Today, Ocala and Marion County are collectively known as “horse country,” but the area has an even older reputation for being the agricultural heart of the South.
During the Civil War, Florida became known as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” with Marion County leading the state in agricultural production and diversity. While the men were off fighting battles, women and slaves cleared the land, raised crops and livestock, and turned Ocala into an agriculture powerhouse: according to the 1860 US Agricultural Census, there were an astounding 400 working farms among the county’s 8,609 residents, and their produce was shipped from the Ocklawaha and Withlacoochee Rivers all over the South.
With the increase of rail lines in the 1880s Marion County’s farmers were able to export beyond regional markets. In previous decades farmers had access to the Florida Railroad, which ran from Fernandina to Cedar Key, via Archer and Wacahoota stations, but for many the trip could take as long as a day. Others loaded crates on steamboats at Alachua Lake to be shipped by rail through Gainesville. But by the late 1880s the whole country was thick with rail lines and Marion County’s farmers could easily ship their produce all over America. The ease of shipment led to an explosion in crop diversity: the area’s farmers produced high-demand crops like alfalfa, corn, eggplants, beets, cabbage, sugar cane, peppers, and even exotic varieties like Chinese peaches and German millet. Ocala’s agricultural boom was so impressive that in 1889 the city hosted the Florida International and Semi-Tropical Exposition, a 40-acre national convention of the Farmers Alliance that was written up in newspapers across the country.
A series of freezes at the turn of the 20th century devastated the area’s crops, but Marion County’s farmers replanted persistently enough to keep the local economy afloat until after World War II when many returning veterans sold their land and turned to other occupations. It was then that thoroughbred owners across the country began to discover that the rich resources of Central Florida could be used for more than growing crops, and “the Breadbasket of Florida” was reborn as “The Horse Capital of the World.”
Click here to navigate to the Ocala Star Banner’s intriguing and revealing profile for the full story of how Marion County fed the Confederacy and how today’s farms continue to support the local and regional economy.