Cross Creek: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ spiritual home
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings followed an unlikely path from Rochester, New York, to a rustic farmhouse in the woods of Cross Creek in rural central Florida.
She went from writing unpopular Gothic stories to endearing tales of life at the Creek and catapulted to international fame as the author of “The Yearling,” a story of a boy, Jody, and his deer, Flag. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 and was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck.
Sight unseen, she and her then-husband, also a writer, took a risk in 1928 on an orange grove and farm with 1,635 fruit-bearing trees and 150 “good” chickens. There, she found her spiritual home and a sense of belonging.
A sandy path leads to her farmhouse, now the centerpiece of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park. Chickens roam the yard, pecking the dirt. Laundry flutters from a clothesline, near a kitchen garden and orange and grapefruit trees.
Guided tours start at a rustic barn. Otherwise, visitors can roam on their own to see a yellow 1940 Oldsmobile like the one Rawlings drove, or stroll on woodsy trails looping from farmhouse to tenant quarters.
Visitors sense what Rawlings felt about the place. “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,” says tour guide Rick Mulligan.
Rawlings lived in the house 25 years. She died in 1953 at the age of 57 of an aneurysm. Now, 23,000 faithful visit each year. Some know bits about her life, gleaned from her books and movies. But some come as pilgrims to pay homage to a writer they have loved since childhood, when they first read “The Yearling,” and her other works.
Farmhouse furnishings are hers, and rooms look much like she just left them. So does her front porch, where she wrote on a Remington typewriter at a table with a palm base.
She loved to walk in her groves to watch sunlight streak through the shaded jade leaves. That vision, she wrote, “is the essence of an ancient and secret magic.”
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park
Where: 18700 S. County Road 325, Cross Creek
Hours: Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; guided farmhouse tours from October through July, Thursday through Sunday, except Christmas and Thanksgiving. Make a tour reservation at the barn. Due to Covid-19, at this time tours are limited to two groups of 10 people and masks are required inside the farmhouse. (Check before going to see if that has changed.)
Cost: $3 per group in one vehicle; tours, $3 for adults and $2 for children ages 6 to 12. Credit cards are not accepted and no change is given, so be sure to take exact cash.
Info: Visit FloridaStateParks.org, or call 352-466-3672.
By Kathy Steele
Note: This is a condensed and updated version of a story originally published in The Laker/Lutz News on June 1, 2016.
Visit the Green Swamp to glimpse Florida’s ancient past
Living on Florida’s overly populated coast, it’s hard to believe that a 37,350-acre wilderness exists an hour inland. Known as the West Tract of the 110,000-acre Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve, this protected land offers glimpses of what Florida used to look like.
This natural treasure is a vital recharge area for the Florida Aquifer and contains the headwaters of four Florida rivers – the Hillsborough, Withlacoochee, Peace and a fraction of the Ocklawaha. It reaches into Pasco, Polk, Lake, Sumter and Hernando counties.
The west tract offers 65 miles of trails for hikers, bikers and horseback riders. Visitors can walk a half-hour from the parking lot on an unpaved road to get to a section of the Florida National Scenic Trail, which traverses through dense woods overshadowed by giant oaks, soaring slash and longleaf pines, and mature magnolias.
Hikers may see deer, hogs, bobcats, turkeys, turtles or gators. Part of the trail is a section of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, so birds abound. So do cypress domes, grasses, palmettos and cabbage palms, Florida’s state tree.
The trail is easy to follow, thanks to orange slashes on trees. Just around every turn are ponds or pools of water.
The area’s watery beauty and magnificent oaks make it the perfect escape to “Real Florida.”
The Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve West Tract
Where: 13347 Ranch Road (off U.S. 98 Bypass), about 5 miles from downtown Dade City.
Hours: Sunrise to sunset. Maps are on the above website and at the tract entrance.
Cost: Admission is free and trails are open daily, except when hunting is permitted. For hunting dates, see tinyurl.com/y6m2wtsa.
Details: Picnic tables, portable toilets and campsite also are in the West Tract. Kayakers and boaters can put into the Withlacoochee River down the road from the tract entrance.
Info: Visit the above website, or call 352-796-7211, ext. 4470.
By Karen Haymon Long
Note: This is a condensed and updated version of a story originally published in The Laker/Lutz News on Feb. 20, 2019.
Paynes Prairie: An awe-inspiring place for nature lovers
To see “Real Florida” at its best, visit Paynes Prairie, stretching 2 miles on both sides of U.S. 441 in Micanopy, a hamlet south of Gainesville.
The 50-square-mile prairie is protected within Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Blue skies and billowy clouds arch high over tawny grasses swaying in the breeze. Fish leap from ponds. Shorebirds stand tall in swampy marshes.
The sun rises on one side of the prairie and sets on the other. If you are lucky, you may see migrating sandhill cranes, grazing bison and wild Spanish horses.
The 22,000-acre park offers a world of exploration, whether you hike, fish, bird-watch, horseback ride, camp or boat. It’s a photographer’s paradise, with 300 species of birds, river otters, bobcats, Florida black bears, wild pigs and hundreds of other critters.
Trails wend through forests of palms, giant oaks, pines, magnolias and palmettos bordering the prairie.
The great naturalist William Bartram, who visited in 1774 when it was called the Alachua Savanna, wrote about seeing those same types of trees. He said emerging from the dark forests to the wide open prairie made him feel “on the borders of a new world! On the first view of such an amazing display of the wisdom and power of the supreme author of nature, the mind for a moment seems suspended, and impressed with awe.”
The best way to see the prairie is to enter at the park’s main entrance at its southern end, where you’ll find the Visitor Center with exhibits and a video, an observation tower, hiking trails, the campground, picnic area, playground, boat ramp and Lake Wauberg.
Farther north, off U.S. 441, look for a sign for the 3-mile, roundtrip La Chua Trail, a boardwalk/grassy trail around the Alachua Sink and marshes to an observation platform. Some trails may be partially closed due to flooding.
The prairie is so vast and changing, you’ll likely want to spend a few days here, or plan a return trip. It’s a wondrous place to see some of the best views along U.S. 441 in Florida.
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
Where: 100 Savannah Blvd., Micanopy
Hours: 8 a.m. to sundown daily; Visitor Center open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., daily
Cost: $6 per car with two to eight passengers; $4 for one passenger, and $2 for walkers and bikers.
Info: FloridaStateParks.org, or call 352-466-3397.
By Karen Haymon Long
Note: This is a condensed and updated version of a story that first appeared in The Laker/Lutz News on March 24, 2020.
Published June 30, 2021
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