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Wildlife Park Focuses on Homosassa’s History in March

By Susan Strawbridge Posted on March 1, 2018

Learn about Homosassa’s history with special programs and exhibits

The history of Homosassa and the Park will be highlighted during the month of March at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Displays on our area’s heritage will be exhibited in the Park’s Visitor Center on US 19 throughout the month of March. Special exhibits on this subject will also be displayed all month in the Discovery Center where there is a historical Spring’s time line.

The public is invited to learn about the history of the park and its early days as an attraction. Old Photo Album panels will display historical photos. Additional displays will focus on the history of the first-magnitude Homosassa Spring which is the centerpiece of the park and headwaters of the Homosassa River. Other exhibits tell the story of Gentle Ben who was brought to the attraction by Ivan Torrs’ Animal Actors. Buck starred as Gentle Ben in the television series by the same name.

Gentle Ben was a resident of the Park in the 1960s. He is seen here with Clint and Rance Howard.

Homosassa Area was popular with the Timucuan, Calusa and Seminole Indians

The Homosassa area has enticed people with its beauty and abundance of fish, oysters, fowl, game and plant life. The beautiful environment and spring-fed rivers were irresistible to the Timucuan and Calusa Indians. Evidence of this bounty can be seen today in the mound complex next to the Crystal River. Chief Tiger-Tail led the Seminoles to this area, which they then named Homosassa meaning “place where the wild peppers grow.” The Seminoles thrived in the area until the U.S. government removed them in the 1830s.

The Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins State Park was once part of a thriving sugar plantation owned by Florida’s first State Senator, David Levy Yulee.

This opened the door for William Cooley, a resident of Florida since 1813 and a former Army Surveyor to lead 28 settlers to apply for permits to start a colony. Through the Armed Occupation Act of 1842, Cooley received 160 acres in land grants. Over the next several years he added more acreage by buying land from other settlers. Cooley served as Homosassa’s first postmaster, Justice of the Peace and as a County Commissioner of Fisheries in 1845. He sold his lands to David Levy Yulee in the late 1840s. Yulee went on to become a U.S. Senator, entrepreneur, statesman, and visionary. He acquired 5,000 acres of land including the spring and established in 1851 a sugar cane plantation which he named Margarita.

The Mullet Train & Nature’s Giant Fish Bowl

The Mullet Train was another important part of Homosassa’s history and brought Northern visitors to Homosassa and the Homosassa Hotel. The train also transported fish and cedar from the area to other locations in Florida and up North. A working model of the Mullet train tells its story with a narrated history.

Mullet Train – Atlantic Coast Engine 17 at Homosassa in 1915. Image courtesy of Florida Memory.

David Newell of Leesburg, Florida, acquired the property in the 1940s and developed an attraction around the spring. He called his new attraction “Nature’s Giant Fish Bowl” and opened it to the public in 1945. To compete successfully with other river attractions and their glass bottom boats, Newell added a three-story wooden observatory over the spring. This provided better views of the fresh and saltwater fish that gathered in the natural spring.

The bridge and observation tower at Nature’s Giant Fish Bowl. Image courtesy of Florida Memory.
David Newell, owner of Nature’s Giant Fish Bowl welcomes Sally Kennedy of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association circa 1945

An Exotic Animal Park and the Underwater Observatory

Local resident Elmo Reed purchased the attraction from Newell in 1950 and operated it until 1962, when it was sold to Chicago businessman, Bruce Norris. He renamed it Homosassa Springs – Nature’s Own Attraction. A new Fish Bowl underwater observatory was installed in late 1963 and opened in early 1964. This Fish Bowl floated over the spring and sported a colorful red and yellow canopy with an underwater room with wraparound windows.

Gentle Ben with Muffin Bertine. Image courtesy of Homossassa Springs Wildlife State Park.

Homosassa Springs continued to operate as an exotic wildlife attraction through the 1970s and 1980s. After which the attraction went through several changes in ownership. In early 1964, Taylor Simpson, then owner of the attraction made the decision to sell the property. While he had received offers from developers who wanted to turn the land into an RV park or condominiums, residents didn’t want to lose this natural treasure. They formed a grass roots group called Citizens to Save our Springs. They circulated petitions to encourage the Citrus County government to purchase the land until the State of Florida would be able to purchase it and preserve it as a Florida State Park.

Lucifer, the hippopotumus, was a resident of the exotic animal park in the 1960s. Lu was made an honorary Floridian so he could stay at the park when Florida State parks acquired the property and its residents. Image courtesy of Joe Dube.

Homosassa Springs becomes a Florida State Park in 1989

On January 1, 1989, the former attraction officially became a Florida State Park with a new name Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The State began widespread improvements throughout the property. The emphasis changed from entertainment and exotic animals to a focus on environmental education and Florida’s native wildlife. In 1993, the state purchased the property on US 19 including the Visitor Center and boat docks. Now the pontoon boats could once again transport park visitors down Pepper Creek to the wildlife park and West entrance and the Wildlife Park.

Today, park visitors can enjoy a leisurely and informative pontoon boat shuttle from the US19 Visitor Center to the park entrance daily.

Some of the many improvements that have been made since then include a state of the art Manatee Care Center, a new Felburn Wildlife Care building, the Wildlife Walk, and a picnic pavilion. Two endangered Florida panthers that had been orphaned in the wild, came to live at the park as ambassadors for their species. The Friends of Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park was formed as a citizen support organization and is instrumental in promoting the park and raising funds for park improvements.

Monthly Bird Walk to be held March 24

In other news from the Park, a monthly bird walk is scheduled for Saturday, March 24, 2018. Novice and experienced birders are welcome to attend. The walk is led by an experienced birder from Citrus County Audubon Society. Birders should meet at 8:00am by the flagpole at the entrance to the Park’s Visitor Center. There is no charge to participate in the bird walk on Pepper Creek Trail. Please call to register for the bird walk.

Bubbles the Manatee is decorated for EGG-stravaganza each spring.

Spring EGG-stravaganza & Wildlife Puppeteers March 31

The park is busy planning the annual Spring EGG-stravaganza egg hunt event scheduled for Saturday, March 31, 2018, starting at 8:00 am in the field behind the main entrance and Visitor Center located on U.S. Highway 19. Thousands of eggs will be available for children to find. Children will be divided into age groups. Plastic eggs will then be redeemed for candy. Families should arrive a little early.

The Wildlife Puppeteers will be presenting their puppet play “Night at the Wildlife Park” in the Florida Room starting at 9:15 am on March 31, 2018, just after the Egg-stravaganza. There is no charge to attend either the Egg-stravaganza or the puppet play. Regular admission would apply for entrance into the Wildlife Park.

As you can see, we have a lot planned for March, and we encourage you to visit Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park and learn more about Homosassa and the Park’s history and enjoy our events. For more information, call the Park office at (352) 628-5445 Monday through Friday.

Comments

old coot says

as a captain w/river safaris i have enjoyed the park and it's history and sharing the story and the river with countless visitors. i retired @ 75 and still enjoy the river and the gulf. stay the course.

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