The name originated with rugged 19th-century pioneers who carved out a new life in the wilds of sub-tropical Florida. At that time, Florida’s cattle industry was the largest in the East, and herds of cattle roamed freely. There was no way to use a lasso in the dense underbrush of tropical vegetation, so the cow hunters herded the cattle by continuously snapping 12-foot long braided leather whips in the air. The loud “crack” got the cattle moving and earned the cow hunters the name “crackers.”
What The Heck Is A Florida Cracker?
The label has evolved to include anyone raised in rural areas of Florida who can trace their heritage back at least one generation. Although there’s no real definition of a Florida Cracker, here are a few characteristics I’ve observed:
• Your parents (and preferably grandparents) were born in Florida.
• You grew up in a rural small town in Florida.
• You know how to fish, throw a cast net, shuck oysters, hunt, and grow a garden.
• Your usual diet includes some of the following: mullet, blue crabs, oysters, gator, wild game, grits, and collard greens.
• You know the swamp, bayou, or upriver like the back of your hand.
• You can fix just about anything with whatever you have available.
• You have a natural immunity to mosquitoes and no-see-ums.
• You can tell a good story that usually involves humor directed at yourself.
My dad qualifies as a Florida Cracker, but although I am a third-generation Floridian, sadly, I do not have a natural immunity to biting insects, and I most definitely would not want to rely on my sense of direction to find my way out of a swamp. I also still have my dad bait my fishhook.
Back to our travels. At the beginning of February, we spent a few days camping at Payne’s Prairie State Park, just 15 miles from Gainesville and in the heart of north-central Florida. Here, the highlights of our visit:
Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park
This gorgeous state park and wildlife preserve encompass 21,000 acres of highlands freshwater marsh, swamps, and hammocks. It’s a diverse and wild landscape. More than 270 species of birds are found here, along with alligators, small herds of bison, Florida Cracker horses, and Florida Cracker cattle roaming free.
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We were hoping to see all of the above (of course, we didn’t expect to see 270 species of birds) but we did have a close encounter with the wild horses while biking out into the prairie on the Cone Dike trail. We also spotted a few bison and saw many egrets, ibis, and herons on the La Chua trail (where we just about froze in sleeting rain).
This tiny and attractive hamlet of 600 people is just a couple of miles from Payne’s Prairie. As we drove down the main street, I said to Eric, “I want to come back and explore!”
We enjoyed the Micanopy Museum, which contains a random assortment of all things Micanopy, from Seminole Indian artifacts (the town was named for a Seminole Indian chief) to a moonshine still.
We also appreciated warming up with an excellent cup of organic hot chocolate from the Mosswood Farm Store after our freezing hike on the La Chua trail at Payne’s Prairie. But the rest of the town is primarily little antique/junk stores filled with dusty and questionable treasures. As Eric said, “It looked better at 30 mph.”
(By the way, the name is pronounced Mic-uh-no-pee.)
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park
Best known for her novels The Yearling, which won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1939, and Cross Creek, written in 1942, Rawlings was a New York transplant who reinvented herself in a remote central Florida hamlet about 20 miles from Payne’s Prairie, on the eve of the Great Depression. Tired of big city life, she forged a strong and abiding connection with the land and her Florida Cracker neighbors, who provided the inspiration for her novels.
Rawlings’ home, now a historic site, is a classic example of 19th century Florida Cracker architecture: wood frame with a metal roof, raised floors, wrap-around screened porch, and a central hallway that runs straight through the house, shotgun style. Volunteers and staff maintain a chicken coop, duck pen, vegetable garden, herb garden, and citrus grove, just as Rawlings did.
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We were unlucky in that we visited on a day when tours of the house aren’t given, but lucky in that we encountered a fellow working on the house who asked if we had any questions. My simple query, “How long did Marjorie Rawlings live here?” turned into an hour-long personal tour. The kindly and gregarious person we met was an off-duty tour guide, and he was more than happy to fill us in on the fascinating details of Rawlings’ life.
Rawlings’ Place Of Enchantment
For a city girl, Rawlings was tough. She immersed herself in the backwoods country of north-central Florida, loving the remoteness, wildness, and simplicity of the life and the people. Rawlings wrote that she felt “at home,” which makes no sense in the context of her previous life. But it’s a wise person who heeds the call of her heart and spirit, no matter how foreign it may look to others.
In Cross Creek, she wrote, “We at the Creek need and have found only very simple things. We need above all, I think, a certain remoteness from urban confusion, and while this can be found in other places, Cross Creek offers it with such beauty and grace that once entangled with it, no other place seems possible to us, just as when truly in love none other offers the comfort of the beloved.”
Rawlings loved to entertain, preparing elaborate meals on her wood stove. She socialized with Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Robert Frost as well as with her Cracker neighbors. She became a civil rights advocate, was reputedly generous and kind, and was prone to depressive fits and drinking too much. “An artistic spirit with a lot of angst,” said our tour guide. Rawlings seemed to find the solace she needed at Cross Creek, writing: “I do not know how anyone can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.”
Once again we loved your post especially the “Cracker” definition. Also I really enjoyed the still-life shots of the interior of the house. Gorgeous!
Did you really see an armadillo out running around? Such a funny looking creature..
Doug and I are in Anza Borrego camped next door to Karen and Larry. Steve and Linda were here with us for a few nights and now have a beautiful Ramada down at the Palm Canyon campground. We had a fun dinner with them last night there. It’s warm and dry here and no flowers to speak of but the sunrises are beautiful and there are no bugs and lots of good bike riding.
Oh how fun that you are all together in Anza Borrego — wish we could be in two places at once to share good times with you! Sending y’all hugs from Florida (finally warm and sunny again here, too). And yes, we saw that armadillo on the trail.
This was a delightful story Laurel! Although it is not an area we will get to this year, we will certainly add it to the list for future visits. Your photos alone could tell the story but I appreciated the history you provided.
I’m so glad you enjoyed it, LuAnn. I think you would really appreciate North Florida — the list of places to visit grows longer and longer, doesn’t it?
Great post and terrific pictures from a place we really enjoyed for all the same reasons you did. Although we thankfully missed the sleeting rain on the trail. I think you lucked out on the one hour Rawlings tour. Did he give you the “correct” pronunciation of her maiden name? :-) She was an amazingly independent woman for her time who came to find herself in a fairly solitary rural life. From NY to Cracker Florida. Now that is a real change. Where are you now??
We really enjoyed our “tour” but weren’t told the correct pronunciation of MKR’s maiden name — so now you have to tell us! :) We’re currently back on Cedar Key; I’m only a couple of blogs away from posting in “real time.” Ha! Like that’s ever going to happen…
Hi Laurel and Eric, we so enjoyed your story. The photos are beautiful as usual. Had no idea that there were bison in Florida. We got 6 1/2″ of snow last night but it won’t stay long. 50 degrees by Friday will take care of it I am sure. Have fun, Brenda & Morey p.s. I like my hook baited for me too. ;)
Brenda, love that you like to have your hook baited, too! If only I didn’t lose my bait so often — good thing my dad is patient. :) Bet you two are glad you’re finally getting some snow!
Hi, Laurel and Eric: It was so nice to receive your post with those many interesting facts about Florida’s history. I learned a lot. A few years ago on an Audubon trip we toured Marjorie K. Rawling’s home and I so enjoyed it–a wonderful bit of biographical data. Are armadillo’s really as big as that one looks? I have one who digs holes in my front garden every night!!! Love, Barbara
Barbara, the armadillos we’ve seen are about the size of a small dog — that one looks particularly large (and bizarre) in that pose. We really enjoyed MKR’s home, too, and want to go back for an “inside” tour — hopefully with the same tour guide.
We have been to Payne’s Prairie at least a couple of times and LOVE it there. It is a very unique place and there is always good birding. Micanopy is a quaint little town with several beautiful old homes and a peaceful feel. We are headed back to the Okeefenokee for a two-day paddle, although the forecast is rather dismal. Enjoy Cedar Key!
Loretta, we hope to get back to Payne’s Prairie for more exploring — when the weather turned to sleeting rain it cut our explorations a bit short. The Okeefenoke sounds great — it’s on our list of places we’d like to kayak.
I spent over a week stalking an armadillo that I thought lived under my sister’s cabin in Texas….every night I’d wake up to rattling and take out my trusty flash light and of course my camera and search the yard for the elusive creature….one night as my sister and I stayed up late talking I heard the same rattling and headed out the door…camera in hand, sure that I had it now. Donna laughed herself silly, explaining the rattle was nothing more than the fridge’s ice maker. So, needless to say…I’m impressed that you captured one in technicolor. Wow! Such brave intrepid souls to also sneak up on the bison and wild horses! Wish I was there with you..sending love!
Haha, did you get a photo of the elusive ice maker??
Terrific! I am a Bay Storyteller. I was looking for background material on Florida “Crackers.” I would like to use some of the information in this blog to weave into future stories. If you don’t mind.
Norm, I’d be delighted if this post is helpful for you in your storytelling! Thanks for your comment.
The juxtaposition of the photo of the little heron and you in your matching scarf is priceless. And Eric’s “It looked better at 30 mph.” Hilarious!
LOL!!! Thanks, Joodie. I love that you’re going back and reading through our archives! Perhaps we can entice you and Mark to come to Florida one of these days…