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Sunday Favorites: Carlton Reserve


The 80 miles of recreational hiking trails at Carlton Reserve owe their existence to Mabry Carlton, a fifth-generation Floridian with a visionary outlook. Carlton, a Sarasota County Commissioner, and rancher, owned a farm adjacent to what is now the Carlton Reserve. Unlike traditional cattle herders, he used a small plane instead of a horse to manage his herd. While flying, he often admired a piece of land to the west of his property, believing it should be protected. This insight was shared by John McCarthy, former Director of Sarasota Parks and Recreation, in a 2004 speech to the Manatee County Historical Society.

A turpentine still in Florida.
A turpentine still in Florida.

During Carlton's time, developers were rapidly purchasing farmland in eastern Sarasota County. Carlton anticipated that rising property values would soon make large land acquisitions by the government unfeasible. He recognized that suburban expansion would continue eastward to accommodate a growing population, making the protection of the land urgent.

The land Carlton admired was then owned by the MacArthur Foundation, one of the largest foundations in the United States. The foundation had acquired the property from the Ringling brothers, famed for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, who had invested in extensive tracts of land during the 1920s.

According to historic maps, the property was originally owned by a man named Woodward, who ran a handful of turpentine camps during the early 1900s. As the story goes, Woodward lost a card game to one of the Ringling brothers and had to relinquish ownership of the Carlton Reserve property. This property not only represented a financial asset but also served practical purposes; circus workers hunted game to feed the lions and tigers and grew corn for other performing animals, as McCarthy noted.

The Ringling brothers once hoped the land would yield oil. As McCarthy recounted, despite purchasing equipment and generating local newspaper excitement, the venture failed, producing only “worthless” water.

Before turpentine camps were established, the property served as grazing land for local cattle. At certain times of the year, cow hunters (a term preferred over "cowboys" in Florida) would round up the cattle for slaughter, identifying them by distinctive brands on their hides.

Carlton took this history into account when he pitched his idea to the county commission in 1982. With his advocacy, the commission negotiated a price with the MacArthur Foundation for 24,000 acres and held a special election where voters approved the $30 million in general obligation bonds needed for the mortgage, according to official county documents.

By 2004, the county had already paid off the mortgage, McCarthy said. "I can tell you it was dirt cheap," he noted. "We would never be able to afford it today."

Before the purchase was finalized, Carlton tragically died in a plane crash while flying over his herd. Recognizing his crucial role in the acquisition, the county decided to dedicate the property to him.

Around the same time, other organizations like the Crowley Nature Center, Southwest Water Management District, and the State of Florida were also purchasing adjoining lands for various purposes.

Carlton Reserve connects with Myakka River State Park at "Myakka Island," a lush green hammock amid miles of lowland. Together with lands owned by the Crowley Nature Center and the Southwest Water Management District, Carlton Reserve now forms more than 33,000 acres of protected land.

In historical texts, Myakka Island is also known as Clay Gully. It was formed in 1885  when Old Miakka pioneer John Crowley sought to shorten the route of the Miakka River. Using a black and white ox, a plow, and his helper Jasper Harris, Crowley plowed a ditch from a bend in the river to Mossy Island Run, a small stream about a third of a mile away. This created a shortcut, allowing rainy season overflow to carve out a channel to Upper Lake, thus speeding up water flow. Harris cut roots while Crowley plowed, according to "Old Miakka History" by Allen Crowley. 

Ironically, much of this land, initially deemed worthless by the Ringling brothers' failed oil-drilling venture, was set aside as a source of drinking water to sustain growth. Today, Sarasota purchases about half its drinking water from Manatee County, while the other half comes from 11-12 underground wells, 400 feet deep, McCarthy explained.

The park officially opened on Sept. 3, 1996. The welcome center, a historic log cabin rescued by the Historical Resource Department before being razed, was added a few years later. Carlton Reserve now serves as a recreational area offering hiking, horseback riding, camping, birdwatching, and other activities. It also provides a vital habitat for a variety of wildlife, including birds, reptiles, bobcats, bears, and even the elusive Florida panther.


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