Civilization is in the eye of the beholder.
Cutting’s New York Adirondack-style lodge suggests a Florida Cracker-style influence, its raised, wide and wraparound porch leaving adequate room for critters to travel beneath. Inside, telescoping doorways and French doors to the outside maximize the flow of air to cool the interior, a modest four-bedroom square with a party room holding court in the center. Building materials reflect the surroundings, as thick trunks of bent cedar and straight palm shoulder the massive porch roof, like camp sentries on guard against the heat of the sun. Blocks made from mortar and shells form the walls. A separate but similar building next door once provided dining and kitchen prep areas for serving the upper crust and royal guests of its string of owners.
With Cutting’s death in 1892, his widow, Angela, went back to New York, only to return years later with her latest husband, Boris Scherbatoff. An exiled Russian prince, Scherbatoff provided her the designation of “Princess,” leading to the rechristening of Cherokee Grove to Princess Place. Against most odds, the property has managed to stay protected by compassionate caretakers and owners who felt compelled to save its history and beauty. After the purchase of 435 acres by Flagler County in 1993, the state of Florida invested a land grant that allowed for an additional 1,000 acres and formally dedicated it as a national preserve. The Native American Festival draws participants to Princess Place from around the countr y. Thomas and Juanita Zemeno, members of the Apache tribe, came from Texas.
The mixture of time is palpable here and requires me to breathe slowly, separating today’s events from those of the last 300 years. The broad Matanzas River slides by the front door like a giant lake, the Atlantic Ocean somewhere just beyond its eastern bank. Across the grounds ancient, bent live oaks crisscross like giant webs framing the outbuildings and structures, most added in the last 100 years. All but one—the artesian spring waters of Florida’s first in-ground swimming pool still shimmer in the sun.
For lovers of nature, the Princess Place Preserve is significant. Its salt marshes and ponds, tidal waters and creeks covering 1,500 acres are forever protected, as are the ghosts of its royal and not-so-royal inhabitants. For lovers of culture, events like the Native American Festival keep the past present. Festival participants Juanita and Thomas Zermeno of the Apache tribe out of Texas smile as they watch children dance to the drums, their clothing and feathers vibrant in the warm sun. “We keep the culture,” Juanita says, “and we teach respect for it.”
Flagler County Parks manager Frank Barbuti spends a lot of time at the preserve through the course of a year. When I ask what strikes him about the grounds, he pauses, as if to let the physical and the sensory come together to form his answer. “The serenity of the place,” he says with satisfaction. “Before the people arrive …” Barbuti has a personal attachment as well. “I’m originally from upstate New York, so I’m very familiar with Adirondack-style buildings. When I look at the house, it reminds me of home.”
Across the grounds I hear the tinkle of glasses from Princess Angela’s royal party mix with the lilt of a Native American flute and the plunk of a bluegrass banjo. It’s an ancient harmony, floating through the salty air of a place held beautifully in time.