Jack Sanborn didn’t mind a bit that I was 20-plus minutes late for what he refers to as my 50-cent tour of Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center in Milton.
“We’re living on river time now, right?” Sanborn said.
Your chariot awaits, he said, alluding to a golf cart I later discovered has a gift for squeezing through narrow gaps in fences. While many visit Adventures Unlimited for weddings, honeymoons, zipline tours, canoeing or other adventures, I was there to see the several old buildings and structures Sanborn has restored and sprinkled across the 200-acre property starting in the 1990s.
He compares his refurbished treasures to Monopoly pieces — a 1920s schoolhouse here, a train car and caboose there — all tucked away in secluded spots along the Blackwater River property. Sanborn’s explanation for his eclectic collection is simple.
“It’s a way of giving back to the community,” Sanborn said. “In Europe, for years, people have preserved and passed on from generation to generation the history. One of the ways of preserving the history is the buildings.
“There’s so much charm to the old.”
Sanborn could lead the way around his chunk of paradise in his sleep.
He’s always found pleasure near water. He grew up in Gainesville and spent time canoeing and exploring Ocala National Forest. He ended up in Northwest Florida while stationed at Naval Air Station Whiting Field during his 21 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserve.
The first stop on the tour of aged structures is the Fidelis Schoolhouse, which was built between 1926 and 1927. It was the first consolidated school in Santa Rosa County, located just south of Brewton, Alabama, Sanborn said.
Sanborn acquired it in 1996. The superintendent of schools asked Sanborn if he was interested in it before it was torn down.
“The word was out we were restoring,” Sanborn said.
The superintendent first offered it to Sanborn for free. But, because it was public property, it had to be auctioned.
“One other guy showed up to the auction,” Sanborn said. “(The auctioneer) said, ‘We have a starting bid of $100?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll give $100.’ I got it for a $100.”
The price was a steal, but it took $22,000 to move it and $180,000 to restore it. Sanborn also had to have the roof lowered and the building cut into thirds to move it 20 miles.
It was worth it.
“The beauty of it is when you started tearing up layer after layer of linoleum flooring, the floor is hardwood red oak and pecan,” Sanborn said. “It’s got 12-foot ceilings, beaded walls.”
He transformed the original three rooms and a library into eight bedrooms, using the hallway to make en suites. The rooms are individual getaways for rent, with no TVs, telephones or even clocks — presumably so everyone can live on river time.
The schoolhouse’s décor is inspired by Sanborn’s late wife and avid reader, Esther. They opened Adventures Unlimited together in 1976.
“We decided that since it’s a schoolhouse, we would theme the rooms after American authors,” Sanborn said. “We have a Mark Twain room, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Margaret Mitchell, Ernest Hemingway. On the other side, we have Dr. Seuss and American poets.”
Sanborn’s current wife and interior designer, Katie, decorated the rooms to match the names, each with the corresponding books and details. The Margaret Mitchell room features green drapes, a reference to Scarlett O’Hara making a dress out of green drapes in the novel “Gone with the Wind.”
“When you walk in, we want it to scream Margaret Mitchell or whatever it is,” Katie said. “I told Jack, ‘When you’re in Florida, we don’t have moose and antelopes and things most people decorate cabins with.'”
Katie loves that the building is part of history. It’s not being discarded, she said.
“America’s disposable,” Katie said. “We don’t preserve anything, so it’s nice to see a few things held to their — as close as possible — original state.”
The schoolhouse isn’t the only unconventional lodging.
Guests can slumber in a 1927 Pullman dining car or its attached caboose, Katie’s Kaboose. They sit near the schoolhouse made in the same year as the train car — a coincidence, Sanborn said.
“Almost everything we bring out here, we turn into lodging in order to help pay for it,” Sanborn said.
Sanborn traded Milton land for the dining car a few years ago. It’s 90 percent restored.
“When we started restoring it, we tore into the walls to put in new paneling and we started finding a fiber,” Sanborn said. “We were afraid it was going to be asbestos … it was horse hair.”
Horse hair was insulation in the 1920s, he said. Another interesting feature is the solid copper water tanks that run across the ceiling.
Once Sanborn had the dining car, he had to get a caboose, he said.
He bought Katie’s Kaboose from an oral surgeon and Civil War memorabilia collector who’s now in his eighties. He called it the “tooth caboose,” using it for patients’ overnight stays before oral surgery, Sanborn said.
“We’d already put down train tracks for the dining car … The caboose was the perfect ending for our train setup,” Sanborn said. “It’s charming and unique and fits in with everything we’re doing here.”
Some of the cabins are also secondhand.
Katie’s favorite cabin is Granny Peaden’s Cottage, which was constructed in 1901 only a few miles away, near Red Rock Landing. Sanborn met Katie because she was such a frequent visitor to Adventures Unlimited and often stayed in that cabin.
The cottage sits on Wolfe Creek, a clear water creek that bisects the property. Granny and Mr. Peaden reared 14 children in the four-room home.
“It was a cracker house, board and batten construction,” Sanborn said.
Sanborn purchased Ranger Rick’s Cabin, a three-bedroom home, in 1998 at an auction. It was much easier to move onto the property than the schoolhouse, he said with a laugh.
“This was a ranger’s residence at the Blackwater River State Park,” Sanborn said. “Now, Katie has redecorated it. You’ll see a Ranger Rick theme.”
He purchased Bagdad House from the Blackwater River State Forest at an auction in 1998. He named it after Bagdad Land and Lumber Co., which owned the home and much property in Destin at the time, he said.
“This house was built for the mill workers,” Sanborn said. “They moved it two or three times by rail.”
It also was once owned by the Henderson family, alluded to in Henderson Beach State Park, he said.
‘Old country church’
Coldwater Creek Chapel is the only redone structure not used for lodging. Instead it's used as a venue for weddings and other ceremonies.
Farmers built it as Holland Chapel in 1901 in Hollandtown, a community 4 or 5 miles south of Jay that was named after the Holland family.
The church was later moved south 5 miles to Allentown, where it was Pineview Methodist Church. It served as the primary Methodist church until it became dilapidated, and the church’s leaders had a modern chapel built next to it.
Sanborn’s brother and co-owner of Adventures Unlimited, Mike Sanborn, heard the church was being torn down in 2014.
“When we bought the land out there, it had a cemetery with it, and the cemetery needed a church,” Sanborn said. “Since we had already been in the restoration and refurbishment preservation, we kept looking for a church that would fit in — just a small country church.”
They spent about three years and $85,000 renovating Coldwater Creek Chapel.
“The natural wood floors and natural wood walls really set it off and give it a warm feeling,” Sanborn said. “My wife put in period light fixtures and period fans. It has the feeling of an early 1900s church.
“It has a bell in the bell tower, so you can sit there and pull the rope and ring the church bell.”
It now sits next to the cemetery, which houses four or five Confederate soldiers’ graves. Sanborn thinks the chapel belongs where it is now.
“We’re really a healing place,” Sanborn said. “There’s a feeling of oneness with our Creator and one with our creation … Right behind where the church is sitting is an area that for years they used to have baptisms. Having a church there is a natural progression.
“It gave a feeling of accomplishment and a feeling that we’re preserving a piece of Santa Rosa County history."
Santa Rosa County assistant public information officer Sarah Whitfield’s photo of the chapel appears in the Florida Association of Counties Calendar: Old Florida for December 2019.
Sanborn doesn’t have an affinity for old houses, antiques or trains; he has an affinity for not seeing them left behind.
He has seven structures that prove, when given the choice, he will continue the lifespan of walls laid before him. He is also a passionate supporter of the city of Milton, namely its historical Imogene Theatre in downtown.
It seems no building or aged structure is torn down on Sanborn’s watch, which I imagine is set to river time — Blackwater River time to be exact.
“When you get on a river, you can let go of everything right away,” Sanborn said. “Because it’s you and the river.”
I still owe him two quarters for the tour.