On a hilltop about 3.5 miles from Silver Springs, Fort King once served as a buffer between settlers moving to the territory of Florida and the Native Americans who called the land their home.
The Fort King Heritage Association, Inc. is moving forward with initiatives to bring history to life for Ocala locals and visitors through a partnership with the city of Ocala and the Marion County commissioners, said Morrey Deen, member of the Fort King Heritage Association Inc. board of directors.
This includes the addition of land to the Fort King National Historic Landmark park, rebuilding the original fort and new educational programs for park visitors.
The fort, built in 1827, also served as headquarters during the Seminole Wars. This is a portion of American history frequently left out of the books, Deen said.
“All of this stuff has not really been studied to the degree it needs to be,” Deen said. “It hasn’t really been told to the degree it needs to be, and we’re going to have the opportunity to do that and more because there’s a lot of significance.”
Fort King Heritage Association is in the process of finalizing a $100,000 deal for two acres of land that will be added to the Fort King National Historic Landmark, said Henry Sheldon, the association’s president.
“We committed $20,000 from our reserve fund and we were awarded an $80,000 grant from the Felburn Foundation for the difference,” Sheldon said. “Upon closure, the property will be deeded to the city of Ocala and Marion County.”
The long-term plans for the land include a new visitor center and park entrance, Deen said. Entrance to the park is free, so these plans, which are expected to take about ten years, will be funded through benefactors, grants and fundraisers.
“Most folks think that our heritage is Disney World and the beaches,” Deen said. “They don’t know that we’ve had some of the richest history like other parts of the country, so this is going to be significant.”
The land purchase is one of many exciting things happening right now with the Fort King National Historic Landmark, Deen said.
The association applied for a matching grant from the state of Florida in order to begin constructing a replica of the fort.
“If the grant that we have right now continues to come through, it will allow us to get a major start because it’s going to give us enough funding to actually build the walls,” Deen said. “If it comes through, this time next year we could be looking at some walls.”
Rebuilding the fort is just one of the ways in which history is being brought back to life in Ocala. The park hosted educational children’s camps last summer, which is now being extended to classrooms and after school programs.
Sarah Damien, outdoor programming director for the City of Ocala Recreation and Parks, just rolled out a trial educational program in February.
The two-day program is funded by the city and combines history with archeology to teach fourth and fifth graders about the Fort King site, Damien said.
She said she hopes to involve re-enactors and bring more students to the site of the fort in the future.
“I think it’s key to come here and learn about it because the kids that are learning about history don’t feel a real connection to it because it’s so far removed,” Damien said. “But when you have a physical site here, and when you have all the things that they can be in the presence of, it makes learning history stick.”
Like other national landmarks, Fort King was acquired to prevent commercial development on a historical site.
“We are not developing Fort King for the express purpose of creating new jobs,” Sheldon said. “We are doing it to preserve and protect a nationally important historical landmark.”
Sheldon said he anticipates that in the future, the fully developed Fort King National Historic Landmark site will become a central Florida eco-tourism destination and generate many new jobs in the area.
Preservation of this site is a way to memorialize a chapter in American history many do not know about, Deen said.
“We as a country owe our future generations to know about our heritage,” Deen said. “Some kids coming here don’t have much of a family heritage. But nothing says we can’t give them a community heritage.”