Steeped in local history, the Ordway-Swisher Biological Station (OSBS) lies in what the 18th century Spanish in Florida considered Indian Territory. The Spanish missionaries at St. Augustine accessed their Indian missions in north Florida via the old Spanish Mission Road that passed just north of the modern-day Station. A visiting Bishop of Cuba chronicled his travels in 1674 along this road and his mission experiences.
Spanish Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821 following the First Seminole War. John Bellamy, a north Florida planter, was commissioned in 1826 to establish the first national turnpike across north Florida. The Bellamy Road, as it became known, followed the route of old Mission Road. Green road signs today along SR 100 and CR 21, and in the town of Melrose mark remnants of this former highway.
The Second Seminole War began in 1835 when Seminoles refused to be removed from their homelands in Florida to territories in the West. Various military commanders were assigned to eliminate the Indian threat and all failed. One famous Indian fighter, Colonel Zachary Taylor, who later became the 12th President of the United States, established a string of forts across the north Florida frontier in 1838, each fort lying within a military square, 22 miles on a side, to thwart hostile attacks. Each square was mapped showing lakes, trails, roads, and vegetation. The Station lies within the southern part of Taylor’s Military Square 11, with its controlling fort in what is now Keystone Heights.
Following the cessation of hostilities in 1842, people began to migrate into the Lake District, some of them associated with families that lived at the old Indian forts. The Florida territory was admitted to the Union as the 27th state on March 3, 1845. Many of the early families migrated to the Lake District probably using the Bellamy Road or the old Black Creek-Orange Springs Road (today’s SR 21). They penetrated this unpopulated wilderness to establish farms, build churches, and tame the wild lands. Elijah Wall and his family moved from South Carolina to become the first homesteaders in the area. Arriving in 1847, the Walls established a farm on the east side of Putnam Prairie, near the present site of Putnam Hall. Elijah Wall helped establish the Paran Baptist Church (now known as the Church in the Wildwood) and the town of Putnam Hall. Wall named the new town in honor of his friend Benjamin A. Putnam, an Indian fighter, and later Surveyor General of Florida, who completed maps that were begun before the outbreak of the Second Seminole War. Elijah Wall, his wife, sons and daughters, and family slaves are buried in the family cemetery on OSBS. Winnie and Columbus Ashley followed the Walls from South Carolina to establish a farm on the west side of Ashley Prairie in 1858. They lived there until the late 1890s. Other early families in the vicinity of the Station included the Fennels, Lanes, MacRaes, McLeods, Perrys, Prices, and Timmons.
Family names became attached to local water features on OSBS by land surveyors who mapped the area in the late 1800s. Subsequent surveyors renamed some lakes during later surveys, based on families who lived on the property at the time of their visits. For example, Fennel Lake found on early maps was named for the Fennel family who lived near what is now the Station’s main gate from 1860s until the early 1900s. The lake’s name changed to Ross Lake when more recent surveyors found the Thomas Ross family on the land in the 1920s. The Civil War began with cannon fire on Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina on April 12, 1861. As true southerners, area families went to war for the Confederacy. Wall shielded Confederate forces on his farm following the Battle of Gainesville and the Ashley’s provided food and supplies to Colonel Dickinson (the Florida version of the Grey Ghost) and his cavalry. Local graveyards are resting places for many of these soldiers. The Carlton Cemetery, which lies just southeast of the Station, is a Civil War national cemetery for veterans from both sides.
Following the Civil War, there was a major influx of families into the Lake District. The town of Melrose was platted in 1871. The sweet orange was introduced to the lake region in the early1870s, which brought new posterity to the depressed area following the war. The first orange crops were shipped from the area in the early 1880s on steamers across Lake Santa Fe to the rail station at Waldo for shipment north. Black and white families migrated into the area following the war. White families --- Arthurs, Barcos, Brantleys, Fords, Graingers, McLeods, Rogers, Suggs --- spread out across the Station’s sandhills, establishing farms on the shores of Brantley, Barco, McCloud, and Suggs lakes. Black families --- the Smiths, Cues, Enslows --- settled on Smith, Anderson Cue, Cue, and Enslow lakes. People grew subsistence crops, tobacco, and cotton on their farms, raised oranges, and ran herds of hogs and some cattle in the local sandhills. The people followed their religious persuasions in local churches in Melrose, Putnam Hall, and Grandin.
The orange industry collapsed in the Lake District as a result of successive waves of major freezes that began in 1894. Once again the area was plunged into depression. Some people stayed on to replant, while others moved farther south to a more equitable climate for their orange groves. Those that stayed were frozen out time and time again. Small orange groves continued to persist at the Ashley and Granger farms until at least the 1930s and around the Swisher house and adjacent fields until major freezes in the early 1960s. Isolated sour orange trees that remain at Suggs Lake and other spots on the Station serve as stark reminders of the unpredictable environmental factors that plagued settlers trying to survive in the harsh north Florida sandhills.
With the appearance of the automobile, people were more mobile. With greater posterity following the First World War, people started to see the Lake District as a place to play. Sportsmen bought properties for hunting and fishing. A group purchased land on the Brantley lakes to establish the Florida-Kentucky Club. A fireplace, decorative mantel, chimney, and an old dock are all that remains of this once fashionable retreat. This piece of history serves as a sentinel that marked the changes brought on by the new technology of the emerging 20th century.
An avid fisherman, Carl Swisher, son of John H. Swisher of cigar fame, from Jacksonville, began to acquire properties
at Goose Lake in 1926 to satiate his angling passions. By the time of Mr. Swisher’s death in 1972, he had
amassed an area of about 25,000 acres. The Swisher property extended from Melrose and SR 21, eastward to
CR 315. After Mr. Swisher’s death, the family donated about 3,000 acres of this property to The Nature Conservancy
in 1979 as a memorial to honor him [Carl Swisher Memorial Sanctuary]. A second, larger tract
[Katherine Ordway Preserve] of approximately 6,000 ac was purchased by the University of Florida Foundation in 1980
from the Swisher family with a large gift from the Goodhill Foundation to serve as a biological field station.
Benefactor of the largest private prairie-sanctuary system in the world, encompassing 54,000 acres of grasslands
in five midwestern states, Katharine Ordway was among the first to recognize the importance of saving prairies.
In 1959, at the age of 60, Ordway - a biologist, art collector, and heiress to the 3M Company fortune - set up the
By the time the foundation was dissolved in 1984, Ordway had donated more than $64 million to
conservation causes. Her contributions to The Nature Conservancy are credited with making that group a major force
in land preservation. In 1980, the Goodhill Foundation awarded a grant to the University of Florida Foundation,
Inc., to purchase 2,500 hectares of upland high pine sandhills from the Swisher Foundation. This acreage was to be
preserved in the name of Katharine Ordway.
Both main properties along with a half-dozen additional acquisitions over the years have helped conserve a large expanse of upland plant communities that have become badly depleted in the state. In 2006 the properties were collectively renamed by the UF Board of Trustees to the Ordway-Swisher Biological Station. The Nature Conservancy’s property was transferred to the University of Florida Foundation in 2008.