Cedar Key was named for the red cedar trees that covered the chain of islands making up the area of Cedar Key and back in the mid to late 1800’s the area’s thriving industry was supplying that red cedar to pencil manufacturers. Today, one of two main industries is farming but not the agricultural farming that you are probably thinking of, but aquaculture farming. In the marsh waters off the islands of Cedar Key are grown and harvested 95 percent of all the farm grown clams supplied in the United States. The second important industry to the area is tourism as visitors are attracted to the rustic, old style Florida charm and laid back and sometimes quirky life style that makes these chain of islands so unique.
Cedar Key is a working waterfront community and in addition to the aquaculture of clams, crabbing and the harvesting of oysters are also a big part of Cedar Key’s seafood industry.
A visit to the Cedar Key Museum State Park will show you that the community of Cedar Key is a community built on resilience. Having survived the loss of the cedar industry due to the hurricane of 1896, it has had to rebuild and reinvent itself on more than one occasion since.
At the Cedar Key Museum state park is the St. Clair Whittman home built in 1880 and moved to the current site in 1991. St. Clair Whittman had moved to Cedar Key as a young boy and grew up there. As an adult he became involved in the cedar industry as well as the harvesting of fibers from young Sabal Palms to be used in the manufacture of whisk brooms. Mr Whittman loved the islands and was known for his collection of sea shells and other artifacts that he displayed in his home. His home was considered the first museum of Cedar Key. After his death in 1959 his collection of artifacts was donated to the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History with the agreement that a permanent museum would later be built on Cedar Key. That museum was built in 1961 where Mr. Whittman’s collection was put on display. In 1991 the Whittman family donated the home so it too could be part of the exhibit and it has been completely restored to depict the life of 1920’s life in Cedar Key.
In the main museum building and on it’s grounds are artifacts from the early days of the island’s history including exhibits showing the importance of the area in the civil war era. During the civil war salt was in high demand to preserve food for the Confederate troops as there were no means of refrigeration in that time period. Salt water from the Gulf of Mexico was boiled down in large kettles at Cedar Key and the salt that remained was sold to the Confederate army for one dollar per pound until the Union army raid of 1862 when the kettles were destroyed.
Cedar Key is actually made up of many islands and is also the home to the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge. These islands can only be accessed by boat and at the main dock in the downtown area are boat tours that will take you to the islands. One of the most popular islands is Seahorse Key, home to the Nature Coast Biological Research Center run by the University of Florida. Also at Seahorse key is a lighthouse dating back to 1854 which was used as a federal prison during the civil war.
Lodging on Cedar Key is mostly condos, rental homes and cottages, however there are some small hotels. The community is rustic and rural with narrow streets and golf cart traffic. Even though you are on a chain of islands surrounded by waterways and the Gulf of Mexico, there are not a lot of sandy beaches. However, there are many water activities to enjoy such as canoeing, kayaking and boat tours. And let us not forget that there are a lot of great fishing opportunities too.
Cedar Key is located on The Gulf coast of Florida in Levy county about 3 hours north of Tampa and 2 1/2 hours northwest of Orlando and is an area that is definitely off the beaten path.