When Wil and Roxie Stephens built their modest home in 1912, I doubt they could have imagined the impact it would have on Manatee County and the Stephens family legacy. Now referred to as a prime example of "Cracker Gothic" architecture, the Stephens Settler's House at the Manatee Village Historical Park is the perfect destination for those seeking to reminisce about a time before air conditioning, subdivisions, cell phones and big-box retailers.
Originally, Wil and Roxie lived in a one-room log cabin built with the help of family and friends in Castalia (just east of modern-day Ona) on 40 acres of land he purchased in 1894.
However, nine children later, it was time to build something better suited for their large family.
Using wood milled from trees on their property, Wil built a house with a Y-shaped hallway (often called a "dog-trot" style), three large porches, four bedrooms, a parlor and a kitchen large enough to be the envy of any pioneer housewife. The front doors nearly always stood open to welcome in a cool breeze and the hallway created a wind-tunnel effect that acted as a primitive air-conditioning system even on the stickiest summer day. Those wide porches served to shade the air coming in and provide a cool place for a midday nap before finishing up farm work in the afternoon.
The kitchen could be closed to keep heat created by the wood-burning stove from spilling out into the rest of the house. Even
the bedrooms (rarely used for sleeping during hotter months, instead children would sleep on the hallway floor) could be opened or closed to allow more or less air flow depending on the desired temperature.
The parlor was the only room with a fireplace, which was used to warm the family and blankets before bedtime on cooler nights. (Oh, when you come visit the house, do not be fooled by the large wooden doors at the end of the Y-hallway; those were put on for security purposes after the house was moved to the Historical Park. The Stephens did not mind the open concept. They had no need to worry about intruders, human or otherwise.)
Wil and Roxie were forward-thinking homesteaders by designing a house to keep them cool in the Florida heat and withstand the test of time. They even made a point of using white paint rather than white-washing the house because it would last longer and protect the wood better.
Many park visitors marvel at the home's simplicity and tell stories of grandparents with similar lifestyles or houses. Each school year, hundreds of students from across Manatee and Sarasota counties visit the park to tour Wil and Roxie's house and get a feel for the old Florida lifestyle.
But their story is more than just the walls that make up the house; it's about family and working hard.
Wil grew many crops, including citrus, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, corn, rice, field peas, cassava, and later cucumbers and string beans. These hearty crops could withstand the beating they would take in a wagon ride from Castalia to markets in Manatee or Tampa. Wil and his sons would work long days in the fields to provide for the family. If their crops were not ready, they would go to another nearby Stephens' farm and harvest their produce. The family also raised range cattle and hogs, between 25 and 75 head of each at any given time, to use for food and bartering. These animals were kept on large tracts of land the family leased from absentee northern landowners. Many branches of the family would pool their money to share the range land. Roxie and the children did their part, too, by picking wild berries for canning and hunting wild bees for their wax and honey to sell. All of these items would be shared with nearby family members as needed. The Stephens took pride in providing for themselves and sharing with their kin.
The Stephens Settler's House at Manatee Village Historical Park, 1404 Manatee Ave. E., Bradenton, can be viewed during park hours from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays and the second and fourth Saturdays.
The house is featured each October in the original outdoor drama, "Spirit Voices from Old Manatee," where the (true) tragic death of 15-year-old Delia Stephens is portrayed with a mock Victorian wake and sparks the journey into the Old Burying Grounds.
Melissa Porter, education and volunteer coordinator at Manatee Village Historical Park, has worked for the clerk's office for five years. Her favorite part of the job is sharing the stories of people who lived and worked in the buildings featured at the park.