According to archeologist Robert Austin, the first
evidence of Native Americans on the Lake Wales Ridge dates from the
Early Archaic, about 8000 to 9000 years ago. Before then the area
was probably too barren and dry to attract people. Native American
use of the Lake Wales Ridge increased during the Middle to Late
Archaic (about 2500 to 8000 years ago) when the ridge gradually
became more like it is today and lakes began to fill with water
year-round. Seep springs emerged from the ridge slopes with the
increase in rainfall. Many late prehistoric Belle Glade sites have
been found around the lakes and seep springs. Indian mounds have
been found on some tracts. As far as we know, Native Americans
living on the Lake Wales Ridge did not farm or raise domesticated
animals. They lived off the natural bounty of the land: deer, gray
squirrel, alligator, gopher tortoise, fish, all kinds of aquatic
turtles, and a large number of native plants.
Florida Photo Archives
Hauling oranges from
the interior of Florida,
A few generations ago the Lake Wales Ridge was
still a wilderness dotted with lakes and traversed by creeks and
streams. The sandhills were described as "miserable" and "good for
nothing but to get lost in."
Citrus cultivation began at the end of the last
century and gradually sandhill and scrub was replaced by citrus
groves. Longleaf pine was logged for its lumber valued for boat
building and housing, and the remaining trees were tapped for rosin
and turpentine. When the railroad reached the ridge in 1887,
growing fruit for export, and the lumbering and naval stores
industries increased dramatically. Railroads also brought tourists
to relax at resorts that sprang up along the region's numerous
lakes. In the 1980s devastating freezes drove the citrus industry
farther south, and many former groves were replaced with housing
developments especially geared to retirees.
Florida Photo Archives
View from the Citris Tower,
Clermont, February 1962.
During the late 1980s, a group of 40 scientists
gathered to design a system of sanctuaries that would protect what
remained of the Lake Wales Ridge. Since then local, state, federal
and private organizations including The Nature Conservancy have
spent more than $75 million in purchasing the best remaining scrub
land. The Lake Wales Ridge Ecosystem Working Group, a consortium of
nonprofit organizations, federal and state organizations, and local
governments, was founded in 1991 to insure the long-term protection
of the native plants, animals, and natural communities of this
unique region of Florida.
The first acquisition of the Lake Wales Ridge
Wildlife and Environmental Area, the Lake Placid Scrub tract was
purchased under the CARL program in 1993. The former owner was
August Tobler, a local cattleman. The Lake Placid Scrub tract had
been platted as a subdivision but was acquired from the developer
before any improvements were made or lots sold.
Hammock by the Lake, Royce Unit
Many of the tracts are old subdivisions and have
varying degrees of problems as a result: checkerboard ownership,
dumping, and non-native invasive plants including cogon grass and
Old World climbing fern.
The Royce Unit, purchased in late 2001, was a ranch
owned by the Royce family for about 70 years. Some of the land was
converted to bahia pasture for cattle and ditched for drainage
beginning in the 1940s. In the late 1980s about 230 acres was
converted to citrus. For several years prior to state purchase, the
Royce Ranch was an active skeet shooting site.
One of the newer acquisitions, the McJunkin site,
adjacent to Archbold Biological Station, was purchased in 2002.
Biologists from Archbold have been studying scrub jays on this site
for over 25 years. The area was grazed by cattle but was not
converted to improved pasture and is an important wildlife corridor
between Archbold Biological Station and the Lake Placid Scrub