The Florida that used to be
Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. — There is a Florida that has nothing to do with sequined beaches, purring Bentleys, or Mickey Mouse. Northern Florida is another world, where hot boiled peanuts, hush puppies, and Crackers -- not the food, but a proud rural people -- are part of the heritage.
From Ponte Vedra on the northeast coast to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's Cross Creek at the center of the state, I recently covered a swath of north Florida I'd known only from hearsay. My launching pad was Jacksonville, into which I flew on one of the area's coldest weekends ever, and my base of operations was a handsome oceanfront sporting spa called Sawgrass, a 45-minute drive from JAX airport.
Passing up the myriad athletic offerings at Sawgrass (it was too chilly to revive my backhand anyway), I headed south with a friend on route A1A to St. Augustine, 19 miles distant. A1A is a sight in itself, one side piled high with gorgeous sand dunes, on the other an eerie stretch of swamp, denuded palms and twisted scrub oaks, the kind of place you'd expect to see dinosaurs sunning.
St. Augustine, discovered by the Spanish well before the Pilgrims got to Plymouth Rock, has protected and restored its colonial past, as evidenced by the rows of buildings on St. George Street. But I was also taken with some of the overlooked residential streets, narrow lanes with handsome stone and frame cottages luxuriating behind mossy oaks and palmettos.
Down on Matanzas Bay, we found the massive fortress Castillo de San Marcos in the tender care of a blond-bearded Park Service ranger, Mark Johnson. He said that with the Interior Department's budget cuts, the fort has had to limit its cannon firings to the first Saturday of each month, and to put away its Spanish military costumes. This has only served to inspire Frank Suddeth, a local volunteer, who was standing beside Mr. Johnson looking somewhat burdened in a 1740 Spanish grenadier's outfit. Mr. Suddeth, a high school history teacher who celebrates the 18th century on weekends, had on a thick blue and red coat, white leggings, granny glasses, and a bearskin cap he said the Spanish used to intimidate the enemy, usually the British. ''I got tired of grading papers this morning,'' he said, ''so I got dressed and came down.''
Next day we drove north from Sawgrass to explore another period of northern Florida history. At the little shrimping town of Mayport we caught a state-run ferry called Blackbeard and spent the five-minute crossing munching on hot boiled peanuts a young girl had peddled on the landing. Then we followed a moss-hooded back road to the little-publicized Kingsley Plantation. Restored and overseen by the state, the crisp, white, modest plantation house stands in clearing looking onto a broad marsh.
''We don't get crowds very often,'' said the caretaker, perhaps a mite surprised with the company. ''Some people get discouraged on that road, thinking it can't be the right way.'' He said the staff grows its own cotton, one of several cash crops the plantation eked out 150 years ago. The rooms have been faithfully, if not sumptuously, restored. One also has to admire the honesty of the brochure, which speaks of less than idyllic plantation life, of biting insects and cold winter winds, of grass fires spotted from the widow's walk, which is perched New England-style on the sloping split-cypress shingle roof.
Nearby in Fernandina, we cruised by rickety gingerbread houses in need of paint and a historically revived business district with the latest in street-sign graphics. At the end of a piney road on the edge of town we settled in for supper at the cozy, wood-paneled Sandbar. There is nothing trendy about this seafood restaurant which, according to the paper place mats, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. One of the specialties is steamed oysters. You are served a pan of oysters, a glove to grip the hot shells, a screwdriver to pry them open , and a bucket at your feet for the empty shells. Hush puppies accompany the main courses.
On a cold Monday morning when I could have used a pair of the Sandbar's gloves, we packed up, left Sawgrass, and headed for Cross Creek, the hamlet where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote her Pulitzer Prize novel, ''The Yearling.'' The simple, rambling, board-and-batten house stands on a roadside south of Gainesville in a tangle of palmettos and oaks. Inside we found the curator, Sally Morrison, sitting along on a floral print sofa doing paper work by the fire.
''Our purpose,'' she said, ''is to preserve the Florida that used to be, and the life of the Crackers that was so important to Marjorie. Today people are proud to be third-and fourth-generation Crackers. Crackers, you know, are white rural farmers. There are two theories on how they got the name -- one, they drove the oxen carrying their produce and were always 'cracking' their whips; two, every family had a corn mill where they 'cracked' corn for grits.''
Sally Morrison said that the author, who lived at Cross Creek from the late 1920s to her death in 1953, had specified in her will that the house be displayed as naturally as possible, not as a museum exhibit. ''In the summer we put her typewriter on the screen porch where she worked, so you get the feeling she's just stepped away.''
Now the high-backed L.C. Smith typewriter was on a table in front of the fireplace, and on a weathered sheet of paper rolled into the machine were some lines from ''Cross Creek,'' an autobiographical work published in 1942.
''We are four miles west of the small village of Island Grove, nine miles east of a turpentine still, and on the other sides we do not count distances at all, for the two lakes and the broad marshes create an infinite space between us and the horizon.''
We explored the jerry-built house with its encircling screened deck, peeked into the little rooms with their quilted beds and green-painted wood floors, strolled the rambling yard, and said goodbye to Cross Creek, still what it was in the author's day, ''a bend in a country road.''