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Folk tales and facts part of county museum

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By Rog Patterson

One of a series

If you think Ocala and Marion County has become all about shopping malls, sprawling development and inconsiderate drivers, take a break to learn what life was like in Marion County from the 1700s on into the 1950s by visiting the Marion County Museum of History at the McPherson Government Complex.

Early history, as well as more recent Florida history, is well-documented with a variety of displays.

Whether your planned visit to the Museum is long or short, you will probably be captivated by the wide range of exhibits and find it hard to leave at the time you intended.

The Marion County Historical Commission and various other interested local groups combined to create and open the museum 16 years ago.

Earl DeBary, the current president of the Marion County Historical Commission, and his wife, Bettie, a former Commission president, have directed the museum’s operations ever since. Earl and Bettie are also backed up by other volunteers like David Gay and Grant Wellman.

The museum building was originally known as East Hall. It was part of McPherson School for Girls where runaways, pregnant, truants and otherwise troubled girls were put up at a “home” on the grounds. Any girls who misbehaved were sent to East Hall, originally designed with many cells.

Today, volunteers have rehabbed East Hall’s interior, making it just right to house the nine galleries that display half a dozen exhibits in each room, as well as hallways and lobby.

As an early dividend, I learned from Earl the name for Maricamp, as in Maricamp Road, was derived from three words; Marion Prison Camp. That correction facility was once located a mile or so further down when it was a two-lane road.

Your visit actually starts even before entering the building. On the museum grounds, Earl DeBary has built two authentic Seminole Indian shelters used by Indians in this area and southeast Florida.

Proud of his American Indian heritage, Earl speaks fluent Muskogee, the primary Seminole language.

He is also learning Miccosukee, a dialect of the Hithiti. So, if you don’t know the difference between Seminole chickee or paha huts, I’m sure Earl will be delighted to set you straight.

For readers old enough to remember a respected name, outside the museum building is a massive Studebaker automobile emblem.

It was one of several adorning the car’s dealership behind our county courthouse, near the corner of North Magnolia Avenue and N.W. 2nd Street. This one was rescued from the weeds in a vacant lot and the handsome brick setting was made and donated by a volunteer.

I understand another Studebaker emblem is still visible across from the county court house on a building near the corner of North Magnolia Avenue and N.W. 2nd Street ... guess I’d better go look for that one myself.

Items on display were loaned or donated by Historical Commission members, Marion County residents and by museum visitors wishing to contribute their heirloom items to become a part of the museum’s displays. The majority are from the 1700s to 1800s in Marion County but some are from other areas of the state as well.

Turpentine harvesting, a major industry in many parts of Florida, including southwest Marion county and what is now the Ocala National Forest, has most of one display room all to itself. From the pictures and equipment used, it must have been back-breaking work for the hardy souls who made their living at it year after year.

Among several displays of pottery shards, arrow heads and other artifacts are examples from many parts of Marion County. A major source was the MacKenzie Mound found at Bird’s Island on the west side of Lake Weir, as well as from Oklawaha and elsewhere. Each fragment is identified, as are other museum exhibits.

W. H. Fore’s homestead was a typical, self-supporting farm near Scrambletown between 1872 and 1928 in what is now the Ocala National Forest.

The museum’s fascinating model, built by grandson John March, shows the house authentically raised several feet off the ground.

Florida pioneers believed fevers and other ills lurked beneath houses built at ground level. This elevation also provided ventilation and a shelter for dogs and chickens.

The kitchen building was connected to the house by a wood walkway. This kept the house cooler in summer and safer in the event of possible kitchen fires.

Both kitchen and wash shed were located near the well. A sandy yard prevented forest fires from spreading to the house and was fenced to keep free-ranging cattle or hogs out and civilization in.

I was also impressed by the dugout canoe enshrined under the Mickey Summers mural showing what it might have looked like when in use.

Over 23-feet long, it features a darkened spot I learned was scorched from fire! It would have been used for travel and visiting or trading with others.

When the tribe moved from one seasonal camp site to another, essential fire was taken ... along ...i n the canoe on a bed of sand. Sometimes the fire began to win.

In order to preserve this particular canoe from rapid deterioration after being discovered, it was soaked in a bath of sugar water. Yep, sugar water or more like simple syrup.

You can see sugar granules impregnated the wood’s pores as a preservative.

Today, some sort of fancy-dancy chemicals would probably be used, but the sugar water has worked just fine, thank you.

Bettie has set up a nice little gift shop off the lobby. Many of the items will appeal to schoolchildren on very modest budgets, but she has also assembled a fine selection of both hard- and soft-cover books for visitors who wish to explore Marion County history a bit deeper after being exposed to the museum’s encouragements.

Museum volunteers like David and Grant could use some more help manning the museum every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. ‘until 2 p.m. week after week. They manage to spell Bettie and Earl, but more volunteers are both needed and welcome.

Bettie has a training or break-in program all set for you.

With more volunteers, she could encourage more weekday visits by school children.

The museum, she said, can only accommodate 25-30 children at one time, so their classmates waiting outside could benefit from a few volunteers explaining what they are about to see, showing them the Indian shelters and otherwise keeping them happy. There’s a simple form waiting in the lobby volunteer candidates may fill out for Bettie.

Marion County has provided East Hall to enshrine this wonderful collection of local history, but all operating expenses are the museum’s responsibility. Funding is necessarily a year ‘round concern.

The main fund raising project is their Fort King Festival, held on the second Saturday of each September. That’s Sept. 26 this year. The museum’s modest entrance fee of $2 is also very much appreciated.

Take time from the frenzy and complications of life as we live it today and enjoy this Marion County treasure.

You’ll find the Marion County Museum of History located behind Congressman Cliff Stearns office. It will be on your left almost as soon as you drive in the Fort King Street entrance to McPherson Government Complex.

Rog Patterson is a Marion Landing resident, Friendship Kiwanis Club member and Citizen writer.