When we arrived at the Stephen Foster State Park, we must admit we didn’t know much about the namesake except that he had written a number of very popular songs. We didn’t know why there was a State Park dedicated to him in Florida or even that the song Old Folks at Home (Swanee River) was the Florida state song. But by the time we left we had become much more immersed in Stephen Foster history.
Born in 1826 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Stephen Foster, universally regarded as the greatest American songwriter of the 19th century, wrote over 200 songs including Camptown Races, My Old Kentucky Home, Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair and Beautiful Dreamer. At the museum at the park, in his biography it says: “Foster was a pioneer. There was no music business as we know it (sound recording was not invented until 13 years after his death; radio 66 years), no “performing rights” fees, no way of earning money except through a 5 to 10 percent royalty or through the outright purchase of songs by his publishers. In today’s music industry, he would be worth millions of dollars a year; on January 13, 1864, weakened by a persistent fever, he died at the age of 37 with 38 cents in his pocket and a scrape of paper that read, “Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts.”
Little did he know what a beloved songwriter he would become!
What I found interesting after doing some reading is that Stephen Foster never stepped foot in Florida and he never saw the Suwannee River, the subject of his very famous song, Old Folks at Home, also known as Swanee River. He wrote the lyrics to Old Folks at Home for the Christy Minstrels but was having difficulty finding the name of a river that would work in the opening line of the song. He tried several other river names (the Pedee in SC was one of them) but after studying maps of the South, he finally decided on the Suwannee, changing the spelling to fit the melody. Old Folks at Home became the Florida state song in 1935.
As you’re reading this, you might have the same question we did – if Foster never visited Florida why do they have this beautiful park dedicated to him? Well, it started back in 1931 when Josiah K. Lilly, an Indiana pharmaceutical manufacturer, suggested that Florida create a memorial to the American composer Stephen Foster, whose lyrics had made the Suwannee River famous around the world. The citizens of White Springs contributed land and many years later in 1950 the Stephen Foster Memorial Commission was set up to administer development of the park. Shortly after that the Florida Folk Festival was established to highlight the state’s cultural history and traditions. In 1979 the memorial became a part of the Florida Park Service and now carries the name of the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park.
On our initial excursion to see the sights here the first stop was the Carillon Tower. The Carillon Tower was built in 1957 by the J.C. Deagan Company. This particular bell tower contains 97 tubular bells and is their largest and last effort. During the day it not only chimes every 15 minutes, but Stephen Foster songs are played by an electronic roller at scheduled intervals – usually just after the hour chime during daylight hours.
The tubular bells are made of brass and are played from a keyboard of 32 keys and are automated by various “rolls”. The striker for each bell appears to be an electric solenoid, so the “keyboard” is basically a set of electric switches. On the first floor of the lobby, there are exhibits of the bell tower construction, some of the mechanics (and electrics) as well as several dioramas depicting scenes from some of Foster’s most memorable songs.
BTW, the word carillion refers to the tower housing the bells, the word carillon refers to the bells themselves – that would make a great Jeopardy answer! We used Carillon throughout this post for consistency and to keep our spelling checker happy.
After visiting the Carillon, we headed to the Craft Square where demonstrating artists show their talents in quilting, blacksmithing, stain glass making, and other crafts. We stopped first in the Cousin Thelma Bolton’s Craft and Gift Shop where there were handmade crafts by local artists available for purchase, everything from handmade soaps, jellies, wood carvings, pottery and lots of other beautifully crafted items. Having recently gone through all the work to downsize all of our “stuff”, we resisted the temptation to buy more “stuff”.
Leaving the gift shop, we headed over to the next craft shop. Inside there were four separate tables, each dedicated to a particular craft. The one woman who was there and in the process of reorganizing her sewing table explained to us that the people who do the demos are all workcamper volunteers from across the country who stay at the SP for several months at a time.
Although he wasn’t there at the time, she told us about Mike who mans one of the tables and is multi-talented doing weaving, leather crafting and a myriad of other things. After chatting with her we moved on to the next shop where pottery is made. There we had a lengthy conversation with Pam, also a volunteer who explained several pottery techniques. Very interesting! Unfortunately several of the other shops (blacksmith, weaving) were closed which I think is typical on a Monday after a busy weekend. The volunteers set their own hours.
We eventually moved on riding our bikes a short distance to the Suwanee River Gazebo. The gazebo was dedicated in 2006 to Ann Thomas who was a storyteller, a songwriter and a folk singer who promoted songs about Florida’s history and nature.
It was interesting to see the pole which marked the flood levels of the river over the years. In 1973, it reached 88.56 feet above mean sea level – that was several feet above our heads as we stood next to the pole on the bluff marking the flood events. Yikes! The highest “normal” river level is 65′. The river level during our stay was about 58′ which is in the range considered “ideal” for paddling.
The museum is housed in a lovely plantation style building not too far from the Carillon Tower. Featured inside the Museum and the lower floor of the Carillon Tower are ten dioramas which illustrate the words of a Stephen Foster song including Way Down Upon De Swanee Ribber, Camptown Races, Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair, Oh Susanna and My Old Kentucky Home to name a few. These dioramas were quite fascinating and had moving features or other special effects! According to the literature provided about the dioramas, it took 14 artists nearly two years to create the first eight, averaging about 1,500 manhours each or a total of about 15,000 hours (one person full time for nearly eight years). How incredible!
Nothing in the dioramas was purchased except as raw material so everything was handmade. Materials range from acrylic plastics, paper, sisal fibers, preserved mosses, weeds, lichens and metals such as soft copper and brass to high carbon steel. The figures are carved from balsa wood and those that are animated have fractional horsepower motors for moving parts.
As an example of the detail and precision employed in their making, it took considerable research to calibrate the speed of the paddle wheel on the “Belle of the Suwannee” so that it would turn the exact scale model speed. In another example, the firearms of the ’49ers in Oh Susanna are historically correct and have such details as inlaid stocks. Our photos do not capture the incredible detail and workmanship in each of the dioramas.
There are also other artifacts and rare pianos at the museum including a piano Foster once played and the desk on which he is believed to have composed Suwannee River. Also on display is a piano once used at a performance by the 19th century musical sensation, Jenny Lind.
A very rare von Janko’ keyboard is on display as well. This keyboard was invented in Hungary in 1882 and gives the appearance of six different rows of keys arranged stepwise, one above the other. This keyboard was designed so that any given tone can be struck in different places which allows the pianist to choose the keys most convenient to the position of their hand at any given instant.
It was getting late in the afternoon and by now we were in Stephen Foster information overload so it was time to head back to our site. Along the way we rode around the other two campground loops, the Suwannee Loop and the Gopher Loop to check out the other sites. Although there were some nice sites, they didn’t seem quite as big or private as the ones on our loop, Canebreak. In general we would suggest avoiding the pull-thru sites here if you favor maximum privacy, although there may be one or two exceptions.
We ended the day relaxing outside for awhile with the kitties. Ha, did I say relaxing with the kitties? Despite the fact that they don’t like their jackets and leashes, once they are given the opportunity to get out of their 42 foot cage, all they want to do is roam, particularly in a nice quiet and natural setting like this one. After about a half hour of his walking me around, Gizmo finally decided to give me a break and take a rest! Our evening ended with another lovely campfire.
The next day, the 19th was our last day at Stephen Foster so we decided to explore the River Road trail which is one of many hiking/biking trails in the park. The River Road Trail (1.8 miles each way) is a very wooded trail that ends at a river overlook on the Suwannee. Nice and wide, grass and sand (mostly packed but some soft), fairly flat trail except that it had rained and there were some big puddles (more like mud holes) to navigate around. On the way back we took the Campground Trail (1.6 miles) which had even more puddles and in a couple of places trees had fallen across the path and required lifting the bikes over. Overall though it was a great bike ride! Click here to see the route map.
Knowing the next day we would have to leave, Rob started prepping for our departure. And of course, we had our one final campfire that night.
Awesome state park! And a wonderful tribute to Stephen Foster by the state of Florida! Definitely worth a visit!