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Little more than a hundred years ago, the Ridge was a wilderness dotted with lakes and streams. For centuries, it was the unchallenged domain of various Native American tribes. Florida was home to more than 350,000 Native Americans when European explorers first sailed to the New World. The Native Americans lived off the land; hunting, fishing, gathering seeds, and gardening. But 200 years after the founding of St. Augustine in 1565, the Native American people were almost completely destroyed by European diseases, warfare, and slavery.

In the mid-1700s Native Americans came south into the area from Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas. The Spanish called them Seminoles. Pioneers from northern United States began to drift southward into Florida, the land of flowers. When Florida became a territory in 1821, the national policy of removing Native Americans to western states sparked three major conflicts. The Seminoles fled south into the Everglades.

Cattle ranching became one of Florida's main industries, with ranchers from central Florida providing beef for the Confederacy during the Civil War. About the same time, came the growth of an industry that would soon rival ranching -- citrus.

Lake Sirena A team refreshes at Lake Sirena in Highlands County, circa 1918. Up to 85 feet deep, Lake Sirena's waters are still crystal clear.

With the introduction of the railroad the production of citrus fruit for export took a big step forward, as did the growing of other produce. In 1901 an old-timer said, "A few years ago, dwellers in the flatwoods laughed to scorn those who planted orange groves in the higher lands. As one expressed it, 'Those miserable old sandhills are good for nothing but to get lost in.' Patiently those pioneers kept at their work, too busy to listen to these croakings, and with too much faith in their own good judgment to be discouraged by them. Now the hills are dotted with dwellings and green with orange groves." It was only a few decades later that writer John McPhee noted, "It is the most intense concentration of citrus in the world," despite the fact that citrus production was at the mercy of occasional killing freezes.

The " iron horse" also boosted other industries, such as naval stores and hungry lumber mills. Resin was extracted from old growth longleaf pines and used to produce tar, pitch, turpentine, and rosin. Some trees still bear V-shaped scars where their trunks were tapped for turpentine-producing sap. Lumber mills flourished during the early part of the century. Rot-resistant and impervious to salt water, wood from longleaf pines has long been valued for boat building and housing construction. The longleaf pine forest never recovered.

The land boom of the mid-1920s saw salespeople lining the railroad station waiting for their prospects, extolling the virtues of Florida real estate. But the boom of 1925 turned into the bust of 1926. And the Great Depression followed soon after.

Tourism had begun in the 1800s and steadily increased. By the turn of the century, the railroads were making Florida available to everyone. Florida continues to be one of the fastest growing states in the nation.