Chilling creekside in Florida cracker country

After Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings won her Pulitzer Prize, her neighbors would snoop around to see her writing on her front porch.

Words and images by Justin Belichis

Life in Cross Creek  looks, sounds and feels like something in a storybook.

Just southeast of Gainesville is the same Florida scrub country American literary figure Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote about in “Cross Creek” and Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Yearling.”

Entering Cross Creek is like stepping into a timeless oasis of Floridian history featuring many old homes, historic buildings and at least one quirky place to eat. But the centerpiece of its local flavor is the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park, the very place Rawlings wrote her best-selling books.

For $3, visitors can visit and take a guided tour of Rawlings’ cracker-style Florida home and farm on her 72-acre citrus grove.

For Rawlings, it was a magical spot. In her book “Cross Creek” she writes of the home, “I do not understand how any one can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.”

And it’s still magical for many of its visitors.

Atlantic Beach woman Suzanne Midgett said she decided to take the tour because she was headed to Orlando and the park was on the way.

“I had plenty of time so I figured I would come learn about Marjorie Rawlings and I’m enjoying it,” said Midgett. “I haven’t read any of her books, but I’m aware of ‘The Yearling’ movie and I’ve seen it over and over again.”

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ home was her “sanctuary” on a citrus grove in Cross Creek.

The experience begins when you walk through the grounds’ gates.

On the pathway to her home, crepe myrtles and sable palms stretch low to touch the earth, dragonflies whirr, chickens cluck and fresh citrus hang like tree ornaments. Further down the path, across from a wooden barn and next her yellow Cadillac, is Rawlings’  home.

The first room visitors can enter is her screened porch, where they could have heard the ticking of her typewriter decades ago while she took sips of coffee with cream from her cows.

“Marjorie was the type of writer that for every hour of writing she felt was good, she would do about 15 hours of rewriting,” said tour guide Jack Nelson. “She was very meticulous in that way.”

After a successful journalism career in New York, Rawlings retired in Cross Creek in 1928. Though she was a Yankee moving to Florida cracker country, she made it a point to fit in. Even during a time of prohibition.

“Marjorie drank and she smoked and she cussed,” said Nelson. “Most of the women around here did, so it was not unusual.”

Rawlings often immersed herself in researching Floridian culture, especially when she wrote her second published book “South Moon Under.”

“The book was patterned after a real old lady and her son, and Marjorie lived with them for two months just to get the background for the book,” said Nelson. “The young man was a bootlegger who taught Marjorie how to hunt, fish and make bootleg whiskey.”

Nelson said Rawlings embraced the outdoor life on her Florida farm.

“She rode horseback a lot,” said Nelson. “In fact she fell off a horse one time and broke her neck, but that didn’t stop her.”

After her novel “The Yearling” won a Pulitzer Prize, it was made into a movie in 1946. Actors and writers often would stay at Rawlings’ home, including Gregory Peck and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Nelson said.

Though she loved the rural lifestyle Cross Creek had to offer, she lived luxuriously compared to her neighbors. She had someone deliver a 50-pound block of ice daily for her refrigerator and even had indoor plumbing.

In “Cross Creek” she writes, “The formal opening of the bathroom was a gala social event, with a tray of glasses across the lavatory, ice and soda in the bathtub, and bouquet of roses with Uncle Fred’s card in a prominent and appropriate position.”

Rawlings was a living juxtaposition of the area’s abysmal economy in the ‘30s. But she still made it a point to give what she could to the community. Her neighbors were so poor that they couldn’t afford to buy clothes for their children.

“[Rawlings] sewed clothes for their kids to go to school if they promised to go and would make large packages during Christmas, said Nelson. “The neighbors had no way of giving back, so they would leave wild game on her doorstep and maybe a basket full of walnuts.”

Rawlings’ home became a Florida State Park in 1970 and immortalizes her legacy and footprint in Cross Creek. The park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. year round. Guided tours are given Thursday through Sunday each hour from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The Yearling Restaurant serves cracker-inspired fare like frog legs, gator and fried mushrooms.

Exploring rural Floridian life in the 1930s for a while is sure to conjure an appetite. After turning left at the park’s exit and two minutes down the way is The Yearling Restaurant.

Collectable Coca Cola merchandise from a different era hang on its walls next to taxidermied animals, an old cash register sits near the front door and many of Rawlings’ books can be found in the restaurant’s bookshelves.

Here, hungry customers can taste authentic Cross Creek cuisine and cocktails. From catfish and gator to frog legs and venison, this regional fare stands out from your local fast food joint.

I recommend the creek boy, which is basically a po boy sandwich that features fried gator or shrimp and pepper jack cheese on a grilled hoagie bun. For those looking for a little bit of everything, there is the cracker sampler. This includes frog legs, fried green tomatoes, gator and fried mushrooms.

The creek boy sandwich consists of fried shrimp or gator on a grilled hoagie roll with lettuce, tomato, pepper jack cheese and a tangy orange sauce with a kick.

Aside from the food, guests are entertained with the restaurant’s resident blues musician with a toothless smile, Willie Green. Green has toured internationally and continues to play venues like The Florida Theatre and the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall.

With a slide, a harmonica and an Epiphone acoustic guitar, he brings The Yearling Restaurant to life.

“I love my baby, but she don’t want me no mo’,” Green belts out to a seven-member audience eating their cracker-inspired entrees.

Green said he is originally from Montgomery, Alabama, but moved to Florida in the 1950s as a teenager. It was then that he fell in love with the blues.

“I was about 15 years old when I moved to Florida, travelin’ with the seasons, picked beans, tomatoes and corn,” said Green. “I was on a country road and the only song I knew [on harmonica] was ’Juke’ by Little Walter. My friend asked me ‘can you play that thing?’ and we started playin’ together.”

WillieGreen (2)
Willie Green, resident blues musician, plays in The Yearling Restaurant.

Green’s life of bean picking soon came to a close after that. After winning a few music contests and roaming around Florida playing juke joints, he garnered national attention and has opened for musicians like Eric Clapton and John Hammond.

Now, Green plays at The Yearling Restaurant daily. Both the music and the traditional cracker food easily make visitors feel they’re taking a step back in time.

But that’s really the magic of this tiny community set amid the pines, cypress, swamp and waters of a land lost in time. Cross Creek is a place of wonder and a place of reminiscing about what this state used to be.

Rawlings recognized the magic of the place. Perhaps that’s why she settled here.

“Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain” she wrote in the book she named lovingly after her town, “to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time.”

Hers is a fitting homage to a magical spot.

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