With a population just over 5,000, the city of High Springs is nevertheless home to some of the most fascinating and rich history in Alachua County.
Its roots stem from early development along the Santa Fe River and a massive train hub, and the city is now trying to preserve its history with the town’s only museum.
However, COVID-19 and a lack of volunteers meant the museum had to shut down for over a year. Eventually, it has started opening again — first for just once a month and by appointment only.
Now, the city’s Pioneer Days are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday this month, and with the pandemic finally easing up, the museum plans to reopen its doors to let the world know about the once bustling town of trains, mills, and other stories.
Recently, Bill and Diane Karras have kept the museum alive. The couple has been involved with the museum since 2014. Having lived in the area for over 30 years, Bill and Diane have learned and witnessed the change in High Springs.
Perhaps the biggest point of pride in their management of the museum is the progress on a diorama of High Springs. It’s 25 feet long and 8 feet wide and seeks to replicate the city’s bustling downtown during an earlier era.
Bill Karras, 86, has worked on the diorama for the better part of his time as an octogenarian.
He uses an original blueprint of the railroads that the city gave to him to try and keep the diorama as close as possible to the town. Most of the pictures, clothing, and other items are donations that were given to the museum from different individuals over the past few years.
Still, with such a small space, both Bill and Diane hope that the museum will someday be expanded to include more artifacts that they have that are currently kept in storage.
“We’ve had people email us and call us about visiting the museum,” Diane said, “We need to be open to get this history out and keep it alive.”
The key factor that both of them hope to see is more volunteers to run the museum, as well as having more exhibits open up to share other stories about High Springs with guests. These stories include a raging fire that burned down parts of the town in the early 1900s, an 86-year-old peanut mill, and a theatre that is over 100 years old and was only recently closed due to COVID-19 and financial hardship.
Before the pandemic, the museum held a homecoming event that brought in over 30 new supporting members. But the past 13 months walloped the museum, causing it to lose a majority of its members. The museum also hosted school field trips and other tours during the before times, and the staff hope to see those return soon.
David Sutton, the museum’s president, hopes that the museum will in the future be moved to the downtown area where most of the city’s tourists congregate. He hopes that eventually private donors and the city will be able to raise enough money to move the museum out of the old schoolhouse at 23760 NW 187th Ave. and into a much bigger building.
The city at the moment has neither a timeline for a budget for its relocation.
Sutton also wants to have a historic information sign on the main roads into town — U.S. Highways 41, 441 and 27 — that let drivers know about the museum’s location and offerings. He’s awaiting word from the Florida Department of Transportation on whether or not that’s possible. Sutton feels that the museum is tucked away and needs to be brought out into a much bigger facility, primarily somewhere located in the downtown area. This would allow the museum to expand and be a part of the Rails To Trails path that the city and Alachua county are hoping to fund in the decade ahead.
Sutton has also worked with Damon Messina to improve the museum’s position. Messina is parks and recreation director for High Springs and is fascinated by the history of the town. He said he loves its people and hopes that he can help keep the town’s history alive through history and other events.
“There’s a lot going on, and we’re trying to get more involved culturally,” he said. “With music and arts programs, we need to get more involved and with (those who go to) the springs, we need to get people to know about our town.”
Starting in May, the museum plans on being open every other weekend, unless they’re without volunteers, then the schedule will vary.
The museum is also free to anyone to visit, and a supporting membership costs $15 for an individual or $20 for a family. The membership is good for up to a year.
For more information on the museum, you can visit its website.