wild cow prairie cemetery

Saving Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery History

By Guest Author Posted on December 3, 2020

Written by Della Daughtry

Have you ever taken a walk on the Croom Hiking Trail? By starting your hike at River Junction, 5827 SW 121st Avenue in Webster, you will see most of the land that was once the pioneer town of Pemberton while enjoying beautiful scenery. One of the more interesting places you should encounter is the Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery.

Although Sumter is not officially part of Florida’s Nature Coast, the Withlacoochee Forest binds us together, and the story of the area’s pioneer towns and cemeteries was repeated often, and this is one worth reading.

A preservation project for Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery was started in October of 2019 by the Sumter County Preservation Society. The goal at the time was to identify the size of the cemetery and find unmarked graves.

A Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) Study was performed in March 2020. Before the study only 16 graves were known to be in the cemetery.

Forty-four graves were discovered, four of which were outside the fence of the cemetery. This proved that the property was much larger than anyone realized. Several of these graves were considered to be shrouded burials and are likely some of the oldest burials in Sumter County.

A Ground Penetrating Radar study was performed in March, 2020 and the Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery was discovered to be much larger than thought.

Sumter County, who owns the cemetery, expanded the front fence to include the 4 graves that were found outside the fence in August of 2020. White wooden crosses were placed at each unmarked grave.

On November 5, 2020, a nomination was approved by the National Register of Historic Places Council for Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery. This nomination will make its way to Washington DC for final review at the Department of the Interior.

If the nomination passes its review, Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery will become the first property in Sumter County to receive both a state issued Historic Marker and the honor of being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.    

Pemberton Florida’s Origins

The story of Pemberton is one that starts the same as most pioneer settlements in Florida, and the end is all too common. By the time this town would come to an end there would be almost no trace of it left. Not one structure remains. Only the town cemetery is still here to give clues about the pioneers that settled and tamed this area.

Withlacoochee Life courtesy of Florida State Archives.

In 1842 Congress passed the Armed Occupation Act. The act authorized 160 acres to any adult male who could prove that they had cultivated at least five acres and lived “in a house fit for habitation for 5 consecutive years” in Florida. Several pioneer families began to move into the area.

The Phelps family settled near the banks of the Withlacoochee River where they farmed the rich soil. Another family moved into the area about one-mile northeast of the Phelps homestead.

Britton Branch’s family raised cattle, and they found that the land on the Wild Cow Prairie was good grazing land. It was here that Britton’s son-in-law William D. Boulden Sr. died of an abscess in September 1849 and was buried. This property would become Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery, Sumter County’s second oldest pioneer burial ground.

The stagecoach came through the area in 1853. Image courtesy of Florida State Archives.

The Stagecoach Came to Town

A stagecoach line came through the area in 1853, connecting Jacksonville to Tampa. The stagecoach crossed Sumter County making stops in Adamsville, Sumterville, and Phelps Ferry before crossing the river and heading toward Brooksville.

Today, a small portion of the Stagecoach road still exists and can be travelled. The dirt road leading to Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery is the last trace of the old road that still maintains its original path.

The Stagecoach road. Withlacoochee River, Pemberton Ferry and Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery from a 1937 aerial view. Image courtesy of the Sumter County Preservation Society and UF Library.

Phelp’s Ferry and James Pemberton

Seeing an opportunity, the Phelps family started a ferry business to help the stagecoach travelers cross the Withlacoochee River. A small settlement started to form around the ferry landing, drawing many new families to the area.

In 1869 James T. Pemberton settled nearby and started working for the Phelps family on the ferry. He would go on to buy the ferry business from his employers in 1874 renaming it Pemberton Ferry.

The Pemberton Ferry Crossing on the Withlacoochee River. Image courtesy of the Della Daughtry.

James T. Pemberton expanded the business to offer a small boarding house for late crossing on the ferry to stay the night. By 1878, settlement in the Pemberton Ferry area was large enough for a post office to be assigned. James Pemberton was the first postmaster of the settlement.

Pemberton Grows to Meet Growing Needs

As James Pemberton began laying the foundations for developing a town, Henry B. Plant was developing the Florida Southern Railroad. By June 13, 1884 Pemberton Ferry was set to be the junction of the Florida Southern Railway and the South Florida Railroad.

In 1885, Henry B. Plant built a Depot in Pemberton Ferry as part of the Plant railroad system. The depot was named the Withlacoochee Depot. Pemberton Ferry was platted as a city on April 6, 1886. The name was shortened to Pemberton.

The Pemberton Town Plat shows the developing town’s plan. Image courtesy Della Daughtry.

The town had a population of 150 and the following structures:

  • Baptist Church  
  • Telegraph Office              
  • Train turntable
  • School  
  • Blacksmith Shop              
  • Passenger Depot
  • Cargo Depot      
  • Restaurant         
  • 3 Stores
  • Ferry Service     
  • Hotel    
  • Steamboat Landing
  • Boarding House
  • Cemetery           
  • Jail
The Withlacoochee River in 1890. Can you spot the steamboat? Image courtesy Florida State Archives.

The Pemberton Hotel Rises and Falls

James T. Pemberton opened the Pemberton Hotel in 1887. The hotel was said to have been one of the handsomest hotels along the Southern Florida Railroad. It was a multiple floored structure with a wide porch that wrapped around three sides of the building, with two turrets on the front. The hotel sat back up on a small rise overlooking the river and had space for a shop on the first floor of the building as well as a restaurant. In 1890, the Pemberton Hotel was destroyed by a fire that originated in the kitchen and spread rapidly through the structure.

The Sumter County Preservation Society created and placed white crosses over each grave found. With the 1888 Yellow Fever outbreak, many Pemberton residents were buried here.

Yellow Fever and Quarantine Camps

1888 would be a dark year in and around Pemberton, and much of Florida. Yellow Fever was very bad that year. Quarantine camps were located at Marsh Bend near Lake Panasoffkee and near Pemberton. James Pemberton’s 9-year-old daughter, Annie, would die while in quarantine in September in 1888. She was laid to rest in Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery. The Yellow Fever outbreaks would claim several other towns’ people before it ended.

Phosphate Mining and Turpentine Industry Thrive – Withlacoochee Depot is Destroyed

The Withlacoochee Depot in Pemberton. As phosphate and turpentine industries took off, depots became known as criminal havens. Image courtesy of the Florida State Archives.

By the 1890s, this region was an important phosphate mining area and Pemberton itself served as an important logistics hub for phosphate mining and a center of phosphate processing.

The turpentine industry was also booming at this time and brought in an influx of workers. This in turn brought in an influx of illicit activities, giving certain areas a wild west feel that one newspaper described as “a perfect hell hole.”

The area around the railroads also gained a reputation as a safe haven for escaped criminals. Because of this, the Plant Railroad system tore down the Withlacoochee Depot and ceased all stops in Pemberton!

The Pemberton post office seal on an 1894 post card. Image courtesy of Della Daughtry.

Croom Depot begins the Demise of Pemberton

The railroad built a new depot across the river in Hernando County. The new Depot was named Croom.

It is believed this is the moment in history when Pemberton’s history becomes muddled with the town of Croom’s.

Croom is located in Hernando County while Pemberton was in Sumter. The two cities were at least a mile apart and separated by a river, the Depot being moved is the only evidence as to why the two towns were believed to be the same place.

Unchecked deforestation and over mining took out most of this area. Image courtesy of Library of US Congress.

As the area suffered from unchecked deforestation and over mining, Pemberton was no longer a prosperous place to live for its citizens. As many of the businesses moved into Hernando County, Pemberton struggled. By the early 1910s, it was not found on many of the county maps of the period.

U.S. Resettlement Administration buys Pemberton

The area where Pemberton used to be located was bought in August of 1934, by the Resettlement Administration.

A US Resettlement Administration sign from 1934. The land Pemberton was on was purchased, all buildings disassembled and the materials reused for WPA projects. Image courtesy of the Library of US Congress.

The (RA) purchased “submarginal” farmlands with the intention of resettling the farm owners and their families elsewhere. Any abandoned structures were torn down and all usable building material was reused in the construction of local WPA buildings. (You can read more about this in NatureCoaster’s Withlacoochee Forest Series by clicking here.)

James T. Pemberton died May 15, 1905, and would be buried in Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery. Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery is the final resting place for 8 veterans. 2 Sumter County Commissioners, one Hernando County Commissioner, one Hernando County Board of Public Instruction officer, and the many, many citizens of Pemberton, Florida.

Using the Croom Hiking Trail, you can walk through what was once the streets of Pemberton. This is a view of Stagecoach road which goes right by the Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery. Image courtesy of Sumter County Preservation Society.

Discover Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery for Yourself

Today you can walk through what was once the streets of Pemberton when you use the Croom Hiking Trail. By starting your hike at River Junction, you will see most of the land that was once Pemberton while enjoying beautiful scenery. As you approach Iron Bridge Park, you will be in the northernmost part of the Town of Pemberton. From there you can travel along the path until you reach Hog Island, the former site of the 1888 Yellow Fever Quarantine camp.

Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery is located on C. R. 673. This historic site sits in the shadow of the C. R. 476 B/C.R. 673 overpass and is not hard to find.

A 1990s sign at the Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery courtesy of Sumter County Preservation Society.

Donate to the Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery Historical Marker

The Florida Division of Historical Resources-Historic Marker Council approved a recent nomination for a marker to be placed at the cemetery to help educate visitors to the cemetery about the early settlers who are laid to rest there and highlight the important historic value the cemetery contributes to Sumter County.

The Sumter County Historical and Sumter County Preservation Societies are raising the needed $2,420 needed to pay for the Historic Marker. If you would like to contribute to this worthwhile endeavor, please contribute what you can today. All donations are tax deductible and can be made here:  https://scps-florida.square.site/historic-marker-donations



LauraS says

Such an interesting story! Thanks for sharing this bit of history. I read the whole thing, when I should be working… LOL

Karen Taylor says

Thank you for this very informative article! Thank you Sumter County Preservation Society for your hard work and dedication to preserve the history of Sumter County!

Chas says

Thanks for the great article. Time moves on, but the history still lives to honor and educate.

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