Donald Forgione, Director of the Florida Park Service, and I stood on the bank of the Suwannee River at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park. The water flowed dark and cool at our feet, stretching over 200 miles from Georgia and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Suwannee was originally pronounced with three syllables, Director Forgione explained, but when American composer Stephen Foster wrote “Old Folks at Home,” he needed a two-syllable river name to fit into his lyrics. Just like that, a new pronunciation was born! Today, the park is named after the man who made the river famous.
The park’s proximity to the river makes it an excellent place to hike, paddle and swim. Cabins along the water are available for rent, and the impressive Florida National Scenic Trail passes within its borders. In fact, I saw a group of through-hikers tackling the trail, complete with their overnight backpacks stuffed to the brim with camping equipment. This part of the trail is often described as “rugged,” so bring your hiking shoes!
There’s no doubt that the landscape is beautiful, but it’s the park’s commitment to culture and folk art that really sets it apart from other areas around the state.
I was there to attend the Florida Folk Festival. As Director Forgione showed me around, we listened to music, sampled local food and watched the creation of crafts and art from communities around Florida. First begun in 1953, the festival has been held over Memorial Day weekend ever since.
Though the three-day festival is an annual highlight for many, the park hosts events year round. When I met Park Manager Manny Perez, he recommended that everyone who visits should “stop into the gift shop and our Craft Square, where we often have vendors demonstrating folk craft.”
As we explored, I was immediately struck by one of the focal points of the park: the Carillon Tower. Stretching towards the sky, the 97-tubular bell carillon tower plays songs throughout the day, and inside houses a peaceful museum showcasing historic Florida scenes. The tower is so tall that it provided the perfect point of reference as I moved from one section of the park to another.