Many towns throughout the South began their lives as railroad towns or at least grew up greatly once the rail-lines came through. Of course, if you had a rail town between the end of the Civil War and the period before World War II, you had a train depot for passengers and freight. Many of these depots remain, some repurposed as restaurants or otherwise and some transformed into museums for their communities.
In MacClenny, the seat of Baker County in northern Florida just south of the Georgia line, an effort to restore their local depot for the sake of history became a much larger project which over a decade later speaks volumes about rural history. Once efforts to save and restore the depot were underway in MacClenny, they spawned a much more extensive effort to save and collect a variety of traditional period buildings—homes, small shops, barns—and then to provide a living history museum chronicling the various types of businesses and aspects of society typical to small-town life at the turn of the twentieth century.
LaViece Smallwood, a local historian and fixture in the community, saw these re-creations of the early town as a means for younger visitors to garner some level of experience of what being in that environment would have been like instead of simply seeing static exhibits on history. The community pulled together, especially the scions of early and esteemed families like the Darby family (the town of MacClenny was originally Darbyville) and various artifacts from the period between the 1890’s and the 1950’s were donated. So after much hard work, not only a depot but an entire replication of MacClenny of yesteryear has been created.
Heritage Village is important, though, not just for MacClenny and the immediate community it serves but for its comprehensive nature and level of detail. It provides a rare form of insight into a period of intense change and development in the history of the South, and it illustrates not just the local history but history of industry and domesticity common across our region.
The crown jewel of the village is the Burnsed Blockhouse which was built per orders of then-governor of the Florida Territory and later US president Andrew Jackson. It is the only remaining blockhouse from Jackson’s mandate of building these structures as part of the fortifications defending against Seminole Indians and the only known surviving example of this type of fortification architecture in Florida. Originally located north of Sanderson in the western portion of Baker County, it was moved to Heritage Park and professionally restored by the Durable Restoration Company of Ohio with consultation with the University of Florida. The interior is now furnished with the type of items commonplace to a Florida cracker homestead, allowing visitors to see how everything from the sleeping quarters to the kitchen of such a dwelling would have performed (the blockhouse was used as a dwelling by the Carl Brown family long after its original construction as a fortification outpost).
Even on a torridly hot July afternoon, the interior of the blockhouse was decently cool, taking advantage of the cross-ventilation provided by open windows and doors designed to combat the Florida heat long before the advent of air conditioning. In the kitchen, the number of specialized tools for food preparation was humbling. We tend to forget how elaborate and complex cooking daily meals was in a time when very little—perhaps coffee, salt, and possibly flour—were store-bought. Most goods were procured from family gardens, livestock, or the bounty of hunting and foraging.
Bread was made fresh from flour or meal, sometimes ground at a local mill from the farmer’s own wheat or corn, vegetables had to be harvested and washed for daily preparation, and especially in the summer they often came straight from the garden while in cooler months they could be preserved from the summer’s harvest and retrieved from the pantry. Hogs were killed in the fall and various meat products produced from them, mainly via smoking, and the Heritage Village includes a working smokehouse to demonstrate these chores.
The noon-time meal was normally the largest of the day for rural farming families, a convention carried over from the English countryside. Leftover food from this “dinner” would provide for “supper” in the evening. Besides a garden, fruits trees were common to pioneer families in Florida as the climate allowed for such, and at the Burnsed Blockhouse this tradition is continued with the planting of a garden and numerous fruit trees around the yard which are tended by staff so that their produce can be used for demonstrations to school children who visit the village on field trips to learn about bygone days.
Everywhere around the house there are kerosene oil lamps—some large (such as a bedside lamp) and some very small, including one that looked like a child’s toy in the kitchen but was functional—apparently such were common for the housewife to use preparing food since even in daylight hours with the windows open, light was limited. While the windows were designed to allow in a cooling breeze, they could not be too large or else would permit in sunlight and thus heat. In the winter the stove in the kitchen provided welcome warmth, while in the summer it was only a source of heat to be endured along with the exceptional outdoor temperatures.
The Blockhouse and its homestead predates much of the rest of the village, and while the pioneer families who lived in quarters such as this blockhouse had to rely on their own farms and ingenuity to provide for themselves, later residents fared better and relied on each other and the businesses of town. Many crucial businesses are represented in the village, from a blacksmith to a gas station from the early twentieth century to a general store.
Others, such as the Knabb family’s turpentine operation were key local producers and employers for decades, and their exhibits demonstrate how the local economy functioned. The Blue Haven Restaurant—a local fixture after it opened in 1947—and Gilbert’s Trading Post, which acted as a general store and outfitted farmers with necessary goods such as fertilizer and lumber, are also recreated, as is the Davis Oil Company which served the needs of residents with kerosene and later gasoline.
A lot of local history was unearthed by the efforts here: for example, Will Gilbert of Gilbert’s Trading successfully obtained a federal contract in the 1930’s to erect outhouses in rural communities of Baker County to help fight the endemic scourge of hookworms in the area. We too easily forget, especially those of us of the younger generations —myself included—at how remote and underdeveloped some parts of the rural South were less than a century ago and how hardy and innovative people had to be to survive. Nefcom Telephone, which brought telephone service to this area, an old-time schoolhouse, the local barber shop—all these are represented in an effort to make the village inclusive of all the varied aspects of daily life between the 1890’s to the onset of World War II.
The Heritage Village is located just to the southwest of downtown MacClenny and is open seven days a week until around sunset. Tours are available and are highly recommended.
SEE MORE HERITAGE VILLAGE PHOTOS HERE