A State Treasure at Cross Creek

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wasn’t just an author from Florida. She lived Florida. Her stories are laden with imagery and themes that Floridians know as their own. From South Moon Under to Cross Creek to The Yearling, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, Rawlings’ books continue to give readers the opportunity to experience Old Florida charm with the turn of every page.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at her home in Cross Creek (circa 1940s).

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at her home in Cross Creek (circa 1940s).

Rawlings died in 1953, but she left far more than just her iconic writings as a legacy. She also left her home at Cross Creek, a tiny community packed into a small strip of land between Orange and Lochloosa lakes in southern Alachua County. The area had been settled since the 19th century, but few would have known how to find it until Rawlings’ fame put it on the map.

Excerpt of a Florida Department of Transportation Map showing Cross Creek and vicinity (1990).

Excerpt of a Florida Department of Transportation Map showing Cross Creek and vicinity (1990).

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings purchased her Cross Creek home in 1928 and began renovating it in 1930. Historic preservation experts believe the house was originally built in the 1880s as a two-room cabin with a “dogtrot,” or a breezeway running through the house from front to back. Additional bedrooms were built in the 1890s, while a dining room and kitchen were added in the 1920s. The house was not electrified until Rawlings had been living in the house for ten years, and even then the source of power was a Delco generator installed in the nearby pump house.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home at Cross Creek (circa 1980s).

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home at Cross Creek (circa 1980s).

When Rawlings died, she left her home to the Florida Endowment Corporation, now known as the University of Florida Foundation. Since 1970 it has been managed by the Florida Park Service. Thousands of visitors come to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings house each year to tour the grounds and learn about the life and career of this remarkable Floridian. The house became so popular in the years following the release of the movie Cross Creek in 1983 that state officials closed the site for a year while the foundation was strengthened to handle the added burden.

A barn on the Rawlings property at Cross Creek (1965).

A barn on the Rawlings property at Cross Creek (1965).

The Florida Photographic Collection contains numerous pictures of Rawlings, Cross Creek, and other places associated with her stories. Some of the rarest photos were taken by agents of MGM Studios in the 1940s as they searched around north and central Florida for settings to use in a film adaptation of The Yearling. This first attempt at turning the prize-winning book into a film faltered, partly due to the onset of World War II. MGM finally released the movie in 1947. Gregory Peck, Claude Jarman, and Jane Wyman starred, and the film won two Oscars for art direction and cinematography. It was nominated for five other Academy Awards.

Farm house scouted by MGM Studios as a possible filming site for a film adaptation of The Yearling (1940).

Farm house scouted by MGM Studios as a possible filming site for a film adaptation of The Yearling (1940). Search the Florida Photographic Collection to find more MGM photos.

On September 29, 1970 (45 years ago this week), the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home was added to the National Register of Historic Places. If you haven’t been to see it, you owe it to yourself to visit when you’re in the area next. Click here for more information from the Florida Park Service.

Until you’re ready to make the trip, of course, you can always search for photos of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Cross Creek on Florida Memory!

Some Trees Have Knees

If someone asked you to name something that lives for centuries, can grow over a hundred feet tall, and can have dozens of knees, what would you say it was? It might sound like some hideous creature, but most Floridians would know it’s actually the majestic bald cypress.

A cypress swamp in Palmdale (1961).

A cypress swamp in Palmdale (1961).

The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a familiar sight near Florida’s many lakes, rivers, creeks, swamps, and springs. The trees generally take their time to grow, but that’s not really a problem for a cypress. They can live for hundreds of years. The Senator, a bald cypress that grew near Longwood in Seminole County until it was tragically burned in 2012, was estimated to be about 3,500 years old at the time of its death. (More on the Senator Tree here).

Tourists holding hands around the Senator Tree in Longwood (circa 1930).

Tourists holding hands around the Senator Tree in Longwood (circa 1930).

One of the bald cypress’ most unusual characteristics is its “knees.” The knees are conical growths protruding up from the root system that radiates out from the tree’s trunk. They often have a knobby, knee-like appearance at the top. Their function is unknown, although studies suggest they may help the cypress absorb oxygen and remain stable in loose wet soils.

Cypress trees and knees at Fisheating Creek in Glades County (circa 1980s).

Cypress trees and knees at Fisheating Creek in Glades County (circa 1980s).

Cypress root system, photographed in Collier County (1978).

Cypress root system, photographed in Collier County (1978).

Cypress wood has long been admired for its beautiful grain, durability, and the ease with which it can be shaped and cut for building purposes. In the early 20th century, logging companies bought up vast tracts of land and cut much of the bald cypress growing in Florida swamps. The hearts of these trees, some of which were likely approaching a millenium in age, were sawed into lumber and marketed as “tidewater cypress.” The cypress industry is still in business, although the supply of available trees has dwindled considerably. Many cypress stands are now part of publicly owned protected wetlands.

Men sitting on a particularly large cypress log transported by train to the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company mill in Perry (1926).

Men sitting on a particularly large cypress log transported by train to the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company mill in Perry (1926).

As for the knees, they too have been a prized commodity. Their distinctive shape, natural broad base, and easy carvability make them perfect for creating figurines, birdhouses, and other small knick-knacks. Tom Gaskins of Palmdale, Florida made a career out of carving and shaping cypress knees for sale. He developed a Cypress Kneeland museum in Palmdale, featuring a collection of carved, peeled, and otherwise altered knees, plus a catwalk zig-zagging through an actual cypress swamp.

Along the path, visitors could see some of Gaskins’ experimental methods for shaping the knees as they grew. At various times, he tried flattening the knees with weights and carving designs into them so that the wooden flesh of the knees would grow around the cuts. Gaskins passed away in 1998, and the Cypress Kneeland Museum closed in 2000.

Tom Gaskins, artist and owner of the Cypress Kneeland attraction in Palmdale (1987).

Tom Gaskins, artist and owner of the Cypress Kneeland attraction in Palmdale (1987).

One of Tom Gaskins' creations (1987).

One of Tom Gaskins’ creations (1987).

Cypress trees and their unusual knees are just one of the features that make Florida a unique environment and all the more interesting. Which of Florida’s distinctive characteristics is your favorite? Share this post on social media or leave a comment below and get the conversation started!

Cypress sentinels watch over Lake Eloise in Polk County at sunset (1980).

Cypress sentinels watch over Lake Eloise in Polk County at sunset (1980).

Thoughts from a Civil War P.O.W.

Excerpt from the back inside cover of the Wilbur Wightman Gramling Diary.

Wilbur Wightman Gramling carefully penned these words in the back inside cover of a small black pocket diary sometime between May 6, 1864 and June 21, 1865. He was a Confederate soldier from Florida, taken prisoner at the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia after being wounded in the arm. Soon after he was transferred to a Union hospital in Washington, DC, he acquired this small volume and began writing about his experiences. Click here to view the full diary on Florida Memory.

A page from the Wilbur Wightman Gramling Diary, showing entries for June 1-3, 1864 (Collection M88-70, State Archives of Florida).

A page from the Wilbur Wightman Gramling Diary, showing entries for June 1-3, 1864 (Collection M88-70, State Archives of Florida).

Gramling filled every entry in the diary from May 6, 1864 to May 5, 1865, sharing details about the hospitals he was assigned to, the people he met and corresponded with, and what little information he could learn about the war. In July 1864, he was transferred to the Union prison at Elmira, New York, where he would remain until the war ended. While there, his diary entries were filled with descriptions of escape attempts, concerns about the approaching winter, illicit markets among the prisoners, and the meager news he was able to pick up about friends and relatives.

Map showing parts of Pennsylvania and New York - Elmira is located just north of the border shared between these states ( (Asher & Adams’ New Statistical and Topographical Atlas of the United States, 1872).

Map showing parts of Pennsylvania and New York – Elmira is located just north of the border shared between these states ( Asher & Adams’ New Statistical and Topographical Atlas of the United States, 1872).

Owen Irvin Gramling, Jr., a great-nephew of Wilbur’s, donated the diary to the State Archives of Florida in 1988. It is now available on Florida Memory in its entirety, including a full transcription and a biographical section describing many of the people Gramling writes about. The diary can also be browsed by subject. Click here to view the diary directly or visit the Collections page on floridamemory.com.

Upcoming Special Events at the State Archives

October is American Archives Month, and the State Archives of Florida is celebrating with special events to help you make the most of our state’s archival treasures. Are you interested in genealogy? The history of your local community? A topic in Florida’s past? Archives Month is an excellent time to visit and see how we can help!

On Tuesday, October 6th and Tuesday, October 13th, the State Archives reference room will be open from 9:00am to 8:00pm. This is an excellent opportunity for patrons with busy work schedules who are unable to visit during our usual hours of operation.

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When Florida Touched the Mississippi

The calm, winding Perdido River currently serves as Florida’s western boundary, but that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, for much of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Florida’s territory extended all the way to the Mississippi River!

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Florida History Fair 2016

Each year, middle and high school students from across the state participate in the Florida History Fair program, coordinated at the state level by the Museum of Florida History. The students create performances, websites, display boards, documentaries, and essays to present their research on a wide variety of historical topics.
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Florida’s First Steam-Powered Railway

On September 5, 1836, the Lake Wimico & St. Joseph Railroad ran its first train from the Apalachicola River to St. Joseph. It took about 25 minutes to move the eight cars and 300 passengers along the eight-mile stretch of track. An enthusiastic crowd met the train at its destination, delighted in both the local and statewide implications of this short voyage. In addition to boosting the local economy, the Lake Wimico & St. Joseph Railroad had the honor of being the first steam-powered railroad to operate in Florida.

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Farming at Fellsmere

The town of Fellsmere is located just west of Sebastian off Interstate 95 in Indian River County. It was one of many small communities wrestled from the swampy plains of South Florida in the early 20th century to serve the growing number of farmers making their living in the region.
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There Oughta Be a Law!

Whoever said law books are boring clearly hasn’t read many city and town ordinances from the 1800s or early 1900s. Local governments are closest to the people, so naturally the laws they create often regulate the most mundane, common behavior. You can learn a lot about a community and the challenges it faced in a particular time period by studying its local ordinances. In doing the reading, however, you’re likely to find a few that give you a chuckle. Here are a few gems from cities and towns around Florida:

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