BOOK REVIEW: Paynes Prairie

BOOK REVIEW: Paynes Prairie


Paynes Prairie: A History of the Great Savanna by Lars Andersen

I’m convinced his mother qualified for sainthood. Seriously. Lillian Andersen used to drive her son Lars to Paynes Prairie so he could spend the day exploring, then picked him up in the evening with his day’s finds which often included snakes. Snakes!

I too was a Gainesville mom but the first time my sons came home from exploring a creek and opened a sack that contained an old rat snake I took one look and said:

“One of us is leaving and it isn’t me.”

No sainthood at my house but I can  and do admire Lars’ mom.

Lars Andersen grew up to be an enthusiastic explorer who shares his love of Florida history, nature and cultural heritage with kayak and walking tours through his Adventure Outpost in High Springs. Just reading the descriptions of upcoming trips is a treat.

Paynes Prairie – a place to explore, love and write about

The place he loved as a boy became a labor of love and a great book as an adult. Want a huge treat? Pick up his book Paynes Prairie: A History of the Great Savanna, published by Pineapple Press in 2001.

book cover

Lars was living in Texas researching North Central Florida history for an audiotape for car travelers. He found, to his surprise, that Paynes Prairie had a big role in this history. Even better, there was no book on the subject.

There is now. Paynes Prairie: A History of the Great Savanna, is an exquisite read that moves from millions of years ago to the present with such easy grace that you’d better buckle up and keep the coffee cup full, you won’t be putting this book down.

The history of Paynes Prairie is the history of migration and it isn’t over yet. In the mid and late Miocene, eons ago, the land bridge across the Bering Strait brought animals that found their way to Florida. Paynes Prairie was a savanna full of grass and they loved it. So did animals coming up from another land bridge joining North and South America.

But these migrations paled to the later arrivals of Indians, Spaniards, French, English, settlers, pirates, politicians – you get the picture. Even though the reader knows the Indians – first Paleo-Indians then Potano, Creeks, Seminoles along with runaway slaves – none will be able to hold on to Paynes Prairie in the face of settlers, Christian missionaries, political greed and a President named Andrew Jackson who loathed Indians – Lars paints the encounters in such a vivid way I found myself hoping the Indians would win. They did not.

Paynes Prairie preserved as a state park

With the migration of settlers who wanted quick access to farmland and distant places, dikes and highways were built and they seriously plundered the natural ecosystem. Debates on how to restore or create ecosystems continue to this day. Mercifully, a 17,346-acre tract of the Paynes Prairie basin became a state preserve in 1970. If you haven’t been, start your journey by reading his book then take a trek to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

It came as a big surprise to me to see the depth of his bibliography – over 90 titles in all.  Lars condenses a huge amount of knowledge into 139 very readable pages. This is the GO TO book on Paynes Prairie. It is available in hardcover and paperback.

Note: the new paperback edition of Paynes Prairie: The Great Savanna: A History and a Guide (2003) offers activities that can be done in the preserve along with maps.

* REVIEWS:Ah, so fine in the evening to make a bowl of organic popcorn and curl up with a good book, preferably about Florida! It is hard work but enjoyable. Reviewing Florida books starts this month. Enjoy.

Lucy and Obi
Lucy and Obi



ps. Obi likes popcorn too. Well, don’t we all?







More to Explore

Seeing sandhill cranes at Paynes Prairie

Gainesville is good to go for all seasons

Take the winding road to a botanical garden

Living History Reenactors are Time Travelers

Living History Reenactors are Time Travelers

Shadows pinched the sunlight into slim shapes on the trail. A breeze lifted tree branches. The birds were silent.

Suddenly a war cry and the sound of thundering hoofs split the air. My back tingled with fear. I did not turn around.

So this is how it happens, I thought. Death comes as a surprise, an unwelcome intruder as you tramp through the present daydreaming about the past or pushing pictures into the future. A war cry shatters the air. The last sound you hear is the whoosh of a thrown tomahawk.

Then horse and rider, a Seminole Indian, swept past me, war cries in full whoop. No tomahawk in sight.  I had goose bumps everywhere but kept on smiling, walking, looking straight ahead into the camera’s eye.

Living history reenactors bring Civil War battles to life

This scene, thank goodness, was a reenactment at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park in Busnell.  VISIT FLORIDA video crew filmed the event and I was the Authentic Florida expert talking on film (you can see the video here about the Dade Battlefield reenactment.) We asked a Seminole on horseback to make the war pass. It is only a blink on the video.

But it was all too real for U.S. soldiers that cold winter’s day, Dec. 28, 1835, as 108 U.S. soldiers marched through the woods from Tampa to Ocala. “Be of good cheer” their leader told them, it wasn’t far to Ocala where they would be warm, fed and have belated Christmas celebration. Then the Seminoles swept down. Only three soldiers survived.

Every year in January the Dade Battlefield reenactment takes place. It is so much fun they do it twice, once on Saturday, once on Sunday. The dates in 2013 are Jan. 5 & 6th. Battles are at 2 p.m. each day but do plan to bring your family and come earlier to see period camps, the Sutler trade fair, period arts and crafts. Take part in musket shooting, tomahawk throwing (no thank you) and archery.

living history reenactors wear period hats

If you like seeing history come alive, Florida in the winter months has a cornucopia of conflicts and period presentations.  For a sampling of events, check out the Florida Reenactors Online News for an event roster. Also, individual parks, both state and federal, have events – be sure to look at their “Events” web page.

Living history reenactors fire rifles
Living history reenactors fire rifles

Why winter? It is real simple. All those old uniforms were heavy, as in HOT, and besides who wants to do reenactments in the summer when your most attentive audience members are mosquitoes?

Find living history reenactments on weekends around Florida

Many reenactments are on weekends since the men and women in costume, surprise, have Monday through Friday lives. But don’t ask about those lives. When they are reenacting, their speech is in the period language, nothing modern day. They take on the persona of their character, their time, and their place. That is why reenactors are called living historians – a very cool label.


In my Florida travels I meet fantastic people who are travel writers, residents, newcomers, guides and entrepreneurs, all are digging into the Florida places they love and finding treasures worth keeping. Here is Larry French of Deltona, novelist, speaker, editorial writer and content provider of science, social studies, language arts and math curricula. Oh, and did I mention Larry has been a Civil War reenactor for 35 years?

Here is our conversation from a phone interview on Oct. 30, 2012:

Lucy: “So did your love of history and writing about it in a novel lead you to reenacting?”

Larry: “Actually the reverse. I’ve always been intensely interested in history. I was fascinated with the Civil War as a kid, that grew through high school and in college I wrote a paper on Antebellum Florida.

Then in the Florida Park Service part of our job was becoming educated about the local history. I found out about the Battle of Olustee and that sparked my interest in finding a group. Can you believe 35 years ago I actually found reenactors, the campaign type guys – their portrayals were true to actual life?

That appealed to me, I immersed myself and developed a persona, a person who lived near my location, Enterprise, Florida, who had a similar profession.”

Sergeant French at Olustee 2011

Lucy: “What kind of soldier?”

Larry: “Confederate soldier, a third sergeant with the 2nd Florida Volunteers, Company E, recruited around Enterprise.

It was quite an experience. I found out how soldiers would write home so I began writing home to my wife. That was the start of my historical fiction story.

There is so much history. I just love it. When I do reenactments I slip off everything modern. I sleep on the ground, carry all my provisions.”

Note: Larry has finished his novel “Time Will Tell, The Awakening” and an agent in New York is reading the manuscript. Read more about the novel and reenacting and getting involved in reenacting on Larry’s web site.

Also, he is part of the historical interpretation committee for the 2nd Florida Volunteers, Company E and they do school presentations plus immersions – you can sign up to spend a day with a reenactor at an actual reenactment.


Nov. 10-11 – Ocali Country Days Festival at Silver River State Park, Ocala. 9-4 each day, experience North Central Florida life in the 1800s with sugar cane syrup making, spinning, woodworking, crafts and food. Park fee waived. Festival fee $5 per person, under the age of six admitted free.

Nov. 10 – History of the American Soldier from 9-5 at Fort Clinch State Park, Fernandina Beach. Park entrance fee ($6 per vehicle up to eight people) plus one canned food donation per person for Fort admission. Canned food donated to Barnabas Center Food Pantry.

Dec.1-2Union Holiday Encampment, Fort Clinch State Park, Fernandina Beach.  Sat. from 9-5 and Sunday from 9-12. Park entrance fee plus $2 per person Fort admission.

January 5 & 6, 2013 – 177th Anniversary Dades Battle – 33rd Reenactment, at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, Bushnell, from 9-5 each day, battle at 2 p.m. Fee $5 per person, children under six free, parking $2 per vehicle.

January 19-20
– Brooksville Raid Reenactment at Sand Hill Scout Reservation, with over 1500 reenactors and their families. See the Raid web site for upcoming details.



Antiques fare well in Arcadia

Lighthouse at St. Augustine still a beacon

Florida history makes a great walk in DeLand


A Declaration of Cultural Diversity

A Declaration of Cultural Diversity

We believe these truths to be self evident – cultural diversity makes us strong, celebrating our heritage keeps the past alive for future generations and when the Greeks are cooking, just show up. Amen.

Cultural Diversity Alive and Well in Florida

That said – here are some places to go in Florida were cultural heritage is alive and well worth a visit. Tarpon Springs, 33 miles north of Tampa, started out in 1848. The town made a name as a winter resort for folks from up north who didn’t want to shovel snow.

Then came the discovery in 1852 of sponges in the Gulf of Mexico. This was big news. Greece has sponge blight in its offshore waters and the industry was dying. Whole families came over to be spongers in America. They brought their culture and yes, their wonderful food.
cultural diversity - Tarpon Springs

The Sponge Docks still exist today. It is no accident that many restaurants line the sponge docks. When the boats came in, the crews were hungry. Pass the baklava please.
Take the shuttle bus that goes from the docks to downtown and be sure to tour the inside of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
cultural diversity = cathedral in Tarpon Springs

Ybor City * used to be a swamp. Along came Martinez Ybor looking for a place to build a cigar factory. He thought his workers in Key West were getting too uppity and wanted to relocate. So he filled in the swamp and built his factory. Obviously those were the days before permits.
cultural diversity - casitas in Ybor City
To keep his workers he built casitas, little attached houses, so cigar workers could sent for their families from Cuba. A casita cost $2500. The families came. Cuban culture still flourishes today. Have lunch at the original Columbia restaurant or try a Cuban at La Tropicana Café. Bueno. Other groups that came to work in the factories – Italians and Germans.

Speaking of Germans, Florida has a large German population in the southwest area but I’m not the only one who thinks the best German restaurant is up in Sanford, 23 miles northeast of Orlando.

Hollerback’s Willow Tree Café is a European style café and German restaurant that is family owned.. They know how to get to you. The day’s desserts are displayed in a case and you have to walk by . . .yum.
Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go! Enjoy

* Ybor City is Chapter 35: Celebrate the Cigars in 50 Great Walks in Florida., Lucy Beebe Tobias, published by University Press of Florida, 2008

©2009 Lucy Beebe Tobias, all rights reserved.

More to Explore

Wauchula – the place to be on the third Saturday of the month

DeLeon Springs Boat Tour shows history’s wake

Venice is a vision worth visiting

Civil War Reenactors Storm Fort Clinch

Civil War Reenactors Storm Fort Clinch

The Confederates held Fort Clinch in Fernandina Beach when the Civil War started. Union troops took it over when General Robert E. Lee ordered a withdrawal a year later. That was 146 years ago.

The fort still keeps changing hands, especially on weekends. The first full weekend of month living historians reenact the Union Garrison. Fort Clinch rings with the sound of artillery demonstrations, drills on the parade ground with soldiers and horses, medical demonstrations and daily life in the barracks, kitchen and carpentry shop.

Civil War Reenactors take over Fort Clinch

Civil War Reenactors - Union soldier
Union soldier taking a break as a student makes notes for a class field trip.

Civil War reenactors speak the language of the period, refer to Mr. Lincoln our President and share a bit about themselves. Not who they are now in the 21st century but a portrait of who they were then. What the living historians are sharing is real. They have read letters from soldiers to loved ones back home, know the names of men actually stationed here and weave their stories together.

Imagine life in a fort in the 1800s. Soldiers wore wool uniforms in blazing heat. Mosquitoes were an enemy that could not be defeated. Every day more bricks were added to the walls. You can see the colors of brick change as the walls get higher and the bricks arrived from different locations.

Gun slit on the lower level of Fort Clinch State Park
Gun slit on the lower level of Fort Clinch State Park

Coming up on the first weekend in December (Dec. 6 and 7) is the special Union Holiday Encampment weekend. In addition to the regular garrison demonstrations there will be a Christmas tree decorated with hand-made period decorations.

Civil War Reenactors trade places – Confederates & Union soldiers

Confederate Garrisons, also Civil War reenactors, take over the fort on different weekends but not on a regular basis. The schedule for all garrison weekends is on the Fort Clinch State Park Web site ( Look under “Special Events.”

Civil War reenactors Horse drill on the parade ground at Fort Clinch State Park.
Horse drill on the parade ground at Fort Clinch State Park.

Hours for all garrison weekends are Saturday from 9-5 and Sunday from 9-12. Admission to the park is $5 per carload up to eight people plus $2 per person for Fort admission.

If you can stay overnight, consider going back to the Fort for a candlelight viewing, truly a memorable experience. Forget electricity. They didn’t have it. Civil War reenactors and park rangers recreate life in the fort by candlelight. Visitors are asked to off your cell phones and leave flash photography off, a request made to preserve the 1864 atmosphere. For more details, call (904) 277-7274.

Candlelight viewing takes place the first Saturday evening of each month except December. Times vary with sunset. Admission to candlelight viewing is $3 per person.

Fort Clinch State Park is located at the northern tip of Amelia Island. The park has two camping areas, one near the Atlantic Ocean beach and the other in a wooded area near Amelia River.

Ancient live oak trees on the road to Fort Clinch
Ancient live oak trees on the road to Fort Clinch

For bikers there are 3.3 miles of paved roads meandering under ancient live oak tree.
A beach area and fishing pier get frequent use.

At the fort entrance a new Welcome Center has historic exhibits and a gift shop.

If you like to step back in time with living history and go to a park the whole family will enjoy, Fort Clinch on the first weekend of the month is the place to be.

Photos and text©2008 Lucy Beebe Tobias.

Lucy Beebe Tobias is the author of “50 Great Walks in Florida” and the Authentic Florida Expert for VISIT FLORIDA.


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Florida history makes a great walk in DeLand

Living history reenactors are time travelers

Seafood sizzles in Cortez