Friends of Paynes Prairie, Inc.

Guest Stories

Stories by park visitors, volunteers, staff and local students.

Students from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications expressed a great interest in Paynes Prairie this year.  Our desire to share their stories with you generated the idea of creating a place on our website where we can share various stories about Paynes Prairie and the experiences of our visitors and staff. 

  • 21 April 2014 2:39 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    From Cattle Ranch to Preserve: A short history as told by Bill Andrews

    By Dorothy Smiljanich, Friends of Paynes Prairie Board Member and Volunteer


             For more than three hundred years, sprawling Paynes Prairie was a cattle ranch: first for the Spanish in the 1600s who called it "Ranchero de la Chua" - "Ranch of Sinkholes" - and most recently for the Camp family, which a local magazine once called "one of the most colorful and flamboyant great Ocala families." 

            Bill Andrews, retired attorney, former state legislator and former president of the Friends of Paynes Paririe, recalls: 

             "One day, Mank Camp asked for a meeting with me, Buddy McKay, Ralph Turlington and Jim Williams. We were all in the legislature from here and he said, 'I want to sell the prairie to the state and I want to see it preserved and kept together.'

             "Mank wanted $7,200,000 for it - which was a steal even then - but the state didn't have it to spend that year. So he said he would take half one year, and half the next. And Verle Pope who was rules chairman in the Senate said, 'I'll handle it in the Senate' and he did.

             "It was one of the most pristine places left in the state and Mank wanted it kept as a wildlife preserve." 

             Apparently Mank Camp came by his love of the land naturally. He was a descendent of William Nelson Camp, who reportedly came to Florida from Virginia in 1891 and, by 1907, had acquired an estimated 150,000 acres of land in the north central Florida region; owned Merritt Island; had 55,000 acres in pine timber; a phosphate mining operation near Dunnellon; and a cattle ranch on land that included what is now Payne's Prairie.

             Bill Andrews recalls:

             "Camp ranch was started by William Camp and before 1920 the idea was to take water to Orange Lake and build a hydroelectric dam there. He dug the canal and used pumps to move the water."

             That project never came to fruition, but the cattle ranch proved lucrative, Andrews explains.

             "The cattle operation had 3,500 brood cattle and some bulls and they shipped 3,000 calves a year west - Kansas and Illinois, places like that - where they grow more corn and where there were feedlots to fatten them up and then butcher them."

             Keeping the prairie as ranch pasture required a great deal of effort.

             "They had four huge tractors with 25-foot wide mowers," Andrews recalls. "And all they ever did was mow. They mowed 15,000 acres basically two times a year and they worked on it every day."

             Protecting their livestock from poachers also took a lot of effort.

             "They didn't let anybody on the prairie when they were running cows," Andrews says. "Cow thieving was a big problem in Florida then."

             Once the land transferred to the state in 1970, interior fences were taken down, mowing was stopped and the complex and challenging process began of returning the land to a more natural state.

             Unfortunately by then, Highway 441 had been built across the prairie.

              "When I came to town in 1951," Andrews recalls, "441 was an old, two-lane road and had a bed 20-feet above the prairie. So when the road department decided they would four-lane it, they just lowered it and spread it out, losing that high bed."

             Andrews remembers happily that in his early years as an FOPP volunteer, he would sit with photographer Dominick Martino at a folding table where the FOPP trailer on the LaChua Trail now sits.

             "We had an electric golf cart that we loaded up with all Dom's equipment and a table and two chairs and Dom would set up by the table and let people look through his lenses. Then I'd sit there and greet people and he'd go out to the tower. When he first started he didn't know half of what he was photographing and he'd come in with a photo of a bird and say, 'Can someone tell me what this is?' "

             Of course, photographer Martino, who died in October 2009, has become a legend on Paynes Prairie, even as his tablemate Bill Andrews remains a living repository of some of the best stories about Paynes Prairie.

  • 14 March 2014 2:05 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Wild Cracker Horses Live in Gainesville

    By Grace Hudgins, UF Student

    Wild Spanish descendent horses are much closer to the Gainesville community than people think. A trip down to Paynes Prairie is proof enough that the historic species are a sight worth seeing.

    The wild Cracker Horses display a cultural value and wild lifestyle on the La Chua Trail, part of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, in Gainesville.

    Amber Roux, parks service specialist for Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, said this species of horse has been living in the area since the Spanish came over to Florida more than 500 years ago.

    “The horses represent a story here on the prairie,” Roux said.

    This herd of horses was reintroduced by the Friends of Paynes Prairie to be wild on the prairie and represent their heritage, Roux said.

    The horses on the trail are completely wild, Roux said. They are not fed or groomed in any way and walk freely around the prairie.

    “We don’t take them to the vet or anything like that, they just live wild,” Roux said.

    The horses were a favorite sight for guests who took the wildlife walk a few weekends ago with Park Ranger Howard Adams. They are large, quick and strong. They vary in many colors with solids and grey as the most common, according to a Paynes Prairie fact board at the La Chua Trail.

    There are about 25 wild Cracker Horses living on the La Chua Trail, Adams said. A small group of Cracker Horses were on the trail Feb. 22 during a wildlife walk. There were seven horses in total, one just a baby foal.

    The foal was born two weeks ago, Adams said. The horses move together, especially when people got too close to them. The adult horses would surround the foal when they felt threatened by their audience.

    “They are very protective,” Adams said.

    According to the Assistant Park Manager Matt Bledsoe, the horses mostly keep to themselves and do not interact much with other animals on the prairie. 

    “I’ve seen the horses and bison hang out together on the trail, but nothing more than that,” Bledsoe said.

    The park specialists and guests encourage many members of the Gainesville community to come out to the prairie and witness these creatures first hand for themselves. Paynes Prairie maintains these horses as a cultural resource, while the horses represent a heritage that still exists in Florida.

    “It is a cool experience to see them, for sure,” Roux said


  • 12 March 2014 2:17 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Nature Gone Wild


    Documentary Video by Whitney Lavaux:



  • 11 March 2014 1:52 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Ranger at Paynes Prairie Celebrates Retirement

    By Adriana Di Graziano, UF Student


    Rangers, old friends, new friends and family: everyone was there at Prairie Creek Lodge on Sunday, March 2, to celebrate Ranger Howard Adams’ retirement.

    Adams, 65, worked as a ranger for Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park for nearly 35 years, having all kinds of responsibilities.

    “It’s been quite an adventure,” said Adams while laughing. “Everything from prescribed burning, to rounding up the Scrub Cows, chasing after horses… all sorts of things.”

    According to Adams, the prairie has grown in visibility over the years. New introductions like the camping site and the trails made Paynes Prairie more popular.

    Adams started all the trails at the prairie. His favorite one is the La Chua trail, on which he has spent many hours.

    “Been out there probably a thousand times,” Adams said.

    One of Adams favorite activities on the trail, and in life, is bird watching. Particularly in the winter, it is possible to spot many migrant birds on the La Chua trail.

    “It’s probably the best birding area in Alachua County,” Adams said. “Of course the Sandhill Crane, which is sort of the logo for the park, is probably my favorite.”

    So what now? Adams thinks he is going to travel with his wife, Barbara.

    “We’re thinking about going to Alaska,” Adams said. “As soon as we get our act together – which might take a while.”

    People at the retirement party talked about Adams. Matt Bledsoe, Assistant Manager at the park, considers Adams as a mentor.

    “He’s somebody I’d always go to because of his long-standing knowledge of the prairie,” Bledsoe said. “Being a newer person to the park here, I’d tend to go to Howard for any kind of questions.”

    With Adams retiring, the prairie is now in the capable hands of new rangers such as Amber Roux, who talks about its future.

    “We are currently working on a photo book of Paynes Prairie,” said Roux. “It's filled with wonderful photos by volunteer photographer Dominick Martino.”

    The young ranger also talked about the ongoing prescribed fires, which play a fundamental role in keeping balance in the ecosystem.

    “We are hoping for a great season ahead,” said Roux, with regards to the practice.

    The prairie will also be hosting the Fire Fest, an educational event on prescribed fires. The festival will be taking place on March 29, and the rangers are hoping for a big turnout.

    Roux said she is working with a great team of staff and she hopes the prairie will keep on improving.

    “I hope that visitors continue to enjoy and appreciate the prairie,” said Roux. “I’m confident they will.”


    Adams poses with his wife during his retirement party. The couple was

    sharing dessert after the BBQ buffet. Photo by Adriana Di Graziano

  • 11 March 2014 1:36 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Ranger Howard Leads His Last Hike

    By Cindy Kabiru, UF Student


    GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Rousing roosts of the sandhill cranes and guttural growls of the alligators enveloped hikers Saturday morning at La Chua Trail.  The undomesticated song lulled the hikers’ conversations and thoughts momentarily only to be interrupted by an Osprey sighting.

                With every walk, Ranger Howard Adams hopes to share Florida’s natural splendor with Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park visitors.  Alas, after 36 years of service to Florida Parks, Ranger Howard will retire at the end of this month.

    “To me, it has never been so much a job but a lifestyle,” he said.

    Hailing from New York, Adams has traveled around the world because of his army brat childhood.  Despite his adolescent global travels, Adams still calls Gainesville home.  After all, he has spent the majority of his life in the city.

    Prior to Paynes Prairie, Adams worked at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys for about a year.  Then in 1978, he relocated to Gainesville, where in which he has served as a park ranger for the prairie ever since.

     Park rangers are relegated a number of tasks customarily referred to as ‘the big five’: visitor services, resource management, protection, maintenance and administration.

    “I basically do multiple jobs as one position,” said Martin Jacob, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park ranger. 

    Jacob was among the trekkers that joined Ranger Howard on his last official ranger-led hike.  Assistant Park Manager, Matt Bledsoe and Park Services Specialist, Amber Roux also participated in the excursion. 

    “It’s a wildlife walk but this one is a touch more special because he’s leaving with a lot of wisdom and personal history of the park,” Roux said. 

    With the imminent onset of retirement, Adams plans to indulge in his bird-watching hobby and travel throughout Florida.  He imparts advice of the same vein to younger generations: to go out and see things.

    “We are trying to provide a natural setting for people to come out and experience wild life,” Adams said.

    Adams said he intends to resume involvement with the park at some point in the near future.  But he remains weary of social-networking sites such as Facebook – he ascribes it to his old-school ideology.   

    “Getting unplugged is important for young people today,” Adams said. “While you’re young, there is so much to see and do.”





  • 27 February 2014 2:24 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Paynes Prairie Festival to Increase Prescribed Fire Awareness

    By Marena Smith, UF Student


    Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park will host its annual Fire Fest on March 29 from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. at the visitor’s center to celebrate prescribed fire awareness.

                This outdoor event is focused on expanding the public’s knowledge about how any why prescribed fires take place in Paynes Prairie. 

    Amber Roux, parks service specialist said, a prescribed burn is a fire that the rangers set themselves with the purpose of restoring the native habitat.

    “[Paynes Prairie] is a fire-dependent ecosystem, and we still need to have fire in these systems to keep them healthy and functional,” Roux said. 

    During Fire Fest guests will be able to visit various interactive stations to learn about the tools and equipment used to conduct a prescribed burn.

    There will also be kid-friendly activities including scavenger hunts, hayrides and the appearance of Smoky Bear, according to the event flyer.

    People will have the chance to learn about the careful planning and strict rules that are necessary when conducting a prescribed burn.

    Matt Bledsoe, assistant park manager, said the rangers at Paynes Prairie prepare for a real prescribed fire by filling out prescriptions, or maps, that plan the executed path of the fire and project how far the smoke will go.

    Concerning the risks involved with intentionally setting fire to the land, experts at Paynes Prairie control the fire by keeping it within strict parameters that are a safe distance away from the nearby U.S. 441.

    “We work very closely with Florida Highway Patrol. We would not do a burn if it was projected to affect the highway,” Bledsoe said.

    At Fire Fest 2014, the rangers will not conduct an actual prescribed fire for the public, but they will provide activities that people can engage in involving fire, Bledsoe said.

    Fire Fest is a way to spread the message to the public about the safety and necessity of prescribed fire.

    Shelby Krantz, graduate student from the University of Florida College of Forest Resources and Conservation, said she would be interested in attending Fire Fest to learn more about one of Gainesville’s most important ecosystems.

     “I think there are a lot of misperceptions concerning prescribed fire. It’s important for people to know why [the prairie] is on fire, and why it’s okay for these people to do it” Krantz said.

  • 26 February 2014 2:29 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Ranger with 36 Years of Service Retires, Leaving Paynes Prairie with His Legacy

    By Nicole Wiesenthal

    Ranger Howard Adams, a man of few words and former Paynes Prairie park ranger, will not be forgotten. Instead, he will be remembered by the rangers he impacted through his 36 years of work at the park.

    Even though Adams, who has worked at Paynes Prairie for 36 years, retired last Friday, he will be remembered by park employees for his wisdom, quiet personality and ability to calmly assess situations.

    “He knows everything, and he is quite unassuming,” said park ranger Jan Powell. “He cares about the critters, plants and people, and his leaving will be a great loss to the park.”

    Adams has been with the park since its very first years. His passion and knowledge have made the park a pleasant place for rangers to work.

    Rangers at Paynes Prairie can still remember their first experiences working with Adams.

    Amber Roux, park service specialist of Paynes Prairie, quickly learned to appreciate that although Adams was wise and knowledgeable, he was also quiet and calm.

    “There’s a quiet calm around Howard, no matter what’s going on, and it resonates with you when you’re with him,” Roux said. “[It] enables you to slow down, look and listen, and experience the world around you.”

    Rangers talk about Adams with bright smiles on their faces. They mention his dependability, knowledge and calmness.

    “Even if it’s just some weird, crazy thing going on, he’s never alarmed because he’s seen it all,” said assistant park manager Matt Blesdoe. “If there’s a bison out or a horse on the road, I’ll ask him if he needs help, and he’ll think for a moment and say something like, ‘Yeah, that’d probably be good.’”

    Paynes Prairie park rangers can each tell you a favorite story about Adams, ranging from the time he sunk a tractor to the time he almost got gored by one of the long-horned cracker cattle in the park. They recognize, though, that what the park will miss most will be his knowledge and passion.

    “He still has that passion,” Blesdoe said. “Even though he’s not the most talkative person, he has a passion not found in most people.”

    Rangers believe that it will be difficult to fill the gap left behind by Adams.

    “They’ll try to hire someone who knows a tenth of the stuff he does,” Powell said.


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