Departing lovely Micanopy, en route to our next camping destination we will spend a half the day wandering the backroads to and through some of our favorite rural places: Cross Creek and Island Grove.
The Cross Creek community was settled on a narrow strip of land, named after the navigable creek that connects two sizable lakes: Orange and Lochloosa.
In 1928, inspired by the wildness and beauty of this area, writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings moved both geographically and spritually from New York society circles to the rural (7-family) community of Cross Creek. In the 14 or so years that she lived here year-round, Rawlings would make new friends and entertain old ones, lovingly tend to her homestead and orchards, and begin her successful career as a novelist.
Rawlings is best-known for her Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Yearling, about a local boy who adopts a wild fawn and raises it as his pet. While somewhat fictionalized, The Yearling is actually based on a neighbor family with whom Rawlings was friendly. But it’s Rawlings’ autobiographical masterpiece Cross Creek that chronicles her own life here, and her beautiful writing about this wild place makes clear the love she had for this land and affection for the families who lived here.
Upon her death in 1953, the Rawlings home, farm, and land were donated to the University of Florida. The house is a National Historic Site, and the University, the state park system, and volunteers have lovingly restored and preserved this site as the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park.
I cannot recall whether I first read Cross Creek or visited MJK’s home in Cross Creek, however I do recommend doing both, as pairing the two experiences makes Rawlings’ writings truly palpable:
“It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind. One is now inside the orange grove, out of one world and mysteriously in the heart of another. And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again.” — Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (Cross Creek, 1942)
Some trees in the original orange and tangerine groves still bear fruit prolifically, During our visit, volunteers were picking tangerines for a special jam and ice cream that are made each year.
A trail leads one down to the creek, through the dense hammock of Spanish moss-draped live oaks, palmettos, and orange trees – remnants of the old groves.
Ducks and chickens happily wander the yard, and in the back yard a vegetable and flower garden grows.
While we didn’t arrive in time for the docent-led house tour, a volunteer let Robert in the house and screened porch, where he admired the typewriters that – although accurate in period and model – are not the actual typewriters used by Rawlings. Who is the lucky person out there in possession of those typewriters? That appears to be a mystery…
While altered long ago by the planting of citrus trees, and somewhat manicured both for preservation and to enhance the visitor’s experience, the land is still much as it always was.
Outside of the fenced acreage of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings homestead and farm, the state maintains a nice community-focused park with a boat ramp on the creek and a playground under the hammock.
In the summer of 2010 we’d driven through the ghost town of Island Grove, but in the oppressive heat we had stopped short of walking through Antioch Cemetery, final resting place of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her husband Norton Baskin. A drive deep into Island Grove is like going back in time, and the paved roads ends several miles before reaching the turn off to the cemetery.
Antioch Cemetery is old, and many of the monuments (both old and new) are quite interesting and unique. There are some really personal newer monuments and decorations that make this a very unusual cemetery, though I’m not sharing photos of those here out of respect for the privacy of local families.
I took some 35mm photos of the “ghost town” of Island Grove, but in my haste to get to the cemetery, I forgot to snap any with my phone. Oops! Here are a couple of digital shots I took in 2010.
In spite of the Florida humidity and presumably large termite population, these places didn’t appear to be in a much more advanced state of decay now than they were 10 years ago. They are really overgrown though and the palm tree towering over the little cracker house is dead now, and has lost its top. This post on my old blog provides a bit more information about the Island Grove area.
A trip through this part of Florida isn’t complete without at stop at The Orange Shop. Their grapefruit juice is like nectar of the gods. I think they put a splash of orange juice in there, which softens the sourness a bit. Heavenly!
This legendary roadside citrus stand has been selling local fruit to travelers from its location on Highway 301 since 1936. The Orange Shop’s groves were actually growing citrus fruit commercially as far back as the Civil War era. While there are still active groves here in Marion Country, some of the fruit sold by The Orange Shop also now comes from their groves in the (warmer) Indian River area.
How lucky we are to be here in season for the freshest picked fruit, but even year-round, the Orange Shop sells their juice and other goodies. You can even order fruit online, although I think the juice is only sold in person.
The charming tiny towns of Northern Florida have a lot to offer the traveler. Every place that we’ve visited in this post and Part 1 of our North Florida journey are pretty easy side trips from I-75. So whether you have two days to explore, or just an hour, I do encourage you to take some time to slow down and visit “the real Florida” on your way to the beaches further south.