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Three Lakes- History

old photo of Florida cow hunter on open range
Florida Photo Archives: Florida cow hunter on open range, 1910

Indians once hunted deer, turkey and smaller animals in this game-rich habitat that has become known as Three Lakes. Villages developed along Florida’s waterways as residents depended on fish and shellfish for the bulk of their diet. People began discarding the remains of their meals--mainly shells and bones--in huge middens, evidence of abundant natural resources.

The "Florida Cracker" name probably originated from the resonating loud crack of the cow hunter's whip, a way to communicate in rural areas where cattle roamed free. This area was part of the last large, open range ranching in the United States, which persisted until 1949 when the Florida Legislature passed the Fence Law, requiring all cattle to be fenced. The Florida cow was a small, bony, long-horned descendant of Spanish cattle, able to survive heat, drought, insects and poor forage. Rugged, independent, semi-nomadic Florida cow hunters rounded up and herded cattle with the help of well-trained dogs, usually a mix of hound and bulldog. In the later part of the 19th century, cowmen moved their herds across the range from Kissimmee to Tampa.

old photo of family in wagon
Florida Photo Archives: Florida cracker family on way to church

Each year from February to the end of March, cattlemen burned the prairie to kill back pine saplings, oak and palmetto and to encourage grass for grazing. Early in the 20th century, lumbering and naval stores industries followed the railroad south. Turpentine was extracted from most of the large stands of pine, then the larger saw timber was cut, and finally the pulpwood was removed.

Formerly known as Three Lakes Ranch, this tract was purchased by the State in 1974 under the Environmentally Endangered Lands Program. The Prairie Lake Unit was established to protect and manage wet prairies and marshes and to minimize natural flooding damage.