Ocala, county seat of Marion County, is the center of a more diversified agricultural district than any we have yet explored. It is one of the oldest and most prolific citrus regions of inland Florida; indeed, Marion County is regarded as the cradle of the commercial citrus industry. Prior to the big freeze of 1895 almost the entire county was a big orange grove. Here those most useful commercial shipping varieties the “Parson Brown” and “Pineapple” oranges were developed.
While it is still a highly important citrus section, the landowners of Marion County heeded the warning of the freeze of ’95 and began forty years ago to diversify their agricul tural activities. For years this has been a progressive live stock center. The highest priced hog ever sold was bred in Marion County, a Poland-China boar which brought $15,000. When the boll weevil reached Florida in 1917 and put an end to cotton production, Marion County turned to winter vegetable growing and Ocala ships hundreds of cars of tomatoes, string beans, cucumbers, cabbage, lettuce and other vegetables, as well as watermelons and cantaloupes. So successful have been the poultry farms of this region that Marion County has been likened to California’s Petaluma district, the world’s most famous White Leghorn center. Dairy farming is also a field in which this section ranks among the leaders.
In beef cattle this district was among the first in Florida to go in extensively for importing pure-bred sires and breeding up the native stock. Because of the assured supply of beef cattle, Swift & Company selected Ocala as the location in which to establish their first Florida abattoir and packing house, which was opened in the Summer of 1937. The new Ocala stockyards and packing house occupy city and countyowned buildings and property, constituting a part of the Central Florida State Farmers’ Market and Cold-storage Plant which was opened in May, 1937. This is one of several such wholesale markets established in various Florida agricultural quarters under the direction of the State Department of Agriculture and financed by P. W. A. loans. The purpose is to make it possible for the grower of small quantities of any commodity to pool his products with those of his neighbors and receive the same price that shippers of carload lots obtain. In the growing season a procession of trucks from the northern markets line up at the loading platforms to take on supplies in competition with the railroads. Sea Island cotton, peanuts, eggs and bright-leaf tobacco have lately been added to Marion County’s list of agricultural products for which there is a ready market.
Ocala makes its bid for the tourist trade with excellent hotels, numerous apartments and cottages for seasonal rent and a municipal trailer camp, while providing all of the cus tomary Florida recreational facilities for winter visitors. Its greatest attraction, however, is the nearby world-famous natural wonder, Silver Springs.
Lying five and one-half miles East of Ocala, Silver Springs is the outlet of a subterranean river which rises to the surface through a cavern at the bottom of the circular basin from which the waters flow through the nine-mile Silver River to the Oklawaha and so on down through the St. Johns to the sea. For many years small steamboats brought tourists all the way by water from Jacksonville to the Spring itself; it is still possible to navigate the entire distance by canoe, outboard motor boat or small yacht over winding waterways which flow through wild jungle scenery.
Silver Springs is listed by the state geologist as the largest spring in the world. Its daily outflow averages 522,000,000 gallons, and at the height of an exceptionally rainy season has exceeded 800,000,000, enough to supply the daily needs of the entire city of New York. The water is of a high degree of purity, crystal-clear; so clear, indeed, that photographs and motion pictures can be taken under water almost equally as well as in the open air.
Practically all under-water motion pictures exhibited today have been filmed at Silver Springs, where a submarine studio has been set up. A floating tank or caisson extends to a depth of 15 feet under water, one side of it composed of plate glass through which the camera man, himself quite dry, photographs under water scenes of bathers, divers, dancers on the floor of the sea, inquisitive fishes and other stunts. There is a regular troupe of experienced under-water actors at Silver Springs, headed by Newton Perry, a 200-pound six-footer who can do almost anything under water that a fish can. Perry has a record of staying under water in action for two minutes and 20 seconds, which is long enough to make 140 feet of movie film. Some of the girl swimmers in his troupe can act under water for nearly a minute and a half.
The waters of Silver Springs teem with a great variety of fish, swarms of which are visible at depths of 40 feet or more through the glass bottoms of the boats provided for visitors. The beautiful rock formations and the under-water vegetation add to the interest which everyone displays in this remarkable scenic wonder. The grounds around Silver Springs have been handsomely parked and provided with picnic grounds. Bathing facilities with diving tower and spring boards and pontoons for sunbathing are among the other attractions. A Seminole Indian village has been set up back in the jungle below the Spring. Here also is the Florida Reptile Institute, where every variety of snake and reptile native to Florida is on exhibition alive.
From Silver Springs a wide, paved highway leads eastward through, the heart of the Ocala National Forest. The national forests in Florida are far less widely-known to tourists and, for that matter, to Floridians themselves, than are many more widely-publicized attractions. They offer to vacationists and to sportsmen opportunities for outdoor life and recreation, free from artificially induced excitement and away from crowds, which appeal strongly to a growing class of Florida visitors.
The Ocala National Forest, designated as such by an Act of Congress in 1908, is the oldest. It contains 450,000 acres, extending from the St. Johns River and Lake George on the East to the Oklawaha River on the West, in Marion, Putnam and Lake counties, between the cities of Deland and Ocala. It contains the largest area in the world of sand pine, commonly known as “scrub” pine. The U. S. Forest Service, which is in complete control of all national forests, is concerned with the preservation and propagation of this scrub pine as a source of pulpwood for paper manufacturing, experiments having proved it to be the best adapted of all the southern pines for that purpose.
The sand pine is peculiar in that it depends largely on fire as an agent in its reproduction. The sand pine seeds live for years in unopened cones. The slightest burn kills the sand pine tree, but a forest fire which deadens the underbrush open the cones and releases the accumulated seed, from which a new crop of these short-lived trees develops. In the rainy seasons this scrub pine forest is practically fireproof, but in long dry spells it is highly inflammable. On March 12, 1935, a fire driven by a wind of gale proportions swept through the Ocala forest, burning 30,000 acres in five hours, or an average of one hundred acres a minute. This fire swept across the Daytona Highway, bringing motor traffic to a standstill and injuring several firefighters who were trapped in the path of the flames.
While the major purpose of a National Forest is to provide for sustained timber production, and incidentally control of soil erosion and the regulation of stream flow, the Government policy includes also the conservation and propagation of wild life and the opening of the forest area, under proper restrictions and regulations, for the recreational use of everybody. The Ocala National Forest lends itself to these purposes in various ways. The scrub pine has always been an especially favored habitat for wild life. In the Ocala Forest larger numbers of two particular varieties of birds are found than exist in such large numbers anywhere else. These are the Florida Jay and the White-eyed Towhee. The scrub is also an outpost of such dwindling species as the Florida black bear, the Florida wolf and the panther, known in the West as the mountain lion.
From the hunter’s point of view, however, its principal attraction is the white-tailed deer, which survived in the dense growth long after they were exterminated in the surrounding country. In 1930, by Presidential proclamation, a section of the southern part of the Ocala Forest, now including 78,000 acres, was set apart as the Ocala National Game Refuge. Within that area the deer are protected at all times, so that they propagate unmolested; no fire-arms nor unleashed dogs may be taken into the Refuge, but every year hunters come from all over the country for the deer shooting in the Forest outside of the Game Refuge, and take an annual bag of about 700 deer. Fourteen camp grounds, established primarily for the hunters, have been constructed in the Forest, all of them open to the public the year around.
Fishing and boating on rivers, lakes and prairie ponds are among the other recreational facilities afforded by the Ocala Forest. The visitor who enjoys boating needs to bring no equipment beyond his own outboard motor, to be attached to a rowboat which he can rent at any one of several points on the borders of the forest, and he can spend a week or more traversing the water-courses which form the eastern, northern and western boundaries of the reservation, camping at night at any of the landings along the Oklawaha and St. Johns Rivers. And if he has his fishing tackle with him he can be sure of a good catch of black bass and jackfish.
The best fishing in the Ocala National Forest, however, is in the lakes, of which there are nine of large size and twenty or thirty smaller ones, not counting the prairie ponds, which have no surface inlets or outlets and lie in the middle of wide, treeless depressions.