Marion County history begins before recorded civilization. Evidence of early man is found by remnants of pottery, weapons, jewelry and bones. The largest artesian water system (by flow) in the world, Silver Springs has been the site of discoveries of the traces of early man as well as the mastodon, mammoth and saber toothed tiger.
The Timucua Indians were one of the earlier peoples to inhabit the area. The Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, mentioned their culture in his writings about his expedition in 1539. The largest of their villages was called “Ocali”, however, its exact location in Marion County is unknown. By the mid 1700’s, the Timucuas had been decimated due to contact with the Europeans and disease.
In 1821, Spain ceded Florida to the United States, and settlers immediately began to pour into this frontier area. The Seminole, a name applied to peoples of the Lower Creek from Georgia and later the Upper Creek of Alabama inhabited the new territory. Conflicts between the United States and the Indians were found even before the First Seminole War in 1817. Fort King, located near SE 36th Avenue and Fort King Street in Ocala, became an important military post, first occupied in 1827. The fort was at the center of events that led to the Second Seminole Indian War in 1835. With the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the United States embarked on the removal of the Indians from Florida.
In an effort to control the Seminole, the Armed Occupation Act of 1842 encouraged white settlers to move into Florida, offering 160 acres free to eager settlers. Many early pioneers came from South Carolina, where their local revolutionary war hero was General Francis Marion “The Swamp Fox”. He led a guerrilla band that helped keep the British from conquering the South.. For this reason, on March 25, 1844, Marion was chosen as the name of the county. Florida became a state in 1845, and Marion County was one of the first names confirmed at the first meeting of the assembly. Marion County was quickly the hub of a rapidly growing state. Tobacco, rice, sugar cane, cotton and cattle flourished. In 1846 the county seat was platted and named “Ocala”.
During the Civil War, Florida and Marion County played a major role by furnishing the Confederacy with needed provisions. However due to the privations of war and Union shipping blockades, the growth and development of Marion County stood still during the Civil War.
The latter part of the 1800’s saw increased growth in the area. Between 1871 and 1875 the citrus industry began in Marion County and saw the development of the “Parson Brown” and “Pineapple” oranges. The discovery of phosphate prompted another land boom which is commemorated every year by “Boomtown Days” in Dunnellon. By 1890 Ocala was one of the largest towns in Florida. Silver Springs had become an international tourist draw and the first Florida tourist attraction.
In November 1881, a Fire destroyed the heart of Ocala. Four blocks of buildings were destroyed, including the courthouse five hotels and all of the principal businesses. The wooden buildings replaced by brick structures, resulting in Ocala being known as “Brick City”.
By 1925, Ocala was considered Central Florida’s most progressive area. Agricultural products and cattle, turpentine and timber, and the richness of the limestone based soil was a major contributor to the vigor of the farming economy.
The rich grazing, rolling hills, and year round pastures not available in other states, contributed to the development of the Thoroughbred industry in Marion County. The first Thoroughbred farm, “Rosemere”, was established in 1935. In 1956, an unknown three year old named “Needles” won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, and Marion County became a focus for the racing world. Marion County boasts over 1,000 farms and training centers including approximately 450 Thoroughbred farms, and is home to nearly 50 different horse breeds. In 1999, Ocala/Marion County was recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture census as the “Horse Capital of the World” and as having more horses and ponies than any other county in the nation. Nearly 29,000 residents are employed in the county’s Thoroughbred industry alone. This unique rural character combined with the Thoroughbred industry puts Ocala/Marion County in the elite company of Lexington, Kentucky; Newmarket, England; and Chantilly, France as the major Thoroughbred centers in the world. The Florida Thoroughbred industry has to date produced 41 North American champions, 18 Breeders’ Cup champions and 6 Kentucky Derby winners, including 1997 winner Silver Charm. Florida-bred Affirmed captured the Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes) in 1978. Florida bred Skip Away was the 1998 North American Horse of the Year and Florida-Bred Beautiful Pleasure was named the North American Champion Older Female in 1999. In addition, Marion County is the home of many other champions, including locally bred Rugged Lark, a two-time winner of the coveted American Quarter Horse “Super Horse” title.
Marion County is known not only for its horses, but other livestock as well. It is one of Florida’s main cattle-producing areas as well as hog, sheep, and chicken production. A wide variety of crops thrive on more than a million acres of county farmland. Farms produce blueberries, cantaloupe, peanuts, watermelons, wheat, corn, soybeans, and hay. Honey production is a thriving business. Nearly 2,000 county residents are employed in agriculture.
Up until 1970, when the county’s population was less than 70,000, agriculture, citrus groves, timber and cattle were the foundation on which the area’s economy was based. Raising crops and livestock are still important factors in the economic equation, but today industry, the breeding of horses and tourism account for the most dramatic growth.
Marion County is often called the crossroads of Florida. Its location in the north-central part of the state puts it within an hour or two of major metropolitan areas. Ocala is at the hub of the system of federal and state highways that crisscross the county. The area provides easy access to Interstate 75 for north/south travel, to U.S. highways 27, 301, and 441, and State Roads 484, 475, 464, 40, and 200, which connect Ocala with points east to the Atlantic and west to the Gulf of Mexico. Greyhound bus line provides daily passenger and package express service. The Ocala Regional Airport is a general aviation facility that offers private and charter flight services, as well as a business aircraft terminal. This general aviation airport has expanded to include an FAA Aircraft Rescue Firefighting Training Facility and an emergency response driver’s training center.