Hernando County has a rich history. If you look hard enough you can find remnants tucked away in every corner and everywhere in between. Driving down Croom-Rital Road through the Croom tract of Withlacoochee forest you will see some signs that reference Lake Oriole and Oriole Ranch. Those signs are paying homage to the history of a town that existed there in the late 1800’s.
The internet is truly an amazing collection of knowledge. Using it has allowed me to perform some detective work in locating some of the remaining evidence that history once took place in a particular area. One of the more enduring indications are cemeteries. What better way to know that people once lived, worked, created, and settled an area than to find where they currently rest?
I have been seeing the signs for Lake Oriole on the way to and from work in the mornings. Google Earth shows the location of the lake on the west side of Croom-Rital Road. A google search reveals some of the lost history. It also revealed the existence of a cemetery in the area. I wanted to find it.
The town of Oriole has a recorded post office that existed from 1884 to 1898. A census recorded that approximately 100 whites inhabited the area. Unfortunately, it appears that the town was wiped out by influenza. We take it for granted today with our modern medicine, but before vaccines, antibiotics, and emergency medicine, diseases were much more feared. Especially vulnerable were young children.
After the demise of the town, the Oriole Phosphate Mining Company applied for and received a permit to mine 50 tons daily from the area between the present day Withlacoochee River and Croom Forest beginning in 1912. In previous hikes we have readily noticed the old railroad beds and tram ways cris-crossing the land as well as holes, valleys, and man made lakes remaining from the operation.
Tyler, Christa, and I left the house to find the cemetery and a homestead foundation with a chimney. Christa had to leave early for work so she followed behind in her own car. As we neared the area I wanted to enter the woods, I was on my cell phone talking to Christa while looking for a place to park both vehicles when Tyler screamed, “look out!”. I looked up the road to see a garbage truck careening back and forth across the road heading towards us while coming up on two wheels and then bouncing back down the other way. The garbage container on the back was dangerously swinging off the frame of the truck. Christa accelerated off the road behind me in a cloud of dirt, sod, and dust. I pulled hard to the right as the garbage truck slid to a stop just past us. We turned around to make sure the driver was ok. It turns out the whole container had separated from the frame of the truck breaking all its welds. When the right wheels left the pavement it started a reaction that the driver was fortunate enough to bring to a stop without rolling the truck or losing the hopper. Tyler’s response was, “I was hoping to go see a cemetery, not get carried to one in a casket!”. That could have been a real problem for us if that truck had separated or rolled.
We parked and headed back into the woods crossing the Hernando Rails to Trails and a barb wire fence. This find was almost too easy. This cemetery was the first one I was able to deduce GPS coordinates from clues I found online then match those clues up with the terrain on Google Earth to come up with coordinates for my GPS. One website does have coordinates, but when I entered them into Google Earth, it was obvious they were incorrect. Once on the ground, the only thing that held us up was the blackberry patches. We can’t seem to make good time with those around.
The trail that led to the gate was found exactly as described. Someone else visited the site a few weeks ago. They were kind enough to post a youtube video. We opened the gate, ate some more blackberries just inside, then pushed the tree branches aside to enter the hidden and forgotten resting place of some of Hernando County’s earliest families. I recorded my own video as we entered. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4J6u1_OWV0E)
According to the other video, this is the third oldest cemetery in the county. It is absolutely abandoned, neglected, and in every way unmaintained. Some large trees have fallen. Large branches obscure a few headstones. Vines tangle the paths around the cemetery while thorns seem to reach out and sink into our legs. The vegetation actively attempts to deny entry to all as it reclaims the land. In all we counted twenty headstones. Some of them are as legible as the day they were carved, albeit, covered in black algae. Others are gone forever, lost to the ravages of time, their sentiments worn smooth until only those in times gone by knew waht was written. As usual there is an inordinate number of children buried here. There is also a Woodmen of the World marker belonging to Frank M. Niesler who died at age 33.
Looking around we find small markers with just initials, ornate granite stones, a plain concrete slab that looks like it belongs as a prop for halloween with the words “Sacred Memory” barely still etched onto the surface, and lastly we find a tombstone shaped in a cross with the nickname “Little Joe” written across the top. Each one tells a story in its own way. Each one shows that at some time in history this person had a family that cared enough to either make the memorial or to purchase the memorial and place it as a marker as a testament that the person lying beneath lived. One memorial has faded, red, plastic flowers lying nearby. Christa wonders aloud how those got there and why.
We worked our way around the perimeter of the fenced boundary of the cemetery looking for any we may have missed. There are supposed to be many more buried here than the markers indicate. Tyler found some depressions that may indicate a grave as they were long, rectangular, and oriented in the same direction as the marked graves. We also found a PVC pipe painted orange and sticking out of the ground about four inches. Your guess is as good as mine if that indicates an unmarked grave or not.
Christa had to go to work leaving Tyler and I alone with the rest of the day to explore the trails. I asked Christa to call me when she got back to her Rover so that I would know she got out safely. After significant time had passed without hearing from her, I called her. Those blackberries had slowed her progress out… again. Tyler and I left, latching the gate behind us. We easily identified the terrain features we had seen on Google Earth as we walked the opposite direction we came in. It was kind of like Deja vu being already familiar with the lay of the land before we ever arrived.
There is a two track trail near the cemetery. That is probably the way most people make it in. Having GPS coordinates, we came in the back way by parking on the side of the road so we could bee line straight to our destination. With the whole day available we started north. A short walk that direction and we were immediately halted as we came across a dog blocking our path who really did not like our presence. South it was then. Our next goal was to find the old homestead with a chimney and foundation. I will give away the spoiler right now and say that we never found it. I have been emailing a gentleman after returning who was out there this week and has given me its location. It turns out that dog stopped us just a few hundred yards from seeing it. When we do find it, I will edit this post to add in what we find there.
So, back to our story, south we went. Into the thick oak canopied woods we followed a two track trail. Tyler has gotten to an age where he loves to trade insults. A right of passage I suppose. We pass our time talking and one upping the other with insults.
Along the way can be seen the remains of the old tram way for the mines that existed here. The railroad ties are just stacked up on either side rotting away into the ground.
About half a mile south we passed a beautiful stand of cypress trees. The ground sinks low allowing a large pond to form nurturing this stand. The cypress knees are everywhere. It is also prime territory for hog rooting. The forest floor has many large patches of fresh bald dirt.
It didn’t take long to find three large deer that we spooked. I don’t know who was following who, but we saw those same three deer four or five times as we hiked. They always stayed out of range. The last sighting I had turned my camera on and unknowingly left it on. When they came crashing out of the woods across our path I raised the camera, hit the “on” button, and pressed the shutter only to find that I had forgotten it on and by pressing the power button had instead turned off the camera. That would have been a great action shot as the three ran directly across the trail in front of us.
One of the features I noticed on a video I had seen of the old homestead was a bare patch of sand and a long thin corridor of sky showing through the trees. Off to our left was a sandy path and a corridor. Tyler and I left the main trail to explore the possibilities. Instead of the homestead, we found some of the most pristine Florida one could hope to see. It is easy to see why someone would want to settle such a serene place.
Often we only feel the high humidity and heat of the subtropics that we exist in. Only in National Geographic or Discovery channel do we see the lush vegetation and canopies that thrive in the subtropics. A hike back here shows that it exists in our county. I am always struck by how the hues of color change with the seasons and the weather. Dark clouds were moving in with rain on the way. The result was a deep, dark green on the underside of the tree canopy with bright splashes of green up high. My camera is a decent point and shoot, but I cannot convey with words or pictures the beauty that natural Florida holds.
We meandered through the low swamps and ponds to come out of the forest at the base of a hill. The remains of a gate that hasn’t swung in at least half a century marked the boundary to pasture land. A new five strand barb wire fence jolted us out of our self induced time travel. We followed the fence line up a steep hill until a long horn bull faced off to us from the other side of the fence. Tyler’s grandfather has worked on these government cattle ranches and is a farmer himself, so Tyler didn’t express any fear. I, on the other hand, don’t place as much trust in a two thousand pound animal that is snorting, lowing, and generally being irritated with our very existence. The following photo was hard to take as my hands were full with a camera, and a pepper spray canister in one hand, and a gun in the other hand. I also did not take any photos when that bull was right up on top of us as we backed away. I waited until there was some distance between us. Just for the record, I am well aware that my little pea shooter would only have angered him more. My hope was that the loud report of the gun would scare him back or slow him down if necessary.
As soon as we were clear of that little excitement we continued following the fence line past the cattle chutes and cow pens. Things got real familiar again as we stepped back on to the trail right where we started from in front of the cemetery entrance. We had made one huge circle through the swamp. Since we had the whole day open we easily made the decision to keep going. Retracing our steps, we entered the dense foliage again, this time we stayed on the main trail. The trail got a touch wider and it became obvious that this was at one time an improved road. It was built up above the water with a pipe running from one side to the other. I wonder when I see structures like this what the decision was that lead to its creation. Who decided to haul tons of dirt and rock into the swamp and for what purpose? Was this a road for cars and trucks or was this a short tram? In the Chassahowitzka forest there are trams that are only a few hundred yards long. The question will probably never be answered.
River Trail and the Barn
Hiking south we saw plenty of wildlife. The hogs have left their mark everywhere by rooting up the ground and the trail itself. We eventually made it to the parking area for the rails to trails bicycle path. That was a convenient place to stop and rest under the pavillion. We seem to have a bad habit of hiking in the heat of the day.
Moving on, I took Tyler back into the woods on the other side of the road where I had found a really neat old barn on a previous motorcycle ride. It is dilapidated, but still there. There are hog pens and cattle chutes surrounding it. A hay ring lies rusting in the overgrown field. Tyler was raised on a working farm so these are not foreign artifacts to him. I find them very fascinating as they are the tools and implements to a different way of life.
Having our fill of looking around we headed back to the parking area and trail head for the hiking trail where we met an interesting fellow who showed off his dog’s tree climbing abilities. That was certainly entertaining. He also told us there is a windmill further back on the east trail. The windmill will wait for another day. A couple of photos and it was time to start covering some ground.
Heavy afternoon rains were bearing down on us. We had the option of bee lining up the bike trail to the truck or meandering back through the woods. I’m glad Tyler has a good sense of humor and is a
tough kid. He was more than willing to suffer the rain and longer hike. It also meant we could continue eating blackberries.
We hiked all the way back up past the cemetery to find the dog who blocked our exploration north was gone. Following the grassy road by the fenced pasture we saw where the dog had come from. There was a house at the edge of the pasture. (The old homestead is apparently in the woods behind that house) Tyler was
wilting at this point so we called it a day. It took a while to get back to the truck and the wonderful air conditioning. We ended the day with a big cheeseburger basket lunch at the Nobleton Riverside Restaurant.