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The Rolling Hills of Brooksville

11 Dec

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Heading north on SR 41, rolling hills appear on the horizon. Chinsegut Hill is one of Florida’s highest points at 269 feet.  Only a couple of locations along The Lake Wales Ridge in central Polk County boast greater heights. There are so many picturesque places in Florida to explore, yet so few that match the charm of a 5 square mile town nestled in the hills of eastern Hernando County. This is Brooksville, a place where you may forget you are still in Florida.  The rolling hills of Brooksville are a special destination on an otherwise sprawling coast.dsc06259

As a child, I remember the old-fashioned Sunday afternoon drives with my family. Everyone would pile in the car, and we would take off to nowhere in particular. My brother and I usually ended up asleep in the back seat. I can’t think of a better Sunday drive than veering onto one of the narrow back roads and driving through the eastern Hernando alpine prairie.

Forest-covered limestone and ancient sand dunes define this part of the state. The historic city of Brooksville lies twelve miles southeast of Florida’s geographic center. Even its location has a unique story. Hernando County was once triple the size of what it is today. In 1877, the state separated it into three counties, Pasco to the south and Citrus to the north. Back in 1856, four families established the city of Brooksville; the Howells to the north, the Mays to the east, the Hales in the west, and the Parsons to the south. Named after, Preston Brooks, a South Carolina congressman,  their new town of Brooksville was a consolidation of two communities established in the 1840s, Melendez and Pierceville.

During the period, the land surrounding Melendez and Pierceville was essential to trade along the west coast of Florida. Ft. Desoto (no relation to the Ft. Desoto in Pinellas County) served as not only a stop for the Concord Stage Line that ran from Palatka to Tampa, but also as a trading post and as protection for settlers from Seminole Indians. The abandonment of the fort is what actually gave rise to city of Brooksville. While the high terrain made the Fort location attractive, it was constructed on a bed of limestone which made obtaining water difficult. The settlers eventually abandoned the location and moved just to the southwest. Their new settlement became Brooksville. A private residence now sits on the landmark location where the old fort once was with no evidence of its existence to be found except what is written in history.

dsc06248While the nation fought the Civil War in the 1860s, eastern Hernando County supplied Confederate soldiers with cotton and lumber. In 1864, Union troops attacked the Confederate-held city of Brooksville to destroy the supply line. Despite a valiant attempt to protect the city, the Confederate troops were defeated in what is now known as the Brooksville Raid. The event is re-enacted each January near Weeki Wachee.

Today, Brooksville is known for historic southern homes lining cobblestone streets reminiscent of those you might find in Savannah, Georgia or Charleston, South Carolina. Take a walking tour through the downtown where buildings and businesses date back to the early 1900s. A stop at Roger’s Christmas House is a must for holiday enthusiasts even in the heat of summer where an array of themed buildings contain antique and artistic Christmas decor along with household accessories sure to fit any style. Grab lunch or afternoon tea at The Tilted Teacup. Then, visit the May-Stinger House Museum, check out a train depot from the late 1800s or a one room school-house still standing, all within walking distance from one another. It’s easy to spend an entire day exploring this quaint American town.

The area around Brooksville, known locally as The Nature Coast, is an outdoor lover’s dream! Once home to settlers and Seminoles, it’s bordered to the east and west by the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Areas. The Withlacoochee State Forest provides the anchor. One of the most attractive areas to outdoor enthusiasts is the Croom Wildlife Tract near Ridge Manor, a 20,000-acre wildlife area featuring dozens of miles of hiking, horseback riding, bicycling and motorcycle trails. The hilly terrain makes it great for getting into shape to do longer more strenuous hikes in the mountains or an

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Croom is a great hiking destination

ywhere else you may find yourself exploring in the future. Silver Lake is ideal for hunting or camping. Fish or kayak the 13 miles of the Withlacoochee River that cuts through the Croom Tract. The Florida National Cemetery rests along the east border. Interstate 75 provides easy access to everything.

When someone says Florida, the images that first comes to mind are usually those of
beaches and palm trees. However, there are some parts of Florida that get so little attention, they are practically unknown.  These treasures don’t fit the ideal portrait of sun and sand. They’re not advertised all over the world as a top tourist destination. Some who have lived here all their lives know as much about them as someone who lives a thousand miles away. Brooksville may be called a sleepy town. It may be thought of as dull. The lifestyle may be considered slow. The beauty of a gem is that on the surface it looks like a rock. It’s not until you look deeper that the beauty within the crusty shell is revealed. Only those trained with that special eye appreciate its rough appearance. Brooksville is the gem of the Nature Coast.

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So, the next time you are sitting in the living room with that urge to get out and do something new, think of how it was a century ago. Automobiles changed the world. They gave rise to the afternoon drive allowing entire families to get out and explore their surroundings. They loaded the car and drove into the untamed countryside for a picnic or maybe to a neighboring town to see old friends or family. The automobile brought people together and they put towns on the map. The automobile made it possible for sleep old towns like Brooksville to shed its outer crust and expose the extraordinary within. The world may have changed. Technology may have evolved. But people will always have that desire to explore, to get out on the open road and find something hidden, something extraordinary! And there is nothing more extraordinary than those rolling hills of Brooksville?

Descend into the Devil’s Millhopper!

1 Mar

A hidden national landmark lies just to the northwest of the University of Florida campus near Gainesville. If you believe there are no natural waterfalls in Florida, think again because at Devil’s Millhopper State Park you will find a few. Granted, they are not the towering, roaring falls that you see up north, but it is a peaceful,  serene landscape thousands of years in the making. Here is the legend as quoted from an unknown source.

Devil's Millpond State Park 031Once upon a time, there a was a beautiful Indian princess who lived in a village near the location of the present day Devil’s Millhopper. The Devil wanted to marry the Indian princess, but she wanted nothing to do with him. So one day he decided to kidnap her. He grabbed the Indian princess and ran.

On hearing this, all the Indian braves were deeply saddened and began to chase the Devil and the Indian princess. As the braves began to get closer and closer, the Devil created a huge sinkhole for the Indians to fall into. This sinkhole is the Devil’s Millhopper you see today.

When the braves tried to climb out of the sinkhole to save the princess, the Devil turned them to stone. To this day, it’s said that the weeping of water from the stones along the slopes of the Devil’s Millhopper are the tears the Indian braves shed for the beautiful princess.

So, what exactly is a millhopper? Millhoppers are funnels used by farmers in the 1800s that held grain before it was fed down into grinders. Devil’s Millhopper is actually a giant sinkhole 120 feet deep and 500 feet wide. Over the centuries rain and spring water has flowed down the slopes to form a pond at the bottom. A layer of limestone and clay give the water a beautiful clear blue hue. The clay prevents the water from escaping so an ecosystem all its own has developed from the rim down to the water’s edge. The sinkhole was given its name because natives believed fossilized bones which rest at the bottom of the sink are a sign it is a place the Devil used to feed bodies down into his domain. Today, descending down the boardwalk from the rim, you can see signs of Florida’s ancient geologic history in the rocks.

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You enter the park off Millhopper Road on the north side of Gainesville. The park is only 62 acres. It’s the only geologic landmark in the Florida State Park system. The parking lot circles a tree covered picnic area. An information booth and restrooms mark the beginning of two trails. The rim trail runs the circumference of the sink. It’s well-marked and level which makes it a great place to walk or jog for exercise. Several scenic views of the sink can be found along the rim trail.

The real experience begins when you descend down a 232 step boardwalk to an observation platform at the bottom of the sink. You’ll see and hear the water flowing through and over the rocks serving as a backup vocalist to the native songbirds. Many species of ferns, gums and willows make the base of the sink more like a rain forest compared to the hardwood pines, oaks and grasses around the rim. Once you reach the observation platform, relax and enjoy the sounds of nature more comparable to something you would find in the Smoky Mountains rather than in Florida. Countless species of birds, reptiles and amphibians call the park home just like you would find in any rain forest. Gather your energy while taking it all in. You have the same 232 step climb to get out of the sink. AND keep your eyes open! No one knows who or what still lurks under the water at the lowest point of the sink!

Devil's Millpond State Park 034Devil's Millpond State Park 032 Devil's Millpond State Park 028Devil's Millpond State Park 024Devil's Millpond State Park 023Devil's Millpond State Park 006There aren’t many places throughout Florida where you can clearly see how the passage of time affects the land we hold so dear. Devil’s Millhopper State Park is one of those rare places you don’t really think of going out of your way to visit, but once you do you are really glad you did. It’s not a place where you will spend an entire day, but it’s definitely a must see if you are in the Gainesville area. When you think of a national landmark, you think of landmarks such as the Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon or Old Faithful. Devil’s Millhopper is right there with these other amazing sights. It’s a Florida gem that many don’t know even exists.

 

 

 

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