Fall conjures up images of autumn leaves, crisp weather, and harvests, but in Florida the weather actually is often about the same in October and November as it is elsewhere in the nation in the middle of August. Certainly, changes are afoot, but you’d be forgiven if you believed summer to still be fully underway. The unseasonal weather, however, doesn’t prevent Florida from hosting some very fine fall festivals, and these are not just sympathetic acts of nostalgia for “real” fall, but based around traditional times of harvest for local produce.
Though many think of citrus as Florida’s main agricultural export, for years the state has been one of the leading growers of a vast variety of fruits and vegetables including strawberries, blueberries, watermelons, cabbages, potatoes, squash, pecans, and much more. Florida also has a strong and long history as a cattle-producing state, with beef and dairy having been prime occupations since the early days of “cracker” homesteaders in the state. All of this comes together for a bounty of fall crops and activities that produced as much pride as any harvest anywhere, and festivals were established in celebration of the providence of the land.
McIntosh, in Marion County and Micanopy, just a short ways north on US 441 in Alachua County, both were established as farming communities with close ties to the railroad which allowed a means of shipping produce out. Due to the railroad as well, turpentine production and businesses making cedar baskets, boxes, and other items thrived in the later part of the 1800’s in these and surrounding communities. And so these towns, though small and fairly isolated at the time, began to grow rapidly. They both were far enough from their respective county seats of Ocala and Gainesville to have to establish their own stores and services—in Micanopy at the turn of the century, you could, for example, get anything from daily dry goods to a casket from the local general store.
Today much of the heritage of McIntosh and Micanopy from the early days of these towns through the mid-twentieth century lives on via their fall festivals. McIntosh has its 1890 Festival and Micanopy its Fall Festival in late October every year and these two festivals draw in visitors and vendors from all over Florida and far beyond, with daily traffic surpassing 30,000 visitors in some instances. Like many fall festivals across the American South, these two focus on history but also on vendors which offer a variety of crafts, artwork, and foods for sale. Some vendors come from afar while many are local or at least regional, and both towns have a reputation for their antique shops and art galleries and also for their contributions to the local music scene.
Local produce also has a place of pride. Year-round the Mosswood Farm Store sells local honey, and Pearl Country Store just down the road—which is renowned for its BBQ—sells some local produce and, in the winter, freshly-made old-style cane syrup as well. Both Mosswood and Pearl are known for their sweets: a variety of homemade pastries in the case of Mosswood and various pies and cakes with Pearl. Homemade soap is another common find at the festivals and is also made locally.
Along with local crafts, the antique shops, bakers, farmers, artists, and others in these two small towns make up a good portion of the work-force. Though we may presume people who live in such small towns work mainly in the nearest larger cities—Ocala and Gainesville in the current cases—that’s not always true. Clearly old traditions not only live on here but provide vocations in doing so.
Walking around the two festivals, you can find everything from funnel cakes and corn dogs—favorite fair and festival foods in the South—to homemade jams for sale, a Celtic jeweler with his intricate sterling silver necklaces, a fern merchant with small potted ferns (the area around Satsuma and Crescent City, in Volusia and Flagler counties, is known for its fern production), visual artwork, hand-crafted wooden toys, books, and of course antiques and Christmas-themed crafts.
Various civic-minded groups also have booths, drawing attention to causes they support, and while many of the food vendors do this for a living, nearly as many are local churches, Scout troops, and other charities that make extra money to support their programs at these festivals. Out of recognition that the same people mostly come to both of their festivals, Micanopy and McIntosh also ensure that their two festivals do not fall on the exact same date (normally, one is one weekend in late October and the other the following weekend).
Beyond the vendors, the food, the bands that play, and seeing friends in the crowd, these festivals provide a great chance to explore the towns of McIntosh and Micanopy in depth. Most of the shops and businesses are open, and many have special events of their own going on, so it’s a perfect moment to learn about what makes these places special. Churches, as in most small towns of the South, are key centers of community in both these towns, and they also open their doors and offer a chance to see several splendid examples of historical church architecture and a look at how churches developed in communities which came of age at the turn of the century.
And if a football game is on—especially if it’s the locally-beloved Florida Gators—you can bet several families will have pulled the television out into the front yard and all the neighbors will be camped out watching it, weather allowing. There is simply no finer sense of real community than you get at times like these.
See More of Mike Walker’s “Fall Festival” Photos Here