Going Back to Mayo Part II: Back in Mayo Again

Back in Mayo means obligatory selfie with the Mayo Water Tower. July 2020.

Considering how much down-time 2020 has afforded us, I found myself surprisingly mobile this year. It turns out that driving across the country is a good socially-distanced activity, even when passing through states which are, with a lot of help from psychopathic governors and yell-talking Boomers who still think they have a shot with that 20-something bartender, COVID-addled nightmares.

Speaking of Florida, I found myself back in Mayo, the seat of the state’s thinly populated Lafayette County. The whole county’s population sits well under 10,000, and the Republican Party ticket dominated over 85% of the vote, among the most lopsided differential in the state. I hate to paint any state as “Red” or “Blue,” considering how Georgia proved that nothing is permanent, but Florida really feels like the quintessential nest for Trumpism (see previous paragraph). I’m still unconvinced that boats can operate in Tampa Bay unless they are flying at least two MAGA flags. Further into this tangent, the preponderance of Trump boat parades led some right-wing pundits to express sheer shock at their Dear Leader losing based upon this gaudy empirical evidence. It’s almost like they learned nothing from the 1936 Literary Digest election poll, but some a bizarre inverse version focusing on people whose identity and self-worth is expressed through boat ownership (that I’m not qualified to conduct).

Five years ago, I wrote about how some colleagues and I first wound up in Mayo in 2010 while interviewing locals about 2001 wildfires. In March 2015, my friend and I stopped through on a scenic drive between Tallahassee and Gainesville. A number of shops and eateries that I recalled from 2010 were no longer there, including one prominent smokehouse, which I believe had turned into a pizza place of dubious functioning status.

The supposed (according to a December 2020 Google Search) home of Casa Frias. In 2015, this building housed a cafe-restaurant with a bizarrely misspelled “Ya’ll” on the entrance.

I only had time to grab lunch at a corner cafe (apparently defunct, even as of this writing 5 months later), take a few photos of the amazing Lafayette County Court House (and Chateau de Lafayette across the street, seen in this post’s cover photo), and stop into the Dust Catcher thrift shop, run by Vi Johnson.

Vi Johnson reads on a slow day at the Dust Catcher Thrift, Mayo FL, July 2020.

I chatted with Vi for a few minutes before purchasing a one-time-use camera from 1999 and getting back on the road. Despite owning the building, Vi was hoping that somebody would buy her out, considering how many books and curios she had accumulated with no real hope for moving otherwise. Similar to many similar towns I’ve found via the Ben Irving Postcard Project (Belding, MI, for example), the Interstate Highways had long since redirected most traffic away from FL-27, sapping the tiny municipality of any real potential for sustainable economic gains. As if that wasn’t already an insurmountable challenge to any local entrepreneurs, she added, the opening of Dollar stores at opposing ends of Main Street “absolutely killed” her. Additionally, the biggest local company, a logging concern, had successfully petitioned to remove most of the parallel parking spots from Main Street in order to give their mammoth trucks unfettered access to tear through the mostly-vacant downtown. I’m not injecting any personal opinion here when I type that it’s a sad state of affairs.

Anyway, the last thing I want to do is look down my nose at small towns that are, through no fault of their own, aging out and clinging to life. I finally read Chris Arnade’s book Dignity this fall, and in it, he outlines the danger of romanticizing the struggles of those “left behind” in America. I also struggle with my love of small towns, considering how I have never really lived in one. As I’ve also written here, I grew up in a town that loved throwing that label around, but considering how much money (both New England-auld and 90’s nouveau-riche) swirls through the place, I would refrain from slapping John Cougar Mellencamp in the background of a video about it (more on that coming in 2021).

If anybody reads this and happens to know somebody opening up a retro-style café or bar, I have a lead on a functioning, vintage soda fountain for sale in North Florida. You can’t see much of it in this photo (below), but it’s under there, I promise, and it’s a classic.

Going Back to Mayo

The Mayo Water Tower, March 2010.

The Mayo Water Tower at sunset, March 2010.

Sometime in March of 2010,  I was involved with a wildlife filming expedition (of sorts) to Northwestern Florida when my group wound up riding through a small town called Mayo. Initially, we found the town’s name quirky enough and its water tower iconic-seeming-enough to earn a drive through the small central district. I wasn’t able to spend as much time getting to know Mayo as I would have liked. A lot of our filming happened elsewhere in the thinly-populated Lafayette County, which I somewhat ignorantly referred to as “the abyss between Tallahassee and Gainesville” to northern friends. Pragmatically, though, there is something almost ghostly about that area. Mayo’s population has hovered precariously around 1,000 for most of the 21st century, yet it’s still the county’s administrative seat. Our business there was filming some county council meetings, speaking with some regional citizens who had lost property during widespread wildfires that had ravaged Northern Florida earlier in the decade.

Students from American University interview a Lafayette County resident about his experiences with wildfire on his property while filmmaker Wolfgang Obst looks on.

Students from American University interview a Lafayette County resident about his experiences with wildfire on his property while filmmaker Wolfgang Obst looks on.

Before too long, I got bored with the proceedings and decided to wander outside to stretch my legs. It wasn’t my project; I was only there because I wanted to catch another glimpse of this quiet little town before wrapping our filming week and heading back to DC. My restlessness led me to a softball tournament happening in the fields outside of the high school, which quickly became a highlight of the entire trip. I have no idea when I would have time to write a paper about it, but there has to be some ground to the types of activities that provide the most “authentic” (dirty word, I know) experience of a place. I would place “softball tournament” right up there with “local dive bar performance” as the best barometer of what constitutes the quotidian in any locality. People are there in equal parts because they want to be and because they have some type of civic or familial duty to be.

Mayo, FL - March 2010

Mayo, FL – March 2010

The timbre of the crowd watching softball (including myself, I gladly paid the $4 entry fee) seemed to lean toward the former. The early-evening temperature was perfect and the Florida Panhandle accents abounded (keep in mind this was still a novelty to me at the time; I wouldn’t move to Tennessee for another three years yet). Needless to say, that tiny town in what felt like the middle of nowhere off the Suwanee River left a disproportionate impression on me. I left a couple days later to go see a music festival in St. Augustine, and I couldn’t get Mayo out of my head for some reason. I had a standing offer to return to Lafayette County that weekend for what our group’s regional liaison Sharon referred to as “the biggest redneck barbecue of the entire year,” but I couldn’t manage it. In fact, a few days later I flew back up to DC and resumed my life, wondering if I would ever have the chance to pass through Mayo again.

Main Street, Mayo, FL - March 2010

Main Street, Mayo, FL – March 2010

A few weeks ago, against some range of odds, it happened. My friend Sean and I were on a road trip between Tallahassee and Gainesville, and decided to take the rural route 27 rather than the markedly less scenic and only marginally faster freeway-to-freeway route. The only real advantage to doing that would have been a photo-op with that iconic Cafe Risque “We Bare All” billboard. We made the right choice in taking 27. One thing I had forgotten was that Mayo is almost exactly in between the two cities. There did not seem to be a clear majority of Seminoles or Gators gear on license plate frames or poorly-fitting t-shirts. The equilibrium felt (here’s that word again) ghost-like. In fact, the town felt largely the same, though it was a welcome relief seeing it in full daylight.

March 19, 2015. Pardon my misplaced enthusiasm.

March 19, 2015. Pardon my misplaced enthusiasm.

My friend and I stopped at Meme’s cafe (pronounced Mimi’s) right in the center of town for some lunch and to recharge. Meme’s is located in the space where Sonny C’s Barbecue Chicken stood five years ago (you can see the sign in the photo of Main Street above). We were distracted with a sign that read “ya’ll come back” to exiting customers; were the proprietors of this diner trying extra hard to seem Southern? It wouldn’t shock me to find out that Mayo has pockets of retirees or non-Natives who wanted a quieter, less expensive life than places like New York, Miami, or Atlanta could have offered. We also wandered into the one prominent supermarket in town (actually directly to the right of where I’m standing in that picture above) and discovered how heavily Latin-American the market was. It came as a surprise, considering how off-the-beaten-path the town seemed, despite exploding Mexican and other Central-American populations throughout the “New South.” Only approximately 16% of census respondents categorized themselves as Latino of any race as of 2000, though one could assume that’s risen substantially since then.

The porch of the Old Lafayette County Courthouse (1888), now a  Bed and Breakfast. The current Lafayette County Courthouse (built in 1908) can be seen off on the right side of the frame. March 19, 2015.

The porch of the Old Lafayette County Courthouse (1888), now a Bed and Breakfast. The current Lafayette County Courthouse (built in 1908) can be seen off on the right side of the frame. March 19, 2015.

It’s easy to get condescendingly wistful when you pass through places like Mayo. It has more warmth than a succession of one stoplight towns in Northwestern Texas, and it has more noteworthy architecture than plenty of towns twice its size. But, as I discovered this time around, Mayo didn’t really need my pity. Unlike so many tiny towns in the United States, it doesn’t appear to be much worse off than it was five years ago. Actually, if you look at that photo of downtown from March 2010 again, you may notice an abandoned pair of buildings – one red, one tan. This is what they looked like a few weeks ago:

Tumbleweed's Smokehouse, March 19, 2015

Tumbleweed’s Smokehouse, March 19, 2015

Nothing against Meme, but I wandered into the restaurant on the left out of curiosity before we left for Gainesville. The scent of roasting BBQ smacked me in the nose and I think I may actually have said “wow” right within earshot of the proprietor. It made sense, considering how the actual smokehouse sat right next door to the dining room; most of the time you see smokers sitting fairly far afield from where the customers actually eat it. Not a bad approach for the latest agents in the always-changing BBQ situation in Mayo. I wish we had chosen to eat there. There’s always a next time, though.

I know some of you may be getting sick of how much love I give Florida on this site, but it’s hard for me to resist. I know it’s inaccurate because I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time there, but I feel like I’ve found more cool small towns in the Sunshine State than the other 49 combined. The lesson here is, no matter how you may feel about a state, you will very rarely regret taking that rural route if you have the time.

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