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Village decked out for Cracker Christmas

BRADENTON — Christmas a hundred years ago in Manatee County was simple and rustic.

In 1909, the major population centers of Florida were becoming more urban, but in Manatee County, outside of Bradenton and Palmetto, it still was very rural.

To get a feel of how settlers in the county observed the holy day, the public is invited to the Manatee Village Historical Park, 1404 Manatee Ave. E., from 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday for the 1909 Cracker Christmas Celebration.

“We’re going to have a good old-fashioned Christmas,” said Phaedra Rehorn, Village historical resources assistant.

Christmas back then was not as commercialized as today, especially in the rural parts of the country, according to Dean Dixon, Village supervisor.

“It was more religious than focusing on gift-giving,” Dixon said. “And if they did give gifts, they were always simple and mostly handmade, just as whatever decorations there were.”

Manatee was an agricultural area, and fruit was a popular gift, he said.

Staff and volunteers have been preparing for the event for weeks.

The Village is a collection of historical buildings and structures gathered from various areas around the county, and has been decked out with garland, bows, wreaths and other festive decorations.

One of the driving forces to finish the decorating in the park was Sandy Stanford, a Cape Cod native who moved to Manatee four years ago and fell in love with the Manatee Village Historical Park.

Stanford said she often would drive by the park and said one day she would stop. About two years ago she did and has been an avid volunteer since.

“I was a history snob,” said the retired florist, “and thought the only history Florida had was in St. Augustine.”

Over the past year, Stanford has been gathering materials and crafting Christmas tree ornaments, evergreen wreaths and swags, and other period decorations.

Her husband, Leo, who also volunteers at the Village, said the spare bedroom was filled with decorations and supplies most of the year.

To make the Christmas tree in the parlor of the 1912 Stephens Cracker Farm House more personal, Stanford created a story of three little girls who lived there — Louisa, Elizabeth and Emily.

She placed the toys the little girls would have been receiving, dolls and scarves, in the tree, as it was the tradition of the time.

Other parts of the home, moved to the park from a farm in East Manatee, have tiny touches of period decorations.

In the kitchen pantry, there is a tiny tree with homemade gingerbread men, and on the table is a bowl of Christmas pomanders — fresh oranges with cloves spiked into the rind.

“It was one of our family traditions,” said Rehorn. “My grandmother and great-grandmother taught my mother how to make them, and my mother taught me.

“I associate the scent with Christmas,” she said.

In the Bunker Hill Schoolhouse, Stanford used colorful construction paper to make paper chains to drape above the blackboard, and artwork of Christmas symbols for the window panes.

Every historical building in the Village has some type of Christmas decoration, from the 1887 church to the 1855 courthouse to the 1903 Wiggins General Store.

Even the tiny outhouse has a spray of evergreen with a bright, red bow hanging below the crescent moon hole on the door.

During Sunday’s event, there will be holiday-themed craft activities, games for children and a story teller.

The Sandpiper Barbershop Chorus, Peace Lutheran School Hand Bell Choir and the Without Strings Gospel Group will provide entertainment.

The volunteers will hold a bake sale to raise funds for the Village, and the gift shop in the Wiggins store will have a selection of Christmas gifts.

The newly installed exhibit, “Once Upon a Toy,” featuring toys from the 1800s and early 1900s, will be on display.

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