Can a city be unique and yet be quintessentially representative of an entire state? It can if you’re talking about Cedar Key.
Cedar Key’s history is different than any other place in the state and while today it can be described as a tourist destination, it’s only that for people in the know.
The small city of about 700 people sits on an island in the midst of a group of islands called the Cedar Keys. The name of the island on which most of the city rests is Way Key. The area was named for the cedar trees that once grew in abundance there. The industry that grew up to harvest the cedars is how the city developed such a rich and unique history.
Florida has several towns that were created, became successful and were subsequently passed by for one reason or another then became forgotten. Some, like Key West had a renaissance while others such as Micanopy never rebounded.
Cedar Key is one of the latter. This isn’t a negative however. Cedar Key is one of the most interesting and funky places that I visit. It’s a city that’s friendly but may not really care if you are visitor.
Except for a couple gift shops and maybe a restaurant or two that are on the pier area, nothing (other than fishing boat rentals) is geared to tourism. And when I go there, I go to the restaurants that are obviously for the locals. You’ll still get good seafood and service, but you’ll also get a laid-back “island-life” feeling.
Like much of coastal Florida, there is plenty evidence that the Cedar Keys have been inhabited for several thousand years. Cedar Key Museum State Park is a repository for pre-Columbian artifacts and there are shell mounds in the area which equals long-term human occupation.
It wasn’t until after the Seminole Indian Wars were over that the development of the area began in earnest. By 1860 logging was in full-swing with two lumber mills producing cedarwood for factories in the North that made pencils. Yes, pencils. 1860 also saw the completion of the Florida Railroad to Cedar Key making the young city one of the most important ports in Florida.
In 1861 war forced most everyone’s plans to be halted, but by 1870 cedarwood production was back in full swing and Cedar Key was a boom town.
The decline began in 1886 when Henry Plant developed his railroad to Tampa. The port of Tampa rapidly took over most of the shipping on the coast. The lost of shipping combined with the overharvesting of cedar trees, sponges and oysters caused the population to drop significantly around WWI. The boom was over.
Today not a lot has changed. There’s a healthy clam industry in the area and it’s a great place to go fishing, but simply put, it’s a quiet, out-of-the-way city that’s a great place to visit.