Tales from Cross Creek

Tales from Cross Creek

Words by Christine Van Dyk

Photos by Nancy Mizels

On a wooden table beneath a window with yellow gingham curtains there’s a cookbook open to a recipe for “Utterly Deadly Southern Pecan Pie.” Beside it sits a vase of Queen Anne’s lace and a bowl of fresh eggs, both of which look oddly out of place in the abandoned kitchen. Perhaps the lady of the house has stepped out to the garden or gone to hang the sheets on the line. It’s easy to imagine her just beyond the shade of the porch, but it’s been a long time since Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings has called Cross Creek home.

Now a National Historic Landmark, her white clapboard house is frozen in time. Tucked inside a grove, it appears to be a stop-off for travelers and school field trips—but Cross Creek is so much more. The remote homestead offers a glimpse into the life of one of America’s most-beloved authors—and a Florida that has ceased to exist.

Just down the road from Micanopy, Cross Creek remains remarkably unchanged since the writer of The Yearling discovered it in 1928. Even then, it was little more than a small citrus farm. The purchase included the house, tenant quarters, a barn, 200 chickens, two mules, and an old Ford truck—all that was needed to convince Marjorie and her then-husband that a life could be built.

Today it is a simple pleasure to lose oneself in the memory of that time and place, to walk in the shade of orange trees and listen to the sounds of cicadas. It’s easy to recall her homespun characters and understand more fully the straightforward realism that was the truth of life along these banks.

“Any grove or any wood is a fine thing to see,” Marjorie writes in her book Cross Creek. “But the magic here, strangely, is not apparent from the road. It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind.”

No one expected Marjorie to remain at Cross Creek after her husband pulled up stakes. Only with the help of neighbors and money from her stories could she survive the sand-pine scrub. Poor, uneducated, and deeply loyal, the local “crackers” were a gift. They taught the socialite to fish and hunt, make moonshine, and gig (hunt) a frog—small kindnesses that enabled her to endure the unforgiving landscape. Folks such as the Baxters were inspiration for her books, giving life to the story of Jody and his pet fawn.

On the porch at Cross Creek, Marjorie’s writing table still soaks up the midday sun, her Remington Typewriter and the just-made daybed giving the illusion she’s never left. Follow the docent inside the main house to see the bathtub she once filled with beer to celebrate the sale of Jacob’s Ladder and the formal dining room where F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway joined her for supper. Out back there’s a servant’s quarters where Zora Neale Hurston spent the night with Marjorie’s maid, evidence of the darker side of the 1940s, which she deeply regretted and later rectified. And then there’s that cookbook, Cross Creek Cookery, Marjorie’s collection of Southern “cracker” recipes, such as Poke Weed Salad, Minorcan Gopher Stew, and Loquat Preserves. It remains one of the top 100 cookbooks of all time, according to Epicurious.

The grounds are open daily but access to Marjorie’s home is only by guided tour Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. After you’ve explored the homestead, stop by The Yearling Restaurant and Cabins to listen to blues strummed on a slide guitar and to enjoy local favorites, such as catfish, fried venison, and Florida gator.

Once your belly is full, follow the canopy of granddaddy oaks to Micanopy. Established in 1821 and made famous in movies, it’s the oldest inland town in Florida. There are antique stores and historic homes, a trading outpost, and some places to eat. Make Herlong Mansion your home base for day trips to Silver Springs, home of glass-bottom boats, and Paynes Prairie Preserve, where alligators, wild horses, and even buffalo roam.

It’s easy to fall under the spell of Old Florida that Marjorie brought to life in her books; not hard to imagine the stillness of the backwater or the taste of Utterly Deadly Southern Pecan Pie. But the best way to know the heart and soul of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is to make your way to where it all began. Slip inside the rusty gate and stroll toward the grove surrounding the white clapboard house that sits on the banks of Cross Creek.