Off the Beaten Path Historical Vacation Ideas

    By Terry Tomalin

    Cowpokes, historical re-enactments, even whip-cracking - fun vacations with an educational twist!

    A thunderous boom echoed across the marsh causing my son to duck for cover. "Was that lightning, Daddy?" he asked. There wasn't a cloud in the blue winter sky and I knew it was far too early in the year for thunderstorms. As I was thinking about how to answer, the stillness at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation was shattered again, this time by the sound of children cheering.

    As we moved closer to the noise, thick black smoke rose above the palmettos. When I saw a man dressed in brightly colored cloth aim a flintlock rifle from behind a bush, I feared my son and I might have stumbled into the Twilight Zone. "What's going on?"I asked the first non-combatant I could find. "Welcome to the Big Cypress Shootout, Second Seminole War Reenactment," said the man, a volunteer with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. "Once a year we get together and stage this re-enactment of a battle from the Second Seminole War. You picked a great day to visit."

    FLORIDA'S FIRST NATIVES

    When most people plan a Florida vacation, they look forward to the state's warm water, white sand beaches and the best theme parks in the world. But the Sunshine State also has a host of hidden treasures - small, seldom publicized, out-of-the-way places that make for great family fun.

    Like many five year olds, my son is interested in nature, especially the state's mega fauna - particularly bears, panthers and alligators. Of the three, he loves the latter the most, so when I told him there was a place where men actually wrestled the giant reptiles, he just had to see for himself.

    For decades, most of what visitors knew of the Seminole Tribe was through these roadside alligator shows. But the tribe, the only Indian nation that never signed a formal peace treaty with the U.S. government, has a rich and storied history that echoes that of the land itself.

    Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki, which translates to A Place to Learn, is a museum that offers a rare glimpse into what life was like for this unconquered people 100 years ago. The exhibits cover every aspect of Seminole life, from transportation in canoes made from cypress trees to spiritual practices such as the sacred green corn dance.

    The 10,000-square-foot facility, located on the edge of a 60-acre cypress dome, also has a mile-long boardwalk that leads an actual, living Indian village where tribal members work on arts and crafts. My son found the traditional Seminole houses, or chickees, the most interesting.

    "Can we build one in our backyard and live in it too?" he asked. I wondered if this pampered modern man could live a day without air-conditioning. "We could try, son," I said in mock seriousness. "We could try."

    A BATTLEGROUND PAST

    "We are here to protect the bridge," said a man dressed in the heavy woolen uniform worn by U.S. soldiers in the early 1800s.

    In the 1830s, during the Second Seminole War, Tampa was an important port. Soldiers built a stockade here and called it Fort Brooke. Further north, near the city of Ocala, stood another outpost called Fort King.

    There was only one problem: To get from Fort Brooke to Fort King, one had to cross the Hillsborough River. The soldiers constructed a bridge, but as quickly as they could build it, the Indians would burn it down. "That is why we're here," explained the soldier.

    The soldiers built Fort Foster along the banks of the Hillsborough River in 1836. The primary mission of this fort was to protect the bridge crossing the river. Garrison life was hard and the soldiers were often sick, so the fort was abandoned two years later in 1838. One hundred and fifty years later, the land on which the battleworks once stood was donated to the Florida Park Service and now, after years of meticulous research, Fort Foster Historic Site has been reconstructed with amazing detail.

    There are regular tours on weekends and re-enactments of famous battles twice a year. But be warned - the "soldiers" won't break character under any circumstances. "Do you know where I can get a soda pop for my boy?" I asked a private. He looked at me puzzled. "A what?" he asked. "A pop," I said. The soldier just shook his head and went back to what he was doing.

    Fortunately, Fort Foster is located within the boundaries of Hillsborough River State Park, which has a full-service concession.

    SETTLERS OF THE SUNSHINE STATE

    One hundred years before air-conditioning and freeways opened the state, Floridians lived one with nature on "Cracker" homesteads. "Do you know why they called them 'Crackers?'" the cowboy asked my son. "Because they were good to eat," my five year old answered. The cowboy laughed, grabbed a 12-foot-long bullwhip hanging at his side, lifted it above his head and let it rip. "CRACK!" My son jumped and looked like he didn't know whether to cry or laugh. After a moment of uneasy silence, he smiled. "Do that again."

    The cowboy, one of the volunteers at the Osceola County Historical Society's Museum, was happy to oblige. "This is how they would keep the cattle moving - with the sound of a cracking whip," he explained. "That is why they got the name 'Crackers.'"

    Today, Florida might be known for oranges, but in the 1800s cattle was, literally, the state's biggest cash cow. The Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon can be credited with kick-starting the industry in 1521 when he introduced seven Andalusian cows to Florida's ample grazing lands. By the 1860s, Florida was one of the nation's largest suppliers of beef. During the Civil War, the state helped keep the Confederacy fed. After the war, the industry continued to prosper, especially in fertile areas such as the Kissimmee River valley.

    These pioneers had to be completely self-sufficient and do everything from shoe their own horses to teach their "youngins" how to read. In Kissimmee, the Osceola County Historical Society's Pioneer Village and Museum contains an actual "Cracker" house, circa 1889, a general store from the late 1800s and schoolhouse from the 1880s, nestled under the 100-year-old live oak trees of an eight-acre nature preserve.

    "Are you ready to give it a try?" he asked, handing me the bullwhip. "No," I said. "I'm afraid I might put out someone's eye." Minutes later, however, I began to have second thoughts as I tried to pry my son away from the blacksmith shop. If a good, solid Crack! of a whip was enough to get an ornery old cow moving, I bet it would do wonders for a rambunctious five year old.

    COWBOY CULTURE

    Life was hard for those early pioneers, but not nearly as hard as it was for the cowboys who actually drove the cattle through the wild Florida scrubland. In the 1800s, Florida was an open range with no fences, so the great herds of cattle - some with as many as 50,000 head - roamed freely. Florida's first cowboys had to literally hunt their cows in the cypress swamps, pine flatlands and hardwoods hammocks. After a while, folks started referring to these hardened men as "cow hunters."

    The cattle themselves, skinny by today's standards, were survivors. These "scrub cows" could eek out a living almost anywhere. And by the late 1800s, there were cattle operations, or "cow camps" spread out across the state.

    One of the better-known cow camps was located among the rich grazing lands of the Kissimmee Valley. Locals called it "Cow Town," which was a good fit since most of its residents had hooves. To get a taste of what life was like 150 years ago, all you have to do is visit Lake Kissimmee State Park and follow the dirt path near the parking lot to a real working cow camp straight out of 1876.

    "Coffee?" a cow hunter asked, grabbing the pot off the open fire. "Thanks," I said, wondering if I'd be pushing it to ask for some hazelnut non-dairy creamer. The bitter black brew tasted good on this cold winter morning and I tried to make small talk as I savored each sip. "Do you think U.S. Grant will run again?" I asked, thinking that the cow hunter, like the soldier at Fort Foster, would stay in character.

    "Don't  have much time for presidential politics," he said. "Don't much care." I sat in silence thinking about all those long, lonely nights those cowboys must have spent on the Florida prairie. I left with a newfound respect for the men and women who settled this wild land.

    A SWEET STOP

    Like most parents, I try to limit my son's sugar intake. From the juice boxes he drinks to the white bread he eats, that fine white substance is everywhere. Hoping to teach the youngster a little about the substance he can't seem to live without, I took him to the Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins Historic State Park in Homosassa.

    In its heyday, 10 years before the start of the Civil War, this 5,100-acre plantation was operated by 100 slaves and produced sugar, syrup and molasses, which was in turn used in the manufacture of rum.

    Today, visitors can still get a hint of the magnitude of this 19th century industrial operation. The 40-foot limestone masonry chimney, iron gears and cane press are still intact, as are some of the large cooking kettles.

    Interpretive signs will explain the sugar-making process. The park also has a covered pavilion and grills, ideally suited for cooking hot dogs for little ones. "Let's check the label on this hot dog package," I told my son. "Just as I suspected - hot dogs have sugar in them, too."

    My son didn't care. "Can I have a juice box now?" he asked.

    SPONSORS & PARTNERS