From Cattle Ranch to Preserve: A short history as told by Bill Andrews
By Dorothy Smiljanich, Friends of Paynes Prairie Board Member and Volunteer
For more than three hundred years, sprawling Paynes Prairie was a cattle ranch: first for the Spanish in the 1600s who called it "Ranchero de la Chua" - "Ranch of Sinkholes" - and most recently for the Camp family, which a local magazine once called "one of the most colorful and flamboyant great Ocala families."
Bill Andrews, retired attorney, former state legislator and former president of the Friends of Paynes Paririe, recalls:
"One day, Mank Camp asked for a meeting with me, Buddy McKay, Ralph Turlington and Jim Williams. We were all in the legislature from here and he said, 'I want to sell the prairie to the state and I want to see it preserved and kept together.'
"Mank wanted $7,200,000 for it - which was a steal even then - but the state didn't have it to spend that year. So he said he would take half one year, and half the next. And Verle Pope who was rules chairman in the Senate said, 'I'll handle it in the Senate' and he did.
"It was one of the most pristine places left in the state and Mank wanted it kept as a wildlife preserve."
Apparently Mank Camp came by his love of the land naturally. He was a descendent of William Nelson Camp, who reportedly came to Florida from Virginia in 1891 and, by 1907, had acquired an estimated 150,000 acres of land in the north central Florida region; owned Merritt Island; had 55,000 acres in pine timber; a phosphate mining operation near Dunnellon; and a cattle ranch on land that included what is now Payne's Prairie.
Bill Andrews recalls:
"Camp ranch was started by William Camp and before 1920 the idea was to take water to Orange Lake and build a hydroelectric dam there. He dug the canal and used pumps to move the water."
That project never came to fruition, but the cattle ranch proved lucrative, Andrews explains.
"The cattle operation had 3,500 brood cattle and some bulls and they shipped 3,000 calves a year west - Kansas and Illinois, places like that - where they grow more corn and where there were feedlots to fatten them up and then butcher them."
Keeping the prairie as ranch pasture required a great deal of effort.
"They had four huge tractors with 25-foot wide mowers," Andrews recalls. "And all they ever did was mow. They mowed 15,000 acres basically two times a year and they worked on it every day."
Protecting their livestock from poachers also took a lot of effort.
"They didn't let anybody on the prairie when they were running cows," Andrews says. "Cow thieving was a big problem in Florida then."
Once the land transferred to the state in 1970, interior fences were taken down, mowing was stopped and the complex and challenging process began of returning the land to a more natural state.
Unfortunately by then, Highway 441 had been built across the prairie.
"When I came to town in 1951," Andrews recalls, "441 was an old, two-lane road and had a bed 20-feet above the prairie. So when the road department decided they would four-lane it, they just lowered it and spread it out, losing that high bed."
Andrews remembers happily that in his early years as an FOPP volunteer, he would sit with photographer Dominick Martino at a folding table where the FOPP trailer on the LaChua Trail now sits.
"We had an electric golf cart that we loaded up with all Dom's equipment and a table and two chairs and Dom would set up by the table and let people look through his lenses. Then I'd sit there and greet people and he'd go out to the tower. When he first started he didn't know half of what he was photographing and he'd come in with a photo of a bird and say, 'Can someone tell me what this is?' "
Of course, photographer Martino, who died in October 2009, has become a legend on Paynes Prairie, even as his tablemate Bill Andrews remains a living repository of some of the best stories about Paynes Prairie.