From Paynes Prairie to Dudley Farm, Alachua County is home to a diverse assortment of historic sites. Literary buffs will savor a trip to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park and a post-tour meal at The Yearling Restaurant. Those who wish to take a step back in time will enjoy the Old Florida feel of the Historic Haile Homestead. A trip to downtown Gainesville offers the luxuries of twenty-first-century dining and shopping amidst turn-of-the-twentieth-century architecture.
This list of the top 10 historical attractions to see in Alachua County, Florida includes a blend of modern images of historic buildings and historic postcards and photographs. Except for the picture of the Historic Haile Homestead, each of the following images was featured in the Matheson History Museum’s daily History Mystery series. Scroll through the list to learn more about these must-do historical attractions near Gainesville, Florida.
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
For generations visitors from around the world have flocked to Paynes Prairie, one of the crown jewels of Florida’s state park system. Named for the Seminole chief King Payne, Paynes Prairie became Florida’s first state preserve in 1971 due to the efforts of Gainesville Garden Club activists including Marjorie Harris Carr. Activists worked with the state to restore the prairie as much as possible to the conditions that existed when naturalist William Bartram visited in 1774. Park information is available on the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park website.
Lake Alice receives most of the attention from Gainesville residents and tourists. However, Gator Lake used to be a popular gathering spot for University of Florida students. Fraternity brothers frequently tossed members into the lake after they “pinned” a sweetheart. Considering that an alligator used to make its home there, this hazing tradition was not entirely sweet-natured. Gator Lake appears as Gator Pond on this map of the University of Florida.
In 2000 Newnans Lake was the site of what the Florida Museum of Natural History described as the world’s largest discovery of ancient watercraft. Researchers concluded that more than 70 percent of the 101 dugout canoes that were found in this lake are between 500 and 5,000 years old. This find prompted an ongoing campaign to change the lake’s name to its previous Seminole name, Lake Pithlachoco, which translates to “place of long boats.” In 2001 the lake was added to the National Register of Historic Places as Lake Pithlachoco. Directions to the lake can be found here.
University of Florida Campus Historic District
In 1989 twenty buildings in the University of Florida Campus Historic District were added to the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the buildings included in UF’s Campus Historic District were built by architect William A. Edwards and are examples of the Collegiate Gothic style. Information on campus buildings listed on the Register can be found on the University of Florida website.
1867 Matheson House
In 1867 Augusta Florida Steele, daughter of Judge Augustus Steele, married James Douglas Matheson, a Confederate veteran who was among the first volunteers to enlist in the Seventh South Carolina Cavalry during the Civil War. He fought for General Robert E. Lee during the fall of Richmond and was at Appomattox when Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. Upon finding South Carolina in ruins, Matheson made a fresh start in Gainesville, Florida, where he eventually opened a downtown mercantile store.
The 1867 Matheson House, one of Gainesville’s three oldest houses, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The house is adjacent to Sweetwater Park, where the Battle of Gainesville was fought on August 17, 1864. The Matheson House shares a parking lot with the Matheson History Museum, which features exhibits on Gainesville’s Civil War history. More information can be found on the Matheson’s website.
Ever since the 1885 Alachua County Courthouse was demolished the centerpiece of downtown Gainesville has been the former federal building, which is now home to the Hippodrome State Theatre. Many of today’s downtown shops and businesses have changed very little over the past century. The nearby Thomas Center is also worth a visit. Built in the Mediterranean Revival style, this former hotel includes a lush garden, art galleries and restored period rooms. Highlights of Gainesville’s historic downtown buildings are available here.
Dudley Farm Historic State Park
A visit to Dudley Farm is like being transported back to Old Florida. This working farm tells the story of three generations of the Dudley family. Volunteers cook on an antique wood stove and demonstrate how to make cane syrup. Information on tours and festivals is available on the Dudley Farm website.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park
Cross Creek is an oasis of nature and culture in north central Florida. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park Manager Valerie Rivers offers in-depth tours of the Rawlings house and the working farm that surrounds it. Park staff and volunteers still use Rawlings’ wood stove to make marmalade, biscuits and other Southern staples. Rawlings’ 1942 book, “Cross Creek Cookery” is on display in the kitchen, perpetually open to her recipe for Utterly Deadly Southern Pecan Pie. Directions and tour information are available on the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park website.
Pleasant Street Historic District
The Pleasant Street Historic District is one of Gainesville’s oldest African American neighborhoods. This thriving district, which included a Freedmen’s Bureau school (Union Academy), was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. More information on Union Academy and Pleasant Street is available in local historian Murray Laurie’s Florida Historical Quarterly article. A walking tour is available here.
Historic Haile Homestead
The Historic Haile Homestead is one of the Gainesville area’s three oldest houses. Thomas Evans Haile and his wife, Esther “Serena” Chesnut Haile, had fifteen children. Their 6,200-square-foot house was completed in 1856 and is in excellent shape today. The Haile Homestead is famous for its “talking walls.” Haile family members and visitors wrote more than 12,500 words on the walls of every room of the house. Tours of the Historic Haile Homestead shed light on both the Haile family and the enslaved laborers who lived and worked on the plantation. Directions and more information can be found on the Historic Haile Homestead website.