Long Key Natural Area is part of a land complex historically known as Sam Jones’s Seven Islands. During a military expedition in January 1841, an engineer accompanying Colonel Harney described the regiment’s encounter at Sam Jones’s Seven Islands:
"Sam Jones’s possessions consist of a group of several islands, differing in size and separated by narrow slices. Upon the largest of these [Long Key], is about one hundred and fifty yards in width and half a mile in length, are three villages and dancing-grounds, the general features being the same as Chitto’s Island [probably Chitto Tustengugge Island, i.e. Snake Warrior Island], but the soil sandy. There are no villages on the other islands, but they have been cleared in the center and planted with pumpkins, melons, and corn, which were all destroyed. Our greatest annoyance at this place was the immense number of fleas, cockroaches, and mosquitoes." (Brooks, 1880)
The current Long Key Natural Area site occupies a large portion of this historic island complex. Records of human settlement on Long Key (what is now part of Long Key Natural Area), the largest of the islands, dates back to at least 1000 B.C.E. with the Tequesta Indians. During the 19th century, the string of islands west of Fort Lauderdale became some of the first permanent settlement sites of the Seminole Indians.
During the tenure of Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, the State of Florida vigorously pursued the drainage of the Everglades for the purpose of creating dry land for settlement and cultivation. In 1906, Colorado tycoon R.P. Davie purchased 27,500 acres of Everglades for $2 an acre from the state’s Internal Improvement Fund. Much of this land encompassed the small farming settlement of “Zona” (present-day Davie), named by Panama Canal workers who organized the Zona Glades Company in 1912. Subdividing his land into 10-acre parcels, R.P. Davie advertised his fertile muck lands to investors throughout the country.
One pioneering family who took advantage of the booming agriculture industry of the early 1920s in Davie was the Chaplan family. The Chaplans owned property in present-day Tree Tops Park and Pine Island Ridge, and a portion of the Long Key Ridge, one section of which was next to the Kapok Tree restaurant site, which was constructed at a later date. The Chaplan/Scism families established a nursery business (in and around the western oak hammock) and cattle pasture on the property. The Chaplans later subdivided their land holdings and sold off five-acre citrus tracts, including acreage for the future Flamingo Groves operation. Flamingo Groves, located directly across from the present-day Long Key Natural Area, was founded in 1926. Another buyer Chaplan sold his acreage to was Dr. Baez. Baez built two houses in the interior eastern hammock, one of which still stands. The citrus groves at Long Key Natural Area site are believed to have been planted in the 1940s. The Chaplans' nursery and citrus operations are still evident in the remnant citrus groves left on the site.
Beginning in 1966, the appearance of the site changed as construction of Pioneer City (1966-1971), a western-themed park, began. Pioneer City had constructed a fairly elaborate transportation system. There was a stagecoach, ferry, and train operations set up within the site. The southernmost portion of the site was used as a parking lot. Although the area has grown over, pavement and road materials are still evident. From this parking entrance, ferry boats would launch in the horseshoe pond and loop around the interior perimeter of the site.
Another means of accessing the site was by train. The train went through the interior of the hammock and also headed west around the perimeter of the hammock. Remnants of this system exist today, evident in ditches running through the hammock and old timber logs used for tracks.
By 1974, Pioneer City had been abandoned, and the Kapok Tree restaurant (1974-1987) had taken its place (Broward County Engineering Division, 1974). The main building of the restaurant was constructed in place of the old theme park. The hammock adjacent to the northwest corner of the building became a viewing garden. Sidewalks were constructed and exotic vegetation planted. Lights were added in the trees and cages with birds.
The parking lot in the south was no longer used and became overgrown with weeds. The canals used for the ferry system of Pioneer City, located along the northern portion of the site, were filled in. A bridge was constructed over the southern canal that connected the two lakes. By 1976, construction of the Kapok Tree restaurant was completed (Broward County Engineering Division, 1976). Trails originated from the building, leading to circles of large decorative columns and gazebos. A parking lot was paved to the west of the main building, and the open areas were landscaped. The restaurant closed in 1987 and was demolished soon after.
All of these ventures still influence the current natural area site. Although the Baez home in the southeastern hammock across from the eastern citrus grove is the only structure still standing, the land shows evidence of the previous operations it once supported. From the clearings of the Seminole Indians within the oak hammocks, the trails left from old train routes in Pioneer City, and the citrus groves remnants, the historical human impact of the site is still evident.
Using funds from the 1989 bond issue, Broward County purchased 151 acres in 1990. The site was used for naturalist-led tours and educational programs. A wood-chipped equestrian trail running east and west on the site was installed in areas known not to be sensitive. This trail is connected to the Town of Davie’s open-space trail system.
In the election held on November 7, 2000, 74 percent of the voters approved Broward County’s Safe Parks and Land Preservation Bond Referendum. A portion of this money ($6.8 million) was spent on the construction of the nature center.
On August 9, 2006, the groundbreaking ceremony for Long Key Nature Center was held and soon after construction began. The nature center includes an assembly hall, an exhibit hall, a classroom, a theater, offices, and restrooms. A bridge spanning a restored wetland connects the nature center to a pedestrian nature trail.
On March 14, 2008, Long Key Nature Center held its grand opening. Since its opening, it has been the site of many activities such as hiking, birdwatching, scout projects, meetings, and weddings, to name a few.
Brooks, Abbie M. 1880. Petals Plucked From Sunny Climes. By Silvia Sunshine. Southern Methodist Publishing House. Nashville, TN. Pp. 245-251.
Broward County Engineering Division. February 12, 1974. Aerial photographs for T50, R40 Section 23. Scale: 1”=300’. Fort Lauderdale. Broward County, FL.
Broward County Engineering Division. March 11, 1976. Aerial photographs for T50, R40 Section 23. Scale: 1”=300’. “Bosworth Aerial Surveys Inc. Fort Lauderdale. Broward County, FL.