History of Highlands Hammock

Campground circa 1960

Highlands Hammock is one of the finest examples of early grass-roots public support for environmental preservation.  The concept of the park was inspired by a March 1928 letter published in the Sebring American by Dr. F. H. Newell of the U.S. Department of the Interior.  "It is my belief that you should make special efforts to see to it that this beauty spot is preserved and made known to your winter visitors as well as the citizens of your state." 

Car by the entrance to Highlands Hammock State Park, circa 1947
Entrance to Highlands Hammock State Park, circa 1947

In the late 1920s, local citizens concerned about losing the hammock to farmland, began raising money to purchase the land.  In February 1930, the land was considered for a national park, but deemed too small.  With no state park system in existence at the time, a private group formed to create the park.  Conservation visionary Margaret Shippen Roebling, donated $25,000 to purchase the land and later contributed another $25,000, with the condition that the community raise $5,000 to show its commitment.  The local citizenry rose to the occasion, and nearly everyone contributed something, ranging from one dollar (a real sacrifice in the hard times of the Depression) to $1,000.  When Mrs. Roebling died unexpectedly later that same year, her husband, John, committed to carrying out his wife's wishes of conserving and opening the park to the public.  With financial assistance from the Roebling family, the property was acquired and trails and basic facilities were constructed.  

In March 1931, the 1,280 acre park opened. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was one of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs to put young men back to work.  Thousands of CCC boys went to work laying out trails, clearing forests, and working on conservation-related projects throughout the country. In 1934, a local CCC camp began working on a botanical garden project adjacent to Highlands Hammock Park.  When Florida’s state park system was established in 1935, Highlands Hammock became one of the state's first parks.  It is one of eight original CCC parks in Florida. In 1941, with World War II looming on the horizon, the CCC camp closed and the park and gardens merged.  Over these six years, hundreds of men had planted thousands of plants and constructed roadways, dams, bridges and buildings.  Although the gardens never became a reality, the park's natural beauty endures.

Although there have been many key figures in the creation and preservation of the park, one notable woman was named Carol Beck. Carol Beck was a botanist who worked in the park from 1949 until 1965, and was a woman of “firsts.”  She was the first Florida Park Service Naturalist, the first female field employee, and one of the first involved with interpretation.  When she hitched up an old wagon to a four-wheel drive vehicle in the 1950s and took people on guided tours in restricted areas, she launched the park’s first “tram tours.”  The tours have continued and are one of the park’s most popular activities. The tram passes slowly through four major ecosystems that include hydric hammock, cypress swamp, pine flatwoods and baygall.  Passengers may observe alligators, water birds, deer and other wildlife close-up. The tram is fully accessible and allows those who cannot, or choose not to walk, to see the park and observe wildlife.