Ocala and Marion County have been called by many names over the centuries from Ocali and Brick City to Kingdom of the Sun and Horse Capital of the World™. The rich history of the area spans back before recorded civilization to modern milestones, creating a story like no other.
One of the earliest people to inhabit the area were the Timucuan Indians, whose culture was mentioned in the writings of Hernando de Soto, a Spanish explorer who toured the area in 1539. While their exact location in Marion County is unknown, Hernando’s notes refer to the area, which was one of the Timucuan’s largest chiefdoms, as “Ocali.”
Through the various Spanish, French and English wars and continued contact with the Europeans and their new diseases, the Timucuan and those native populations who followed them, had been decimated by the mid 1700s.
When the United States purchased Florida from Spain in 1821, the many settlers relocating to the area found the new territory inhabited by Seminole Indians, which included Indians and runaway slaves from Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. The rich lands were perfect for American farmers’ needs, and in spite of attempts by the Indians to live in peaceful co-existence, troubles began and the United States embarked on a long and costly struggle to remove the Indians.
In 1827, Fort King, located about three miles east of downtown Ocala, became an important military post and was the site for many dramatic events during the Seminole War of 1835-1842. The original site of the fort was recently discovered and named a National Historic Site.
After the Second Seminole War in 1842, the Armed Occupation Act encouraged settlers to move into Florida by offering 160 acres of free land. Many of these early settlers came from South Carolina, where their local Revolutionary War hero was General Francis Marion, “The Swamp Fox.” For this reason, Marion was chosen as the name when the area officially became a county on March 25, 1844.
Prior to this, Marion County had been a part of Alachua, Mosquito (Orange) and Hillsborough counties. Florida became a state in 1845 and the first county commission passed a resolution on February 19, 1846 naming Ocala, a modification of the Timucuan name, as the county seat.
With warm mild winters and an abundance of sunshine, greater Ocala became known as “Kingdom of the Sun.” Agriculture thrived in the mid-1800s and Marion County quickly became the hub of a rapidly growing state, thanks to the abundance of tobacco, rice, sugar cane, cotton and cattle.
Rail service reached Ocala in 1881, completing a connection with river boat transportation, and drove economic development in the county.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1883, a fire demolished the heart of Ocala, destroying four blocks of buildings, including the courthouse, five hotels and all of the principal business on the east side of the city. An ever-resilient community found this to be a blessing in disguise and wooden buildings were replaced by brick structures, labeling Ocala as the “Brick City” when reconstruction was completed in 1888.
The citrus industry experienced limited growth but after several detrimental freezes in the 1890s, the industry moved further south. Phosphate was discovered in 1891 when a farmer found large deposits of rock and fossils on his land, in the area now known as Dunnellon, and sparked a mining boom unrivaled in Florida history.
The turpentine industry was also booming and a distillery was established in a wet hammock of pine near Silver Springs. Land owners would rent their property covered in longleaf pine to still operators to extract turpentine and rosins which were used to caulk holes in wooden boats and coat riggings so that they would last longer on the ocean.
Agriculture continued to rebound, thanks in large part to limestone rich soil which helped produce the best grass in the country for cattle and horses. At the turn of the century, Ocala was one of the largest towns in Florida and home to the first Florida attraction, Silver Springs, which became an international tourist draw as the largest artesian spring in the world.
When Carl G. Rose came to Florida in 1916 to oversee the first asphalt road constructed in Florida, the company ran into problems with the asphalt due to the sandy nature of the area soil. The road problems were fixed using limestone, which was now an abundant resource. Rose knew that limestone is a good source of nutrition for raising horses so he bought land along State Road 200 in 1935 and soon after, Rosemere Farm became the first Thoroughbred farm in Marion County. In 1944, one of his horses became the first Ocala, Florida-raised thoroughbred to win a Florida race held at Miami’s Tropical Park.
Bonnie Heath Farm soon followed. This breeding and training operation would gain recognition as a cornerstone of Marion County’s early Thoroughbred industry thanks to a colt who almost didn’t survive an early bout with pneumonia. In 1956, this virtually unknown 3-year-old thoroughbred, named Needles, won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, and Marion County became a focus for the racing world.
The area is proud to claim 39 Florida Bred National Champions, including Affirmed, the last horse to win the Triple Crown (1978), Holy Bull, the 1994 North American Horse of the Year and Ocala-born Afleet Alex, the recent winner of the 2005 Preakness and Belmont Stakes in New York. The area remains as the top breeding center in the nation where many future champions are broken and trained.
Over the years, the success of the Thoroughbred industry attracted many other breed owners, and Marion County is now home to hundreds of horse farms of every type, coloring the personality of the area. Top of breed examples include two-time winner of the coveted American Quarter Horse title “Super Horse,” Rugged Lark, of Bo-Bett Farm and U.S. Reserve National Champion, H Embrace H, from Top Arabian Leading Owner, Hennessey Arabian.
As the home to over 900 farms, breeding and training facilities with over 54 different breeds represented and nearly 29,000 residents employed in the county's Thoroughbred industry alone, it is easy to see why so many equestrians flock to Ocala/Marion County - Horse Capital of the World™. Marion County earned this title when it was read into Congressional record in 1999 and the U.S. Department of Agriculture put its seal of approval on promotions using that label since the USDA's Census of Agriculture continues to show that Marion leads all U.S. counties in total number of horses and ponies in residence.