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State park celebrates forestry heritage

EDITOR'S NOTE: Road Trips is an occasional feature about points of interest around the state that are within a few hours' car ride from Citrus County.

Let's travel back in time on a day trip custom-made for adventure and good times _ and with a learning experience added for good measure.

We'll go north on U.S. 19 to my hometown of Perry, in Taylor County, just a few hours away from Citrus County. Perfect for a day trip.

Our destination is Forest Capital State Park on U.S 19, 1 mile south of the town of Perry, adjacent to the Taylor Technical Institute. Visitors can enter the park for $1 per person, except for children under 5, who get in free.

The park houses a museum, opened in 1973, a visitors' center and an old Cracker house. The house is an actual homestead of a pioneer Taylor County family and was donated to the park by Grace Gibson Dansby after the death of her husband, Sen. Pete Gibson.

The homestead includes a breezeway, which was typical of Cracker houses then. The breezeway, an open porch, was constructed between two cabins. The yard is typical of the times, which means it is all sand and no grass. Lawns like that were seen as added protection against snakes and fire.

I still remember visiting relatives who had yards of sand and watching with fascination as Aunt Annie swept her yard with pride.

The park offers three covered pavilions that seat up to 60 people. The area, covering 13 acres, is perfect for small picnics or large family reunions, birthday parties, weddings and corporate events. I have attended Padgett family reunions at the park and had a great time.

There are gardens filled with corn, turnips, mustard, collards, beans and more. Sometimes cane syrup is made on the homestead in a large iron kettle. The finished product is thick, sweet and delicious _ an added treat to any meal.

The museum features a tribute to the long-leaf pine, which can be found growing throughout the park. Florida's unique woods are a major feature of the museum, with descriptions of leadwood, buttonwood and others. Exhibit cases are filled with information for visitors about the turpentine production in Florida's past and in the general area.

On the fourth Saturday in October, locals gather for the Florida Forest Festival to celebrate their forestry heritage. When it began in the late 1950s and early '60s, it was called the Pine Tree Festival and was held in the park where the Boys and Girls Club is now. The event has grown annually since its beginning and attracts upwards of 20,000 people.

One of the most popular features of the festival includes the World's Largest Fish Fry. Other events include fireworks, a carnival, a parade and an antique car show, as well as the annual Bed Race.