A closer look at the historic state preserve reveals centuries of economic influence.
By Caitlyn Finnegan
When you think of rural Florida, it’s often wide-open expanses like Paynes Prairie that come to mind. Its marshy creeks, Spanish moss-covered oak trees and fields of grazing animals—including American bison and wild horses descended from the herds of exploring conquistadores—have inspired many who have come across it. Even the well-traveled botanist William Bartram noted its charm, calling it the “great Alachua savannah” when he visited the lands in 1774.
Although its 15,832 acres are now reserved for recreational trails and wildlife observation, the prairie basin was once the economic pulse of the county, evolving each century to fit the needs of those passing through.
From Cattle Ranches to Alachua Lake
Through the trials of Native American and Spanish land wars, Civil War battles and an unprecedented flooding period, the prairie remained a pivotal player in some of the region’s most important early historical events. You can blame it on its tendency to give more than it takes. The basin’s sinkhole-covered grounds are some of the most fertile land in the region, according to Howard Adams, a ranger at the park for more than 30 years.
Native Americans were the first to take advantage of the prairie’s resources, with archeological site findings dating back more than 10,000 years. The prairie is named after King Payne, one of the most influential chiefs of the last Seminole tribe to live on the lands before being driven out by English forces.
In the mid-1600s, the Spanish established La Chua Ranch, the settlement from which modern day Alachua County takes its name. La Chua served as the largest cattle ranch in Florida before English troops destroyed all operations in the early 1700s. The area continued to be used as herding grounds up until the early 1870s, when a heavy rain season caused water levels in the basin to swell up into what became known as Alachua Lake.
For the next 20 years, steam-powered boats were charged with transporting cotton, citrus, lumber and other goods across the lake. Travelers toured the lake and used it to visit nearby towns until 1891, when the plug in the Alachua sink – a sinkhole that acts as the main drain for the basin — unexpectedly reopened. The waters receded back to normal levels and the whole lake disappeared in under two weeks time, Adams said.
The industrious turn of the century brought along a high demand for cheap packing material. Spanish moss fit the need, and locals quickly began to harvest it. During the peak of the moss industry, tons of cured moss was shipped from Paynes Prairie to surrounding production plants to be processed and used in mattresses, furniture and automobile cushions.
By 1907, timber tycoon William Camp had secured much of the prairie as part of a massive land-grabbing campaign. Camp felt that the prairie was not being used to its full potential, so he drew up plans to re-plug the Alachua sink in the hopes of recreating Alachua Lake to generate hydroelectric power.
Fortunately for the prairie, the plan never went through and in the 1920s a system of dikes and canals was built to help redirect current waterways to allow for another economic influencer: highways.
State transportation contractors worked to construct two major highways through the prairie’s untamed landscape: U.S. Highway 441, a route that ran from Miami to Tennessee, was finished in 1927 and Interstate 75 was completed in the 1970s.
The Prairie’s Continuing Development
With tens of thousands of cars now passing through it each day, the prairie finally reached a peak in its ability to handle the demands of those crossing it. In 1971, the State of Florida purchased most of the land to serve as the state’s first state preserve.
The classification has helped spur conservation efforts like eco-passages to help animals cross beneath the major highways along with herding efforts to protect wild American bison and horses that still roam across the basin. The prairie still helps bring money to the area: around 200,000 visitors come to the preserve each year to camp and travel its eight recreational trails.
“We’ve spent a long time loving this park to death,” Adams said. “Now it’s our turn to make sure it’s protected and able to maintain its unique properties.”
Special thanks to the Paynes Prairie rangers and the Matheson Museum’s Alachua County Historic Trust for access to their collection of historical documents and photo reserves.