Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings followed an unlikely path from Rochester, New York, to a rustic farmhouse in hardscrabble Florida — and to international fame as the author of “The Yearling.”
Sight unseen, she and her husband, Charles Rawlings, took a risk on a working farm with 1,635 fruit-bearing trees and 150 “good” chickens.
But it was there, in 1928, that Rawlings found her spiritual destination, a sense of place and belonging.
Today, visitors to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park may feel, as they step through a side gate to the farmhouse, that they are stopping by to visit a friend.
On a wooden sign, Rawlings’ own words say it all, “Here is home.”
A sandy path leads to the farmhouse. Chickens and roosters roam the yard, scratching in the dirt. Shirts and sheets on some days are pegged to a clothesline.
A rustic-looking barn, off to the side, is the gathering point for guided tours of the 19th century farmhouse. Otherwise, visitors are free to roam where they will, to peek through windows into a faded tenant’s house, imagine turning the key to a yellow 1940 Oldsmobile parked beside the house, or stroll in solitude among hammock trees and palmettos on trails that loop from farmhouse to tenant house.
“There’s a feeling people get when they come to the property,” said Rick Mulligan, a tour guide at the park. “It’s what she writes about. It’s peaceful. It’s restorative. It’s Old Florida. It’s essentially the same as when she was here.”
More than 23,000 visitors walk through that gate each year.
Some know scraps and pieces of Rawlings’ life, gleaned from two Hollywood movies based on “The Yearling” and her autobiography, “Cross Creek.”
But for some, the journey is a pilgrimage to the home of a writer they came to know in their childhood through the coming of age story of a young boy and his pet deer.
The state park is bare of commercial trappings. There is no gift shop, no bookstore. The parkland in soul and spirit is the same homestead where Rawlings lived for nearly two decades.
The citrus grove is gone, but fruit trees still thrive. A kitchen garden is planted and harvested by tour guides that work there. Chickens lay eggs in a barn that is a replica of the original one.
Almost all of the furniture in the house is original, kept in storage for many years after her death by her second husband, Norton Baskin.
It was here in the 1930s when Rawlings saw her first stories published, “Cracker Chidlings” and “Jacob’s Ladder.” Her first novel “South Moon Under” — about moonshining — followed in 1933.
Then, in 1938, “The Yearling” came out, and Rawlings won a Pulitzer Prize.
She had struggled in obscurity for years, writing Gothic-inspired stories that didn’t impress editors or readers.
Maxwell Perkins, a renowned editor at Scribner’s, encouraged Rawlings to abandon Gothic and write what she knew – the lives and often hard times of her neighbors who scraped by, living off the land.
“She truly found her inspiration when she came down here,” said Mulligan. “It was a crazy risk. She almost had to give it up.”
After the 1929 Depression, Rawlings and her husband divorced, and she struggled to hold onto the farm.
With literary success, financial benefits followed. One of her first large expenditures was a bathroom and indoor plumping. But, an outhouse still stands, just outside a back door.
Daily, she sat at a table on the veranda, typing on a Remington Noiseless typewriter and chain-smoking Lucky Strikes.
She had a reputation for speaking her mind, though Baskin once described her as the shyest person he ever knew.
One thing she would never let pass – the mispronunciation of her maiden name.
It is KinNAN (with the emphasis on the second syllable), not Kinnan (with the emphasis on the first).
“She would correct you,” Mulligan said.
Rawlings entertained often at the farmhouse, inviting neighbors and fellow writers including Robert Frost and Zora Neale Hurston.
Perkins and actor Gregory Peck, when he was filming “The Yearling,” also came.
She relied on oil lamps until the house was wired for electricity in 1950.
She suffered two bouts of malaria while at Cross Creek.
The farmhouse, room by room, is left as she lived in it.
When Rawlings died in 1953 at the age of 57, she willed her property to the University of Florida. Today, the state’s park system manages the property.
More than a half-century later, visitors continue to be attracted to the place where Rawlings worked and lived.
They come from everywhere, from Florida, New Hampshire, Arizona, North Carolina and Rawlings’ home state of New York. But, Mulligan said international guests also arrive, including residents of Poland and a professor from China who teaches Rawlings’ work to her students.
“She was a compelling individual,” the tour guide said.
What: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park
Where: 18700 S. County Road 325, Cross Creek, Florida
Hours: Park grounds open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; guided tours of the farmhouse from October through July, Thursday through Sunday, except for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Tours are at 10 a.m.; 11 a.m.; 1 p.m.; 2 p.m.; 3 p.m.; and 4 p.m.
Cost: Parking is $3 per group in one vehicle. Tours are $3 for adults and $2 for children ages 6 to 12. Children 5 and under are admitted free.
For more information, visit FloridaStateParks.org, or call (352) 466-3672.
Published June 1, 2016