10,000 Years of Florida History at the Old Florida Festival in Naples
Once a year in March the grounds at the Collier Museum in Naples are the home to a fantastic group of re-enactors that bring the 10,000 years of human history in Florida to life in the museum’s Old Florida Festival. Their history spiels are spot on but you never know what century you will land in every time you take a few steps. This year was the 25th anniversary of the festival.
As you wander the grounds you could be talking to a revolutionary war era woman (played by Wendy Voss from Davie) who traveled from the tenements in New York City to start life over in Florida after her husband and son were killed in that war. Voss has lots of household items on her table and tells you what each one was used for and how you could tell whether its owner had been poor or well off. Or you could be talking with a WWII soldier sitting in front of his tent with a tank nearby. Meanwhile one of the soldiers starts teaching a boy visiting the festival how to throw a baseball.
Or you could chat with a pirate just in from his ship or a surgeon (played by Robert Feeney from Plantation) well equipped to handle the ills of the Confederate War soldiers by keeping mercury pills in one pocket and opium in the other. Feeney is also a telegraph expert and at the next tent over a friend of his will tell you all about the history of Morse code.
John Russell brings the Buffalo Soldiers to life. The so-called Buffalo Soldiers were several regiments that made up the first all-black peacetime regiments in the US Army following the Civil War. They took part in the Spanish American War. Russell’s historic character is in Florida waiting to go fight in Cuba. He doesn’t break a sweat in his all wool uniform but says he’s heard the uniform killed more soldiers than the Spanish. History trips off his tongue and he has plenty of real life advice for younger visitors. He talks about the importance of making good decisions. “Remember,” he says to some very attentive youngsters, “your past determines your future… Life is a series of forks in the road.”
A US Navy swab from the Spanish American War had plenty to say about those times and there are Seminole war era soldiers in a log fort across the way. The Paleo-Indian and Seminole encampments are not far down the curvy path.
At the various camps you could learn how to make rope or any number of tools. How about cooking up some lye-based soap guaranteed to take away the itch of poison ivy? Need some deerskin items, they are here. Or how about watching some iron get forged into coat hooks and other handy items?
Impressive Spanish conquistadors with far away looks, as if seeing this rich place for the first time wander the pathways and a group from Bradenton (www.reflectionsofmanatee.org) are operating a hand-turned sugar cane grinder and making cane syrup from the juice. It’s hard hot work but boy is that cane syrup good.
At one end of the festival Judi Allison stands in a small corral with one of her cracker horses. She too has all the facts and some fun stories about these horses, a distinct and recognized breed descended from the horses brought over by the first Spanish explorers. The Florida Cracker Horse is the state recognized heritage horse. Allison set up camp to be close to the horses over the weekend and a lot of other reenacters were roughing it in canvas tents with fire pits and cast iron cooking pans.
Like any good festival there’s food and a big tent where you can sit and watch the ongoing singing and dancing.
The Collier Museum, worth a visit on it’s own, is made up of five separate museums ranging from history to artwork to archaeology. There’s even a big steam engine that you can crawl around on and a permanently docked former island ferry fashioned after the shallow draft, multi-windowed boats used at Silver Springs.
The festival day got hot and I stopped by the “trading post” to get a cold drink. There was water and Coke and root beer lined up on display. Just before I asked for the root beer the pioneer lady said, “Or how about an Orange Crush?” Orange Crush has been around a long time (Google says since 1911) but I hadn’t had one since I was kid picking between that and Nugrape or Nehi Lemon Lime in the big metal soft drink cooler full of ice cold water so I opted for the Crush. “I didn’t put any on display because I only brought four,” she said as she put one of those very cold dripping glass bottles down on the counter. The first icy swallow took me back down my own personal road of remembrance which seemed perfect considering the day and I said, “Thank you, ma’am.”
© Copyright 2015: text Sue Harrison; photos Sue Harrison for MyOldFlorida.com.