Hard to believe but you can step back in time and experience Old Florida just 30 minutes from Sarasota’s famous white sand beaches with a visit to Crowley Museum & Nature Center. The scenic drive 10 miles east of I-75 on Fruitville Road appropriately sets the stage for a visit to the pioneer setting at Crowley. Street names such as Oakford, Branch, and Deer Hammock, large oak trees and green pastures with horses or cattle grazing in the fields, and an occasional ranch entrance with names like High Hat Ranch indicate that you are entering ranch country. When you’ve come to the end of Fruitville Road at Myakka Road make a right and Crowley’s entrance is 3 miles on the left.
As I made my way along the entrance roadway I got a sense of what it must have been like to live in rural Florida at the turn of the century. Aside from wire fencing keeping the Cracker Cattle off the roadway, the natural landscape appears untouched (I later learned that the cattle at Crowley are direct descendants from the cattle that the Crowley’s owned over 100 years ago). I arrived at the Welcome Center & Gift Shop and received trail maps and a brief and informative background history of the Crowley family, along with the suggestion that I save the Pioneer Museum for last since it is the only air-conditioned building.
I headed out past a couple free roaming chickens and a rooster to the Boardwalk trail with my Self-Guided Trail Booklet in hand. This ½ mile nature trail winds through the shaded tree canopy of Maple Branch Creek and five other Florida habitats before ending at Tatum Sawgrass Marsh and the Myakka River. Along the way there are numbered markers to correspond with information on the trail booklet. It was cool and breezy, with lots of birds, crickets and cicadas singing and an occasional butterfly or dragonfly flittering by. At the end of the boardwalk there is a fantastic 2-story observation tower that allows a birds-eye-view of the marsh. There also happened to be a glorious breeze! I can see why this is a favorite spot for birders and naturalists. I headed down from the tower and back on the trail that runs along Crowley Creek towards the homestead even though I was a bit apprehensive because I could hear something snorting off in the distance in the marsh, but thankfully all I saw was the serene natural environment on my way back.
I stopped by the Tatum House built in 1862, and the Sugar Cane Mill which are an excellent example of pioneer living on my way to the Children’s Discovery Path entrance. The Discovery Path map guides children along a 3/8 mile marked trail that has 5 fun hands-on discovery stations where kids can learn about native Florida animals. Kids can climb a giant rope spider web or crawl into a tortoise burrow. Visitors can also view the pioneer Tatum Ridge School House which closed in 1941 and was relocated to the Crowley property.
My next stop was the Pioneer Cabin which was built by Jasper Crowley, the grandson of homesteader John Crowley. This one room cabin is furnished with Crowley family heirlooms. Homesteader John Crowley’s Blacksmith tools and pioneer sawmill tools are housed in the back of the building of the welcome center. My final stop was the air-conditioned Pioneer Museum which houses hundreds of historic items collected by Jasper Crowley. The Museum is set up just like the general store that John Crowley and his son James Jeremiah ran on the corner of Rawls Road and Myakka Road – which I learned still stands on Myakka Road and I passed on my way here!
I spent 2 ½ hours traveling back in time and experiencing “Old” Florida, seeing how early settlers lived and being one with nature at the Crowley Museum & Nature Center before heading back to Sarasota – and the year 2012.
For the best experience dress weather appropriately and wear close-toed shoes when visiting Crowley. Bug spray might not be a bad idea if mosquitoes and no-see-ums find you irresistible.
Crowley Museum & Nature Center is open Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to sundown and is located at 16405 Myakka Road, Sarasota, Florida 34240.