Once upon a time, there was a young man named Jack. He courted a girl who was very silly and had equally silly parents.
He promised to marry her only if he were to meet three other people who were just as silly as she and her family.
As could be expected, while returning home, he came across three such silly individuals.
The first was an old woman trying to force her cow onto the roof of her house so it could eat the grass growing up there.
Next was a man trying to put on a pair of pants by jumping straight into them.
Lastly were a group of townsfolk who thought the moon had fallen into their lake and were trying to fish it out.
Being a man of his word, Jack returned to his fiancée and married her as promised.
He told her that everywhere he went, he was always meeting silly people, and so he figured if he is going to live with silly people, it is better when he loves them.
Telling this story under the shade of a moss-covered oak tree in Homeland Heritage Park was Nancy Crockford accompanied by her partner Kim Rivers on the mandolin.
As Rivers provided the music and occasional sound effect, Crockford told the story through typical Southern-style storytelling, the same way one would expect to hear a story from their grandparents.
Her rustic Southern accent carried the weight of the story, so when the audience listened, they could feel it as the old woman was launched through her chimney by the rope attached to her cow, the man race across the room only to fall flat on his face trying to land into his pants, and Jack as he belted gut-busting laughter at all the silly antics he encountered.
This was one of the many stories and storytellers present at the 25th Annual Florida Cracker Storytelling Festival on Saturday.
Though the festival centers on Florida Cracker culture, over the years, it has come to incorporate stories and other aspects from a diverse range of cultures.
Some stories were Florida Cracker folklore. Others were African, Cajun, Mexican and Native American. Some were spoken; others were sung.
Some were told under the shade of the park’s centerpiece, Jack’s Oak. Some were told under a nearby tent. And others were told under the roof of the historic one room schoolhouse.
There were stories about kings trapped in bubbles, coyotes carried away by butterflies, love-sick palmetto bugs looking for potential husbands, and cauliflower stalks that contained giant hens that laid golden eggs.
Under the big tent, local folk musician and “Dean of Florida Folk Music” Frank Thomas, who had been inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, and his wife, Lisa, sang about the sad possibility of how grandmothers may one day tell their grandchildren stories about manatees the same way they now tell stories about fairy tale creatures like unicorns.
Under Jack’s Oak, Linda Chancey and Connie Trama told an interactive story with audience participation about a handsome prince (“ah-ha!”) atop a white steed (“neigh!”) who would marry a lovely princess (“ahh!”) if he could defeat an evil wizard (“ne-he-he!”) on behest of a queen with a heart cold as ice (“brr!”).
Within the schoolhouse, the frail voice of Jim Mittelstadt reverberated from the whitewashed walls and hardwood floors as he told several humorous pastoral anecdotes.
One was of a wily pastor who hypnotized his congregation to do whatever he said, which more often than not was to give him money. He told how the pastor dropped his watch and hollered “Shoot!” and with his being a gun-toting congregation, one need only imagine the outcome.
Other storytellers this year included Cheryl Floyd, Robin Schulte, Judge Nelson Bailey, Carrie Sue Ayvar, Mitchell O’ Rear, Hank Mattson, Mark Koruschak, Pat Nease, Tamara Green, Katie Adams, and Melissa Causey.
Shift to whip-crackin’
Later that afternoon, the air shifted from the sound of storytelling to that of cracking, snapping, popping whips at the whip cracking contest.
Contestants young and old competed in four different categories to see who could crack their whips the loudest and sharpest and with the most originality and outstanding performance within the 45-second time limit.
The elementary school winners were Cody Sherrouse (third), Josiah Waldman (second), and Andrew William (first).
The middle school winners were Molly Sansom (third), Grayson Waldman (second), and Darby Pittman (first).
The high school winners were John Rattiff (third), Ryan Waldman (second), and Jesse Sansum (first).
The adult winners were Drew Hall (second) and Chris Beggs (first).
During the contest, two handmade whips were auctioned and raffled off. One went to Carol Leffler, winner of the raffle.
Following the contest was a whip cracking demonstration by local famed whip cracker Cato Cameron.
The festival was a two-day event, with Friday reserved for school field trips and Saturday being the main event open to the public.
Throughout the park were many vendors and historical re-enactors offering old-fashioned novelties including leather belts and clothing, belt buckles, sand sculptures, woodworking, all-natural honey products, and other arts and crafts.
Food ranged from carnival favorites like hot dogs and shaved ice to good old-fashioned Southern cooking like sweet potato pie and chicken and dumplings.
This year’s festival included an Antique Roadshow hosted by nationally-recognized auctioneer Marty Higgenbotham within the Historic Methodist Church on Saturday.
In conjunction with the festival were Ghost Stories told at the Bartow Public Library on Friday evening.
Originally started by the late Annette Bruce as the Spirit of the Suwannee Festival, the festival was moved to Barberville along the Suwanee River where it became the Cracker Storytelling Festival, focusing on the celebration of Florida’s history and heritage.
Since relocating to Homeland Heritage Park in 2000, the event has been a fast-growing Polk County attraction hosted in cooperation with the Parks Department, School Board, and Library Coalition of Polk County.
For 25 years, the festival has experienced growing popularity and success, with its only downturn being in 2004 when damage from the three hurricanes forced its cancellation that year.
Past turnouts have proven to be extremely satisfactory, fluctuating between 1,000 to 1,700 attendees annually.
Linda Chauncey, Outreach Librarian for the Polk County Library Coalition and Festival Committee Member, has been involved with the festival for more than 20 years, and has not only seen the festival grow, but also the locals’ appreciation for it.
“It highlights our local heritage and promotes the pioneer spirit of Polk County,” she said. “The oral tradition is something we want to preserve and keep and pass onto our children. It connects the past to the future and teaches our children where we came from.”