Cracker Christmas

Off the beaten path – Christmas, Fla.

Making soap

Pouring soap from a dipper into the kettle during a demonstration of soap-making. The process adds air to the soap, lightening it.

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What’s a body to do during all those long winter months between the last show of the season and the first show for next year?

Well, you can do a little hunting, then when that season is over, sit by the fire and watch the flames flicker, scrunch down in your favorite chair and watch football on the weekends or basketball during the week, take the good wife shopping, or find another type of show to go to.

Finding another kind of show is not all that hard. Watch the Sunday papers for special events in your neck of the woods. The last show we attended in Ohio was in late October. We came to Florida in early November just in time to go to the Florida Flywheelers Fall Fuel-Up. They follow that with a winter swap meet in January and their regular show in late February … then there’s the show at Zolfo Springs.

We started looking for other places to go and found a neat seasonal show east of Orlando just off Route 50: Cracker Christmas at Fort Christmas Historical Park. The town of Christmas, which is located about halfway between Orlando and the Atlantic coast, has a population of about 4,000. During the Seminole Wars, soldiers built a small fort there. Since it was near Christmas time when the fort was completed, the soldiers named the settlement Fort Christmas.

In about 1975, the city of Orlando dedicated funds to construct a park one mile south of the original fort site. The park is filled with buildings, including a replica of the original fort consisting of two 20-foot-square block houses surrounded by pine pickets, the old Christmas U.S. Post Office, six period houses, a ranch barn, a cracker (Florida cowboy) cow camp, a one-room school building housing grades one through four from 1906 to 1969, and various other museums.

Wondering how the Florida cowboy got the nickname “cracker”? It comes from the long, rawhide whips once used by cowboys to drive cows out of swamps and clumps of trees. The noise made by the cracking whip was almost as loud as a rifle shot, hence “cracker.”

Varied display of vintage tractors and gas engines

If you’re interested in farm machinery, the display at Cracker Christmas fills the bill. The modest display at the 2008 show included a very nice collection of classic farm tractors. Most were International Harvester, but there was a good mix of Ford and John Deere as well. Since there are fewer “tourists” looking over the machinery than what you would encounter at a tractor show, you can go at a slower, more leisurely pace and simply spend more time with each tractor.

Interestingly, there was one homemade grove tractor in the mix. It was fashioned from Model A Ford car and truck parts. The tractor was built to use in the citrus groves that once populated central Florida. Florida citrus growers wanted a light-weight tractor to use in tending the groves, where rubber tires caused less damage to tender feeder roots.

The throaty sounds of gas engines could be heard throughout the park. While some were static displays, others performed important jobs like powering ice cream freezers or grist mills. Homemade ice cream was a treat for visitors; cornmeal and grits from the grist mill were reminders of daily fare of the past.

More cars than Detroit

The Central Florida Ford Model T Club came to Cracker Christmas in force. Produced from 1909 until 1927, the Model T went through many changes during its production run. The oldest one displayed at Fort Christmas was a 1911 2-passenger Torpedo Runabout that stole the show.

Another crowd-pleaser was a work in progress: a 1922 Model TT dump truck owned by Brantley Brumley. Originally owned by Volusia County, the truck (with hand-crank dump bed) sold at a salvage sale for $7. George Snyder, Osteen, Fla., drove it until the early 1970s when he parked it in his orange grove. Brantley brought the truck out of retirement about seven years ago and began to piece it together again. Today, it runs. It goes to shows. And someday, it will be completely restored, or so Brantley hopes.

Sugar cane squeezin’

Each year, a small plot of sugar cane is planted at Fort Christmas to use in making cane syrup at Cracker Christmas. In the 1800s, nearly every Florida farmer had a patch of sugar cane to provide syrup, brown sugar and candy.

Although a horse-powered cane press is used at the show, the group has no horses. In 2008, a John Deere tractor was used to power the press. The resulting juice was boiled into syrup. One worker’s sole job is to skim the foam, using a long-handled dipper. In the olden days, the skimmings were dumped into a barrel and fed to the hogs. It takes roughly three hours to finish a batch of syrup. If you are lucky and time your visit before the inventory is gone, you can buy a pint jar of molasses to use in making cookies or topping pancakes.

Glimpse of history and American Indian culture

A small group of Confederate soldiers set up camp, drilled and trained during the event. Because gunfire is not allowed at the park during the Christmas celebration, no battle reenactments were held. But there’s still plenty to learn from the encampment.

For instance, at least some Confederate soldiers were poorly equipped. An infantry soldier was considered lucky if his rucksack contained a few items of clothing, a tin plate and maybe a knife and fork, hygiene items such as a toothbrush and a bar of soap, a ground cloth to sleep on, his weapon and bayonet. Life during the Civil War would have been no picnic. The Civil War encampment was not entirely accurate to the site: The fort was built and occupied during the Second Seminole Indian War (1835-42). It was never occupied by either Union or Confederate soldiers.

Members of the Talako Indian Dancers gave a spirited, colorful and lively demonstration of American Indian culture. The club (talako is the Choctaw word for eagle) is devoted to sharing Indian culture in the community. Seniors encourage children ages 7 to 18 to learn about and participate in their Indian heritage. Members go through a formal naming ceremony and learn dances of tribes from across America. The colorful costumes are a joy to see and dance steps performed to the beat of a drum make excellent viewing. The group has completed more than 2,000 performances since its inception in 1986.

Demonstrations and entertainment

Every building at the park showcases a specific industry related to the early settler’s life in Florida. One building is filled with “modern” entertainment systems such as the Edison phonograph, the RCA Victrola and a spiked-drum hand organ.

In another building, women at spinning wheels told tales about working with wool and flax, and discussed the varied characteristics of sheep, llama and alpaca wool. They even explained the origin of the phrase “pop goes the weasel.” An old-time quilting bee was underway in another corner of the building, complete with women working at quilting frames. And no home show would be complete without a demonstration of soap making. We also enjoyed live entertainment, including country/western music, dulcimers and guitars.

Food, glorious food

Along the way, there are many treats to tickle the palate. Sample such delicacies as swamp cabbage or strawberry shortcake prepared by an Orange County 4-H club. (You may go back for the strawberry shortcake, but I’m not too sure about the swamp cabbage.) The Camo and Critters 4-H Club’s booth featured gator meat and sweet garlic pickles. The Bit and Bridle Horse Club booth offered a taste of boiled peanuts and kettle corn. And at the main pavilion, you can stand outside and watch a full menu being prepared. Afterward, you can “walk it off” as you view the show’s arts and crafts booths packed with seasonal items.

If you’re lucky, you won’t have to wait six months until the next show season begins to see antique farm equipment. Look for other interesting and entertaining events close to home. You’ll stay active, keep up with the news and have lots of time to spend with each tractor, engine or car you see (and you won’t have to hurry to see them all). Take the time to slow down and see many more aspects of the show than you normally get to: Enjoy! FC