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Just about everyone knows someone who has been bullied, in ways big and small. Understandably, though, many victims are reluctant to speak about their experiences. We found some who aren't.
BY YVONNE BERTOVICH, Wharton High
Mercedes Anderson knows her history. That is some statement, given that most teenagers contort into exaggerated yawns at the mention of facts that took place before Bob Marley, the promiscuous ’70s or when the Fresh Prince originally swaggered through Bel Air. Sometimes Anderson is actually part of history. The Tampa Preparatory sophomore is a junior docent at Tampa’s only living history museum, the Mildred W. & Doyle E. Carlton Jr. Cracker Country at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa. She loves her volunteer job with the program called History Connectors, dressing up as an 1870 Floridian and performing typical chores of the era at the museum, which consists of nearly two dozen buildings and structures on 4 acres. “Many people don’t know much about Floridian history,” Anderson said. “Up North, the historical value of many areas is quite apparent, but down South, people think, ‘Oh, it was all a swamp back then. We have no history.’ ” That is so far from the truth.”
Anderson chose the opportunity for volunteer hours and began working at Cracker Country more than a year ago. “The History Connectors program was a perfect fit for me and my interests,” she said. “The other girls and boy I have worked alongside have never been anything but kind, and the adults are eager to help us learn and have fun while educating the public.”
There is a small group of students who work with Anderson in the program, she said, but most of her co-volunteers are adults.
While adorned in vintage clothing, Anderson spends a typical 1870 day performing a variety of tasks, from teaching period-accurate curriculum in the schoolhouse to demonstrating how to do laundry on the farm to playing with old-fashioned toys to decorating the Carlton House. Fairgoers as well as visitors year-round watch and ask questions.
“As a whole, (the job) is so very diverse,” she said. “I like the farm best, because many school groups attend the fair, and it’s energizing for me to see them so excited over the activities.”
Though she likes all the stations she gets assigned, “I do prefer remaining active throughout the day rather than sitting inside a house,” Anderson said.
At age 15, Anderson can rattle off Florida history like a pro, learning more and more with each shift.
Cracker Country is free with admission to the state fair, which opens today and runs through Feb. 18. Anderson has been attending the fair with her family since she was a child.
“Anyone stationed during the fair or other events have a basic speech regarding their house or activity,” she said. “The people (who) stick around after that basic intro, well, that’s where the fun begins!”
Anderson likes when that happens. “By asking questions and engaging in a longer conversation, you might learn something that surprises you,” she said. “I know I tweak what I say every now and then to keep it fresh, but the longer I talk to someone, the more facts and tidbits I add in.”
Anderson delights when both young and old take delight from her passion about simpler times. “During last year’s state fair, one young boy walked over to the farm while I was showing a group how to use a washboard,” she said, his eyes were burning with excitement.
“He asked me if I actually lived there, and which house was mine. His enthusiasm was great! He spent a long time pretending to do laundry with me,” Anderson said.
“I love the caboose down by the Okahumpka train station. When I was very young, it was open to guests, and I always loved walking around inside it. Now, it is closed, but remains in place for guests to peek in the windows. I like the history behind it — it’s not often you hear of an old caboose being used as a doctor’s office.” Anderson said.
Being a Cracker Country demonstrator does not feel like work at all to Anderson, and the bonus is her time there counts toward Bright Futures or other volunteer hour requirements.
“Unless the younger generations get involved in learning local history, it will be forgotten,” Anderson said. “Which is a shame, since there are so many good stories to be told.”
If you go
Florida State Fair: Runs today through Feb. 18 with 108 rides on its midway as well food, entertainment and lots of animal encounters. Check out floridastatefair.com for ticket information, hours and daily schedules. Check out crackercountry.org for information about volunteering
Admission: Student tickets are available at many schools; some in Hillsborough County actually get Friday off to visit the fair. $8-$12 ages 12 and older, $4-$6 ages 6-11, 5 and younger free. Parking is free.
Hours: Gates open weekdays at 10 a.m.; Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 9 a.m. Closing time varies by the day of the week.
Where: Florida State Fairgrounds, 4802 U.S. 301 N, Tampa
We’re not talking about saltines
The term “Florida Cracker” stems from the time when 19th century cowboys, rounding up herds of cattle for sale, would crack their whips in the air to keep the cattle moving. In the thick underbrush of Florida, regular lariats or lassos were not effective, but the cracking whips could be heard for miles. “Here come the crackers” became a common observation among settlers, and later came to describe native Floridians. Above, from left: Old one-room schoolhouse comes straight from Hardee County in South Florida where it was built in 1912. Tommy Walton, known as the singing vendor at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, plays at the Cracker Country Saturday. This Railroad station was moved to Cracker Country from Okahumpka.