In Florida, It’s Absolutely Great to Be a Cracker

Before we get to the subject of Crackers, welcome to the first Blog Hop sponsored by the Florida Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. We’re exploring some of the crazy and interesting idiosyncrasies of life in the Sunshine State. Read on and click the links below to meet more MWA members and to comment, share your favorite stories, and enter our contest to win a Kindle Paperwhite.

This Orlando postcard from the 1890s was captioned "The Cracker in Town."

This Orlando postcard from the 1890s was captioned “The Cracker in Town.”

In a lot of places, you might be slugged for calling someone a cracker, if you mean a bigoted, “redneck” Southern white. But in Florida, it’s great to be a Cracker—so much so that we capitalize it.

We laud Cracker architecture and Cracker cuisine. We have novels called Cracker westerns and the Florida Cracker Horse Association. We write obituaries in which folks say something like, “Daddy was a fourth-generation Cracker, and so proud of it.”

All this embodies a heritage that’s elusive even in parts of Florida. What is South Florida on the map is North Florida in terms of culture, so quintessential Crackerdom may be elusive, say, south of Vero Beach.

Cracker-SteClaireHistorian Dana Ste. Claire literally wrote the book on the subject: Cracker: The Cracker Culture in Florida History (University of Florida Press, 2006). He defines a Cracker as “a self-reliant, independent, and tenacious settler,” often of Celtic stock, who “valued independence and a restraint-free life over material prosperity.”

The term goes way back. In Shakespeare’s England, it meant a braggart or a big talker, and by the 1760s it was used in the Southern colonies to refer to Scotch-Irish frontiersmen.

FloridaCrackerCropped-smThe rough-and-ready qualities of these folks proved an asset on the Florida frontier, where they had to make do in a subtropical wilderness without indoor plumbing, electricity, window screens, bug spray, motorized vehicles, or even towns.

But some did have cattle, and many were attracted to the lifestyle of the cow hunter (in Florida history, it’s never “cowboy”).

To this day, many folks think Crackers got their name because of one of the techniques cow hunters used to herd cattle: “cracking” long, braided, rawhide whips in the air. “Cracker cowmen developed cattle-raising into Florida’s first industry,” Ste. Claire writes. Some did very well at it. As time passed, you could sure still be a Cracker and have money in the bank.

By the early 20th century, “Cracker” had become a regionally affectionate term, and the contributions of the folks called Crackers have been increasingly celebrated in Florida as a distinct and valuable heritage.

Cracker Kitchen-blogPart of that heritage includes good eating. As the fine Florida novelist Janis Owens writes in her cookbook, The Cracker Kitchen (Scribner, 2009), one of the finest compliments “any Cracker can get, male or female, rich or poor, is that they set a fine table.”

Recipes include Mama’s Cornbread, Green Bean Bundles, Sweet Potato Pie, Carrot and Raisin Salad — just like Owens’ mother always ordered at Morrison’s cafeteria — plus Buttermilk Pie and lots more.

The Florida Humanities Council offers a Cracker-themed music CD, in the council’s online store (

“Cracker” remains a word to be used with care, however, as historian Ste. Claire notes. Abraham Lincoln once said that no matter how much you respect the common man, never call a man common to his face, and that’s probably still good advice when it comes to Florida Crackers.

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As April dawns, the tale of Palmetto Pete returns

A vintage view of Lake Eola Park

A vintage view of Lake Eola Park

It’s April 1, and I’ve just returned from a walk at Orlando’s Lake Eola Park, which offers excellent people- and creature-watching. Folks stroll along with anything from a pomeranian to a python. But on this very April day a few years ago,I stumbled on the strangest pet story I’ve ever heard from Central Florida’s past.

It was just about twilight when I found myself walking at the park behind a stooped, white-haired man with a long beard. Behind him on the pavement were what first appeared to be five flat, dark, oval stones. Ack! They moved. They looked like palmetto bugs, our Florida roaches. Impossible. The man turned and fixed me with a gaze that would melt butter.

“Whatever you do,” he said in a low voice, “be careful where you step.” I could only stare. When he stopped, the line of dark shapes behind him stopped, too.

Thanks to 'Anonymous Cow,' Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to ‘Anonymous Cow,’ Wikimedia Commons

“You see,” he said, “these are true descendants of Palmetto Pete, the biggest bug ever to come out of Florida. They don’t hatch ’em like Pete any more. He was a star. Palmetto Pete’s Scrambling Circus, Pappy called it. People loved it.”

“But, roaches?” I said, thinking of those creatures that plague the recesses of my old kitchen.

“See, this was back in the 1920s,” he went on. “People were flocking into Orlando like bees to honey.” Or like roaches, I thought.

Prof. Heckler entertained New Yorkers in the 1920s. (Courtesy

Prof. Heckler entertained New Yorkers in the 1920s. (Courtesy

“My pappy had heard about these flea circuses at fairs up north. He figured we had almost as many of them palmetto bugs around our yard as an old dog has fleas. They were a whole lot bigger, too, and strong!

“Pappy hitched those critters up to a tiny wagon they pulled around a cute little circus arena he built for them. They weren’t all smart like Pete , of course. Pappy knew Pete was special the minute he saw that bug sauntering across our kitchen floor. My mammy was just about to give Pete a smack with a rolled-up newspaper, but Pappy said, no ma’am, that bug’s gonna make us some money.”

I shivered. “So what happened?”

Could this be Pete? Guess not. It's a 'sea roach,' says (found in 1984)

Could this be Pete? Guess not. It’s a ‘sea roach,’ says (found in 1984)

“Oh, Pete was a wonder,” the old man went on. “Could catch a tiny trapeze, ride on the back of a little dog; he could even fly. Pappy was making money hand over fist with his circus. There was just one problem: That bug was bad to drink. This was during Prohibition, and Pete began lappin’ up that moonshine. That roach just became a disgrace. He started falling off that tiny dog’s back, and talking real rude to the lady bugs. One sad day Pappy found him on his back with his legs up in the air.”

A tear dropped onto his worn jeans. And then the old man gathered himself up to walk away, but before he did, he leaned over and whispered one more thing to me.

“Dearie,” he said, “Happy April Fool’s Day to you.” I send the same greeting to you, gentle readers. April 1 is a fine time for foolery. But, we must admit, from what we know of Florida, big Pete might really have existed.

P.S. I looked up ways to battle roaches in Florida, hoping to add something useful to this tale, but found so many online that I opted for this instead: Baton Rouge blues master Silas Hogan’s version of “I Got Rats and Roaches in My Kitchen.” Not Florida, but close enough.


In the pines of Florida, Christmas everlasting

The perpetual peace garden at Christmas, December 2013.

The perpetual peace garden at Christmas, December 2013.

Way back during the Seminole Wars, a peaceful place in the Central Florida pines became Christmas, every day. Long-ago soldiers named it in 1837, but we owe its role as a North Pole of the South to the history and work of the Tucker family.

We know the story’s beginning thanks to Capt. Nathan S. Jarvis, a U.S. Army surgeon who kept a journal about his war adventures.

Capt. Jarvis arrived at St. Augustine by steamboat in June 1837 and, by mid-December, was with troops deep in the interior of Florida. They trudged past a deserted Seminole town, crossed the Econlockhatchee River, and on Dec. 25, reached a pine barren on what’s now Christmas Creek in east Orange County.

Fort Christmas Historical Park in east Orange County, Florida, includes a re-creation of the original 1837 structure.

Fort Christmas Historical Park in east Orange County, Florida, includes a re-creation of the original 1837 structure.

The soldiers built a stockade made of upright 18-foot pine logs, sharpened at the top, and named the place Fort Christmas. In just a few days, most of the troops were ordered to move deeper into Florida, leaving the fort and the area largely deserted until about 1860, when John R.A. Tucker and his family settled nearby.

The only means of travel was by oxcart or on horseback, and the Tucker home became a stopping-place for travelers. After the community gained a post office in 1892, a member of the Tucker family was in charge for much of the next century.

In 1916, Lizzie Tucker got the job, taking over from her husband, Drew. In 1932, the mantel passed to their daughter-in-law Juanita, who stayed on the job for more than 40 years. Juanita Tucker was 101 when she died in 2008, then the oldest resident of Christmas and the one who had done the most to put it on the map.

Juanita Tucker at the Christmas, Florida, post office in the 1940s. (Florida State Archives)

Juanita Tucker at the Christmas, Florida, post office in the 1940s. (Florida State Archives)

“She got the community together. She was good at that,” her son Cecil A. Tucker II said after her death. “Anytime that people had a need, she would find some way or someone to help out.”

The old Christmas post office (the same building shown in the picture of Juanita Tucker at the window).

The old Christmas post office (the same building shown in the picture of Juanita Tucker at the window).

“The post office was always the one place people could count on to get information and help,” Juanita Tucker once said. “That’s what made it such a wonderful job. There were so many ways I was able to help people that had nothing to do with the post-office business.”

About 1937, the Tuckers moved postal headquarters to a one-story white-frame building with a small porch. When the highway through Christmas was widened to four lanes, that 1937 post office was moved from the south side of the road to the north side, where it still resides in a peace garden at Colonial Drive (S.R. 50) and Fort Christmas Road.

A mosaic at the peace garden in Christmas, Florida.

A mosaic at the peace garden in Christmas, Florida. It’s on State Road 50, about 20 miles east of Orlando.

Asked what he would most like folks to know about the community of Christmas, Cecil Tucker didn’t mention his family, often called “legendary” in Florida ranching lore. In a state where people consider themselves old-timers if they’ve been here since 1960, the Tuckers have a hundred years on them.

For him, his family’s legacy is all about the spirit of Christmas, in both global and local aspects.

“This community has a spirit of helping each other,” Tucker said. “If any place has the Christmas spirit, this is it.”

Christmas, and the Fort Christmas Historical Museum, is 20 miles east of Orlando, en route to Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Canaveral National Seashore in Titusville. See

To Bedford Falls, with love

Piper Rae Patterson as radio actress Sally Applewhite in Orlando Shakes's "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play." (

Piper Rae Patterson as radio actress Sally Applewhite in the Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.” (

I haven’t watched the 1946 movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” for years. There’s a lot to do around the holidays and it’s more than two hours long – and, besides, the part where befuddled Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) makes a big mistake and the frantic George Bailey calls him “a silly stupid old man” – that part always makes me sad.

Like Uncle Billy, I tend to lose things.

So I’m grateful to the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, and its production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” for reminding me of the essence of this story – of how one hard-working man, George Bailey, gets to see how life would have been different without him in Bedford Falls.

In this 1940s “radio play,” five skilled actors portray more than 40 different characters and bring us the essence of the story and of the time, just after World War II. The actress Suzanne O’Donnell, for example, gives voice to characters ranging from Violet, the bad girl of Bedford Falls, to Bailey’s little daughter Zuzu and to his mother, Ma Bailey, played in the movie by Beulah Bondi.

Bert (Ward Bond, left) and Ernie (Frank Faylen) in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946).

Bert (Ward Bond, left) and Ernie (Frank Faylen) in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946).

This “radio play” helped me see the story with fresh eyes and remember the characters, from mean Mr. Potter to the original Bert and Ernie, who serenade George and Mary Bailey on their wedding night with the old song “I love you truly.”

Capra-corn? My “sophisticated” younger self probably thought so. But there’s so much to this piece of true Americana and the history of our reactions to it. As the good  Wikipedia article on the movie notes, a 1947 FBI memo even suggested that Capra represented “Communist” values and the movie “deliberately maligned the upper class” by “attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”

Thomas Mitchell as befuddled Uncle Billy. It's all OK in the end.

Thomas Mitchell as befuddled Uncle Billy. It’s all OK in the end.

Maybe this kind of popular movie is as close to a shared secular mythology as we Americans have – that is, a meaningful story in which audience members of varied ages know the characters and many lines and can experience meaning by watching or hearing it together.

We may know the outcome, but the story still moves us, brings its lessons home, including the thought that “no man is a failure who has friends.” And that includes Uncle Billy, too.

For more on the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, visit

A window on home-grown art and real Christmas cheer

Hand-painted wreaths by artist Donna Miniere greet customers at Jon's Cleaners in Orlando, Dec. 20, 2013.

Hand-painted wreaths by artist Donna Miniere greet customers at Jon’s Cleaners in Orlando, Dec. 20, 2013.

Round red berries nestled in holly. Jolly elves and jaunty snowmen. In a time when most Christmas decorations bristle with made-in-China tinsel, some small businesses cling to a homemade holiday spirit with hand-painted windows.

I once watched Donna Miniere, a master of the art, at work at Jon’s Cleaners on East Michigan Street in Orlando. Clad in a red shirt and paint-smeared white overalls, she was dabbing thick paint on the wreaths adorning Jon’s glass doors.

It was great to see Miniere’s handiwork again this year at Jon’s, where owner Jon Scholtens said she’s been painting holiday windows for about 15 years.

When we talked a few years ago, Miniere recalled childhood memories from nearby Blankner Elementary, where she and other children painted snow scenes on the windows at the back of the school.

A painted snowman, seen from inside Christo's Cafe on Edgewater Drive in Orlando's College Park.

A painted snowman, seen from inside Christo’s Cafe on Edgewater Drive in Orlando’s College Park.

Brushing on the tempera paint felt like “unbelievable freedom,” Miniere said.

Later, after majoring in environmental studies at Rollins College, she returned to her childhood love of art and became a professional portrait painter.

Many years ago now, when a transient artist began some holiday windows at a business on south Orange and didn’t finish the job, Miniere stepped in to help out, and she’s been painting holiday storefronts ever since.

She sticks to the basics – holly garlands, poinsettias, candy canes, and wreaths – with with some traditional variations for individual shops. As she brushes on the paint, she likes to go as the spirit moves her, working without stencils or patterns.

Miniere has left her signature on her paintings at Jon’s and at Michigan Jewelers next door, but some other painters have left their window artistry unsigned.


Beefy King's holiday scenes include a jaunty reindeer and fox.

Beefy King’s holiday scenes include a jaunty reindeer and fox.

But the paintings they’ve made – including bright candles at LaBelle Furs (one of Orlando’s oldest businesses), smiling snowmen at Christo’s Café in College Park, and a veritable village of creatures at Beefy King on Bumby – carry on a seasonal tradition that Americans have enjoyed for decades.

I love these painted figures, full of energy and fun. As Miniere noted, it’s such a shame when folks have “had art schooled out of them.” Sometimes people will tell you that they can’t draw a straight line. Don’t worry about that. If you want to draw a straight line, get out your ruler. Straight lines aren’t what art is about, as Miniere said: “There aren’t too many of them in nature.”

Windows at Beefy King, where Orlandoans have fortified themselves during Christmas shopping for more than 40 years.

Windows at Beefy King, where Orlandoans have fortified themselves during Christmas shopping for more than 40 years.

For some of us, this time of year can feel a little heavy, full of reminders of times gone and loved ones we won’t see again, and of how crazy and rushed the season feels.

But it’s hard to feel blue when you’re munching on Beefy spuds and looking through windows where elves gambol amid wacky reindeer. Here’s to our small businesses and the gifts they bring us, now and all year long.

Orange and clove pomanders: Very vintage and aromatic

My 1940s directions call for covering fruit with cloves, but others suggest making patterns with the cloves.

My 1940s directions call for covering fruit with wholes cloves, but others suggest arranging the cloves in lines or patterns.

Years ago, our Florida family made pomander balls for holiday gifts: oranges studded en masse with cloves, rolled in spices, and hung from ribbons.

These fragrant fruit-and-spice pomander balls were a time-honored way to add a hint of fragrance to your home, long before companies attempted to manufacture good smells and put them in a spray can.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac says the practice went back as far as medieval times. (

The ladies are discussing "that Oxydol sparkle" on the back of a recipe in Mom's old book of clippings.

The ladies are discussing “that Oxydol sparkle” on the back of a recipe in Mom’s old book of clippings.

The directions my mother used, clipped from an unidentified magazine, are still taped in the black ledger book where she began to collect recipes and household tips in the 1940s.

They note that the pomanders can also be made with apples, lemons, or limes. We usually used oranges.

The full directions suggest storing the pomander for three or four weeks to dry, but in Florida, the following steps for quick preparation seem best.

1. Spread lots and lots of whole cloves on waxed paper.

2. With a small nail or sturdy toothpick, pierce holes in the skin of the fruit, from one end to the other and as close together as possible without splitting the skin.

3. Now stick whole cloves in the holes. Make additional holes where needed; fill the holes with cloves, so that the fruit is covered with them (or feel free to use less, as picture at top).

Ribbon hangers for a pomander (from Mom's clipping book).

Ribbon hangers for a pomander (from Mom’s clipping book).

4. Combine equal amounts of ground cinnamon and powdered orrisroot, or use a mixture of spices with orissroot.

The recipe at Old Farmer’s Almanac  suggests 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg, 1 tablespoon allspice, and 1/4 cup powdered orrisroot.

5. Roll the clove-studded fruit in your spices until the fruit is coated. Our 1940s directions suggest using ground cloves with a lemon and ground nutmeg with a lime.

5. After fruit is rolled in the mixture, place in a shallow baking pan and bake at 300 degrees F for 4 hours. Cool.

6. To make a hanger, tie a long narrow ribbon securely around the fruit, making a knot at top. Leave about 4 inches of ribbon for a loop, and tie with ribbon ends with a bow. The 1940s directions suggest wrapping the ball in “metallic mesh or hat veiling, and it’s ready for Santa to deliver.”

I seem to be all out of hat veiling.

The Waterhouse Museum by artist and journalist Thomas Thorspecken. See

The Waterhouse Museum by artist and journalist Thomas Thorspecken. See

The orrisroot is the key ingredient, and acts as a fixative. Our directions say to get it from a drugstore, but, like the hat veiling, that’s no longer workable for most of us. A health-food store that sells bulk spices is a better bet.

A few years ago, during a holiday visit to the Waterhouse Museum — a lovely Victorian house in Maitland, Florida — I remembered the pomanders because some were on display, along with other natural crafts.

Even if we don’t make pomander balls, it’s fun to think about them and those rich, natural aromas of citrus and cloves. For more on the Waterhouse, visit

A taste of Sweden in Sanford

Singers at the annual St. Lucia Festival in Sanford, Fla.

Singers at the annual St. Lucia Festival in Sanford, Fla.

Folks who go to the annual St. Lucia Festival in Sanford have a chance to sample some Florida-pioneer culinary treats. (In 2013, it’s December 14; see

I’m not talking grits and gator nuggets – not this time.

Think Swedish coffee, pickled herring, and lingonberries. And glögg (a beverage), cabbage rolls, meatballs, brown beans, maybe something called Jansson’s temptation, a variety of cakes and cookies, and Swedish pickles.

A Swedish coffeepot. Thanks to Patty Sundberg, "From the Deep Quiet."

A Swedish coffeepot. Thanks to Patty Sundberg, “From the Deep Quiet.”

Festival coordinator Teri Patterson once told me she is especially fond of the pickles. “You just can’t beat a breakfast buffet that includes Swedish pickles, Swedish coffee and a few Swedish cookies,” she said.

But Patterson’s heritage as the descendant of Swedish immigrants means a lot more to her than good eating. With fellow historians Charlie Carlson and Christine Kinlaw-Best, she has written several publications for the Sanford Historical Society on the area’s Swedish heritage, including “The Swedish History of Seminole County.”

“As far back as I can recall I always enjoyed listening to my family’s stories,” Patterson wrote.

“Many were collected and told so beautifully by my grand-aunt Olga Vihlen Hunter. “In each family there seems to be a person who gathers the facts about their ancestors. These facts remind us of their hardships and successes that have contributed to who we are today.”

New Upsala Presbyterian Church, 1902 (Sanford Museum)

New Upsala Presbyterian Church, 1902 (Sanford Museum)

Patterson’s great-grandfather came from Sweden to America and “settled among Swedes in the community of New Upsala,” now in Sanford.

“Over the years this Swedish community has mostly disappeared, . . . but a few remaining historical places remind us of their pioneering past,” she writes.

“These New Upsala Swedes played a major role in developing Central Florida’s great citrus industry.”

Moving victory in Winter Park

Half of the historic Capen House rests after its move in Winter Park, Fla., near a statue of Pan at the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens.

Half of the historic Capen House rests after its move in Winter Park, Fla., near a statue of Pan at the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens.

By the time I could make it to the shores of Lake Osceola on December 10 to pay my respects, Madame Capen was resting comfortably in her new digs – at least half of her, weighing in at 100 tons.

Earlier in the day, this grand dame of Winter Park homes, age 128, made the journey across Lake Osceola by barge, to rest until a move to a permanent site on the grounds of the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens.

In the late afternoon sun, the house looked right at home amid the bougainvillea and bamboo. Other late arrivals stopped by to snap photos and marvel. A young Capen-Mediamother wheeled three youngsters in a triple-seat stroller so they could see a historic happening. One photographer floated in the lake in a kayak to get a good shot. TV trucks lined the driveway of the Polasek, ready for their 5 p.m. broadcasts.

The man who built the house, James Seymour Capen, helped Winter Park begin. When he later looked back on his family’s arrival in 1884, he could list the people who constituted the community then on one page of stationery.

In the decade after the family’s arrival, Capen raised citrus, helped organize the Orlando-Winter Park Railroad Co. – the beloved Dinky line – was secretary of the venerable Winter Park Land Co., and donated land to Rollins, of which he was a trustee in 1887.

Capen house earlyAn age-worn photo shows the 1885 house surrounded only by pines, with Lake Osceola in the background. The women wear long, Victorian-era dresses. In a display of youth’s timeless spirit, two boys perch on the porch roof.

It’s remarkable for such a house to have survived from 1885, in our hot, wood-wearing climate and our Florida penchant for ever tearing down and building anew. But the Capen House has  survived, thanks to care over the generations and a remarkable effort in 2013, when it appeared to be doomed.

Half of the Capen House, adorned by a holiday wreath, weighs 100 tons. December 10, 2013

Half of the Capen House, adorned by a holiday wreath, weighs 100 tons. December 10, 2013

All fans of preservation have much cause to celebrate and cheer the many who are making this a great example of how to save and reuse our historic buildings.

Those of us who missed seeing the house float have another chance, later this month.

Thanks to the Preservation Capen team, led by Debbie Komanski, executive director of the Polasek Museum, and architectural historian Christine Madrid French, project director along with old house experts Frank Roark (construction manager) and Steve Feller (consulting architect). See and

Paging Florida Classics

Pratt-MailmanIf you’re searching for classic books about the Sunshine State, as a holiday gift or any time, the Florida Classics Library is a great place to start.

Now based in Port Salerno, this publisher and small-press distributor has been making fine Floridiana available for more than 50 years.

Offerings include paperback editions of titles by Theodore Pratt – The Barefoot Mailman, The Big Bubble, and The Flame Tree – and many other must-reads about old Florida, ranging from the lesser known (Florida Cow Hunter: The Life and Times of Bone Mizell by Jim Bob Tinsley) to the famous (The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas). See

By the way, Florida cow hunter Bone Mizell (born 1863) was immortalized in 1895 by artist Frederick Remington in Harper’s magazine as the archetype of the “Cracker Cowboy.”

Bone Mizell as depicted by Remington

Bone Mizell as depicted by Remington

Bone was related to Orange County Sheriff David Mizell — the sheriff whose shooting death in 1870 inspired the bloody Barber-Mizell feud and is buried on the grounds of what’s now Harry P. Leu Gardens.

The sheriff’s colorful cousin inspired many moonshine-fueled legends on Florida’s wild frontier. Tinsley’s biography of him is excellent.

Another of my favorites on the Florida Classics list is The Other Florida – sketches from the Panhandle country by Gloria Jahoda, a superb writer who died long before her time.

Florida has inspired or been a “character” in so many great books; it will be great fun to think and write more about them in the future.

It’s time for bluegrass and barbecue in old Christmas

Bluegrass fills the air at Cracker Christmas

Bluegrass fills the air at Cracker Christmas

For many Central Floridians, December wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Cracker Christmas at Fort Christmas Historical Park in far-east Orange County. This two-day celebration of Florida pioneer life traditionally takes place the first weekend of the month (in 2013, that’s Dec. 7 and 8).

In search of seasonal feature stories, journalists from near and far often join the crowds at the annual festival, which typically draws more than 15,000 folks each year.

Named by Seminole-fighting soldiers on Dec. 25 in 1837, the community of Christmas, Florida, is about as venerable as it gets in the state’s pioneer past. The park itself, given to the county in 1931, is also one of Orange’s oldest.

CrackerChristmasFlier-2During one festival a few years ago, visitors listened to bluegrass tunes, took cards to the Christmas postal booth to be stamped with the town’s famous postmark, bought books by authors including Florida Artists Hall of Famer Patrick Smith, and consumed copious quantities of barbecue, fried potatoes, and roasted corn. They could also get a taste of life on the Florida frontier at the replica of the 1837 fort or the park’s original Cracker houses, where vendors and volunteers demonstrated old-time crafts.

Joe Gallelli of Geneva gets a `boondoggle' lesson from Aimee Nichols of St. Augustine at a Cracker Christmas festival.

Joe Gallelli of Geneva gets a `boondoggle’ lesson from Aimee Nichols of St. Augustine at a Cracker Christmas festival.

At a display near the Cracker cabins, Aimee Nichols of St. Augustine sat with a sizable sabal palm frond in her lap, weaving it into a “boondoggle” — a decoration she said was often used to welcome newcomers to a community in the pioneer South and served as a Christmas gift.

Neighbors would come to the cabin of a newly arrived family with a fresh-baked pie and the palm decoration, which the family hung on their front door so “others would know they had been welcomed,” Nichols said.

Elsewhere in the park, fans of a showpiece of 20th-century American design — the Airstream travel trailer — helped keep the event rolling smoothly.

airstream1If the silvery trailers’ aerodynamic design at first seemed incongruous at an event that celebrates the antique and roughhewn, the travel trailers do have a link to old Christmas in the pioneer spirit they embody — a mixture of adventurous exploration and lending a hand.

“Don’t stop. Keep right on going,” Airstream’s founder Wally Byam once wrote. “Go see what’s over the next hill, and the one after that, and the one after that.”

For details on Cracker Christmas, visit and go to events.