History lovers embrace Manatee Historical's 'Florida Cracker Christmas'

rdymond@bradenton.comDecember 16, 2013 

MANATEE -- Sandy Stanford is one of those people who go to the library to thoroughly research the history of any place they live.

"If you don't do that," Stanford said Sunday at the Fifth Annual Florida Cracker Christmas at Manatee Village Historical Park, "it's like you are just sleeping there, not living there."

When Stanford went to the Manatee County Central Library after she and her husband, Leo, moved to The Inlets on State Road 64 from the Cape Cod, Mass., area, she said she was shocked at how far back Manatee County's history went.

As she sat in the library's Florida Room and read books such as "Singing River," she conjured images of Josiah and Mary Gates and Ezekiel Glazier, who first claimed land in Manatee County in 1843, along with a group of about 20 others. Their settlement was on 15th Street East, along the Manatee River,

Now, five years later, Stanford has become a walking, talking encyclopedia of Manatee County as one of its most enthusiastic amateur historians. She is also an over-the-top volunteer at Manatee Village Historical Park, 1404 Manatee Ave. E., not far from where the Gates and Glazier became the county's first non-Native American or Spanish explorer families.

The Historical Park is, as supervisor Phaedra Rehorn never tires of saying, a collection of nine historical structures and two recreated structures that have represented Manatee County's pioneer past since 1976.

Stanford reinforcing that fact during the 1913 version of Florida Cracker Christmas. Every holiday, Manatee Village Historical Park takes on a specific historical year as a theme.

Stanford held court in the Stephens House, a house built in 1912 by a farmer couple who had 10 children.

Stanford decorated the house in Cracker Christmas style, complete with handmade tree ornaments and dolls in period outfits.

"Sandy is the queen of Cracker Christmas," said Chris Brown of the Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court, which supervises the Historical Village. "She works all year long for Cracker Christmas and makes a lot of what you see here."

The event, attended by a crowd estimated at 500, up from 150 five years ago in its debut, featured scores of vendors selling period items such as Dotti Giles and her custom-made bonnets.

There was also a photo op for parents with children with Joe Giles, a retired firefighter from Palmetto, who wore a Victorian Santa costume. In Cracker times, Santa was known as Father Christmas.

Five organizations supplied the music, including the choruses from Bashaw and Rowlett Magnet elementary schools, the Southeast High School Chamber Orchestra, Peace Lutheran Junior Chimes and The First Brass featuring Gary Reinstrom on trumpet.

The Sugar Creekers Model Railroaders were set up at Wiggins General Store. Stanford sat in a chair and entertained visitors with stories of the Stephens family, who canned and lived off the land.

"They grew citrus and vegetables for the market and had cattle," Stanford said.

Karen Offenbecher and Jerry Buckmaster from Michigan were inspired by the history they learned.

"My father had a team of horses and took wheat to the mill in rural Michigan," Offenbecher told Stanford.

"You should write that down as a family history," Stanford said. "If you don't, the stories will be lost."

Rob Martone from the Fort Lauderdale area appeared jealous as he listened to Stanford along with his mom, Doreen Martone.

"I grew up in Miramar," Rob Martone said. "It was not developed until the 1960s."

What a stunning reminder that was to the crowd, given Manatee County's history.

"You are very lucky here to have these houses from so far back," Doreen Martone said.

Stanford told visitors the term "Cracker" stems from the sound "cow-hunter" whips made when they cracked them to find cows lost in the brush.

"It was not considered derogatory," Stanford said. "These people were proud to be Crackers."

The Manatee Village Historical Park is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. the second and fourth Saturday of every month.

In March, the park will have a Heritage Days Open House followed by Spirit Voices of Old Manatee in October.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.

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