Travelers down Interstate 75 through mid-Florida pass less than 20 miles from a little community known as Cross Creek. Nestled in the woods, it was catapulted onto a larger stage decades ago by author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
In 1938, she published a novel of a young boy and his pet deer — “The Yearling” — which won a Pulitzer Prize and became well known to generations of schoolchildren. Her 1942 memoir “Cross Creek” chronicled the idiosyncratic doings of her “cracker” neighbors.
These Florida folk had a frontier mentality and a strong connection to the natural world — strands of a white Southern subculture that has become the object of scholarly interest in recent years. Today her house and citrus grove, preserved by the Florida state parks system, introduce visitors to a remarkable writer and a backwoods way of life.
Arriving at the homestead, we walk through a rusty scroll-top gate down a sandy path to an unpainted barn. We hear the soft sound of mourning doves and the mumblings of chickens in a nearby coop, and sometimes the whirring of cicadas. When the breeze rises, it shifts the lights and shadows under the cabbage palms and live oaks.
A marker along the path bears a passage from “Cross Creek”: “It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate . . . out of one world and into the mysterious heart of another. . . . Here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again. Here is home.”
Into the barn ambles tour guide Rick Mulligan, wearing a white straw hat with a black band and white pants tucked into boots, clothing meant to evoke the 1930s. He describes how, in 1928, Rawlings and her husband, Charles Rawlings, bought a weather-beaten house and its orange grove to get away from their newspaper jobs. Their idea was to make an easy living raising oranges and have plenty of time to write fiction.
A nice dream, Mulligan says, but it didn’t happen. Freezes destroyed the orange crop and quarrels destroyed the marriage. And in 1929, the market crashed.
“There’s debt piling up,” Mulligan recounts. Rawlings’s husband leaves her. “She’s in a world of hurt. The dream of being a novelist is over.”
But it wasn’t over.
Mulligan leads his small tour group past a 1930s lemon-colored Packard under a carport and a flaming red hibiscus blooming at the corner of the house. On the screened front porch, a round table is supported by the base of a cabbage palm. It holds a typewriter and is surrounded by ladder-back chairs with deer-hide seats.
Here Rawlings, after her divorce, sat and began to write about her neighbors.
“She gets to know the locals,” Mulligan continues.
These were mostly descendants of the Scotch-Irish immigrants who migrated to Florida from the Carolina highlands. They were widely known as crackers, a name many of their descendants embrace with pride today, although the term is regarded as pejorative in most of the country. In the early days of Florida, the backcountry was filled with wild Spanish cattle, and many of the newcomers became cowboys, according to Dana Ste. Claire, the anthropologist-author of “Cracker: Cracker Culture in Florida History.” The term probably refers to cowboys cracking their whips.
The people Rawlings got to know were poor, Mulligan tells us, warding off “Old Starvation” by selling fish, frog legs and other game. Women cooked up swamp cabbage and poke salad.
Fiercely independent, the men thought nothing of breaking the state’s hunting laws, but they had their own brand of integrity. They could be deeply loyal to friends and neighbors, and although practically penniless, they were generous with gifts of wild game.
They took Rawlings to fish and hunt. She learned about mules, pigs, alligators and moonshine-making. She visited women and took gifts to scrawny children.
“She finds these people fascinating,” Mulligan says.
Park ranger Carrie Todd, costumed in a 1930s housedress and bib apron, sits on the narrow back porch. People forget that Florida was a frontier at the same time that the West was a frontier, she says. Its residents had a pioneer spirit, and Rawlings admired their self-sufficiency.
“This place is responsible for her work,” Mulligan says. She took energy from her surroundings, and it became her material.
Mulligan leads us into a bathroom with a pink floral linoleum. A vase of fragrant roses sits in the toilet bowl. When Rawlings published her story “Jacob’s Ladder,” she earned enough to finally install indoor plumbing and thus had a bathroom-centered party, with flowers in the john and drinks on ice in the tub.
She hated the outhouse, visible through the dining room window.
In the living room are chintz chairs with antimacassars and the small-scale charm of the 1930s. A closet on one side of the fireplace holds a barrel where Rawlings aged her moonshine.
There’s a small kitchen, where fresh eggs sit on a wooden worktable next to Rawlings’s “Cross Creek Cookery,” published in 1942 and lauded by New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne. Rawlings was a noted cook, and the book includes four recipes for swamp cabbage as well as recipes for game, seafood, grapefruit marmalade, mayhaw jelly and many Southern classics. Today tour guides cook preserves, tend the garden and look after the chickens and ducks.
Rawlings loved to entertain visitors, Mulligan says, among them the poet Robert Frost. When “The Yearling” was made into a movie in 1946, star Gregory Peck came to visit and had to sleep in a bed too short for his tall frame.
Another visitor was Zora Neale Hurston, although the author, an African American, was lodged in the tenant house behind the main house the first time she came to visit. Rawlings was considered a liberal in her own time (she generously paid hospital bils for black farm employees, and she later hosted Hurston in her guest bedroom), but appears less so in ours.
Indeed, “Cross Creek” has a casual racism that comes as a shock to modern readers. Her longtime maid, Idella Parker, has detailed her life with Rawlings in two books — and although she makes her admiration for the author clear, she also depicts slights of race and class, as well as Rawlings’s reliance on alcohol.
Down the road a little ways from the homestead is the Yearling Restaurant, a long, low building with weathered siding and a Coca-Cola cooler on the screened porch. Rawlings’s Sour Orange Pie is on the menu, along with alligator, frog legs, quail, duck and venison. Deer heads and fish are mounted on the wood-paneled walls along with an illustration of “The Yearling” character Jody Baxter and his beloved fawn. First opened in 1952, the restaurant has shelves of Rawlings’s books for sale.
Rawlings spoke for the people she lived among, valuing their relation to nature and their tenacity in the face of a hardscrabble life. She saw them as skilled people in possession of an earthy wisdom. In turn, they called forth those same qualities in her.
Simonton is a freelance journalist in Atlanta.
More from Travel:
The Yearling Restaurant
14531 County Rd. 325, Hawthorne
Menu includes venison, quail, cooter, frog legs and alligator. Open Thursday-Sunday, noon-
8 p.m. Entrees average about $20; lunchtime sandwiches from $9.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park
18700 County Rd. 325,
GPS may be unreliable in area. Take Interstate 75 south to Exit 374 at Micanopy.
The newly refurbished Rawlings house reopened in October. Visitors may enter the house only on guided tours. Grounds are open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and tours are offered Thursday-Sunday from October-July at 10 and 11 a.m. and at 1, 2, 3, and 4 p.m., except for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Park admission $3 per vehicle. House tours are $3; $2 ages 6 to 12, younger free.