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Hordes of tourists leaving mark on author's house

The trompings of thousands of tourists has started to cause structural damage to the 100-year-old cracker-style farmhouse of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. So volunteers are building a replica of the homestead's barn in an attempt to divert some of the tour traffic.

The idea is to get tourists out of the house and into the barn, the gardens, the groves and other areas of Rawlings' homestead.

Before it's too late.

"In sharing a little of what old Florida was like, you come close to losing it," said Sally Morrison, a state park service employee who has helped care for the home for 13 years. "That's the irony we have to deal with."

Before the 1983 movie Cross Creek, visitors to Rawlings' home tended to be devoted readers of her books.

"It was like a pilgrimage to them," Morrison said.

The movie, which starred Mary Steenburgen as Rawlings, changed all that. Crowds got much larger. The questions and comments guides heard weren't quite so literary.

The annual number of visitors has risen from 12,000 to 30,000. Often people arrive only to find that all the afternoon tours are full.

"We move through 12 tours a day, 10 people a tour," said Nels Parson, site ranger. "That's about a ton per tour, which is a lot of weight for an old house like this."

Rawlings, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for her novel The Yearling, about a boy and his pet deer, moved to Cross Creek from Rochester, N.Y., in 1928.

She wrote with respect and affection for the people she met around Cross Creek, in a rural area near Micanopy, between Ocala and Gainesville. They, in turn, provided her with the material she needed to become first a published, then an acclaimed, author. Her 10 books sold millions of copies.

Rawlings, who died in 1953, left her farm to the University of Florida. In 1970, the university turned the property over to the state park service, which has tried to restore and make it available to tourists.

The new barn, paid for by Martin Marietta Electronics & Missiles Group in Orlando, is on almost the exact site of Rawlings' original barn, about 100 feet from the house. It will be the same size as the old barn, and will be made from the same sort of rough-cut pine. Volunteers began the barn-raising Saturday.

The original barn fell apart and then burned in the early 1960s, Parson said.

Tours of the home will continue but will not be expanded to meet the larger crowds. Instead, park service employees will encourage visitors to tour the barn and grounds, which remain a working farm with chickens, orange trees and a pea crop of the variety grown by Rawlings.

"The barn should be the heart of the farmstead," said Claire Koshar, president of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society's Citizen Support Organization, which helps the state in preserving the site. "It was never right without one."

Pictures exist to help in the building of a replica. At least as important are consultants like Idella Parker, 76, who was Rawlings' housekeeper from 1937 to 1950 and who attended the barn-raising.

"They asked me where to put it," said Parker, who is writing a book about her years with Rawlings. "I told them, and they got close. It's only off a foot or two."