Living Sanibel: Crowley Museum and Nature Center
Located roughly a mile north of Myakka River State Park off of Myakka Road, the Crowley Museum and Nature Center is an interesting side trip on your way to visit the much larger park. Crowley, consisting of a museum, pioneer cabin, working sugar cane mill, and fully restored “cracker” house, offers a first-hand view of how Florida settlers managed to get by in the late 1800s. The 190-acre site also offers some excellent nature trails.
The museum contains scores of artifacts from the pioneer era, including hand tools, household furnishings, and items from the Old Miakka General Store and Post Office. The small pioneer cabin on the property is representative of a typical one-room building found throughout Southwest Florida around the end of the 1800s and early 1900s.
The real treasure here is the completely restored two-story Tatum House. Originally built in 1889 and enlarged in 1892, this stunning example of cracker architecture was moved to its present site in 1996 and, through donations and grant money, was totally restored over the next five years by volunteers. Additional donations of pioneer artifacts, from handmade brooms to dishes, furnishings, and cookware, have made the Tatum House an excellent example of what a large family household looked like more than 100 years ago-reminiscent of the original MacIvey homestead in Patrick Smith’s classic Florida novel, “A Land Remembered.”
After taking in the museum and the other attractions on site, take a stroll down the half-mile boardwalk into the surrounding countryside. A self-guided trail takes you through pine flatwoods, shady oak hammocks, over the Maple Branch swamp, and out to the edge of the expansive Tatum Sawgrass Marsh along the edge of the Myakka River. The towering slash pines at the start of the trail offer a rare encounter with a fully mature, dry pine flatwood forest.
These trees are more than 100 years old and represent a prime example of what Florida’s extensive pine forests must have looked like before loggers took out almost all of the virgin timber. Sightings of birds might include barred owls, wild turkeys, crested caracara, sandhill cranes, and seasonal buntings, warblers, and eastern bluebirds. From the two-story observation tower, birders can look out across the Tatum Sawgrass Marsh and find white pelicans, roseate spoonbills, and wood storks feeding along the edges of the Myakka River, while eagles, osprey, and hawks soar overhead.
Where the trail crosses over a small stream, look for river otters, white-tailed deer, eastern spotted skunks, marsh rabbits, and fox squirrels. Open-range cattle still graze on the property. Reptiles include a variety of snakes, gopher tortoises, lizards, and the occasional alligator. Because of the varied habitats, plant and insect life abounds. As you walk down the boardwalk look for butterflies, colorful and varied dragonflies, as well as a wide variety of wetlands-loving plants such as pickerelweed and alligator flag.
Every January, the Crowley Nature Center puts on the Florida Heritage Festival, during which volunteers practice the lost art of blacksmithing, sugar-cane grinding, quilting, carving, and more. Old-time recipes of barbequed pork, roasted corn, and sweet potatoes are available while everyone enjoys hayrides, gourd painting, and country music. Another popular annual event is Starry Nite, a fundraiser for the Nature Center celebrated outdoors in early March.
Anyone with more than a passing interest in “olde Florida” should include a visit to this gem of site. With its meticulously restored buildings, interesting artifacts, and lovely trails, the Crowley Museum and Nature Center is a great way to spend an afternoon in the backwoods of Florida.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.