusive but, a I discovered this past week, not impossible quest.

Nestled in the thick piney woods of north Florida, with the I-10 Tallahassee/Jacksonville corridor cutting through it like a bullet train through an Currier & Ives lithograph, lies Madison County, population 20,000. (Motto: “You don’t have to live here to love it, but you could.”)

Here, there is no Wal-Mart, no Walgreen’s, no wallop of noisy traffic, no walls of private communities. No, here you’ll find the America of long ago. A sweet place where folks still smile and say “Howdy” to strangers. A place with kids swinging on old rubber tires that hang from hundred-year-old live oaks and where centenarians enjoy their lives in homes where they were born.

Here the visitor discovers comfort and ease, akin to that first deep breath you take as you step off a jet following a particularly harrowing flight.

My first encounter with this heaven-sent relief was when I plopped down onto the four-poster bed at the Grace Manor Bed & Breakfast in Greenville, westernmost of the county’s three towns. This beautiful 1898 Queen Anne home with four lovely guestrooms, was my gateway to the good grace, taste, and virtue of this county.

Innkeepers David and Tammy Nusbickel spent 14 months refurbishing this grand old dame. My room, overflowing with tasteful antiques including an armoire built to house the wardrobe of a plantation prince, lacked no modern amenity. My whirlpool-tub bathroom was complete with fireplace.

David told me they hadn’t planned to offer television, but they opened just a day after 9-11. Connecting with the world was imperative. Still, there’s no cable, just three stations in all. Not even tempted, I relaxed to a Puccini CD while water jets soothed my aching body.

Connections in Madison County tend to look back, altogether fitting for coots like you and me. The town of Madison*, the county seat, features wide oak-lined streets — they brag here about their tree-hugging forefathers — clean lawns, gardens of azaleas, camellias, boxwood, magnolia and wisteria — and classic antebellum homes.

In a county of 20,000, this town of 2,000 seems the perfect size. It’s heart is Four Freedoms Park, complete with ornate gazebo. Kids climb with abandon on war memorials honoring the county’s sacrifices for liberty. And for an instant I’d swear I saw the me of 60 years ago — wearing my cub scout knickers — dirty, scraped, and joyous.

Museum “…one of the most fascinating in Florida.”

Just up the street is Tommy Beggs’ haberdashery and museum. Like so much of this area, the store dates back to the 19th Century. That’s when Tommy’s great-great grandfather sold dry goods, furniture, coffins and funeral services here. (Today, Tommy’s brother runs the funeral business.)

This charming emporium still uses a big six-drawer hand-cranked 1927 brass-cased National Cash Register and a 132-year-old safe. Above the store is a museum of miscellany acquired over the last 150 years that the Miami Herald calls “…one of the most fascinating in Florida.” In a place where folks value loyalty and tradition, store manager Jim Stanley has been with Tommy for 28 years, Jim’s wife, for 26.

Curious to learn what retirement might be like here, I spoke with Jack Culpepper, who moved to Madison from Jacksonville in 1985. “It’s a shock at first,” he said. “No movies. No midnight pizza. No fast-food franchises.” But in Madison, instead of dialing 911, you telephone the sheriff personally. Land’s cheap. You can hunt, practically from your back door. Which you always leave unlocked.

“It’s Mayberry!” exclaimed Jim O’Toole of O’Toole’s Herb Farm. “Everyone cares about everyone else.”

Maybe this essay written by eleven-year-old Luke Witmer about life in his “small town” of Greenville expresses it best:

“Each citizen adds to the unique character of my town, making a kind of patchwork quilt. And it’s nice that way. Another nice thing about my town is how people stick together and support each other. I think it’s because people get to know each other better. For example, if someone’s house burned down, everyone would be there to help somehow. I know because I’ve seen it happen.”

Perhaps part of this caring, this sense of community, comes from the fact that there are 107 churches in this small, dry county. When I asked Madison Mayor Jackie Johnson if they were all Christian, she said, “We certainly hope so.”

That’s humor, north-Florida style. This could be a nice place to live, certainly a great place to visit. Heck, you already know half the county!

*The county’s third town is Lee. Motto: “Little, but proud.”