Discover Ozello: the Nature Coast Keys

Ozello (or as the locals pronounce it Ozelluh) can be found between Crystal River and Homosassa by turning onto Highway 494 from U.S. 19. This winding two-lane blacktop is called “The Ozello Trail,” and it twists and turns through St. Martin’s Aquatic Preserve, a 23,000 acre wildlife preserve owned by the citizens of Florida and managed by the DNR. (map at end of article)

As one snakes along the seemingly endless salt marsh flats, a building here and a building there lead to a tight-knit community of about 400 residents living on a chain of islands, inlets and peninsulas that are a part of Florida’s Nature Coast. Watersports, such as fishing and kayaking, are popular.

The perfect souvenir, an Ozello University Sleepin’ Dogs T, is available at the local store.

A university and a famed golf course are alluded to on the internet, but we couldn’t find them. There is a great seafood restaurant with magical views. A whole lot of natural beauty and “old Florida” lifestyle abounds here.

Ozello has a peaceful, natural vibe. It’s the kind of place where you can forget the hustle and bustle of a fast-paced society, kick up your heels, and enjoy the breeze on a hot summer’s day. Its residents appear to be both laid back and hardy.

Ozello sunsets are to be savored…

Residents have been enjoying Ozello since the late 1800’s. The Florida Department of Agriculture reports that Ozello’s population in 1880 was zero. By 1900, 49 people lived on the chain of islands that makes up this unincorporated piece of unspoiled Citrus County. The population included 4 blacks, Benjamin F. Early, a merchant from Pennsylvania and a widower; the Bryant Moody family, merchants including Bevious V. Burt, listed as a tie contractor; Edward Wheeler, James Jones and Joseph Brown were three of the twenty farmers living in Ozello, along with four fishermen which included Dupree Wheeler and Joseph Wadington.

Island School Boat

The Ozello School Boat was constructed on a central island with the justification that a child that could not row a boat by the age of six was “beyond the hope of education.”

The school was built on an Indian mound on a small island in the middle of the river. This was agreeable because it was said that a child who could not row a boat by the time he was six years old was beyond the hope of education.

At first, there was a log house with a palm-thatched roof that was used for the school, then later came a frame structure of about 20 by 30 feet. The Ozello schoolhouse gained world-wide recognition as “The Isle of Knowledge” when noted cartoonist Robert L. Ripley featured it in his syndicated newspaper feature, “Believe It or Not!”

The Ozello School was built on an Indian mound. The building was destroyed in a storm, but the residents used its platform for roller skating for a time.

Since 1943, when Mrs. Martin resigned as teacher, the children have been transported by school boat and bus to Crystal River schools. School boats have been used in many Florida counties since schooling became mandatory in 1939.

St. Martin’s Aquatic Preserve

St. Martins Aquatic Preserve comprises 23,000 acres of islands and natural habitat, protecting flora and fauna from development.

Although many of the original cabins are gone due to the State’s creation of St. Martin’s Aquatic Preserve in 1990, requiring the elimination of residents’ and squatters’ cabins, the town of Ozello remains intact, with its water tower, volunteer fire department, Civic Club, and Baptist church.

When you reach the Ozello water tower, you’ve arrived!

Pirates Cove was originally a restaurant and bar located at the end of the island – looking out onto the Gulf. It was quite a hopping place in the 1990s, but was destroyed by the no-name storm. Today a boat ramp and park are fine places for enjoying the sunset without disturbing the wildlife.

When you see the water tower, you’ve arrived…

“Ozello’s unique location on the Gulf Coast allows for kayakers to have a breathtaking experience with Mother’s Nature’s majestic wildlife. This unusual, tight-knit community offers many opportunities for residents to visit and interact – both on and off the water.

Peck’s Old Port Cove

Peck’s Old Port Cove Restaurant began when Calvin Peck moved to Ozello from Ohio in the 1980s, and bought the restaurant from Aunt Myrtle Clifton. It was Aunt Myrtle’s house, but she had installed a few bar stools back in the ’40s so she could serve beer to the servicemen who landed on the military airstrip down the street. The restaurant has been expanded and improved over the years. After 24 hairpin turns and 9.3 miles of “are we there yet,” Peck’s is always a welcome sight.

Peck’s Old Port Cove is a destination restaurant, with a blue crab farm on-premises.

 

This iconic restaurant features one of the few blue crab farms in the U.S. The daily harvest of these delicacies brings people for miles. In fact, one time Galen Hall and his Florida Gators drove all the way here to try Peck’s fine seafood samplings!

The Annual Chili Cookoff – Feb. 18

The Ozello Craft Show and Chili Cookoff help raise funds for the Civic Association. Feb. 18, 2017 is the Chili Cook-off date.

The purpose of the Ozello Civic Association is to preserve Ozello’s unique historic character, to enhance the quality of life in Ozello, and to promote a cohesive community of visitors, residents, businesses, and institutions.

Every February, the Ozello Civic Association puts on it Chili Cookoff – an event that draws people from all over the area. Cash prizes for the top 3 chilis, crafts, a chili dinner, and the chance to win a kayak are the main draws.

Ozellow has been called “The Western Keys of Florida.” Do you agree?

This Chili Cookoff was started about 15 years ago as small friendly competition between Civic members and it has grown exponentially throughout the years.  The last ten years have also featured local artists and craft vendors which add a lot to the festival.

It went so well that a fine arts show was added in the fall.

Proceeds from these events support the Ozello Civic Association and 50 volunteers help make it happen! This fun event takes place at the “hub” of Ozello: on the grounds of the Civic Association and community Church.

Island Life… Old Florida Style

Lloyd Debusk was born in Ozello in 1938. His sisters attended school in the old Ozello island schoolhouse by rowing the family boat there, but John got to take the school boat to Homosassa for his education.

The islands are full of remnants of pioneer homes and old landmarks.

The buildings have changed quite a bit over the years, but the islands that make up this community endure and those who choose to reside in Ozello know how to get around and enjoy what the Lord has made. By working together, Ozello’s islanders have chosen to preserve a way of life that has all but faded away in many parts of Florida.

Visiting Ozello is just a quick turn off U.S. 19 between Homosassa and Crystal River. The drive through St. Martin’s Aquatic Preserve up to Pirates Park is meandering and peaceful. The first residents were farmers and fishermen and there hasn’t been any large scale development.

Here is a video to help you enjoy the drive virtually:

Waterfowl and dolphins intermingle for their enjoyment, as well as ours. This waterfront community values the slower pace and neighborly traits of a time gone by. – And those who have the “right stuff” can call it home.

Map of Ozello, courtesy of Ozello.net, who provided many of the images for this article. You can visit the site for more information on this unique place in Florida’s Nature Coast.

More information on Ozello can be found at Ozello.net