History Is Hands-on at the Florida Agricultural Museum
It's a living history museum in every sense of the word, where you can try your hand at planting vegetables, hoeing weeds, pumping water, gathering eggs, shelling corn, churning butter or riding a horse.
By Katherine O'Neal
His brothers and sisters have scattered, but this no-longer-little piggy recognized a good deal and stayed home at the Florida Agricultural Museum.
"They're piney rooter pigs, wild, don't stay put long," historic archaeologist-turned development director Mary Herron said as she turned on the water faucet.
Piggy soon was almost indistinguishable from the mud as he luxuriated in its cool sloppiness like, well, a pig in a mud wallow.
Herron patted his hairy rump affectionately.
"Piggy is one of the biggest hams – no pun intended – here," she said, looking around the 1880s Whidden-Clark homestead. "Kids go nuts over Piggy."
In an era when kids think food comes directly from the grocery store, the inhabitants of the Florida Agricultural Museum in Palm Coast are eye-openers.
Saving the Past
When the Spanish arrived in North Florida in 1565, the resident Timucuas were farming maize, beans, squash and sunflowers. By 1819 when the American government bought Florida from Spain, agriculture was the area's mainstay.
Development gradually pushed agriculture aside until 1983, when state Agricultural Commissioner Doyle Conner enlisted the help of agriculturists and historians to preserve this important part of Florida's heritage. The state funded the efforts, and in 1997, the Florida Agricultural Museum was established on 450 rural acres in Flagler County. Today, grants and donations augment state support.
Sharing Piggy's people-pleasing personality are Phat, the pat-loving cat; Sally, the genial farm hound; 16 horses including three Florida cracker horses descended from Spanish conquistadors' mounts; the Florida cracker cattle, Dad, Freckles and Harley; the white male ducks forever lusting after the female Swedish blues whose black feathers flash iridescent blues and greens; and flocks of hens and roosters. Only bees in the hives ignore visitors.
Surrounding them are historic agricultural buildings reassembled from around the state and set on 460 acres with piney woods, row crops, kitchen and herb gardens, pastures and a fish-filled lake. Keeping it all going are dedicated employees like Herron and a host of volunteers like 15-year-old Cassie Young, who moves from Jacksonville to her grandparents' Palm Coast home to help at the museum stables with 4-H and the summer horse camp.
Visitors here may encounter – aside from the domesticated animals – raccoons, possums, gopher tortoises, bobcats and even Florida panthers. Herron hasn't seen a bear yet, but their tracks tell her they, too, are residents.
It's a living history museum in every sense of the word, where in addition to tours in a tractor-pulled wagon Wednesday through Sunday, visitors of all ages can try their hand at planting vegetables, hoeing weeds, pumping water, gathering eggs, shelling corn, churning butter or riding a horse.
The Whidden-Clark homestead, originally was built in 1880 as a cattle camp by the Whiddens, ranchers who then sold to their former employees, the Clarks. The Clarks turned the land into a farm and the house into a home from 1900 until 1970, when the structure was moved here from South Volusia County.
Visitors see clothes drying on the line that were laundered with a washboard, the kitchen separated from the house by an open-air dog-trot and the bed coverings spread over a web of taut strings, origin of the expression "sleep tight."
Outside, the chicken coop is shaded by an arbor of scuppernong grapes just as it was before relocation from Volusia County. Still used are the barrel well, cane press, cane boiler, syrup cooling house and corncrib. Row crops of corn and grain have been harvested, cane is still ripening. Except for a few small melons on a runaway watermelon vine, the kitchen garden is between its summer crops of okra, squash, beans, tomatoes and peas, and the winter rotation of greens and onions.
Elsewhere is the Traxler Country Store, an active business in Alachua County from 1889 to 1941, serving as a community center, post office and source of all other needs.
"He would sell you anything from opium to a casket," Herron said. "If he didn't have it in stock, there were Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs for ordering."
Five historic structures from the 1885-1989 Strawn Citrus complex in DeLeon Springs also are here. One of the two workers' duplexes is furnished as it might have been in the old days, with dry sinks, wood stove and outhouse; there was no electricity until after World War II.
Another is the southern version of a grain silo, two separate buildings within one frame. Herron said it's always 30 degrees cooler inside to keep down vermin and combustion fires. The Mule Barn has become the stable and the Bell Barn now houses equipment.
The 5,000-foot, 1940s dairy barn, a reconstruction of the one owned by Florida's 29th governor, Millard Caldwell, serves as a space for meetings, classes and picnics.
The closest thing to a traditional museum exhibit is "Florida's Black Cowboy, Past and Present." In addition to learning that the term "cowboy" originated in the Carolinas of the 1700s and referred to a black slave who herded cows, visitors can examine saddles, from the early Spanish versions to those of today.
In addition to school tours, its summer equestrian camp and other children's activities, the museum gives 1.5- to 2-hour tours via tractor-drawn wagon beginning at 10 a.m. each day.
Locally made gifts, vintage toys, cookbooks, honey, logo gear and vegetables in season are available at the small gift shop.
The museum has become a popular venue for orienting trail-hiking programs, folk festivals, riding club activities, parties and weddings, and the re-enactment of the Civil War Pellicer Creek Raid.
Princess Place Preserve is just south on Old Kings Road and other nearby attractions include Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, Marineland and Matanzas National Monument.
Word apparently is out that the Agricultural Museum is fun; tours have increased 100 percent in the last calendar year, according to Herron.
Piggy, grunting as he shifts in the wallow, knew it all the time.
When You Go...
What: Florida Agricultural Museum
Where: 7900 Old Kings Road, Palm Coast