Historic Dunnellon, Florida – An Undiscovered Gem

Last week, the blues hit me with a vengeance. There was no mystery about my mood; wanderlust was having its way with me and I knew it was once again time to travel. I threw a few things in a bag, grabbed my camera, and pointed the car north, intending to check out some of the smaller inland towns along the Nature Coast, where I’d heard “Old Florida” still exists. Exiting I-75 at US Rt. 98, I traveled west through Brooksville (cute enough, but it just didn’t have the energy I sought) and then turned north on US Rt. 41. Because this used to be the main north-south route in western Florida, it passes through scores of small towns – Inverness, Hernando, Holder, and Citrus Springs – but none piqued my interest enough to make me stop.

Blues Brothers sculpture stands at the entrance of the Two Rivers Inn

A few minutes later, as I crossed over the Withlacoochee River into Dunnellon, Florida, my “interest radar” perked up. A sign proclaiming “Dunnellon Boomtown Historic District” directed me onto Pennsylvania Avenue. I drove past dozens of lovely old restored homes and commercial buildings to the end of the street, where I found the Two Rivers Inn. Mounted in front of this otherwise unassuming row of concrete block cottages was a full-size statue of the Blues Brothers.

“It’s a sign,” I thought. “Maybe the Blues Brothers can chase my blues away.” I found the office and paid for a night’s stay, delighted with the $59 per night rate that came complete with wireless internet. Since my room wouldn’t be ready for another couple of hours, I wandered back down the main drag in search of something to eat. At The Levee Cafe, they were literally standing on the front porch, dragging folks inside on this slow Sunday afternoon. Lured in by the promise of a great Caesar salad, I slid into a booth just as BJ and Bruce began singing the blues during the cafe’s afternoon jam session. “Did I pick the right town, or what!”

Bruce and BJ sing the blues at the Levee Cafe

After a delicious lunch, I headed back to the motel to deposit my suitcase. I must digress for a moment. My criteria for motels and hotels is simple – I seek budget prices, a modicum of cleanliness, and safety. As you might imagine, I have stayed in some real dumps, and with a nightly rate of $59, I was prepared for Two Rivers Inn to be another dump. Hoping for the best but expecting the worst, I opened the front door. My  jaw dropped in astonishment. This was no dump!

The rooms at Two Rivers are mini suites, with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchenette, smallish living room, and a screened front porch. Each suite has a themed decor: “Equestrian,” “Wine Cellar,” “Palm,” “Plantation,” “Golf,” and “Maui,” among others. My suite was aptly named “Nantucket.”

Bedroom of the “Nantucket” mini-suite at Two Rivers Inn

With its high, fluffy bed smothered in throw pillows, its painted furniture, and its cottage-craft wall hangings, it was obviously inspired by a trip to the beach.

Living/sitting area in the “Nantucket”
“Nantucket” kitchenette
Cute as a button bathroom

The kitchen was fully stocked with pots and pans, dishes, glasses, silverware, a toaster, and a coffee maker, and the motel had even provided free coffee. The acid test was the bathroom, as they are usually less than wonderful in these old buildings. But though small, the bath was a delightful combination of old-fashioned design and modern decor. The screened front porch was even furnished with an outdoor table and reclining chairs.

Most intriguing, I learned from the inn keepers, Rhonda and Herbert Moon, that the motel was originally built by the U.S. government as officers quarters during the second world war. After the barracks were no longer needed they were moved from the Dunnellon airport to their present location.

During a subsequent walk around town, I discovered that the Inn is just one of 70 architecturally significant properties in the “Dunnellon Boomtown Historic District.” Prior to the 1888 discovery of hard rock phosphate in the area, the only settlers had been self-sufficient farmers growing cotton, vegetables, sugar, and raising cattle. But that changed drastically once the valuable mineral was identified. Phosphate was a commodity in high demand. In Europe, French farmers alone used 200,000 tons per year and farmers in the U.S. used more than 1,300,000 tons of phosphate fertilizer. Soon, investors, prospectors, and developers were pouring into Dunnellon and a building craze ensued.

Because phosphate mines as well as the timber and turpentine camps surrounded the town site, Dunnellon never segregated its black and white communities. As a result, development happened in a helter-skelter manner, with elaborate Victorian mansions constructed alongside “shotgun shacks” and foreman’s cottages. Saloons, bordellos, rooming houses, churches, and mercantiles sprung up between residences to serve the needs of this rough-and-ready mining boom town.

Boom times continued until the beginning of World War I in 1914, when European ports were closed to U.S. shipments and demand for phosphate from domestic markets was decreasing. By the time the war ended, France had discovered phosphate deposits in its French territories in North Africa and Dunnellon faded into obscurity, just another sleepy, small town in north central Florida.

The town’s slow recovery, which did not begin until the late 1960’s, was a unwitting contributor to the preservation of many of the historic structures. Finally, newcomers began moving into the Historic District and restoring houses for commercial and residential use. For the remainder of the afternoon, I wandered in and out of restored Victorian mansions converted to antique shops, gift stores, florists, real estate offices, and and restaurants. The best among them was the Grumbles House, which offered an intriguing selection of gifts, antiques, and live plants in an outdoor nursery.

Grumbles House restored Victorian mansion
At the Grumbles House, buy antiques and gifts inside, plants and flowers outside

The Historic District is not the only attraction in Dunnellon. These days the town’s most treasured natural resource is its location at the confluence of the Withlacoochee and Rainbow Rivers and the existence of nearby Rainbow Springs, the second largest natural spring in the state of Florida. Already, I know I will stay here more than one day – there is much more to explore, so stay tuned for part two about this undiscovered gem along the Nature Coast of Florida.

20 thoughts on “Historic Dunnellon, Florida – An Undiscovered Gem”

  1. Sometime over the weekend the Blues Brothers statue was destroyed. There were not tire tracks from the street to the statue, and no sever storm but Sunday AM it was sown and in piece.

  2. I just stumbled across your blog love it. I visited Dunnellon today for the first time only what a fun day we had. We went on a wonderful pontoon boat tour with Mike our singing captain he was very knowledgeable about the areas history. We drove by the inn you stayed at and never would have guessed how nice it is inside thanks for the photos. The Grumble House was such a neat place. I too have a passion for photography and loved taking in the sights.
    Thanks for sharing, safe and happy travels to you Barbara.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Kelley – it always means a lot to me. And I’m happy to hear that you thought Dunnellon was as adorable as I did. Safe and happy travels to you as well.

  3. We are now into 2016 amazing and Dunnellon is truly a jewel of a city. My parents moved there about eight years ago as my Mother was looking so forward to being in a quaint historic town. She passed away and didn’t get to enjoy however we have all continued to visit and to this day it is an amazing community, friendly people, quaint town with some of the most awesome antique shops as well as dinning. Being a photographer I find it so rewarding to visit often for weddings, events, and nature photography. There is no place to compare the convenience of floating on the river, fishing in the river or lakes in the area. If one has a chance this is a quaint little town to be visited and enjoyed by all ages. What a nice blog and story about Two Rivers Inn.

  4. Great Story about the Dunnellon area!! Next time you come to the Rainbow River, we’d love for you to stay here at the Rainbow River Cabin.

    • Hi Rainbow River Cabin: Thank you so much for your comment. Don’t know when or of I’ll be back in the area, but if I am I will definitely let you know Thanks so much for your kind offer.

  5. Wow, I was born and raised in Dunnellon………..nothing in my travels compares to the decent moral upbringing given by my experience there. I long to paddle up the river as I did with my dad who was born on the river……Moyers it was called. God placed his finger there and I am thankful for the memories. The Busbys.

  6. After having read your great article I am inspired to do a little maths and at $59 per night for your hotel this would be $1770 and for us Brits £1,127 and this included wifi. Now here in the UK the average house rent / mortgage is about £800 a month plus local utility council tax and broadband, I bet your looking at near a £1,000 a month so what a great deal to come to Florida and live for a whole month. Then all we need is a cheap flight To florida and we are set for a month of Florida sunshine. Once again great article and got my mind thinking of possibilities.

    • Hi Traveler Tom: I think you can do much better than the $59 per night if
      you bargain for a long term stay. Florida is filled with vacation rental
      properties and tourism has been off over the past few years, so you have
      room to deal.

  7. Wow. I live right down the street from the Two Rivers Inn. Dunnellon isn’t as small as it used to be but it still has many of it’s historic value and structures still standing. Many more have been added making my town even more wonderful to live. Glad you had an amazing time in my little town. Come back soon (:

  8. Great information! It brought back some wonderful memories. My wife’s mother grew up in the frame house on Pennsylvania Ave, right across the street from the fire station. We spent many visits in this house when we went to visit grandma. In fact, my wife and I spent part of our honeymooon in this house in 1980. It has been many years since we have been back to visit Dunnellon. I think that the house is a shop now. If you go to Dunnellon, make sure that you stop by KP Hole on the river for a cool dip on a sunny afternoon. Rent a canoe and paddle upstream to see the springs. You’ll be glad that you did!

    Gary from Blue Springs, Missouri

    • Oh Gary, what fun to have someone read my post who actually has a history there! Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, and you are so right about the beauty of the springs.

  9. Hi. I’m the Bruce pictured above with B.J.
    My band “Section 8” will be playing at the Levee
    on April 17 and we are available for gigs (classic
    rock & blues) Call (352) 533-2604

  10. Wow, what a boondoggle you had. Reminds me of my single days when I’d leave early Saturday morning heading west until I ran into a nice town in the Berkshires. I love the drowsy pace of those little towns. Your beautiful description brought back a lot of good memories. Thanks, Barbara Ann

    PS I love inns, too. I reviewed the Arroyo Inn in Pasadena, which is heaven.

    CuriousDina’s last blog post..Cartwheel over to So Baby Boomer for Carnival 108


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