… okay – this post is continuing on from this post.
For those who are new: welcome! Our little family is enjoying our 2nd month of indefinite, nomadic living… and (apart from regularly adding my opinion on everything from school systems to stupid rules)… I also blog about our travels here…
Hence this post…
So, after Tampa, we ended up in White Springs (which is actually quite an obscure little place) because a friend… (who happens to be a Florida resident)… recommended the Stephen Foster State Park… because he said it had cool Christmas lights and stuff.
White Springs… as it turns out, is actually an interesting little town – with a fascinating history. It all started on the banks of the Suwannee River… when the Timucuan Indians discovered the medicinal value of the spring’s sulphur water. They decided to name it a sacred place and encourage the sick from other tribes to frequent the springs undisturbed.
Then, in 1835… an American, Bryant Sheffield, discovered the springs… and decided that he “felt better” after bathing in the 72 degree water… and decided to make some money off it. So, he purchased 1000 acres of property on the Suwannee River, built a hotel and encouraged all his rich friends to visit.
(I’m not sure what happened to the original Indians during all of this… but anyway, there you go…)
The town grew from there.
Soon, there were grand hotels and resorts occupying more than two-thirds of the original Sheffield plantation. 500 hotel and boarding house rooms, river boardwalks, moving picture shows, a roller rink, massage parlours… all because of a small, sulphur spring that the Indians had discovered many moons ago.
You’d never guess the town’s history if you visited today. Most of the grand stuff is gone. Burned either by a big fire (that happened in 1911)… or washed away by a flood… or wasted away to nothingness. In fact – it just seems like a teeny, obscure little place in the middle of nowhere… so, to read about it’s history was a fascinating treat!
History lesson over.
We ended up renting a cabin in a trailer park.
I think American trailer parks are utterly fascinating places. People don’t just park their big rigs and their trailers there… they erect lawn art… and lights… and nativity scenes… and build mini fold-away empires around their mobile homes. Here’s ONE such example:
We were greeted by a very bubbly, talk-at-a-gazillion-miles-an-hour lady who, once she found out we were from South Africa, let out a squeal of glee… and then summoned witnesses.
“They’re from South Africa!”, our hostess announced.
“South Africa? What are you doing here in White Springs? Oh, I just love your accent!”
(As a side note, this is my 9th visit to the United States – and I have encountered nothing but warm hospitality from the Americans I’ve met).
Anyhoo…. so we booked a cabin in the trailer park (or rather… “campgrounds”… I’m confused about the difference between “Trailer Park” and “Camp Grounds”… is there a difference? We also saw lots of permanent-style trailers in the camp grounds… so I’m not sure. Maybe an American friend can enlighten me).
Here’s a photo of our little cabin in the woods (very comfortable and cosy inside with mini kitchen, bunk-beds for the kids, double bed for us and – importantly – a coffee pot…)
After we had settled in, we asked one of the locals to suggest a place for lunch.
“Fat Belly’s!” she said, without hesitation.
Here’s a photo of Fat Belly’s:
Inside Fat Belly’s, we found a collection of men in denim dungarees and strong accents. And more men (the only woman in the restaurant – apart from myself – was the waitress)… many of the men were wearing cowboy boots (with spurs!)… and big, shiny belt buckles… and big hats… and plaid shirts… it was hard not to stare. It felt as though we’d stepped into a movie.
“Is that a cowboy?” Morgan whispered in awe.
“Yes it is”.
“A real one?”
“As far as I can tell…” (I mean surely he rode a horse? Surely those spurs weren’t for decoration…?)
Fat Belly’s served a hearty meal. I think we need to remember to always ask the locals for recommendations.
Later that evening, as it was getting dark, we drove to the Stephen Foster State Park. It was a lovely warm evening (does Florida ever get cold?)… and the folk of White Springs had transformed the forests of the state park into a Christmas fairy-tale forest. There were millions of fairy lights wrapped around hundreds of trees, huge candy canes lining the sides of the road, light-up Christmas and nativity scenes… it was all magical…
We took some photos – but they simply don’t do it any justice… so I’m not going to add them in this post.
In case you’re wondering (as I do about these types of things) who this Stephen Foster guy actually was… well, it’s an interesting story:
Stephen Foster was a musician and songwriter. He wrote some famous songs including “Camptown Races” (doo-dah! doo-dah!)… and “Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair” and “Oh! Susanna” and, of course “Old Folks At Home” and “Way Down Upon De Swanee Ribber” (referring to the Suwannee River that the region was famous for).
Apparently, Stephen Foster’s songs (and especially the Old Folks At Home song) made the area extra-famous in the 1800’s… and lots of tourists visited the area thanks to his songs – and so, in 1931, the State of Florida decided to honour his memory with a museum. And – a beautiful little museum it is!
Inside, they have 10 beautiful, moving dioramas – dedicated to 10 Stephen Foster songs. They took 14 artists a total of 15 000 hours to create! Each setting was meticulously created… everything hand-made from scratch. I’m going to show you some photos – but they don’t do it justice. At all. They are incredible, intricate works of art (and well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in White Springs in Northern Florida!)…
Also, in the Stephen Foster park (right next to the museum) is the Carillon Tower (built in 1957). It houses the world’s largest set of tubular bells (which made me very excited because I have a thing for bell towers and bells!)…
Every hour, the bells ring a Foster song when it tells the time. I wonder if Stephen Foster would ever have imagined that many years after his death, his songs would be pealing out over the town of White Springs… and that a South African (who sung his songs in musical productions) would be doing little happy-jigs on the lawn below…
But – back to the Christmas evening (I know that not everyone is as fascinated with history as I am)…
Apart from the gazillions of Christmas lights… the community of White Springs had organised the following:
- Local musicians playing fiddle, guitar, banjo… singing Christmas carols.
- A big bonfire… where you could toast marshmallows and then squish them between 2 crackers with some chocolate in the middle (apparently, this is called a s’more!)… also sitting at the bonfire was a man with a banjo covered in colourful lights… he sang Christmas songs while we toasted the s’mores.
- A kid’s area with lots of fake snow (this being Florida)… a Santa handing out sweets… kid’s outdoor movie screenings… and more lights…
- A model train area (indoors) with lots of model train enthusiasts. They handed us little treasure maps to see whether we could find all the tiny details on their display…
- Free hot chocolate and popcorn to all visitors.
- Food stands selling yummy stuff (we shared a philly-steak-roll and a huge funnel cake!)
- Tiny cabins where crafts people were busy creating hand-made goodies. There was a pottery cabin (with someone working the wheel)… a weaving cabin… a jewellery-making cabin… and even a blacksmith who helped the kids make a coat hook!).
The entire evening was a delight. Nick said it was one of the best Christmas experiences he’s had – and I wholeheartedly agree. Everyone had gone to such an effort to make it so special… so excellent. At the end of the evening, Nick and I ended up at a cabin where a man displayed his beautiful hand-made musical instruments. I can’t remember what they were called (and I can’t ask Nick to remind me, because he’s fast asleep while I’m typing this… and I don’t want to disturb him). If I had $500 to spare, I would definitely have purchased one of these!
Here’s some pics:
After a wonderful evening, we spent a cozy night in our tiny cabin. We were considering staying in White Springs for a 2nd night… but, when we woke to cloudy skies and a steady drizzle, we decided to spend the day driving instead. So – we hopped into George, waved goodbye to Florida… and pushed forward Northwards.
Just before leaving the State of Florida… we discovered a shop (which advertised itself on a highway billboard as having “live baby gators”). Sure enough – 3 baby gators in a fish tank… but, much more interesting to me was the massive collection of dried gator heads and bottled dead sharks! I mean? Who buys a dried gator head? And where would you put such a thing? Would you display it on the mantle – next to the family photo? Use it as a paper weight?
Someone? Enlighten me, please?
Next up in the travel series… the Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel…