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.”