Discover the History of Florida’s Nature Coast
“A string of counties studded with emerald-like gulf waters, deep springs and rivers, stretching along the same Florida coast” is how world-famous naturalist John Muir described Florida’s Nature Coast in 1867.
In the 20th century, the Nature Coast of Florida was known as “the lonesome leg” of Florida by boaters and other travelers because of the lack of light along the coast from Tallahassee to Clearwater.
How did we become Florida’s Nature Coast?
Florida’s Nature Coast begins at Ochlockonee Bay in Wakulla County and works its way south along the Gulf Coast of Florida. In the 1990s, the tourism leaders of each of the eight counties that today make up Florida’s Nature Coast banded together to market themselves as a region. One city joined the “Nature Coast Coalition” – Dunnellon, Florida.
The name “Nature Coast” was devised in 1991 as part of a marketing campaign to attract vacationers to the area which was also formally known as the “Big Bend” of Florida.
There were meetings held at various locations and each member contributed to the branding campaign which was truly a bootstrap effort. Because the area is so large, about 980,000 acres, attending meetings was a full day effort, with participants bringing their own lunches and carpooling.
A poster was commissioned and printed. NatureCoaster proudly has a copy of it framed in our office.
“Walkin’ Lawton” declares Florida’s “Nature Coast” name through Proclamation
The governor at the time was Lawton Chiles, known as “Walkin’ Lawton” because he embarked on a 1,003-mile, 91-day walk across Florida from Pensacola to Key West in 1970. The walk earned him the nickname that would follow him throughout his political career. In his journal, Chiles wrote that sometimes he walked alone, while other times he met ordinary Floridians along the way.
Chiles would recall how the walk allowed him to see Florida’s natural beauty, as well as the state’s problems, with fresh eyes, and one of his acts as Florida’s 41st governor was to issue a proclamation in 1994 that the area from Wakulla County to Pasco County along Florida’s Gulf Coast would now and forevermore be known as Florida’s “Nature Coast”.
Driving is the best way to see Florida’s Nature Coast
Wikipedia states, “The Nature Coast is an informal, unofficial region of the U.S. state of Florida. The broadest definition of the Nature Coast includes the eight counties that abut the Gulf of Mexico from west to east, Wakulla, Jefferson, Taylor, Dixie, Levy, Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco counties.
Driving is the best way to experience Florida’s Nature Coast. US19/98 allows travelers to see this region up close, with its historic towns and cities, vast state forests, parks, and natural springs. A Nature Coast Driving Tour project was created by the Nature Coast Coalition. Big prizes, including a week on a houseboat, tours, dining, gift certificates and more were contributed by regional businesses.
A driving tour was developed for each county in the Coalition. Entrants were to take the tour, recording their adventures and submitting photos and more. It was a lot of fun. You can find (and download) the Driving Tours for Citrus, Hernando and Pasco Counties by clicking on each county’s name. Be forewarned, some of the places on the tours are no longer the same. For example, J.B. Starkey’s Flatwood Adventures in Pasco is now primarily Starkey Ranch.
People lived in Florida’s Nature Coast as far back as the Pleistocene Era
The indigenous people of Florida date back to 12,000 years before Christ, including human fossilized bones of the Pleistocene era found in the Nature Coast (Devils Den, Williston).
Paleo era Indians used the Crystal River Archaeological State Park as a ceremonial burial place, with a large mound located on the site with actual remains in it, as well as some unique steeles. Tours are available, as well as artifacts preserved onsite in the museum.
The first white settlers to come here included Ponce de Leon, who brought cattle and horses to the area. In fact, until the 1950s, there were no fences to hold livestock in. Florida was an open range state.
As the U.S. government sought to “settle” the land of La Florida through the Armed Occupation Act of 1842, which stated that a “head of family, or single man over eighteen,” provided that claimant could bear arm was required to live “in a house fit for habitation for 5 consecutive years” and “cultivate at (least) five acres” to receive up to 160-acres free and clear.
Senator David Levy was a NatureCoaster
Area resident, and congressional delegate, David Levy encouraged settlers to take advantage of this offer enthusiastically. In a letter to the National Intelligencer, Levy sold the advantages of living in Florida: “To the wealthy planter, Florida is eminently inviting … But to the poor and the moderate in circumstance, it is, beyond comparison, the paradise of earth. There are no freezing winters to be provided against by close houses, magazines of supplies for embargoed and shivering families … The means of subsistence are obtained with less labor, and labor is more productive, and industry more quickly blessed with accumulation and plenty than is conceivable to the inhabitants of a less fortunate region.”
Mr. Levy owned a large plantation in the Homosassa area, called Tiger Tail, where he grew sugar cane and processed it into cane syrup. The remains of his sugar mill can be seen on Yulee Road at the Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins State Park. If you would like to see the process of making syrup from sugar cane, the Pioneer Florida Museum has a sugar cane festival each February.
Natural Beauty is a big part of Florida’s Nature Coast – then and now
The springs are an amazing natural phenomenon where hundreds of thousands of gallons of freshwater push through the karst geography of the region to create rivers, lakes and “holes” of clear, clean H2O that stays at a constant 72 degrees. They have been a stable source of drinking water for fauna including fish and manatees, as well as humans for millennia.
Throughout time, Florida’s Nature Coast has had an abundance of natural beauty. The cedar forests were decimated in the early 1900s for shipment to the north. There were entire towns built around sawmills, very few of which exist today. Centralia, a company town once located in what is now the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area off US19 in northwestern Hernando County is an example.
Phosphate was a huge industry around the same time throughout the Nature Coast. High-grade hard rock phosphate was discovered near Dunnellon in 1889 by Albertus Vogt, triggering a land boom as 215 phosphate companies were started locally within five years! Today there is a phosphate trail that highlights this history.
Today, the culture of Florida’s Nature Coast is still one of southern small towns. While Pasco County has rebranded itself as the Sports Coast and Hernando County has rebranded itself as the Adventure Coast, and the Gulf coastline has become more built up over the years, it is still common to see large water birds flying overhead, dolphins and manatees frolicking in the sea and fish of all sizes propelling themselves along.
The historic courthouses, eateries and specialty retailers in historic buildings, an abundance of nature-based tour operators and fishing guides are all part of what makes Florida’s Nature Coast a magical place. Let’s work together to keep it that way!