In a speck of a town called Barberville, you’ll find the Barberville Pioneer Settlement for the Creative Arts. This living history museum introduces its visitors to life in way-back Florida, before cars roared on nearby Daytona Beach.
Like any other visitor in Florida, I always ask for directions at the front desk of whatever hotel I am staying at before I venture to an unfamiliar museum or theater. I’m quite capable of Googling web sites and Mapquesting, but in the end these technologically delivered details mean very little to someone like me, whose sense of direction runs in reverse. So I appreciate having a human talk me through the process of getting somewhere other than lost.
This usually foolproof plan-of-action backfired on me, however, during a trip to the Daytona Beach region, which is to the south of Ormond Beach and includes the New Smyrna Beach. The concierge of the resort where I was staying not only couldn’t give me directions to the Pioneer Settlement for the Creative Arts (386-749-2959), she’d actually never heard of the place.
In retrospect, I’m not surprised. Forget for a second that locals around here are more accustomed to ushering folks to the nearest surf shop for the latest in bikinis, or to Ocean Walk Village for a feast of shellfish and movie trivia at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., or to the Daytona International Speedway for motorized thrills and chills.
Though Daytona Beach is revamping itself and shedding its spring break (as we know it from MTV) image, it’s still a haven for visitors during school breaks and for Florida residents all year round. It’s only natural that hotel staff should direct guests to shop, eat and be entertained.
Even for someone in the cultural and historical know, though, the non-profit Barberville Pioneer Settlement for the Creative Arts is an unusual cultural attraction of the best-kept secret kind. Fortunately for me and my kids, who I pried off their boogie boards to get in a little learning, the mystery doesn’t extend to directions—the Settlement is quite easy to find, just a goosestep west of the intersection at Highway 40 and County Road 3.
Located just a few miles north of De Leon Springs in Barberville (also near historic DeLand), the Settlement was founded in 1976 by a group of art teachers, who later became the Board of Directors, led back then by Lura D. Bell. The multi-pronged mission statement, once distilled, is simple: to preserve Florida’s rural past; to educate school children and others about the activities and arts of the settlers; and to establish a relationship between the community and Florida’s folk artists who are actively producing work, as well as “encourage the common man to express and experience his artistic urges.” (Ahem.)
To that end, the board originally renovated the dilapidated Central High School in Barberville, which was built in 1919 and added to the National Historic Register of Places in 1993. By 1982, the building had opened to the public, who were invited to examine the collections of art and artifacts, and experience the working exhibits.
As interest in the settlement increased and the collections grew, the need for more space arose. Rather than scheduling costly and reproductive additions, the board gradually began moving historic buildings that held either local or regional significance onto the grounds. For instance, the Railroad Depot (circa 1885) was acquired from nearby Pierson in 1982, and the Post Office (also circa 1885) was lifted from Huntington in 1996. Today, the “village” includes the Astor Bridgekeeper's House (c. 1926), a Turpentine Still (c. 1924), a Pottery Shed (c. 1920s) and the genuine Lewis Log Cabin (c. 1875).
Where rehabilitated edifices were lacking, workshops were built: the Print Shop, the Wheelwright Shop/Carriage House, the Woodwright Shop, the Blacksmith Shop and Timucuan-Myacca and Seminole villages. Each construction was then outfitted with collectibles that spell out is purpose. Thus, throughout the settlement, there are not only pictures that say a thousand words about rural life and folk arts, there are also objects that tell entire tales.
Find the main office in the Bridgetenders house, at the entrance of the grounds, to check in for self-guided or guided tours.
For some of the exhibits, these volunteers, who are specially trained in areas of their interest in addition to having their own skills, show you how it’s done; one of our guides, an older fellow in his eighties, was looking forward to his upcoming apprenticeship in the blacksmith. (In rural times, a blacksmith apprentice might have started at the age of 10.)
For other exhibits, they allow hands-on interaction. My children dipped candles, and that particular activity held their attention far longer than a demonstration of the spinning wheel.
Before You Go
If you do have small or easily bored children, the settlement might not be the best place to take them—despite the nature of the mission statement. Tours are informal and you might be directed to pick one up in the middle, which can be confusing for the kids as well as the guides.
Keep in mind that the settlement is a popular spot for school field trips, so make sure to call ahead and find out if any field trips are scheduled for the day.
However you manage to locate and visit the settlement, don’t leave without a trip to the Turpentine Community Store (c. early 1900s). There, you’ll find the finished candles, pottery and hand-woven rag rugs—even some made from plastic bags!—as well as kids’ toys, games and books.
Special events are held throughout the year. Hours are 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., Monday – Saturday. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for children (ages six to 12), and children under five are free.