Our crunchy history

A Tampa attraction takes a look at the Florida Cracker (not the edible kind)

click to enlarge HOME AT LAST: Anne Paige, a docent at Tampa's Cracker Country history museum, stands in front of a 100-year-old church relocated from Gretna, Fla., to the state fairgrounds. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
HOME AT LAST: Anne Paige, a docent at Tampa's Cracker Country history museum, stands in front of a 100-year-old church relocated from Gretna, Fla., to the state fairgrounds.

I clearly remember the first time I was called a Cracker.

I was a scrawny 12-year-old stepping onto the school bus one morning. On my way down the aisle, I spotted an empty seat next to a younger black girl with barrettes in her hair. As I lowered my backpack to scoot into the seat, the girl turned to me and scowled, "Don't sit here, Cracker."

I paused.

"Cracker?" I said, perplexed. "Like a saltine?"

Later that day, a friend of mine enlightened me on what the girl meant, and the incident joined other memories of that period in my childhood when I discovered racism.

So you can imagine my dismay when I discovered a Tampa Bay attraction at the Florida State Fairgrounds called Cracker Country. But as it turns out, "Cracker" isn't just a Caucasian insult — it's a culture! In this context, Cracker refers to the isolated and self-sufficient farmers and cowboys native to Florida, called "Crackers" by outsiders who would hear their cow whips cracking from miles away as they herded cattle through the state's underbrush. (It's now loosely used to define any native Floridian.) And right here in Tampa is a 3-acre homage to the Cracker lifestyle. Yes, a place where all of us Crackers, and any other folks who wish to join us, can travel back in time to a simpler Florida without the condos, mouse ears and swerving snowbirds. And it only costs $2!

How could I not visit?

I arrive at Cracker Country in the midmorning along with 100 children from public and private elementary schools, and one home-schooled group. I tag along with the Brandon Homeschool Fellowship. Before we enter, Curator of Programs Dan Marshall explains Cracker Country's rules — no cell phones, for instance. The wooden gates open, and we enter the Cracker theme park — a collection of 13 buildings moved from rural communities across the state to the fairgrounds. The hard pine structures, dating between 1870 and 1912, are antiques that were used by real-life Crackers back in the day. Scattered among the homes are sheds and contraptions built by the pioneering Crackers to make candles, wash linens, grind corn and juice sugar cane. A railroad depot, a church used as a schoolhouse and a general store stocked with everything from peppermint sticks to Whimmydiddles rounds out this mythical town of Crackers.

But as museum director Rip Stalvey points out, these structures alone do not make Cracker Country stand out.

"If it wasn't for the docents, this would be just a big pile of lumber," he says, referring to the men and women who bring Cracker history to life through their period dress and farming-life demonstrations. Our group's docent is Ms. Kitty Dickson, dressed in a long blue dress dotted with tiny red flowers, much as I imagine an old-time Southern schoolteacher would look. She leads us around the exhibits, giving us the chance to make rope out of twine, dip wax candles, and wash linens with washboards and a big tub of cold water. I don't think it's the kind of field trip the children were expecting, and a few distract themselves by pretending to be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, complete with sound effects.

By far the best spot in all of Cracker Country is the back porch of the 112-year-old Smith House, and it's not just because of the freshly churned butter offered on a cracker (the edible kind). The docent for this exhibit, Louise Miranda, is about as close to a Cracker as the staff gets. With a thick Louisiana drawl, Miranda tells me about her 1921 birth in New Orleans and her family's move to a Florida farm when she was 5 years old. As one of 11 children raised by her single mother, Miranda says she regularly milked the cows, made butter and swept the dirt lawn with brooms made out of twigs, much like the ones they feature at the museum. She worries aloud about the kids today who have it so easy.

"The poor children, I feel sorry for them," she says, a frown on her wrinkled face. "If we hit bottom, what are we going to do? You think they're going to start eating collard greens, beans and cornbread?"

She asks me if I'm a native Floridian and after my affirmative nod, she yells, "Well then, you're a Cracker!"

This time it doesn't offend me. She tells me to come back later for another buttery cracker (the edible kind).

As I step off the porch, Marshall and Stalvey join me.

"Hiya, Crackers," I greet them, and they laugh. I think Cracker Country is the only place I could get away with such a remark.

"There are those of us who have been here for several generations who consider that a compliment," says Stalvey, 55, who grew up in a Cracker house himself. He still remembers the hog-slaughtering and sugar cane parties, rituals that rural Floridians have taken part in since the late 19th century. To him, Cracker Country isn't just a tourist attraction, but a museum preserving Florida's unfamiliar history and heritage. Since the establishment of Cracker Country in 1978 by Mr. and Mrs. Doyle Carlton (Florida's 25th governor), staff has been able to save priceless buildings that, in some cases, were condemned.

"If [the Cracker houses] had stayed where they were, they would not be here today," Stalvey says.

Marshall says the museum still receives calls from people wanting to donate old Cracker houses, but unfortunately there is no room.

"It is sad that we're losing our history and heritage of that time period," he says.

The staff of Cracker Country are not the only ones lamenting the loss of Cracker houses and ties to that rural part of Florida not advertised in the tourist brochures.

Bill Belleville, a Florida environmental writer and documentary filmmaker, recently released Losing It All to Sprawl: How Progress Ate My Cracker Landscape. The book chronicles his purchase of a 1920s Cracker house in rural Florida and the development that eventually surrounded his peaceful retreat.

"Developers buy cheap land in the country, they know friends of elected officials, and [the officials] exempt them from comprehensive plans," explains Belleville. The result: sprawling mega-centers and cookie-cutter homes springing up in unlikely places. And even though Florida has set aside some land for the public good, he says living in Florida's rustic countryside may soon become a thing of the past.

"We'll still have these natural places," he says. "Unfortunately, they won't be around us. We'll have to visit them like amusement parks."

When I return to Miranda's butter exhibit for that extra cracker (the edible kind), we talk about the rapid disappearance of Florida's country life. She tells me that when she was 23, she moved to a little home out in the middle of nowhere on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Orient Road in Tampa, where she still lives today.

"There was the biggest pasture you've ever seen off MLK," she recalls, but now, "there's hardly no farms anymore." She shakes her head and smiles. "That's progress, I reckon."

Miranda and I talk a bit more about her life before the shopping malls and packed interstates. Before leaving, I dub her an honorary Florida Cracker.

And she's OK with that.

Cracker Country is open to visitors March—December, Wed.—Fri., 1:30-4 p.m. School tour information can be found on its website, www.crackercountry.org. Bill Belleville will present a Florida Humanities Council lecture and slideshow presentation on Nov. 18 at the Weedon Island Nature Preserve, 1800 Weedon Drive N.E., St. Petersburg, 727-453-6502.

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