The great thing about un-planned road trips are the occasions when one decides to wander off the main highways and byways and, in doing so, one often makes a couple of unexpected discoveries (usually not found in travel guides and map books).

Today was such an occasion.

We had packed our bags, bid Theresa and Titusville good-bye… and were obediently following the Tom-Tom’s monotone directions back to Orlando.  And then we saw a sign saying “Fort Christmas Historical Park”…

Those four words:  Fort.  Christmas.  Historical.  Park.  All of them sound good to me!

“Let’s go there!” I said to Nick.

So, we turned off the highway and ended up at a place so unique and lovely that I had to quickly blog about it…

Firstly – I think it’s fun to know that there’s a town called Christmas in Florida.

The entrance to the Christmas-neck-of-the-woods is announced by (I mean, obviously!)… a large, garishly decorated Christmas tree (complete with tinsel and sparkles).  This Christmas tree (just so you know) is decorated all year ’round.  Next to the tree is an ageing nativity scene, built out of stone (in a garden gnome kind of way).  There are a few stone animals too.  Flaking reindeer, if my memory permits…

Anyhoo – because we noticed the display… we noticed the sign… and because we noticed the sign, we took a detour and found ourselves in a lovely little place.

Here’s what the brochure says:

“Known by the locals as “the Picnic Grounds”, Fort Christmas features a unique blend of historical and recreational opportunities”.

Basically, what they’ve done… is they’ve created a “living history settlement” for the “preservation of the rural heritage of East Orange County”.

Fort Christmas has quite a history, as it turns out.  In 1837, a force of 2000 US Army and Alabama volunteers arrived there to build a supply depot and a fort.  Construction began on 25 December (hence the name of the town).  A number of things happened after that… (lots of fighting with Seminole Indians – hence the fort)… and eventually the forces moved on after the remaining Indians were… umm… moved to another area where they wouldn’t be as bothersome.

A small, rural community remained (after all of that)… and today, the history of that rural community has been impressively preserved.

Fort Christmas Historical Park is… among other things… a cluster of well-preserved old rural cabins (the real-deal cabins – once built and lived in by those early settlers).  The cabins have all been meticulously furnished and kitted out with all manner of household items from that specific era.  It actually feels like you have stepped back into time… and have walked into the home of an 1830’s settler (while the family is out fishing or hunting or whatever it was that folk from the 1830’s did on a Tuesday afternoon).

The tables are set… the beds are made… there’s clothes in the cupboard and “food” on the table.  A pair of boots left at the door… a dress hanging over a chair… a doll propped up against a child’s cupboard…  you literally feel like you’re intruding a bit – and you want to call out:  “Anybody home?”

Here’s some photos….

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Another thing stood out…

Usually museums (and the like) have signs and ropes and rules and displays that you can’t touch… and rooms that you can’t step inside… (and stern-looking monitors, patrolling the corridors – ready to reprimand a disobedient guest).

But the entire cluster of homes at Fort Christmas were left open – for guests to wander in and out of – and to feel, in a sense, a part of history – instead of merely a distant observer.  They had one or two small, discreet signs, respectfully asking guests not to handle the displays or sit on the furniture… and that was it!

A cluster of beautifully preserved, furnished, historical homes – which we could explore to our hearts content… and best of all:  there were no other people around!  The only person we met was 71 year old Elmer (one of the volunteers at the village) who sits under a tree nearby, whittling intricate walking sticks out of local wood.

We had a chat with Elmer, and (apart from being very informative about the displays)… offered us a few wonderful tales of his own life and childhood.  He was such a gifted storyteller, that I just wanted to pull up a chair and listen to him talk.

“I’m a country boy”, he told us… explaining how he grew up on a farm and – as was the done thing – he worked very, very hard as a kid.

“When you work that hard”, he said, “you know where money comes from”… (bemoaning the fact that kids today get stuff and money handed to them way too quickly and easily).

Then he told us that he only had one pair of shoes (as a kid)… and the only place he was allowed to wear them was to school (or church).  Once home from school, the shoes had to come off immediately.  “My daddy would powder my hind if he saw me wearing them shoes after school”, he said.

After telling us about his first pair of Levi’s (aged 12)… and how he “strutted around like a bantam rooster”… the conversation turned to his volunteer work at Fort Christmas and how he was selling $1 raffle tickets (that you could buy to win one of his hand-carved walking sticks)… in order to raise money for the volunteer’s food fund.

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After we’d parted ways with Elmer, Nick and I sat under the huge (HUGE!) oak trees… while the kids explored the playground.

In a nutshell:  what a lovely, fascinating day.

PS:  I’m typing this from the La Quinta hotel in Orlando.  Tomorrow, it’s time for Universal Studios!  But for now… it’s time for bed.