Cross Creek at sunset, near the Rawlings homestead, Alachua County, Florida. Photo by Mike Walker.
How is Florida, especially north-central Florida hidden? Even to those of us who live and work here, it is often hidden in plain sight because we're for the most part living in ways that align us with most of contemporary America: we're shopping at malls, we're eating at Red Lobster or The Olive Garden. Many of our homes are in subdivisions that could be anywhere in the South. We could have the same experiences whether in Florida, Texas, or Alabama. The aspects of old Florida—Cracker Florida, real Florida or whatever you may wish to call it—which make this place unique and special are removed from many of our daily patterns unless we either live in a really rural area or else seek these experiences out. Even in rural places though, I'm seeing more and more subdivisions, more mobile homes, more traits that I could find in some town in Georgia or North Carolina or where-ever just as quickly.
The real Florida, the hidden Florida, still is out there, however, in places like Cross Creek (Alachua County) where Majorie K. Rawlings lived and wrote her beloved novels and stories about Cracker life in Florida over a half-century ago. You'll also find the real Florida in Bradford (Suwannee County), the tiny hamlet of Day (Lafayette County), Wellborn (Suwannee County), the beautiful springs of Fanning Springs State Park (Levy County) and the old Wood and Swink general store and post office (Evinston, Alachua County). These places are not that hard (for the most part, Day may be something of an exception) to reach by car but they are light years away from the Florida of downtown Orlando or Jacksonville or even the frenzy of Archer Road in Gainesville. They remain unchanged mainly because they are slighly remote and the people who live there have no desire to spoil where they live, plus, they can come to Gainesville or Lake City to partake in the benefits of larger communities.
It this history, culture, and to a degree politics and possible futures of such places that this blog will concern itself with for the most part. I realize change comes and change is not always bad either, per se, but often wanton changes can happen and do a surprising amount of damage if we don't take care to prevent such. The greatest economic advantage of many rural towns/communities like High Springs (Alachua County) is in fact their historic charm and attractive architecture. Tourism—and not just that of the theme parks to our south, but the growing ecotourism trade based around our rivers, springs, and other attractions—is a job-rich, fast-growing field that is overall kind to our environment. If you look at Mayo (county seat of Lafayette County) in contrast to Cross City (county seat of Dixie County) you can witness how even something as simple as having an older, impressive, courthouse of traditional architecture can help create a sense of center of community (whereas Cross City, which bless its soul, is about to be picked on a lot in this blog but not without good reason, has an eyesore of a courthouse if there ever was such). The effort to retain history and the legacy of our communities is not one that is only for the older generations, the historical societies, or political sphere but one for each of us, because it really comes down to our own collective stewardship of our communities if we wish them to survive in their best form.
Currently, the U.S. Postal Service is planning to close around 3,700 post office locations in mostly rural communities across the nation—with quite a few in Florida. The aforementioned historic Wood and Swink general store/post office is one such location, as is the post office in Day and that in the small Bradford County community of Graham. The premise is that these post offices do a very small amount of sales-based business per day and most of their functions can be taken over by moving them to larger post offices and/or having them online. It makes little sense in tough economic times to pay someone—especially a government corporation's staff member with full benefits—to stand in one of these little buildings to only sell $50 or so of stamps and postage per day. Those are valid claims, however, these post offices also formulate the centers of their communities. They are where neighbors greet neighbors and share gossip and news just as much as the local churches and courthouses—other major centers of senses of community in small towns. A post office is often what gives a location its very sense of being a town vs. being a spot in the road, and that force of community cannot have a price tag placed on its head.
We are balanced on the fulcrum of the greatest change in our rural communities since perhaps the post-war revolution of the 1950s. Our older generation is truly getting . . . well . . . old. They're in their seventh and eighth decades now—some older. Our middle-class, middle-aged generations are for the most part divorced from traditonal rural vocations like farming even if they live in rural locations. This is not to say all our rural traditions are being lost: I know kids who have raised steers and hogs in the Future Farmers of America just as their fathers did; you cannot drive five miles any direction away from Gainesville without seeing cattle in the fields and rural churches still form the core of life for many people. What we are though in danger of seeing lost is acute understanding of the old ways, how chores and entire jobs were done a half-century or a little more ago. How turpentine was harvested from our pines, how a farrier does his job and how traditional crops were raised. These conventions of yore are the backbone of all we have in Florida—and for that matter in the rural South altogether—even today. They deserve a fighting chance of being remembered. Our architectural legacy deserves not to be overrun by strip malls or mobile homes which are exactly like the ones sold from Kansas to California.
I mentioned in my very first blog post Gloria Jahoda's efforts as a pioneer in the areas of researching and writing about rural north-central Florida and its anthropological and historical import: Dr. Jahoda warned us as early as the 1970s of what we were slowly losing in Florida—the fact that people who understood the old ways were dying off and their kids were moving to larger cities seeking larger fortunes. What we face today is the same loss of folk history but also the loss of traditional vernacular architecture which Jahoda didn't dwell on as much simply because from the 1960s to 1980s when she was writing about Florida, there was less of problem in this regard. Now, we see our material culture being erased alongside folk memories and both are worth seeking out and documenting. We have a rich cultural foundation of our current lives, and in the hidden reaches of north-central Florida, it can be located in full.