By Pat Foster-Turley Ph.D.
December 9, 2021
The weather was beautiful, the three of us in the car were compatible friends, Betty enjoyed driving and it was her idea. “Let’s drive out past Gainesville to visit the Dudley Farm’s Cane Day Festival.” It turned out to be a perfect way to spend a December Saturday.
Dudley Farms Historic State Park was created in 1996 after the last remaining direct descendent of the Dudleys died and gave the property to the state. The park showcases this mid-19th to mid-20th century farm containing 18 historic buildings including the family farmhouse, a 1880s kitchen outbuilding, a general store and post office, various barns and more, all restored (not re-created) with original furnishings and equipment. Visiting Dudley Farms is interesting any time, with volunteers and staff outfitted in period clothing, variously demonstrating the various components of old time self-sufficient farm life that encompassed everything from grinding and boiling sugar cane, grinding corn, maintaining a few Cracker cattle and horses, raising chickens and turkeys, growing crops, and all the other necessities in life at that time. But visiting it for the annual Cane Day festival is so much more too.
We got to the park around noon, all primed for lunch and made a beeline for the Mayflower food truck, the only food available but a great one. The burgers were extraordinary, made of fresh Wagyu beef originating from the nearby Marcinek Farms and the fries were homemade. Great! With our stomachs full we moved on to explore the festival.
Dozens of people in period clothing manned their stations. Nearby the food truck, a group of elderly ladies staffed a booth selling their homemade quilts and crocheted items, eager to talk about their needlecraft. Elsewhere another reenactor, a man this time, happily showed off his collection of antique farm tools that he says just represent a portion of the two barns full of this stuff that he has back at home. When we got to the old family homestead another period-clothed older woman toured us around and proudly showed us an old photo that included her great, great aunt—it turned out that she had lived in the area all her life and was a descendent of the Dudleys.
Young people got into the act too. The sugar cane grinding station involved a long pole that can be pulled by a mule, or in this case, children. We watched as they happily vied for position to pull the pole around, all coordinated between the children with no adult intervention. It was great to see kids figuring things out by themselves and playing cooperatively without instructions from their parents.
Another group of children, young girls in old-fashioned clothes, were standing behind a table full of old hand-made children’s toys and soon enough I got them all engaged in demonstrating them for me. I saw a woman nearby, told her I wrote for the Fernandina Observer and asked her if it was OK to photograph them. “Sure, they would love that!” It turns out these girls having fun were members of the Girl Scouts of Gateway Council.
Further along, we watched a blacksmith making tools, a couple of old codgers stirring the giant boiling pot making cane syrup, and all kinds of other “Friends of Dudley Farms” that were appropriately dressed and demonstrating different aspects of old time farm life. Everyone was more than happy to share their story. And then there was the music. Here and there scattered around the property, on porches, in sheds, small clusters of people with instruments were playing bluegrass music. Fiddles, banjos, guitars, hammer dulcimers, spoons, you name it, someone was playing it.
If you too have a spare day and want to visit the farm check out this website (https://www.friendsofdudleyfarm.org/) to find out opening details. Although the fall Cane Festival that we attended is only once a year in December, they schedule other events and the place always has something interesting to see. Expect a two and a half hour drive each way, but then, open yourself to an old fashioned family experience.
Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. email@example.com.