Camping at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park

Two signs. One large one reading Marjorie Kinna, and a smaller one in front of it that reads Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park 13 miles, with an arrow pointing to the right of the frame. Both are by the camping at Marjorie Kinna Rawlings State Park
I found these two unused signs at the camping area at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park. No, I did not steal them. Yes, that was a challenge.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Want to know a secret way to go camping at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park? Well, it’s not actually a secret, but so few people take advantage of it that it may as well be one.

a trail in the woods by the camping at Marjorie Kinna Rawlings State Park
Banyan has no need to obey human signs. 
Photo by Cathy Salustri

I love camping in Florida, but I love it even more when I don’t have to share the campground with too many people. And Florida campgrounds — especially since COVID-19 — have a lot of people. So much so, it’s ridiculously tough to get a campsite, especially if you don’t plan almost a year ahead.

That’s not hyperbole; Floridians know you need to plan 11 months ahead to get a campsite, and, if it’s popular, be logged in to the Florida State Parks online reservation system before 8 a.m. (when new spots come available every morning), and not spend time choosing a site (rookie mistake — do that well before!). And still… sites can still sell out. Don’t refresh; don’t dally — know what you want, get in there, and get your site by 8:01 a.m. or don’t get it at all. It’s like a Gladiator movie.

There are a few other ways to camp at Florida State Parks, though.

Barry and I have often talked about volunteering as camp hosts, in part to get a longer stay at a preferred campground, and in part because it is, technically, free, to camp as a camp host. But — and this, for us, is a big “but” — most places with camp hosts  require those camp hosts to clean bathrooms and showers. Now, I’m not above cleaning a bathroom, especially when it’s mine, but I’ve seen these campground bathrooms. People are pigs. I’ll pay my $32 a night, thank you very much.

But late last year, the folks at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park asked me to give a writer’s talk, and I readily agreed. While I could, technically, have made the drive there and back in one day, it would have made for a long day… and it wouldn’t have been much fun. Also, I hate the stress of traffic and “will I be late or won’t I?” (as  I have a chronic time problem, this comes up a lot), and traffic through Tampa and Ocala is never a good time. If you’ve visited the park, you know it’s not near any hotels. Any. As in, none.

Florida State Parks had no campgrounds available… well, essentially anywhere, much less anywhere close enough to camp near Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park. I asked the ranger who asked me to give a writer’s talk — Geoff — for suggestions for other campgrounds, going against my longstanding aversion to private campgrounds. Alas, the commercial campgrounds didn’t have anything, either (and, honestly, compared to Florida’s state parks, they looked awful).

Geoff had one other idea: Since I wasn’t getting paid for the talk, I was technically a volunteer, and, if they had a vacancy, Barry and I could camp at the park. The park, you see, has no campground (and thus no showers), so most people can’t camp there. But volunteers can, and take advantage of one of the two campsites with full hookups. If you RV camp, this phrase — full hookups — is music to your ears. And your grey water tank.

Volunteering and Camping at Camping Marjorie Rawlings Park

So, while I wasn’t a typical volunteer, I was volunteering. We happily took advantage of one of the two campsites, and friends, I will be back.

Camping at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park means one of two campsites, shielded from public view. To get to the public areas of the park, you walk a short trail. It’s an ideal commute, really.

What does volunteering entail at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park?

Marjorie Kinnan Rawling's cottage, located near the camping at Marjorie Kinna Rawlings State Park
The barn looked lovely and smelled even lovelier after the volunteers applied linseed oil.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Gardening. Tending the chickens and ducks. Picking citrus. The weekend we were there, a group gathered to maintain the barn (the smell of linseed oil was heavenly). In short, light work. No bathrooms (the County owns and operates those, slightly outside park boundaries), no showers, and — this was the best part — after the park closes, no people.

a hand holding a small orange and a large orange in the woods
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park: Citrus everywhere. People? Not so much.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

OK, not “no” people — two other people, the other campers volunteering with us. We visited in late February, and they planned to stay through April. This, I should note, is much longer than the traditional Florida camper can occupy a spot in the parks.

There’s also something magical about being at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ homestead at twilight. One night, as the park shut down to day visitors, I walked the citrus-lined path between our RV and her home, and it was glorious.

During the day, a pileated woodpecker pecked at an aging tree, birds flitted through the now-mostly wild groves, and the vibration of visitors hummed through the property. But at dusk, the sun cast a warm orange glow, the sky turned a pinkish purple, and the sound of the wilderness overtook everything else.

The ducks and chickens were settled in their pens, and as the staff cleared out, I had the freeing feeling of being wholly abandoned to nature.

It was a wonderful feeling, and one I can’t get so many places in Florida. A peace settled over me, and took my time picking my way back through the darkness, where my RV waited.

I should mention the citrus, because that was amazing.

In all my visits to the park, I didn’t realize you could pick the citrus; I thought, like with any state park, you should “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” This is not the case at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park: Anyone can pick the copious amounts of citrus (winter, of course, is the best time for this.) Volunteers also can harvest what’s in the garden.

A hand holding a grapefruit in the woods
Ever had feral Duncan grapefruit? I’d call it wild grapefruit but it started out domestic…
Photo by Cathy Salustri

I found and picked Duncan grapefruits as big as my head. Well, almost as big as my head. And yes, when we got them home and I stuck my spoon into them, they tasted amazing.

The writer’s talk went amazingly well. The audience was wonderful, the questions thoughtful, and the entire afternoon well done. I’m pleased we camped instead of attempting to drive home, because the talk exhausted me (but in a good way.)

Then we could disappear into the wilderness.

Talk aside, I can’t say enough good things about the park. I loved the almost-complete solitude of camping. The hiking trails, although short, reminded me that wild Florida isn’t as far away as we think it is. Walking the trails through the overgrown citrus groves gave me a sense of appreciation for what Marjorie sought and found here.

Within about two hours of arriving, we’d started talking, mostly hypothetically, about buying the 40 acres for sale across from the park.

After spending not only the day but a night there, I can wholly and completely see why Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings decided to chuck it all and move to what was then the edge of Florida’s wilderness.

Want to volunteer? Sign up with Florida State Parks.

Gadsden in Florida: Treading on Tampa

Gadsden’s Florida Connection (And It Isn’t Only the County)

a black-and-white illustration of a segmented snake, with different British colony abbreviations at each segment. Below the image are the words "Join, or Die" — this is the start of the Gadsden Flag that would become the Don't Tread on Me Florida License Plate
“Join, or Die” — this is the start of the Gadsden Flag that would become the Don’t Tread on Me Florida license plate.  Gadsden has another Florida connection, too.
Image via the United States Library of Congress

In response to yesterday’s post about the face-palm-i-ness of the Don’t Tread on Me Florida license plate, Florida historian Joey Vars sent me the following information. These are his words, with his sources at the end of the post:

Gadsden Purchase in the Southwest

“James Gadsden was the grandson of Christopher Gadsden and is significant in Florida’s territorial history. James is largely known for the Gadsden Purchase in 1853. That purchase includes portions of southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. He was also the aide-de-camp of General Andrew Jackson during the first stage of the Seminole War in 1818. He would become instrumental in forming the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1832.

Gadsden in Tampa Bay

“However, in late 1823, as response to the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, Colonel Gadsden was ordered to mark the boundaries of a new military reservation in Tampa Bay and scout the location of a new fort. His ship arrived in early 1824. It landed on the southeastern portion of the interbay peninsula — an area today known as Gadsden Point.

“After leaving a marker on the shoreline for Brooke’s pending arrival, Gadsden and his men trekked 12 miles north to the mouth of the Hillsborough river where William Hackney’s plantation was located. Now technically within the boundaries of the newly established military reservation, he commandeered Hackney’s plantation home as headquarters while soldier’s constructed what would become Fort Brooke — the foundation for Tampa and all those who inhabit the region today.

“Why didn’t Hackney tell James Gadsden to ‘not tread on me’, as his
grandfather famously empowered the Patriots? Well, Hackney was in Pensacola on business when Gadsden and his men arrived. When he returned home later in the spring to hundreds of soldiers, barracks, and a small cantonment, there was little he could do to get his property back. Hackney’s family was embroiled in litigation with the federal government until the late 1880s over the wrongful possession of the Hackney property.”

Gadsden Research Links

“Don’t Tread on Me” Florida License Plate and Florida history

The Gadsden flag, which is a yellow flag with a coiled snake on it. The text reads "Don't tread on me" — this is now part of the "Don't Tread on Me" Florida license plate.
The “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida license plate shows how little we know Florida history.
Public Domain

The other day I was driving and found myself behind a truck with a specialty tag. That in and of itself isn’t unusual; Florida has more than 100 specialty license plates. What caught my eye was the image on the plate: The Gadsden flag.

This made me cringe.  Not because I don’t find the beneficiary worthy (the Florida Veterans Foundation) or because the flag, to some, embodies the battle cries of those who believe the 2020 election was stolen (it was not.)

It’s because the “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida license plate shows how truly ignorant we are about Florida’s history.

A black license plate with a yellow flag next to the letters "S A M P L" — the flag is the Gadsden Flag and shows a coiled snake with the words "don't tread on me" on it. The plate also says "Florida" and "Don't Tread on Me" on it.
Early 19th-century Floridians are rolling in their graves. 
Image via the State of Florida

The Gadsden Flag

I first learned about the Gadsden flag in grade school. It represented the unity of the 13 so-called “original” colonies. The idea came from a 1754 political cartoon, called “Join, or Die” and symbolized the unity of all EuroAmericans against King George.

a black-and-white illustration of a segmented snake, with different British colony abbreviations at each segment. Below the image are the words "Join, or Die" — this is the start of the Gadsden Flag that would become the Don't Tread on Me Florida License Plate
“Join, or Die” — this is the start of the Gadsden Flag that would become the “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida license plate.
Image via the United States Library of Congress

Or did it?

Why the “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida License Plate is an Insult to History

The Gadsden flag was hoisted in 1775, as the colonies — some of the colonies — in North America prepared to declare their independence from England. Everyone knows there were 13 original colonies, and they all rallied behind this flag.

Most of that is true. The 13 colonies revolting against the Crown did, indeed, rally behind this flag. But they weren’t the original colonies. Or, more accurately, they weren’t the only colonies at this time. Other colonies apart from those so-called “original” 13 included Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Quebec. Caribbean colonies — the Bahamas, the BVI, Jamaica and Bermuda — also remained loyal.

And so did Florida. At the time, we were two colonies: East Florida and West Florida, and we wanted no part of a revolution. The way we saw it, it wasn’t so much “revolution” as it was “insurrection” (yes, I know) and it was, to our way of thinking, treason.

Other colonists who wanted to remain British fled either to present-day Canada or to Florida. There are a few reasons life in Florida was great for British colonists (check out that link; it’s a fascinating description of Florida during the American Revolution), but the takeaway here is that the signing of the Declaration of Independence so incensed Floridians that they  burned effigies of John Hancock and Sam Adams in the St. Augustine town square. During the war, Floridians fought for England.

So, in 1776, Florida was less concerned with being tread on than it was distancing itself from an insurrection. And make no mistake about it: What we now call the American Revolution was, indeed, an insurrection (per Merriam Webster, who defines insurrection as an “act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.”)

The End of Revolution and the Gadsden Flag

The Gadsden flag, then, was not one Florida supported. It, in all likelihood, upset late-18th-century and early-19th-century Floridians. When the 13 other colonies won their independence, that flag likely chafed even more, because now the Floridas went to Spain. That’s one hell of a reward for loyalty, although this was part of the 1783 Treaty of Paris and not something England otherwise might have done. Nevertheless, every time a Floridian looked at the Gadsden flag or heard the phrase “don’t tread on me,” it’s safe to say it didn’t inspire patriotism.

Of course, today, Florida’s part of the United States. I get that. But we can’t claim that the Gadsden flag’s origin or initial purpose did anything other than stand in opposition to what Florida was at the time. It stood for things we hated.

But sure, let’s put it on a license plate. Even if, every time I see one of those plates, I won’t think about helping Florida’s veterans. Instead, I’ll remember a Florida that desperately wanted nothing to do with these United States.

Maybe not the message we want that Don’t Tread on me Florida license plate to send.

Read more Florida history you don’t know, this time about Henry Flagler and railroads.

Florida road trips.