Every time I’ve tried to visit Majorie Kinnan Rawlings’ home at Cross Creek, I’ve been too late to get in. The state park is open until sunset, but the grounds close at 5. The last time I was there, I noticed that a visitor could choose to stroll the grounds or to take a guided tour of the buildings (weekends only).
I was keen to visit the atmospheric Cross Creek. It sits right by the road and when the setting sun hits it from behind it is magical. Unlike many historic homes that are surrounded by the modern world and lose something in the process, Cross Creek is still rural enough that it is possible to envision it as it was when Kinnan Rawlings lived there. Kinnan Rawlings abandoned the property in the early 1940s after a Cracker friend sued her for libel. Kinnan Rawlings had described the woman in Cross Creek as “an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary.” The atmosphere must have been very colorful for Kinnan Rawlings to come up with that comically evocative zinger. Kinnan Rawlings tweeted her Cracker neighbors for years and lived on the proceeds. Evidently she hadn’t learned about angering the locals; earlier in her residency she enraged another woman by writing vividly about the woman’s son.
There was also the interesting fact that Kinnan Rawlings’ first husband, Charles Rawlings, had abandoned Marjorie after two humid summers on the Cross Creek property. This I could perhaps understand, being no stranger to heat aversion myself. You can imagine the conundrum: Prior to living at Cross Creek, Kinnan Rawlings authored a column called “Songs of the Housewife,” but in Florida she became a novelist. Leaving Cross Creek would mean leaving the source of her success, so she sacrificed the husband instead. Kinnan Rawlings’ housewifery would come back into play when she published recipes for Cracker cookery in later books.
Another reason to visit was that I suspected the Cross Creek locals hadn’t changed much in the 80 years since Kinnan Rawlings sat on her front porch typing her manuscripts. This was confirmed by a conversation I had with a folklorist, who described some backwoods alligator trappers who lived in the area. When I said I’d like to interview the trappers, the folklorist rolled his eyes and said, “Good luck.” Cross Creek is, how shall I say it, a bit “gamey,” and I could see why Kinnan Rawlings’ writer’s eye had been caught by the combination of lush subtropical foliage and rural folkways.
We paid three dollars to enter the grounds, and just as we did a volunteer rushed up to tell us that a tour of the home would start in a few minutes. This was an unexpected surprise and we hurried over to the barn to join the large tour group, a quarter of which was middle-aged women wearing matching purple t-shirts and feathery purple and pink headbands. The volunteer described how Kinnan Rawlings had come to live at Cross Creek and how beloved she had been by all except for a Mr. Martin, whose pigs Kinnan Rawlings had shot and killed for trespassing.
It was a whitewashed version of Kinnan Rawlings’ tenure at Cross Creek and it made me wonder how many in the group had read up on the writer before visiting her home. No mention was made of the libel suit or of the earlier antipathies. No, according to the volunteer everyone but that ornery old Mr. Martin had loved Marjorie and no one in the group offered a contradiction. Marjorie was painted as a bit of a character who installed a moonshine closet in her dining room and who grew to be one with the land, the reptiles, the oranges, and the people.
As he spoke, a group of chickens rushed up and strutted through the gathering.
The volunteer then apologized for talking about Florida’s orange industry, saying that some people found it boring. I found it the opposite; during Kinnan Rawlings’ time at Cross Creek the area was central to the business of oranges and Kinnan Rawlings had hoped that her own grove would provide sustainable income while she worked on her short stories and novels. As a writer, I’ve been looking for a similar source of income myself. The volunteer explained that the frost line has moved further south, but in Kinnan Rawlings’ day the packing plants were in nearby Citra. With just a basic knowledge of the local terrain, it’s easy to see that the old frost line must have been on the southern edge of Paynes Prairie. It is here that the vegetation changes from hardwood hammock to subtropical. Over time, the frost line moved so far south that even the old growing regions around Orlando are now covered with housing developments.
At the end of the talk, the volunteer said that we could pay three dollars each to tour the house. I dug around in my purse and came up with five one-dollar bills. My companion had left his wallet at home, and although he gallantly offered not to go on the tour so I could, I opted out. The home would still be there next time. And had I gone inside, I’d not have been followed around by a rooster. This may seem commonplace to many, but I spent decades living in a city and suddenly saw why Kinnan Rawlings, who was from the city herself, had been attracted to the place. It was so bucolic that I headed off down a leaf-covered trail where the orange groves used to be, even though the volunteer had made clear that Kinnan Rawlings had had to come to terms with the local snakes.
I didn’t know that chickens dug into sand the way dogs do. The rooster on the left was very determined and more than half of my photos were a blur of feathers as the bird sprayed sand all over its feathers.
You’ve heard of a rooster in the hen house, but this was a rooster at a duck house. Inside the wire cage, newly born ducklings were eating a gourmet lunch. The rooster stomped around the outside of the cage, looking for a way in. When he was unsuccessful, he followed me down to the orange grove.