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How the Withlacoochee Forest came to be – part 2

By Diane Bedard Posted on August 21, 2019

The land was in ruin, residents were losing their homes and farms, and employment was nearly unheard of when the Federal government became aware of how bad it was in Florida’s Nature Coast. They came to revive the land and its residents through Franklin’s “New Deal.” The Withlacoochee State Forest was part of a project to return American people and this land to economic health. Read on to find out more.

This is the second part of an article that is based on the work of Sid Taylor, Florida Forester, and local historian. Sid has tirelessly worked to document the Withlacoochee Forest’s history. NatureCoaster was blessed to see one of her presentations on the subject a few years ago and contacted her. Sid Taylor graciously shared her research and sources with NatureCoaster, and that is the basis of this series.

If you missed part one, click here to read it.

Raymond and Margaret Robins donated 2,000 acres of their Chinsegut Hill estate to the Federal Government as a Wildlife Sanctuary and Agricultural Experimental Station. Image courtesy of Florida Memory.

Local Social and Economic Needs championed by Colonel Raymond and Margaret Robins

The local social and economic needs were known in Washington, DC, partially due to Colonel Raymond Robins, who knew and advised six U.S. Presidents over his lifetime (1873-1954) and lived in Brooksville.

Raymond Robins and Margaret Drier Robins donated 2,000 acres of their nearby Chinsegut Hill estate to the Federal Government as a Wildlife Sanctuary and Agricultural Experimental Station on April 9, 1932. 

The First Civilian Conservation Corps project Begins in Brooksville

Work started there as the first Civilian Conservation Corps project, dubbed “CCC AG-1.” You can still see two bronze plaques immortalizing their achievements at Chinsegut Hill Manor Museum and Retreat Center.

CCC plaque at chinsegut
The first Civilian Conservation Camp was in Brooksville, in part due to the Robins closeness with Federal leaders helping to bring local needs to light. As part of Roosevelt’s famous “New Deal,” the CCC provided paid training to young men so they could support their families. Image by Renee Berger.

The Civilian Conservation Corps projects were begun to train young men and provide income that they could use to support their families, thereby saving family farms and training the U.S. work force that would later fight and win World War II.

Local tradition suggests that the Civilian Conservation Corps also participated in the work on the Withlacoochee Resettlement Land Use Demonstration Project, but there is no substantiating documentation to support that presumption.

Restoring the Land and Rebuilding the Forest

At the peak of production in March 1936, 899 people were being paid. These men planted trees in one of the first forest reclamation projects planned, funded, and managed by the U.S. government. Image courtesy of Florida Memory.

The first Withlacoochee Resettlement Land Use Demonstration Project manager was John Wallace.  John was the brother of then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Agard Wallace, who became FDR’s Vice President in 1941. He moved to the area from St. Petersburg and put his staff together by the end of 1934.

John and Henry were the sons of Henry Cantell Wallace, a Republican and a progressive farmer in Iowa, who also served as Secretary of Agriculture (1921-1924) in Warren G. Harding’s Administration.

John Wallace is supervising the planting and growing of pine trees by WPA workers. Image courtesy of Sid Taylor

Brooksville was chosen as the center for the project due to its manageable distance from Ocala, Clearwater, Tampa and St. Petersburg. The New Deal planners thought it feasible for unemployed urban men to commute by bus to work. 

How the Withlacoochee Forest was Created

At the peak of production in March,1936, 899 people were being paid. Five fire-look-out sites with houses and out-buildings were constructed and the Forest’s headquarters site was erected.

These laborers were paid by the Works Project Administration (WPA) for the duration of the Resettlement Administration (January 1935 through March 31, 1937).

Five fire lookout sites and towers were constructed and the Withlacoochee Forest’s Headquarters was erected. Image courtesy of Florida Memory.

The Resettlement Administration branch of the FDR’s New Deal brought $261,307 of wages into the local economy over two years through this project. The Withlacoochee project provided an ideal place to test and demonstrate land reclamation and restoration techniques and strategies.

The Withlacoochee Forest Headquarters on US 41 today includes a visitor center, fleet operations center and employee buildings. Image by Diane Bedard.

The mission statement of the RA was to provide acreage for forestry, wildlife, game conservation, recreation, and extensive grazing or multi-land use. This was to be based on principles and practices adaptable by private individuals and corporations, as well as State and Federal agencies. 

Fighting Fire in the Forests: New Methods would give Good Results

Forest fires were a real problem before the Florida Forest Service. The Withlacoochee Rettlement Land Use Demonstration Project had wildfire control as one of its goals. Image courtesy of Florida Memory.

The initial goals of the Withlacoochee Resettlement Land Use Demonstration Project included controlling the wildfires that had become a constant threat with slash, or the remnants of the logging business, littering the forest floor.

Some of the first projects included building 357 miles of access trails through the newly acquired land. These were created as a priority to reach remote areas for fire suppression. 

Forty-one miles of telephone lines throughout the Withlacoochee Forest were strung to provide communication. Image courtesy of Florida Memory.

Five fire towers and 41 miles of telephone lines were strung to provide communication. This attitude of fire suppression prevailed until the system of controlled, prescribed fire was awakened as a management tool in 1941.

The Beginnings of Prescribed Burns

1940s US Forest Service truck
This 1940s US Forest Service fire truck was part of the solution to manage fire, thereby helping prevent wildfires. Image courtesy of Florida Memory.

John Bethea, Florida State Forester from 1970-1987, told an Oral Historian on November 18, 1998 that the first real effort to promote controlled burning happened in 1949.  Trainers and demonstrators were sent out by Tallahassee to change the public’s minds about fire, and to distinguish between burning as a tool versus the havoc of uncontrolled wildfires. 

Putting out forest fires then. Image courtesy of Florida Memory.

Today, with a mature forest, the pine dominate ecosystem is managed, and succession growth stymied by prescribed burning on a two- to four-year rotation schedule.  This provides a healthy forest that regenerates growth of new trees from seed kernels within the pine cones.  The Florida Forestry Service works so that we never have to see a wanton wasteland within the boundaries of Withlacoochee State Forest again. 

Firefighters conducting a controlled burn in current times. Image courtesy of Susan Strawbridge

Withlacoochee Forest created to Give Life Meaning, Joy and Beauty

Henry Wallace was the Secretary of Agriculture at the onset of the New Deal. He said that he hoped conservation projects like the Withlacoochee Forest could “leave something that contributes toward giving (to) life meaning, joy and beauty.”

The Withlacoochee State Forest is here for our enjoyment because the Federal Government planted trees beginning in 1935.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt promoted both the conservation of the human spirit by putting people to work, and the conservation of the natural resources by replenishing what had been taken from the land.

driving a horse
Today the Withlacoochee State Forest offers outdoor recreation for visitors. Image courtesy of Pat Manfredo.

In 2019, over 164,000 non-contiguous acres provide residents and visitors with many recreational opportunities in the Withlacoochee State Forest. There are trails for hiking, biking, horse riding and driving, off-highway vehicle and birding.

Camping is available by calling 877-879-3859.

Water recreation facilities include boat ramps, canoe launches, docks, and fishing. Additionally, the Croom Motorcycle Area offers a unique venue to take 4-wheelers and motorized bikes on paths through this amazing location.

OHV/ATV enthusiasts find miles of trails within the 2,600-acre Croom Motorcycle Area (CMA) at Withlacoochee State Forest. Image by rihaij/Pixabay.

Other features include hunting, nature study, restrooms, showers, pavilions, picnic tables, grills, stables and dining halls. Leashed pets are allowed in several locations.

Stop at the Visitor’s Center at 15003 Broad Street (US41) in Brooksville for brochures. The Visitors Center hours are Monday – Friday, except holidays from 8 a.m. – noon and 1 p.m. – 4:30 p.m., although the hours may change without notice. Please call ahead if you plan to stop by. (352) 797-4140


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