Historic Cross Creek home is a symbol of Old Florida

Published February 16, 2007

For my birthday this year, my mother, an artist, gave me what is already perhaps my most prized possession: a portrait of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' home at Cross Creek.

It's a lush pastel drawing of the eight-room Cracker-style cottage where Rawlings wrote her two most beloved books, Cross Creek and The Yearling, for which she won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize.

My mother said she simply aimed to depict the house much as Rawlings would have seen it: a plain-faced one-story dwelling with a graceful screened porch nestled amidst the palms, oaks and orange trees so prevalent in the part of Alachua County where Rawlings settled in 1928.

A few months ago, I made my first pilgrimage to her home, a historic site on 8 acres.

It seems so frozen in time that it's easy to imagine Rawlings still roaming the place, cigarette and drink in hand, hunkering down for an afternoon writing marathon at her manual typewriter on the front porch.

In fact, I could feel Rawlings' presence everywhere in her house, now run by the Florida Park Service and open to the public for tours.

Years after her death, many of her belongings, furnishings and books remain intact, and her cottage retains its distinct literary, yet feminine, aura.

The bathtub that she loaded with liquor for a neighborhood party to fete her new indoor plumbing remains. So does her stove, where no doubt she whipped up her delicious sweet-potato souffle. I have attempted to make it, but can't ever seem to get it to rise.

The sight of Rawlings' house brought tears, much as my mother's beautiful drawing does every time I look at it.

The reason has nothing to do with nostalgia and everything to do with preservation. When Florida has been so thoroughly - and, in my mind, irreversibly - changed by development, seeing Cross Creek as Rawlings left it was like coming home.

How could I not fall in love at first sight with a place once inhabited by a woman who wrote these words? "It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed but not bought. It may be used but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers its seasonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time."

I'm a native Floridian, born in Ocala and raised in Miami through my early teens.

The Florida of my childhood no longer exists except in tucked-away locations like Cross Creek that are becoming as scarce as backyard citrus trees. I am lucky enough to live in a place that feels like Old Florida. It's nestled in an accidental oasis of live oaks, saw palmetto and sea grapes, and a stone's throw from a falling-down old fish camp that makes me deliriously happy every time I walk by.

Rawlings' house, built of Florida cypress and heart pine, has endured decades of humidity, heat and, no doubt, hurricane winds. It sits amid an abundance of orange trees and clucking chickens, down the road from a sleepy fish camp and restaurant where you can dine on alligator and listen to some really good local blues.

The day I went to Cross Creek, I also went to nearby Micanopy, the dreamy little historic town where I bought a quirky, mid 20th century quilt in an old coffin factory. It's still inhabited, the owner claimed, by the ghost of a small child.

That quilt is folded on a display shelf in my bedroom wardrobe, stacked with a multicolored star quilt from childhood and a rich pink quilt made for me by my late grandmother. I look out my window at the mangroves, palms and oaks and wonder how long my little oasis will weather the ravages of time in Florida.

Will it be here in 75 years? A century?

I'm not sure.

I look at my beloved painting of Rawlings' house at Cross Creek and think to myself how lucky I am to have it. How lucky I am to also live in a place of unspoiled Florida beauty, at least for a while.

As Rawlings herself said, "We are tenants and not possessors."

Prescient words.

Words that all of us in Florida ought to remember and live by.

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf@hotmail.com.


. if you go

Rawlings' home

Guided walks through the Rawlings home are offered on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1, 2, 3, and 4 p.m. from October through July. Group tours can be scheduled, in advance, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Reservations are required for group tours. To make reservations or for more information, call (352) 466-3672.

The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.