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HAWTHORNE — A $13.5 million project that originally started on Hawthorne Road (State Road 20) in Alachua County is now continuing into Putnam County. The last segment of widening improvements has now begun and will run from the Alachua County line 12 miles to Southwest 56th Avenue in Putnam County, according to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). The last part of this project is estimated to cost $49 million.

The Alachua County improvements began in summer 2017 and were completed approximately one year ago. Both roadway improvement projects include widening State Road 20 from a two-lane roadway to a four-lane urban roadway with curbs, gutters, grassed medians, bicycle lanes, a five-foot sidewalk on the north side, a 10-foot multi-use path on the south side of the roadway and a five-span bridge at Fowlers Prairie.

Anderson Columbia Co. Inc is estimated to complete the current Putnam County portion of the $49 million widening improvements by late 2022, weather and unforeseen circumstances permitting.

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L-R: Florida GFWC President-Elect Dianne Forester, GFWC New Century Woman's Club Parliamentarian Lillian Jenkins, Historian Vickie Cox, Assistant Treasurer Shirley Macrides, Treasurer Barbara Webster, Reording Secretary Audry Copenhagen, orresponding Secretary Joyce Hallman, Second Vice President Bonnie Josey, First Vice President Patti Lamneck and President Fallier Milner.

HIGH SPRINGS – Looking forward for the next several years, the GFWC Woman’s Club in High Springs has new officers on board. During the Dec. 5 GFWC Woman’s Club Annual Meeting held in High Springs, Florida State President-Elect Dianne Foerster attended and installed the 2020-2022 GFWC High Springs New Century Woman’s Club’s Executive Board of Directors.

Woman’s Club members constitute the largest portion of GFWC Florida’s membership with over 9,000 members in over 230 clubs. The purpose of the GFWC Woman’s Club is to promote and provide civic, educational and charitable activities. Club members are dedicated to community improvement through volunteer service.

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Trees lining Old Bellamy Road provide a dense canopy over the histori highway that runs through Alachua. PHOTO by RAY CARSON/Alachua County Today

ALACHUA – The oldest existing road in America runs through Alachua County. While some of the road has disappeared due to development or abandonment, sections still exist as the Old Bellamy Road in Alachua. It is named after John Bellamy, the contractor and Florida plantation owner who built it in 1825 through 1826. But the history of the road goes back centuries earlier.

North Florida is intersected with several rivers, the Suwannee, Ichetucknee and Santa Fe rivers divide North Florida, making long distance land travel difficult. At O’leno State Park, the Santa Fe river suddenly goes underground for three miles before re-emerging at River Rise State Park. This natural bridge has provided a way of crossing the Santa Fe since prehistoric times. Since it allowed early travelers to walk across the river on dry land, many of the Indian trails in the region converged to a single pathway across the bridge.

“El Camino Real” - The Royal Road

When Spanish explorers and missionaries penetrated into the interior of Florida during the 1500s and 1600s, they too used the trail across the natural bridge. It became part of the historic old Mission Road, which linked St. Augustine on the Atlantic Coast with the numerous Spanish missions that existed around the present-day site of Tallahassee in the west panhandle area and the interior of North Florida. The route became known as “el Camino Real,” the Royal Road.

In the latter part of the 17th century, the Spanish tried, with limited success, to improve the Royal Road to allow use by ox carts, but it remained a simple dirt trail through the rugged interior of the state. The road saw heavy use throughout the mission period, but fell into disuse in 1702-1704 when English raiders led allied Indian warriors into Florida. The missions were destroyed and thousands of Apalachee, Timucua and other Indians were killed or carried away into slavery.

Spain Cedes Florida to U.S.

Despite British raids, Spain still owned Florida for another100 years. After the United States gained territory from the British in The Revolutionary War, large numbers of settlers arrived in Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama. Spanish Florida had a smaller Spanish population by this time and became a refuge for runaway slaves and Seminole Indian raiders, which the Spanish used for a defensive network. But Florida had become a burden to Spain, which could not afford to send settlers or troops, so the Spanish government decided in 1819 to cede the territory to the United States in exchange for settling the boundary dispute in Spanish Texas.

American settlers began establishing settlements and forts in North Florida. Travel and roads were limited in the interior, so in 1824 Congress authorized the creation of a road using the old Spanish Royal Road. They appropriated the money for the project and placed the work under the supervision of U.S. Army Captain Daniel Burch, the officer assigned to direct the project. Captain Burch surveyed the route, leaving Pensacola in October 1823. His unit traveled 445 miles and arrived in St. Augustine a month later. Burch saw the vastness of the project and difficulties of the terrain, so he decided to contract out the eastern half of the road from Tallahassee to St. Augustine.

John Bellamy Wins Bid

On Dec. 18, 1824, Florida plantation owner John Bellamy entered a bid to build the section of the new road between the St. John’s River near St. Augustine and the Ochlockonee River near the new territorial capital of Tallahassee. He could complete the project, he believed, for $13,500. The bid was accepted and in early 1825 work began on laying out, clearing and building the road.

The congressional act had stated that the road was to be 25 feet wide to allow two wagons to pass each other, but the contract with Bellamy required that the road only be 16 feet wide. Tree stumps were to cut as close to the ground as possible, in order to clear a wagon’s axles. Travelers quickly complained that the road was not always wide enough to let two wagons pass, that the bridges were inadequate, and that some stumps, “stump knockers,” were too tall, jolting passengers and breaking axles. The road became known as Stump Knocker Road.

Bellamy used his plantation slaves and contract workers to clear the road, but cutting a dirt road through North Florida in the summer presented numerous challenges. Bellamy’s slaves worked through difficult conditions with heat and humidity, insects and the torrential afternoon rains that turned the sandy soil into mud. Although the western portion of the road had to use a ferry to cross the Aucilla River, the planned route in Central Florida took advantage of the three-mile stretch where the Santa Fe River disappeared underground, near present day O’Leno State Park.

Completed in 1826; Little used by 1890s

By May 1826, “Bellamy’s Road” was completed and became the main route for travel between Tallahassee and Saint Augustine prior to the Civil War. By the 1860s, Florida’s population and settlements had grown and other routes, as well as train travel, began to make Bellamy Road less traveled, and by the 1890s it was no longer being used except by local residents. Over the next century it fell into disrepair and portions disappeared as nature reclaimed the land.

But portions of Old Bellamy Road still exist today, with much of it either running through rural residential neighborhoods or buried under newer asphalt roads. In eastern Alachua County, the road follows the Old Mission Trail on the south end of Lake Santa Fe and part of State Road 26 in Melrose. Another easily accessible remnant is part of the O’Leno State Park and the overland pass of the Santa Fe River. From there, the road passes out of Alachua County toward Tallahassee. For a trip through the early history of Florida, visitors can still drive a section of the original road as they make their way to the Bellamy Road Interpretive Trail at River Rise Preserve State Park just north of High Springs. Open daily, the trail follows the trace of the old road and includes panels detailing its history. To reach the trail, travel from High Springs on U.S 41/U.S. 441 North for 5.6 miles then turn right on Old Bellamy Road SE. Follow it to the end and the trail parking area will be on the left.

The road may now be a quiet tree lined street or walking trail, but its impact on Florida’s history was large even though it is unknown to most people. It is a centuries old trip through time.

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L-R: 2019 Sky Valor Award Recipient, Newberry Firefighter Kristi Langston and Newberry Fire Chief Ben Buckner./PHOTO by C.M. WALKER/Alachua County Today

NEWBERRY — Newberry Fire Chief Ben Buckner addressed the Newberry City Commission and a packed audience on Dec. 9 to tell them that one of the City’s own fire fighters, Kristi Langston, was the recipient of a 2019 Sky Valor Award for her heroic work in the face of nearly insurmountable odds.

“On the afternoon of Jan. 3, firefighter Kristi Langston and Alachua County Fire Rescue (ACFR) Rescue Lieutenant Travis Chaney responded to a serious multi-vehicle accident on I-75. When they arrived, they found a horrific scene with multiple vehicles involved, including two semi-tractor trailers, with severe damage and several vehicles on fire. Additionally, patients were strewn over the large scene, with many having been ejected and now lying in the roadway,” he said.

“Rescue Lieutenant Chaney sized up the scene, took command, and ordered several more units to be dispatched.”

The roadway was blocked by a fully-involved tractor-trailer fire, which had been ignited after approximately 50 gallons of diesel fuel spilled onto the highway. Rescue units coming from the north were cut off from the patients needing treatment. Many more fire trucks and ambulances were coming from the south, but those units were delayed due to the location of the accident and traffic flow.

Firefighter Langston and Chaney spent the next several minutes triaging and treating patients involved in this mass casualty situation. “The scene was chaotic, to say the least,” Buckner said. As additional units arrived, Langston and Chaney prioritized patients for immediate transport to the hospital, while large fires and explosions erupted in their immediate area. “Once sufficient responders arrived at the scene, Langston and her partner packaged a critical pediatric patient into their unit and transported the patient to the hospital as a trauma alert,” said Buckner.

Overall that day, three passenger vehicles and two tractor trailers were involved in the accident with 14 total patients. In the end, there were seven fatalities, including five children from Louisiana who were traveling to Walt Disney World in a church van with seven more passengers from the same church.

“With the severe stresses and emotion of that environment, firefighter Langston and Rescue Lieutenant Chaney remained calm and effective, helping to save the lives of many of the patients,” Buckner said.

Langston has served as a fire fighter with the City of Newberry since Oct. 1, 2005. Following Buckner’s description of Langston’s service to those in need in the aftermath of the crash, Mayor Marlowe mentioned that Kristi was part of a special training program.

Buckner explained that within the past week, “Kristi received notification that she passed her National Registry for Paramedic training, which involves a year-long commitment along with very intensive EMS medical training.”

The Sky Valor Awards for 2019 were presented on Oct. 7 at the College of Central Florida, Ocala.

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Today Reporter

HIGH SPRINGS – Six miles north of High Springs on U.S. Highway 441 is a unique state park called O’Leno. The park was one of Florida’s first state parks, originally opened in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps who built log cabins and a suspension bridge that crosses the river.

Located along the banks of the Santa Fe River, which is a tributary of the Suwannee River, the park covers over 6,000 acres and features sinkholes, hardwood hammocks, river swamps and sand hills. It features hiking and biking trails, canoeing, fishing, picnic facilities and camping. Overnight visitors can stay at 61 RV sites, primitive tent camping or, if booked far enough in advance, one of the 17 log cabins near the river.

Santa Fe River Flows Underground

What makes the park unique is that the Santa Fe River suddenly disappears, traveling three miles underground to resurface at River Rise Park. Visitors can walk a shaded trail along the river bank and then cross over to the other side on the three-mile land bridge. This natural bridge has served as a crossroads between east and west Florida for centuries.

Native American trails converged at this land bridge that provided a dry crossing of the Santa Fe River. When the Spanish occupied Florida in 1513 they built a line of missions between Saint Marks and Saint Augustine and made use of the same native trails, renaming the route “el Camino Real,” the Royal Road.

The road fell into disuse in the late1700s as Spanish influence waned. Between raids from the French and English, Indian raids, and disease, the native population declined and the missions and settlements were abandoned. Florida became a liability for Spain and in 1819 they ceded the territory to the United States. As settlers moved in, the federal government provided money for a road across the upper part of the state and tasked the Army with creating it. John Bellamy, who was a wealthy plantation owner, was contracted to create the eastern part, and Bellamy Road was created.

Keno – The Original O’Leno

It was only fitting that a town would be built along the banks of the nearby river. A pioneer town was started by 1840 by a man named Henry Matier. The town was referred to as Keno, which was a common gambling game at the time. As the town of Keno grew, the main livelihood was the mills, which were powered by the river. Two grist mills, six cotton gins and one cotton seed oil gin with a circular saw mill for lumber were in operation. A dry kiln, the only one of its kind in the area, was also in use.

By the 1870s Keno had a general merchandise store, owned and operated by a well-known proprietor by the name of Colonel George M. Whetson. Some say Whetston called the town Keno because he considered it to be a risky business venture. The town also had a large hotel with a door on all four sides. It also had a restaurant, livery stable, blacksmith, doctor and general store. In 1876, Colonel Whetson applied for a post office for the town of Keno. The postal department denied the request due to the name Keno meaning gambling, so Whetston then changed the name to Leno to justify that it was a decent town. The post office was put upstairs above the general store, along with the telegraph office. In 1890, Colonel Whetston moved the post office to the sister town of Mikesville, three miles away.

Florida Forest Service

In 1894, there was a rumor that a railroad from Alligator, today’s Lake City, was going to come through the area of Leno. However, the train bypassed the town and went to Fort White instead. This spelled the end for the town and the people of Leno moved on to other communities in the area. The last record of the town of Leno was in 1896. Although the town was no longer inhabited, the area remained a popular place for residents of nearby towns to gather for picnics and swimming. It was often referred to as “Old Leno,” which was eventually shortened to O’Leno, the name still used today.

In 1935, the Florida Forest Service purchased the property where the town had been located. During the Great Depression, workers under the federal Work Progress Administration (WPA), with help from Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), developed the area for a forest service training camp, building roads, cabins, the suspension bridge and other buildings. Camp O’Leno opened in 1938 as a Florida Forest Service training camp. It became a state park in 1940, and was one of the original nine state parks in the Florida Park Service.

Most of the buildings on the site date back to that time period with additional trails and camping sites added later. The true beauty of the park is the diversity of environments and the differences each season brings. The park is open 365 days a year from 8 a.m. until sundown. Entry fee for day visits is $5. For more information or camping reservations call 386-454-1853.

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Photo special to Alachua County Today

MELROSE – The Melrose Volunteer Fire Department (MVFD) is rolling out a new piece of equipment to help keep the community safe. In the past several months there have been several water-emergencies on Lake Santa Fe and the surrounding waterways. MVFD members wanted to increase their rescue capabilities on the water.

In an effort to address a major public safety disparity faced by the citizens of Melrose, this year MVFD undertook a major project to develop a special operations team with advanced water rescue capabilities. Members of the department spent over 200 combined hours training and working to bring a fully functional, rapid response rescue boat to the town of Melrose. This marks the first time that this area has had a dedicated, professionally trained group of firefighters ready to respond to water emergencies. This effort has been funded entirely by the donations of local businesses and MVFD.

"We have a very active community and they actually wanted to start a program themselves. But when we came up and we talked to them about this, they felt more than welcome to help us get to our goal,” said Melrose Fire Department spokesperson, Joshua Florence. “So, it's not just the fire department doing this. It's actually the whole community coming together as a whole to make the program to essentially help keep people safe on the water."

The Marine Unit is trained to respond to medical emergencies and vehicle crashes, but will not handle towing.

The boat, referred to by its call-sign “Marine 249,” is an AVON SR-4, previously serving the U.S. Army Vessel New Orleans. The two 55-horsepower Evinrude motors are multi-fuel and submersible, having previously served the United States Air Force's 308th Rescue Squadron. These two units together were acquired through the Florida Forest Service via the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) and Firefighter Programs (FFP). The trailer owned by MVFD and the complete rig towed by one of the MVFD vehicles can be on the water in a short timeframe to assist in times of maritime emergencies.

Through many hours of work, MVFD members were able to get both motors in working condition, repair and replace safety components of the inflatable boat, add navigation lights, warning lights, and add life-saving equipment to make the boat ready to respond to emergencies in Melrose and the surrounding areas.

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GAINESVILLE -- Alachua Habitat for Humanity has named longtime residential homebuilder David Weiss as its new Chief Operations Officer.

Mr. Weiss started in early November in the position that was created when Executive Director Scott Winzeler was promoted to Chief Outreach and Development Officer earlier this year. While Mr. Winzeler will focus on developing the resources needed to expand the mission and advocate within the community for the needs of affordable housing, Mr. Weiss will handle day-to-day operations of the affiliate.

Mr. Weiss has spent much of his 30-year career as owner of a large Midwestern company that built up to 185 homes a year which was a draw to Alachua Habitat as it is looking to ramp up its construction program. “The beauty of Dave’s resume is that he has been a homebuilder with years of experience building hundreds of homes,” Mr. Winzeler said. “Applying the practices he has learned through this process to build affordable housing will enable this affiliate to fulfill its main mission; helping more families obtain affordable housing.”

Mr. Weiss holds a bachelor’s degree in construction management from Purdue University. “I’m very excited,“ Mr. Weiss said of the new job. “Our 10-year plan is to double the number of families we serve and I plan to implement processes to make us run well and efficiently so we can avoid growing pains,” he said. “We owe it to our families, donors, volunteers and staff to make sure we run as smoothly as possible. We want what we do to serve the needs of our community at every level.”                                                                           

Founded in 1986, Alachua Habitat for Humanity is the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International. We envision a world where everyone has a decent place to live and we work towards that vision by bringing people together to build strength, stability, and self-reliance through shelter. To accomplish these goals, we invite people of all backgrounds, races, and religions to build houses together in partnership with local families in need of affordable housing. Through volunteer labor and donations of money and materials, Alachua Habitat has built more than 145 homes in the local community. Habitat houses are sold to homeowner families at no profit and financed with affordable loans. For more information visit www.alachuahabitat.org

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