Busy author, historical hike leader blazes new trails toward West
“The walker in the familiar fields which stretch around my native town sometimes finds himself in another land,” Henry David Thoreau once wrote, and it has surely been my experience that on the walks through familiar Central Florida territory led by author Steve Rajtar, I have found myself in another land —the past.
An outdoor enthusiast, Scout leader, prolific author and lawyer, Rajtar has for years been an indispensable source of information about Central Florida’s history.
Not only has he led hundreds of free weekend historical hikes, dispensing nuggets of information and good humor along the way, but he’s now working on his 26th book — his third collaboration with his wife, writer Gayle Rajtar. Many of those volumes are about Florida’s heritage.
I’m always thinking I’ll join Steve Rajtar soon on another trek into history. So, like a lot of other folks, I was rocked recently to learn that, if I’m going to do that, I’d better get moving — because only five more Rajtar-led Central Florida walks are scheduled after today.
The end of these trails is for a happy reason: The Rajtars are starting a new chapter of their lives, leaving in late November for Sammamish, Wash., — a suburb of Seattle that Forbes has deemed one of the nation’s friendliest towns.
Here, Rajtar has led 373 “walks (and paddles and bike rides) for the Florida Trail Association,” he wrote recently, also listing his finale schedule: Micanopy on Oct. 26, Geneva on Oct. 27, the Lake Ivanhoe area in Orlando on Nov. 2, followed by Lake Cherokee on Nov. 10, and Greenwood Cemetery on Nov. 16.
All these walks start at 9 a.m., except for the one in Micanopy, which starts at 10, Steve writes. Note that his walk at Greenwood, the city of Orlando’s historic cemetery, is a morning jaunt and is different from the cemetery’s Moonlight Walking Tours, scheduled on or near the full moon (for more on them, go to greenwoodcemetery.net).
Tales of the pioneers
Afew years ago, I joined Rajtar and about 20 other folks on a 2-mile saunter through part of Greenwood. Amid old oaks and grassy lawns, we hikers Steve Rajtar (2nd from left) explains the history of one of the historical buildings along Church Street during a walking tour of downtown Orlando in 2007. Over the years, he has led more than 370 treks along Central Florida’s historical trails for the Florida Trail Association. learned about the folks who built Orlando.
There was James Hughey, for example, whose name survives on a downtown street. He arrived at the dawn of time in Orlando terms — 1855 — and built a log house where Grace and Macy streets would later intersect. Now, not only Hughey’s cabin but those streets are long gone, sacrificed to Interstate 4.
We also learned about Big Tom Shine and his cousin Little TomShine (another street name), and years after them, Edna Giles Fuller, the first woman elected to Florida’s legislature, in 1928.
I especially liked Rajtar’s notes about Dr. R. H. Peak, 1841-1919 (“a good man loved by all,” his headstone says), who concocted a beverage out of palmetto berries called “Peak’s Palmetto.” To say that it did not foreshadow the success of Coca-Cola would be an understatement.
Rajtar has stories about dozens of these worthy builders of Central Flori- da, many of whomhad exceptionally diverse careers: They ran livery stables and steam laundries, clerked at hotels, taught school, worked in dry-good stores, built churches, delivered the mail.
What’s impressive “is that a lot of them did so many things,” he said as we walked through Greenwood, and I’m reminded that the same is so true of him and of Gayle — so many walks, books, articles, so many gifts to our community.
By the way, as the Rajtars pack up, they are also wrapping up that latest book, titled “Gone Pro: Florida,” about the nearly 700 University of Florida alumni who went on to professional sports or the Olympics. That’ll be on bookstore shelves some time next year.
To learn more
For more information about the upcoming hikes led by Steve Rajtar — two this month on Oct. 26 and 27 and three in November — including how long the walks are, how to get there and where to park, visit meetup.com/ Florida-Trail-Association-CentralFlorida-Chapter/