We were too late to see the antique tractor show at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, but this time it wasn’t our fault. As we pulled through the entrance gate, the park ranger told us that most of the tractors had already been hauled off. It was two in the afternoon. As event coordinators, both Mr. B. and I realized how upsetting this early departure would be to people who had come specifically to drool over a 1941 WC Allis show tractor. Since we had come to see the Foster museum and not the tractors, we weren’t terribly disappointed. Still, it would have been gratifying to have one’s photograph taken atop a mint condition 1957 Wheel Horse.
As I’ve discussed before, Stephen Foster is an icon of the Deep South, and nowhere is this more evident than at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center. The Center presents Foster’s life in such a way that unless you read carefully or are armed with foreknowledge, you’d think that Foster spent his days in a beautiful antebellum mansion, dreaming of Jeanie with the light brown hair. At twilight, he’d stroll through the lush azalea bushes down to the banks of the Suwannee, perhaps catching a drift of gospel hymns being sung by a neighboring plantation’s slaves.
Mr. B. and I have become amateur Fostercologists simply due to our proximity to the river Foster immortalized in song. Despite never having set foot in the state, Foster is truly Florida’s native son and his presence is ubiquitous. We’re very proud of Mr. Foster down here in the Sunshine State, and the Folk Culture Center does a bang-up job of preserving his musical legacy.
The Center is different from any other state park we’ve visited. It’s a park, a campground, a recreational facility, a performing space, a living history reenactment, and a museum. A carillon in the center of the park rings out Foster’s most famous songs and Craft Square offers demonstrations in traditional folk arts. On the last weekend in May, the park hosts the Florida Folk Festival.
The Foster Museum was a delight, but the park itself wasn’t rural enough for Mr. B. I, on the other hand, found it much to my liking. It had everything I’d ever wanted in a park, starting with multiple clean restrooms and lots of good old-fashioned pavement. Although the park has plenty of hiking trails, we didn’t take any. Mr. B. explored the amphitheatre while I went to the river overlook, happy that for once I didn’t need to change into my hiking boots.
What a gracious dwelling! Unfortunately, the truth, as it often seems to be, is quite different. Foster, who never made more than a pittance in publishing royalties, died in a ratty hotel in the Bowery with 35 cents in Civil War scrip and three cents in his wallet.
If my house sat on grounds like these, I might be able to write a hit ballad myself. Truth intervenes again: It would take a lot more than greenery to make me a successful songwriter.
This portrait of Foster seems to imply that the songwriter spent much of his time lost in romantic daydreams and not worrying about where the next nickel was coming from. This same sense of gentility pervaded the museum.
This mannequin in period attire graced the corner of the museum’s left wing. Nearby, we noticed some photographs of the annual Stephen Foster Jeanie Ball during which local vocalists warble their way towards the grand prize of a music scholarship. To that end, I submit the following:
“I dream of Jeanie….”
“…with the bright yellow hair…”