Folklife Area
Sharing Florida's Traditional Culture

Every year the Department of State's Florida Folklife Program researches a special topic on Florida's traditional heritage.  The Festival's 2014 Folklife area features presentations and demonstrations celebrating the diverse cultural traditions in the Upper St. Johns River Basin. 

The St. Johns River is the longest river in Florida and one of the most culturally and economically influential inland bodies of water in the state. This blackwater stream, gently flowing and darkly stained with tannic acid, winds its way north from Vero Beach to Jacksonville shaping its landscape and its people. Historically, the St. Johns has served as the primary means of transportation for people and goods supporting settlement and industry. As the lifeblood of the region, the river has provided fertile farmland for agricultural pursuits and deposited nutrient-rich pasture for cattle, formed pristine ecosystems capable of supporting ancient cypress and pine forests, facilitated the convergence of cultures along its banks, and created a unique backdrop from which traditional culture emerges.

 When European explorers arrived on the East coast of Florida in the 16th century, they encountered the Timacuan people who referred to the river as Welaka, meaning “River of Lakes.” Today, the upper St. Johns is characterized by a dizzying maze of lakes, canals, and marshland. The headwaters begin as a series of marshes in Indian River County that become navigable in Brevard County, and continue as a string of interconnected lakes in Seminole and Volusia Counties. Amid the palmettos and blackgum trees that shade the cypress swamps and the saw grass that spreads across the hammocks, the people of the upper St. Johns River basin have carved out a life for themselves that is as colorful as the environment that surrounds them. 

 Agriculture and Foodways

The fertile land and abundant resources along the river have encouraged the migration of many different cultures to the region. Swedish and Slovakian yeoman farmers were enticed by the citrus boom of the 1800s, until “The Great Freeze” of 1895 virtually put an end to the industry north of Apopka. Surrounded by marshes and low-lying hammocks, many farmers began growing celery, leading Oviedo to proclaim itself the “Celery Capital of the World.” Throughout the early 1900s, African Americans fled the dusty cotton fields of the southeast to work in the citrus groves and turpentine camps of Florida. Jamaican, Bahamian and Haitian laborers came to the state in the 1950s to cut sugar cane or harvest vegetables, and Hispanic migrant workers soon followed.

 Throughout the upper St. Johns River basin, these new communities have developed creative ways to maintain or adapt their cultural traditions to a new American context. Many people teach ethnic music and dance, host celebrations, and share a wide range of foodways and traditions. In 1989, Reina Zelaya reluctantly left her home in Honduras to avoid political unrest and provide a better life for her young children. Reina and her El Salvadorian husband Miguel both speak proudly and passionately about their respective cultures and will be demonstrating how to make some of their favorite dishes on the Folklife Area stage.

 While Reina highlights the importance of maintaining cultural identity through food, the Folklife Area will also feature a panel called Feeding America: Farmworkers and the Lake Apopka Memorial Quilt Project. On this panel Jeannie Economos of the Florida Farmworker Association and advocate Selena Zelaya will discuss the important role of farmworkers, the impact of muck farming, and the Lake Apopka Memorial Quilt project, which empowered the African American community to create a quilt in honor of the farmworkers that dedicated their lives to feeding America. Former farmworkers Linda Lee and Blanca Moreno will join them to share their experiences working in the muck. 

 Logging and Woodworking

The region’s virgin pine and cypress forests attracted the logging industry in the late 1800s. Logging camps quickly sprang up along the river, where the waterway was used to transport timber downstream to the sawmill. Many of these massive trees never made it to their destination, having sunk to the bottom of the St. Johns where they remained for over 100 years, perfectly preserved by the cool water and the lack of oxygen. Now, this sunken timber is highly regarded among woodworkers and craftsman for its beauty and durability, a discovery that has led to a shift in the logging industry and a distinctive trend in folk and traditional arts across the region. Former loggers, milling experts, and artists like Jeanie Beline, Bob and Tim Hughes, Ted Page, Don Reynolds, and Mark Rice have started specializing in rescued timber and now work almost exclusively with native Florida hardwoods from yard trees to heart pine, lighter wood to sunken river cypress to make unique and utilitarian works of art that speak volumes about regional history.

 This group of talented artists will gather on a panel called The Senator Project: Working with Rescued Timber to discuss their respective trades and involvement in the reincarnation of the Senator, one of the world’s largest and oldest pond cypress trees that burned down in 2012. The artists will also demonstrate their unique styles and have pieces on display all weekend. Make sure to come see Mark Rice who will be doing an exciting chainsaw carving demonstration adjacent to the Folklife Area each day. 

 Fishing and Tourism

The upper St. Johns River basin has long been considered a sub-tropical paradise, drawing the likes of explorers and adventurers throughout history and well into the 21st century. In 1774, naturalist William Bartram traveled to the region for the first time and described with great detail its rich biodiversity and bountiful resources. As he explored the St. Johns River, he noted the variety and abundance of wildlife and wrote eloquent accounts of undocumented flora and fauna, large game fish, majestic cypress trees, and floating islands along the river. These published accounts popularized the settlement of the region and, more recently, have served as a driving force behind the modern eco-heritage tourism trend.

Today, with its braided canals and maze-like marshes, the headwaters of the St. Johns are considered some of the finest sport fishing waters in the state and are particularly well known for the prevalence of largemouth bass. Drawing on his intimate knowledge of the river, fly-fisherman, innovator, and instructor Jon Cave leads guided expeditions through this complicated arrangement of waterways, providing eager fisherman with technical assistance as well as the cultural, historical, and biological context that colors the region. Jon will be offering fly-fishing and fly-tying demonstrations at the Folklife Area and will have on display historically accurate fishing equipment including flies that might have been used by William Bartram’s crew during their travels down the St. Johns River.

 Music and Dance

The music and dance traditions of the upper St. Johns River region are shaped by the natural and cultural environment. Maurice Fields grew up not far from Monroe Harbor on 13th Street in Sanford. At the turn of the century, this was the heart of Goldsboro, the second African American town to be incorporated in the state of Florida. By 1911, Goldsboro had been absorbed by Sanford. Still a tight-knit community today, Maurice fondly recalls growing up in the vibrant Goldsboro business district where local African Americans owned department stores, pharmacies, barber shops, and night clubs. As a child, he would lay awake at night listening to the sweet sounds of the blues radiating from local establishments like the Dew Duck Inn and Pearly May Brown’s. Growing up in the shadows of the 13th Street juke joints and pool halls, and in the light of the Baptist and Pentecostal churches, it’s no surprise that Fields learned to play percussion and harmonica and went on to dedicate his life to the perpetuation of African American sacred and secular music.

 Maurice Fields and his blues band, Cats in the House, will pay homage to those early influences in Goldsboro on the Folklife Area stage and will be available throughout the weekend to answer questions about historic Goldsboro and the Sanford music scene.

 Like Maurice Fields, Faye Henderson grew up deeply entrenched in the vibrant regional music scene of the upper St. Johns River basin. As a young girl, she traveled with her mother who played piano for several local churches each Sunday. She recalls feeling compelled to sing along with her mother’s melodies before she was even old enough to interpret the lyrics. Throughout her life, sacred music has served as a creative outlet and guiding light. Eventually, with the help of her family and friends, she founded Faye Henderson and Gospel Praise, which she describes as a “gospel blues, gospel jazz instrumental and vocal band with soul searching lyrics.” Faye Henderson and Gospel Praise will perform their brand of praise-based, gospel fusion this weekend, highlighting their early sacred and secular experiences.

 Also performing on the Folklife Area stage is Sandra Rincon’s Mexican folk dance group, Rincones de Mexico. Rincon and her family immigrated to Palm Bay in 2001. Negotiating life in a new country was difficult, but she eventually tapped into the local Hispanic community and realized that there was interest in starting a dance group. She had always loved the regional folk dances of her home in southwestern Mexico, so in 2012, she founded Rincones de Mexico, a group dedicated to the accurate representation of Mexican culture and regional identity through dance. They now perform for various charities and events throughout the region and will be representing several regional dances this weekend.

 Apprenticeships

Since 1984, the Florida Folklife Apprenticeship Program has provided support for master artist-apprentice teams to pass on traditional folk arts and culture. This year’s five teams will share their art forms in the Folklife Area. Winner of the 2012 Steve Martin Award for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music, Mark Johnson (Dunnellon) and apprentice Sergi Boyakjon (North Miami Beach) will perform Clawgrass style banjo; Miami based team Marisol Blanco and apprentices Sandra Barros, Deglys Pena, Carlos Ramirez, and Carolina Guitierrez will perform Afro-Cuban dance; George Altman (Wauchula) and apprentice Cameron Cato (Summerfield) will be demonstrating how to make buckskin whips; Louinès Louinis (Pembroke Pines) and apprentice Karine Moron (Miramar) will demonstrate Haitian drumming; and 2005 Florida Folk Heritage Award winner Michael Kernahan (Cutler Bay) and apprentices Fitzroy Alleyne (Miramar) and Sheila DeToro-Forlenza (Miami Beach) will demonstrate the playing and making of steel pan drums. For more information on the Apprenticeship Program, visit www.flheritage.com/preservation/folklife/apprenticeship,  or call 1-800-847-7278.