Off the Beaten Path from Bradenton: Hardee County, Fla.

    Gary McKechnie

    There was once a time when Cracker cowboys drove cattle across Florida prairies, and that’s a time that still exists in Hardee County – a destination where the past merges with the present. If you have an interest in Florida’s pioneer heritage, you’ll find that era celebrated in museums, trail rides, and historic sites.


    1. Want a Cracker?

    More than any other state, Florida had a head start on history. In the late 1800s, that history was being written by cattle-driving wranglers who once rode along the Florida Cracker Trail – now known as CR 64. At the junction of CR 64 and US 17, Zolfo Springs’s 115-acre Pioneer Park is home to the Cracker Trail Museum & Village, a two-for-one experience. In the museum, more than 4,000 artifacts and assorted memorabilia recall the region’s cattle-pushing past while the neighboring pioneer village features an authentic Cracker cabin (1879), blacksmith shop (1897) and, from 1914, a mammoth Baldwin steam locomotive that’s taking a well-earned break after having hauled lumber across the county for half a century.

    Events are held here throughout the year, with one of the most highly anticipated being February’s Cracker Trail Ride organized by the Florida Cracker Trail Association. On an eight-day journey between Bradenton and Fort Pierce, riders tracing the original route of cowboys, drovers, and cow hunters set up camp near the park.

    2. Where the Wild Things Are

    Near the museum and village in Pioneer Park, the Hardee County Wildlife Refuge (863-473-4892) is a sanctuary for alligators, bobcats, black bears, cougars, panthers, turtles, fox, deer, otters and other animals that were injured and can no longer live in the wild. Guests explore the refuge from the vantage point of an elevated boardwalk, reading about the residents on informational signage. While it may not be a large zoo, when you consider the circumstances that brought the animals here, it certainly is a wonderful one.

    3. A Man’s Castle is His Home

    Despite its remote location, artist Howard Solomon chose the Ona as the site where he would build Solomon’s Castle, a 12,000-square foot palace featuring more than 80 interpretive stained glass windows, numerous metal sculptures, a replica of the Alamo, a gift shop, bed and breakfast, and restaurant. Curiosity seekers from across Florida and around the world are alternately impressed by his artwork… and intrigued by his motive.

    4. History Happened Here

    A few miles north of Wauchula, Payne’s Creek Historic State Park was created near the site of Fort Chokonikla, an 1849 outpost that launched a chain of forts to ensure the area’s original citizens, the Seminoles, were kept at bay. The visitors center features displays on the battles between Seminoles and soldiers, and wooded trails lead to the Peace River where guests can take a dip, launch a canoe or kayak excursion, or wile away a few hours fishing.

    5. Agri-tainment

    South of Bowling Green, the Heartland Maze (888-576-6293) is just one part of a larger “agri-tainment” enterprise which includes pig races, a “cow train,” a playground and, depending on the time of year, a haunted house, Christmas village, and pumpkin patch. In the fall when the corn is high, the corn maze opens for business. A popular family activity, it can take about an hour to navigate the false leads and dead ends.

    For additional information, visit Hardee County.

    Want to read about more hidden Florida gems? Check out these articles:

    Belle Glade

    Columbia County

    DeSoto County


    Glades County

    Hamilton County

    Hendry County

    Highlands County

    Holmes County


    Jackson County

    Madison County

    Okeechobee County


    Putnam County

    South Bay

    Suwannee County

    Union County





    Hardee County is highlighted in red.

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    Places to Remember