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A Short History of Highlands Hammock State Park

18 Aug 2021 11:54 AM | Anonymous

Highlands Hammock State Park is located on the western edge of Lake Wales Ridge in Highlands and Hardee Counties in Florida. It is noted for having a greater number of rare and endemic species than any other park in the state.  During the Paleolithic Era the park lands were the habitat of mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, giant ground sloths and tortoises. Indeed, mastodon tusks and a giant tortoise shell were discovered in the park in the 1930s. While the tusks were lost due to improper conservation techniques, the tortoise shell is preserved in the current park store. A look at the WPA-era mural in the Sebring Library, “Prehistoric Florida” by renowned artist Charles Knight, shows a landscape of moss-covered sand live oaks and palms that is eerily similar to areas in today’s park.

During the Pre-Colombian era and after, it is believed that the park area was inhabited by the Jororo Indians. This hunter-fisher-gatherer tribe inhabited an area that extended into the Kissimmee Valley and were closely related in language and culture to the more numerous Mayaca Indians - the name sometimes spelled as Myakka and given to the Myakka State Park near Sarasota. The Jororos were first mentioned in Spanish history in the 1680s.  There are several Indian mounds located in some of the least accessible areas of the park property, unfortunately these were despoiled before they could be assessed by archeologists.

There are no records about the impact of the Seminole Wars in the area.  A veteran of the conflict, Captain William Hooker obviously knew the area as he established a “cow camp” in the environs as part of his huge cattle operation. Consequently, the area became known as Hooker’s Hammock.  Family history states that Johnathan Skipper purchased any claims that Hooker might have had on the property from the Atlantic Land and Improvement Company in about 1881.  Skipper cleared the land, planted an orange grove, and built a log house near the current residence area of the park.  

To ensure that he had help on his holding, Skipper gave five acres adjoining his homestead to W.L. Eiland, who later bought more acreage in the eastern part of the hammock.  Eiland also built a one room house where he raised his large family.  

By the 1920s the hammock had become a haven for locals and the guests of the Sebring resort hotels. Carriages and wagons from Harder Hall, the Kenilworth, and other resorts made trips to the cool, tropical retreat for picnics, hunting, and fishing. Local business men and hoteliers realized the tourist and eventual development value of Hooker’s Hammock and in 1920 a group incorporated as Hooker Hammock Farms purchased the land for $50 an acre.  In the mid-1920s at the peak of the Great Florida Land Boom the corporation had an opportunity to sell the tract at a fantastic price but only if it could be released from Skipper’s blanket mortgage - Mr. Skipper agreed but the individual participants in the land corporation had to endorse the note, personally.  When the Boom collapsed the Tampa bank which had purchased the mortgage from Skipper began to push for repayment.  Several of the original purchasers would eventually suffer large losses during the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the ability to repay the $18,000 loan looked grim.  

During this time period there was also an attempt to have the area created as a national park, but the site was thought too small. So the owners began to push for the development of a local park with public subscriptions to pay off the Tampa mortgage!  According to local legend, during January of 1930 Mrs. John A. Roebling II - of the Brooklyn Bridge building Roeblings - was flying over the hammock with her son, inventor Donald Roebling.  John and Margaret Shippen Roebling were in the process of building a winter home at Red Hill, their 1000 acre estate south of Lake Placid in the small hamlet of Venus. Donald already had a house in Clearwater and he was flying his parents back to Lake Placid after a visit.  According to the legend, Mrs. Roebling noticed the lush hammock area and became immediately interested in preserving it as a park.  

Having noticed an article announcing efforts by a local group to develop the area, she wrote noted author and screenwriter, Rex Beach, announcing her interest in the project and he arranged a meeting between the gentlemen who owned the property, other local power brokers, and Mrs. Roebling.  The outcome was the creation of the Tropical Florida Parks Association (later changed to Highlands Hammock, Inc.) and the ‘lady bountiful’ agreed to donate $25,000 toward the purchase of the hammock and some surrounding buffer property.  Later, along with $5,000 in local funds raised as a commitment to ongoing support of the new park, Mrs. Roebling committed another $25,000 to the development of the area.  With this a local newspaper contest named the new park - Highlands Hammock. The complicated legal and financial tasks involved in such a large endeavor moved ahead until late October of 1930 when Margaret Shippen Roebling suddenly died of a stroke. This one event changed the trajectory of Highlands Hammock immensely.  John Roebling made a commitment to complete the park project as a memorial to his wife.  He stopped work on their Red Hill estate and brought his Scottish engineer and project manager, Alexander Blair, to Highlands Hammock permanently to oversee the now more ambitious park plan.  At the same time, Donald Roebling donated $10,000 to have professional arborists preserve three of the most ancient trees in the Hammock.  (Though damaged, two of the trees are still alive.)  These represented his memorial to his mother.

The park property was selectively opened to the public in March, 1931. Complex financing and commitments by the local community for ongoing maintenance of the park were negotiated and finalized as extensive work continued through mid-1934.  With the completion of the many walking trails, establishment of six citrus groves, development of the Speaker’s Field - initially used primarily for vesper’s services - and construction of a sophisticated water distribution and retention system which supplied the several water features and tropical gardens dotting the park, the project  moved toward completion during this time. 

John Roebling was extremely fearful of scrub fires which at the time were very common due to lightning strikes.  He had acquired more acreage beyond the park’s original 1000 acres to act as a buffer to the Hammock.  This fear is what drove the construction of the canals that mark the north and south boundaries of the original Hammock park. It also influenced some of the smaller features in the park. Roebling spent $48,000 to have all the fence posts surrounding the park made of steel reinforced concrete.  (Today, the original park boundaries can be noted by the presence of these iconic posts.)   

A large dam was built on Charley Bowlegs Creek which rises on the south park property in an area called Halls Flats and flows north through the Hammock.  The dam impounded enough water to maintain and protect the Hammock and it’s lush vegetation during routine dry spells.  The reconstruction of the dam after an historic rainfall and flood in 1933 was the last large Roebling project.  By August, 1935 all the original Roebling property containing Highlands Hammock and environs had been transferred to the State Of Florida and the Hammock opened as Florida’s first state park. The Roebling family’s total investment in Highlands Hammock is estimated to exceed four hundred thousand ‘Depression era’ dollars.  

One of President Franklin Roosevelt’s most popular Depression-fighting programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC.) This program was created to develop what he saw as the nation’s two most important assets, its youth and its natural spaces.  Beyond providing jobs, training, and educational opportunities for unemployed young men, the CCC also sent $25 of the workers' wages home to their families.  The money went right back into the economy - spent on food, clothing and local services.  Over 3,000,000 young men participated in the CCC.

The CCC collided with Highlands Hammock first in June of 1933 with the establishment of Camp P-56 in the old casino building in Sebring on Lake Sebring.  This first group probably planted trees and did routine forestry work in the now nonexistent Desoto State Forest to the west of the current park.  A second, Camp SP-3, and later a third, Camp SP-10, were established in June 1934 and October 1936, respectively.  

These two CCC companies were directly involved in the expansion of the original Roebling park and the development of a collateral project, the Florida Botanical Garden and Arboretum.  Many of the rustic park structures - the current museum and camp store plus picnic pavilions, restrooms, maintenance buildings, a greenhouse, saw mill, slat growing houses, and the Herbarium were constructed during the CCC’s tenure.  With the completion of most of the basic park facilities by 1934, Highlands Hammock State Park, Florida’s first state park, was officially opened in August, 1935.  

The Arboretum project, to be developed on the land east of the Roebling Highlands Hammock Park, was an ambitious effort initiated in 1933 by C.S. Donaldson, first park plant curator, Margaret Roebling’s sister, Anne MacIlvaine, and a blue-ribbon advisory panel which included Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., son of the designer of New York City’s Central Park and George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House estate. With the renown of the members of the original advisory groups and working in cooperation with the New York Botanical Garden over ten thousand plants were acquired from a variety of sources.  Eventually, “tens of thousands of native shrubs and trees were transplanted for various areas… to [display] certain types of trees and plants… a palm area, conifer area, aquatic plant pools, a bamboo area (still in existence,) and gardens to test and display various flowering plants and shrubs [were established.]”(Allen Altvater, III, 2008) With the scientific and technical assistance of the New York Botanical Garden additional seeds and cuttings were received from all over the world.  These were propagated and meticulous records were kept concerning germination and growth rates, moisture needs, and mortality. 

The project was very labor intensive… and with the coming of World War II the bubble that was the Florida Botanical Garden and Arboretum burst!  “No provisions were made for fencing or locking the plant collection, and when all but two or three of the park personnel left to join the armed forces…[those remaining] could not possibly protect the vast area. As a result, the wonderful collection of specimen plants rapidly disappeared and, by the end of the war, the pools and trails had been wiped out by the forces of nature.” (Altvater)  An attempt was made to revive the project in 1950 but the original dedication was seriously lacking.  The plan struggled for a few months and then died.

During the 1950s and ‘60s one of the greatest influences on the Hammock was the arrival of Carol Beck.  Beck, who held biology and botany degrees from Purdue University, taught for 10 years before coming to the Hammock as a biologist.  During her tenure, 1949-1965, she served in a variety of capacities.  Ultimately serving as chief naturalist in the Florida Park Service.  Her most significant contribution, though, was the development of interpretive tram tours through the park.  Initially she hitched a jeep to a farm wagon with plain park benches attached to the bed, and showed several generations of visitors the wonders and glories of the normally inaccessible areas of the Hammock. The tours, which continue today, pass through hydric hammock, cypress swamp, pine flatwoods, and baygall. “Miss Beck” is remembered with great affection and respect by those who visited the park as children.  Her work continued to influence the park after her death.  In 1972 the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs designated the tram as the Carol H. Beck Nature Tour.  And in 2020 her insight guided the Highlands County Audubon Society to plan and construct a wildlife observation pavilion and an interpretive kiosk in the primitive camping area of the park to reflect Beck’s love of the environment and provide more opportunities for people to learn about nature.

In May of 1976 as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebration the original CCC recreation building was created as a museum with displays highlighting the work of the CCC in constructing the first eight state parks in Florida. After being renovated and staged with professional displays in the early 2000s, the State of Florida Civilian Conservation Corps was deemed by Tim Montgomery, former treasurer of the CCC Legacy group, as the finest CCC museum in the country.  The museum and, indeed, the entire park and all its structures were listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 2018.

Source material:

Highlands Hammock, Allen Altvater, 1966 (two more editions, 1979, 2008) Ed. Allen Altvater, III  (CCC Museum HHSP)

Report of New York Botanical Garden to CCC Camp SP-10, 1937-1938 (CCC Museum  (CCC Museum HHSP)

Original Document from Ass’t Manager of Harder Hall (CCC Museum HHSP)

Alexander Blair to various officials, private correspondence, 1963-1966 (CCC Museum HHSP)

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