The pioneers benefited from the abundance of free roaming cattle left in Florida by the Spaniards. The 'crackers' drove herds to train depots or to the coasts then returned to their homesteads. There are several historic homestead sites within the land that is now Kissimmee Prairie Preserve. During World War II, the United States military obtained the land to conduct training missions. After the war, the property was returned to the 'crackers.' Potentially dangerous unexploded ordnances still exist within the Preserve.
Peavine and Pioneers
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park's main drive is part of the Peavine Railroad. It was built in the early 1900s to accommodate the land boom in central and south Florida. The rail line no longer exists, but its few years of operation continue to influence this land. The railroad ran from Keanesville to its southern terminus at Prairie Ridge. Many potential property investors were hauled into the dry prairie ecosystem to a hotel during the winter months when the temperatures were pleasant and the soil was dry. Some purchased land and then were astounded by the intense, waterlogged summers and were forced to leave. Soon after, the Colonization Land Company went bankrupt and the elevated rail line was dismantled and used for ranching operations and commerce. Some pioneers of the Kissimmee River Valley's expansive grasslands began pursuing the free-roaming cattle that had descended from Spanish explorers' herds. Settlers traveled Peavine Road to trade, gather supplies and socialize. In the late 1940s, the Latt Maxcy Corporation purchased and fenced their property, preventing people from traveling Peavine Road. They altered some of the prairie by digging ditches, and cultivating pasture grasses and agricultural fields. Most of the property was managed as native range, using fire to rejuvenate the grasses for the cattle. The historic accounts of the prairie are full of fascinating, independent characters who have helped shape this landscape. Their experiences and management practices are components of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park.
The Carolina Parakeet was the only parrot species native to the southeastern United States and was last observed in the wild in 1920s. The last known nesting location was near Gum Slough within the Preserve. Several factors contributed to their extinction, including feather and egg collection, habitat loss, the pet trade and the parakeet's social behavior. Flocks of 100-1,000 Carolina Parakeets were seen in upland forests, forest edges, wooded floodplains and agricultural lands. It was recorded that as many as 30 birds would share a nesting cavity. These loud, boisterous birds could be detected from miles away. Unfortunately, the parakeets became a nuisance animal when they devoured crops. Protecting their produce, farmers would use the flock's defensive behavior against them. By shooting one or two birds, the farmer would only have to wait for the flock to return and gather around the wounded birds, which then would enable the farmer to eradicate entire flocks. Today, Carolina Parakeets are seen only in paintings or as specimens. Their song and vibrant colors are no longer part of the ecosystem. Florida's dry prairie has many endangered species and it is imperative that they are protected and their habitat is preserved to ensure that they are enjoyed for generations. For more information, please visit the Lost Bird Project.
Around 1940, the military acquired a large portion of land to train B-17 aircraft crews in air-to-ground bombings during World War II. The new training ground was called Avon Park Army Air Field. B-17 bombers and other aircraft used bombs ranging from 15 pound practice bombs to 2,000 pound demolition bombs containing 2-ton high explosives. Accidental fires caused by exploding bombs probably contributed to keeping the prairie in excellent condition. The dry prairie ecosystem burns more frequently than any other ecosystem in Florida, every one to three years. During the spring and summer, lightning starts most of the fires, reducing the woody encroachment, fertilizing the prairie and providing prosperous habitat for the various prairie species. Fire started by bombs or lightning accomplish similar results. After World War II, the military put part of the land up for sale. Initially the land was purchased by various cattlemen. In 1997, the state of Florida acquired 48,000 acres to establish Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. Although there were several old targets within the Preserve, over time the prairie has reclaimed them. Adjacent to the west boundary of the Preserve, across the Kissimmee River, the Avon Park Air Force Range is active today. Occasionally, aircraft and flares can be seen in the western sky and machine gun fire and explosions can be heard in the distance.
Florida's hydrology has been altered from its original design involving an association between water and fire. The Kissimmee River Valley is no different. The dry prairie ecosystem once stretched from coast to coast and from Kissimmee to Lake Okeechobee. A vast prairie network evolved from ancient seas and more recently by an annual sheet flow of water and frequent fires. With less than 10 percent of this ecosystem left, it is very important to restore the prairie to pre-European influence. More than 70 miles of canals and ditches within Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park have been returned to sloughs and swales. With the hydrology restored, water and fire are able to function as strong sculptors. Water is able to perform its role drowning plants that are unable to withstand months-long inundation. Fire is no longer inhibited by deep, wide canals and is able to impact the woody encroachment that has arisen as a result of human activities. Other restoration projects are also planned. The semi-improved pasture (cattle lease) will be restored back to prairie with native grasses and shrubs. Miles of old plow lines from wildfires need to be reconditioned so that they do not continue to restrict fire. Land restoration is a long-term process that requires team work, dedication, expertise and patience. The Florida Park Service has started the process of healing the land for the well being of the various plants and animals that depend on the dry prairie ecosystem.