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Hillsborough River State Park History

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Being the 75th anniversary of the Florida Parks, each week we get a different historical note on the email. Here is the latest, which is very interesting about the early history of Hillsborough River State Park .

I know the park well and have been there many times. We had some great living history events at Fort Foster in the 1990s. I don’t get there as much as I once did, since I moved far to the south and have to work weekends. The fort was reconstructed in the mid or late 1970s, and this does not deal with the fort.

Hillsborough River is one of nine state parks built by the CCC / WPA in the 1930s. You can still see much of the CCC construction around the park. What I didn't know, was that the stone picnic tables in the picnic area were not built by the CCC, but by the park superintendent about 10 years later. He made the tables from cutting up big lime rock boulders along highway 301. The history included park oral histories from the early superintendents mentioned below, but are pdf files, and too long to put here. (One is 9 pages handwritten, and I am not about to transcribe it today.) One thing that hasn't changed: We are still only paid once a month.

Below: Drinking fountain, 1946. Early ammenities constructed by a creative park superintendent.

Subject: Weekly Florida State Park History Note #28 (by Phillip Werndli)


We are fortunate to have historical accounts of two individuals who worked at Hillsborough River State Park in its early years. Charles Stanphill was a park ranger at the park from 1939 – 1941 and Joseph Brown was superintendent from 1946-1949. These gentlemen were interviewed by staff at Hillsborough River in the early 1990s and were written down.

Stanphill remembered Oscar E. Baynard the park superintendent at the time and that there was another ranger Tom Lewis. He describes the river as “crystal clear” and that you could see arrowheads on the bottom and that fish were plentiful. He described big-wheeled carts that were available for visitors to carry the supplies to the picnic area. Joe Brown also describes the same carts and called them “Army Mules.” The park was open until 10:00 PM and when Charlie needed to do late gate, he would pitch a tent in the area where the present shop is located and spend the night. Visitors to the park were allowed to bring liquor and beer and which resulted in some problems. Stanphill built a two sided display near the river swimming area which featured drawings of the flowers in the park with their common and scientific names. He reported that a “big wheel” from Tallahassee came to the park and saw the display. When he found out that Stanphill did the work he offered to help the ranger get more education. However World War II started and Stanphill went to war. After the war he worked in constructing and later retired as a maintenance man from the Hillsborough County School System.

Joe Brown began his career with the Florida Board of Forestry in public relations and worked fairs to help promote state parks. He served as park superintendent from 1946-1949 and for a short time worked as superintendent at Highlands Hammock when he switched with Guy Van Dunn. He eventually went to work to the National Park Service where he retired. Brown tells about being sent to an outdoor education training program in New Jersey. Using that training he participated in the development of outdoor education programs at the park establishing a “natural camp” at Cedars Landing. The park built bamboo shelters with canvas coverings to be used by the campers. The park offered summer camp programs for 4th, 5th and 6th graders from Plant City Elementary School. The students came during the week and learned outdoor skills like making fishing poles, cooking and camp craft.

Brown tells us that working at the park was a family affair. Family members of the workers would help with anything that needed doing in the park. He notes the Carol Beck worked with him and lived there. While superintendent he oversaw the construction of the park’s stone picnic tables. During his time at the park they published a newsletter to tell visitors what was happening at the park.

Here are some excepts from the newsletters from 1946-47:


“In the parking area you will find some green carts which you can use to carry your belongings into the picnic area. After you have unloaded, please return the carts.”


“Do you know that our woods have many things that can be used for decorative material? Today, at the canteen, you’ll find a display of some of the many which can be found in the woods in Florida .”


“Have you seen the big live oak on the nature loop? This tree is estimated to be about 900 years old and is peculiar because of the large swellings on it’s trunk. You will find the Nature Loop on the other side of the Suspension Bridge.”


“We have three rangers in the park. They are Mr. John Chambers, Mr. Carl Mahon and Mr. Dana Miller. Today you’ll find Mr. Mahon on duty. He’ll be wearing a “Frank Buck” hat.”


“Miss Beck, our state park Botanist will be at the canteen building throughout the afternoon to take those of you who would like to know more about the things of nature found in the park, on trips over the trails. The first trip will leave at 2:00 PM and the second at 4:00 PM. Miss Beck will make more trips, if necessary, to accommodate all.”

A final note, Joe Brown also mentioned the problems with drinking in the park. In the spring of 1946 the park instituted a no beer and liquor policy which was announced in the newsletters.

The photos are from 1950 and 1946.

Hope you enjoyed in glimpse into a park in the 1940s.
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