Hardee County, Florida: Pioneers, Cowboys, and Canoes
You haven’t really seen Hardee County until you’ve seen Highway 17. Actually, you can’t really see Hardee County unless you’re on Highway 17 because the county’s only U.S. highway is the road that connects Zolfo Springs, Wauchula, and Bowling Green -- which happen to be the only three towns in Hardee County.
The lack of development doesn’t mean you should avoid going. In fact, that’s one reason you should go. Here are a few things to do in Hardee County.
What’s in a Name?
Before you make your way to Hardee County, make your way to a library or bookstore and pick up a copy of Patrick D. Smith’s classic “A Land Remembered,” the story of Florida settlers-turned-Cracker cowboys.
The book paints a vivid image of Florida’s past that, incredibly, happens to look like present-day Hardee County; not surprising considering that one highway that crosses the county is the Old Florida Cracker Trail.
One reward for exploring Florida’s rural counties is making discoveries like this. They are the little things that remind you that everyone – and every place – has a story. When you find those hidden gems, they have a way of connecting the dots of history.
In addition to cattle that were being driven across the state, the area’s rich soil helped launch one of the America’s most productive growing regions. Need proof? Look around and you’ll see more John Deere dealers here than there are Starbucks in Seattle. It’s also worth noting that Wauchula, the county seat, was once the "Cucumber Capital of the World" before watermelons and citrus took the lead.
Created in 1921 from the northern section of neighboring DeSoto County, names considered for the new county included Wauchula, Goolsby, and Cherokee before some political palm greasing kicked in and, by a strange coincidence, Cary Hardee, Florida’s new governor (and Live Oak native) was rewarded with a namesake county.
While it’s often easier to explore a rural county by starting in the county seat, in this case Point A starts with a Z.
Start here because at the junction of U.S. 17 and S.R. 64, Pioneer Park is a sleepy roadside attraction. Make that attractions. Three separate attractions comprise this county collection, and tops among Trip Advisor users is the Wildlife Refuge.
From an elevated boardwalk you can look to each side and see native Florida wildlife (alligators, bobcats, black bears, etc.) in habitats designed for each inhabitant. The happy ending to this story is that each animal arrived here with no chance of survival in the wild, and the refuge became their “forever home” as it provides the nutrition, food, shelter, and space they need (call ahead for hours and note the refuge is closed Mondays and Wednesdays). If you’re into the outdoors, an adjacent 65-space campground provides a place settle down for the night, and the experience takes on special meaning when you learn that famed Seminole chief Billie Bowlegs camped on this very spot.
Nearby, the Cracker Trail Museum & Village includes a collection of historic structures; not many, but just enough to be interesting. On request, and during special events, a docent will open the doors of the old Cracker cabin, post office, and blacksmith shop and offer a bit of history about the structure, its owners, and its purpose. (The outhouse is self-explanatory). The most prominent display in the village is 1904 Baldwin steam locomotive #3. The “Loping Gopher” was the workhorse for a Live Oak lumber mill before finding a second career at Wauchula’s Revell Crate Mill before retiring in 1957.
For students of history, the Cracker Trail Museum is a fascinating stop. Open Monday-Friday from 9 to 5, you can examine more than 4,500 artifacts and memorabilia donated by local residents. Through displays and exhibits it pays tribute to the pioneer men and women who homesteaded the land and created the area’s cattle and agricultural industries, to the area’s natural history, and to the Indians whose land this was before being forced out.
The diverse collection include fossils, pioneer tools, citrus labels, farming equipment, medical instruments, spinning wheels, kitchen cabinets, preserves, archival photographs, and mementoes from the Civil War, World Wars I and II. Even better than looking at items that convey the world of the pioneers is hearing their stories. A video of oral histories gathered from the descendents of the founding families is shown daily.
Among the year’s highlights is Pioneer Park Days in March (flea market, a tractor parade, live music, steam engines and other displays) and February’s arrival of the annual Cracker Trail Ride of the Florida Cracker Trail Association. Riders on horseback follow as closely as possible the original route of the cowboys and drovers and cow hunters that came through the area. Traveling from near Bradenton to Fort Pierce, the eight-day ride overnights here as today’s riders pay tribute to the originals. Thrilling.
It’s just a short ride to Wauchula from Zolfo Springs via U.S. 17. When you arrive, you’ve reached the county seat as well as a Main Street Community.
As you’d expect, downtown operates at a slow and steady clip and you have to admire the merchants who’ve put their faith in the handful of shops and restaurants you find here. Along the main avenue Heritage Park is highlighted by a lovely fountain and the sculptures of two Sandhill cranes (‘Wauchula’ comes from a Miccosoukee Indian word meaning “call of the Sandhill crane.”) A bandstand is featured prominently, framing behind it a mural depicting the pioneer history of the town. You can sense the townspeople’s pride in their community, which extends to the Hardee High School Academic Team who were Florida’s academic champions in ’04, ’06, ’07, and ’08 and whose achievements are posted on signs throughout the town.
You can add a dash of outdoor adventure by checking in with Wauchula’s Peace River Paddle Sports & Kuleana Adventures. Renting stand-up paddleboards (SUP), canoes, and kayaks, as American Canoe Association-certified canoe and SUP instructors, they also arrange lessons. Get to the river and you’ll find an entirely new world, with cypress and oaks reaching over the river, and deer, otters, eagles, osprey and alligators frequenting the woods and waters. Ready for more? They arrange overnights and ‘full moon’ paddles. Should you have the time, keep in mind the river flows into Charlotte Harbor which eventually spills into the Gulf of Mexico which leads to the Atlantic.
So if you have the stamina and provisions, you could catch the Gulf Stream and paddle to Europe.
A few miles north of Wauchula this town of 2,900 is a place you’d be tempted to drive through. On this trip, drive around it. When you do, you’ll find Payne’s Creek Historic State Park just a few miles east of town. After heading down a country lane, a sign explains that the area near the park was the site of Fort Chokonikla, which was built in 1849 as the first outpost in a chain of forts to ensure the area’s original citizens, the Seminoles, were kept at bay. Inside the park, roads lead to a visitors center with displays on the Seminoles and soldiers of the 1840s, and then even further into the woodlands. Trails bordering a playground and picnic pavilions lead to the water’s edge at the Peace River, again, a great place for canoeing, fishing, and swimming.
Elsewhere in Hardee County
Roam across the county and you’ll find mostly back roads, farms, and ranches. But well off the beaten path there a few other sites to see.
Gardner. An unincorporated community near the DeSoto County border on U.S. 17, there’s a boat launch here that will get you on the Peace River.
Ona. Far removed from mostly anything, this speck on the map receives a surprising number of visitors. The reason why is that Howard Solomon built a castle here. Seeing the woodlands as a canvas, the artist created Solomon’s Castle, which features more than 80 interpretive stained glass windows and numerous metal sculptures. Crafters, artists, and curiosity seekers come here to admire Solomon’s quirky work and puzzle out his motive. A gift shop, bed and breakfast, and restaurant are also here.
If you go…
Photos by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA