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A step back in time: Crossing the bridge takes visitors back 100 years

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image The school house was built in 1910 in the historical town of Castalia in Desoto County, and served as a school from 1912 until 1937.

“It’s fun to watch kids’ eyes open wide when they see this place and hear about life without computers and cell phones."

By PENNY FLETCHER

TAMPA - Stephanie Sumner is proud to be from a long line of Florida Crackers.

She’s found evidence of relatives living in Hillsborough County as far back as the 1850 Census.

Dressed as a pioneer woman from 100 years ago, Stephanie tells stories about her dad who raised beef cows on land now covered with blacktop and about how early families of the area used open-fire cooking.

“It’s fun to watch kids’ eyes open wide when they see this place and hear about life without computers and cell phones,” Stephanie said, looking around her at the wooden buildings at Cracker Country on the Florida State Fairgrounds.

This is the 18th year Stephanie has served as one of the docents at Cracker Country and she takes the volunteer job to heart.

“This is a real calling. I love it. I love the feeling it gives me to do it,” she said. “It’s not like working for a wage. It’s giving of yourself. You bring your own set of skills and you don’t have to be a sixth-generation Cracker like myself to enjoy it.”

The term “Cracker” comes from the sound of a whip that was cracked in the air to get the attention of cows roaming in the wild back in the days of early Florida settlers and has come to mean “native-born Floridian,” she explained.

Anne Paige is another of Cracker Country’s 120 volunteers who keeps coming back for more.

Originally from Alabama, Anne said a friend recommended the position to her when she moved to Florida. She’s been at it now for 19 years.

Anne also tells visitors tales about life as it was years ago. She was trained in Florida history by others and by a variety of historical documents and books available on site for new volunteers.

Besides her job as a host, Anne sews aprons, bonnets and period clothing with a group who craft the apparel worn by volunteers and also sell it in the General Store at the Cracker Country museum display.

Cracker Country is open for 10 weeks in the fall, 10 weeks in the spring and the 12 days of the annual State Fair, which will be held beginning Feb. 7.
Besides this, about 18,000 youth of all ages, but mostly elementary school age from Pinellas, Pasco, Orange, Polk and Hillsborough counties, take guided tours throughout the year.

While there, the youths experience churning butter and tasting cane syrup. They’re shown how the syrup is made, hear how children their age lived 100 years ago, experience the type of chores they did to help their family with daily life, and get to see what the typical buildings of the era looked like.

All told, it’s quite an experience.

Upon entry into the circular Cracker Country complex, visitors cross over a wooden bridge.

“When you cross this bridge, you step back in time to 100 years ago,” said Anne Paige as she led a group of second graders from the First Baptist Christian Academy of Brandon to the historic Carlton House.

As they crossed the bridge, children expressed themselves out loud.

“I wonder if Laura Ingalls Wilder is around here?” one girl asked.

“Wow! Everything’s made out of wood!” exclaimed a boy.

“It’s not like our town,” one wide-eyed boy said as he lingered at the rear of the line just looking around.

The docents show visitors the 13 original buildings moved to the exhibit from around the state and explain their heritage.

Some days a newspaper is printed on an antique press. Wood carving, blacksmithing and candle-making are all part of the exhibit at various times.

One day in early November, Pauline May was demonstrating how string was dipped into wax to make candles that served as a home’s only light.

Fascinated youths from Brandon watched in awe.

“You mean that was their only light?” one boy asked.

Jennifer Becker, museum program supervisor explained the age and history of the buildings.

“The Carlton House was built in 1885 by Albert and Martha Carlton and donated as a museum by their descendants in 1978. Other buildings were acquired later.”
The museum has both men and women docents and guides along with people who volunteer to demonstrate a particular skill, like crafting or quilting or gardening.
“If somebody has an interest in a particular craft or activity, we can find a place for them (to volunteer),” Jennifer said.

Sabrina Permuth works in human resources for the Fair Authority but was on hand on the museum grounds to encourage new people to volunteer.

“We could use many more people,” she said. “Cracker Country is under the (State) Fair Authority but receives no State dollars. We really need dedicated volunteers to help interpret Florida history.”

Fifteen new people will also be needed to rotate in the Cracker Cow Rodeo Artifact Exhibit being brought from Miami before the opening of the next State Fair.
Besides scheduled tour times listed on line, groups of 10 or more persons may set up a private guided tour by calling Jennifer at (813) 627-4225 or emailing her at Jennifer.Becker@freshfromflorida.org.

More information is available on line at www.crackercountry.org.

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