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North Suncoast spotlight: Fort Cooper State Park and Dade Battlefield Historic State Park

FORT COOPER STATE PARK — The woods surrounding Lake Holathlikaha were silent on this cloudy Thursday afternoon. A lone red-shouldered hawk circled the shallow lake and called for its mate, but the cries went unanswered, adding to the eerie stillness.

"Dad, I think we are the only people here," my 8-year-old son, Kai, said as we walked along the lake's shore. "It's kind of spooky."

I smiled, glad to have an opportunity to share some Florida history.

"Perhaps," I answered. "But I don't think the ghosts will bother us as long as the sun is up."

Nia, my 6-year-old daughter, grabbed my hand. "Ghosts?"

It was in these very woods, I explained, during the spring of 1836, that Maj. Mark Anthony Cooper and five companies of the 1st Georgia Battalion of Volunteers built an impromptu stockade to protect the wounded and dying as the rest of the army marched south on the Fort King Road to Tampa.

For 16 days, Cooper and his men waited anxiously for reinforcements as Seminole warriors took potshots from the other side of the lake. Help finally arrived, and the men continued the fight in America's longest and costliest Indian war.

"There's a fort?" my son asked.

The original structure is long gone, I explained, but the park rangers built a replica of the stockade that once protected the soldiers from Seminole bullets.

"But legend has it that the Seminole War Chief Osceola's ghost still walks these woods, trying in vain, night after night, to get into the fort," I lied. "So stay close, and don't wander off the trail."

My children, both incorrigible wanderers, grabbed my hands tightly as we continued down the nature trail. The ruse worked. But the good behavior would not last.

For in addition to 5 miles of nature trails and some of the best bird watching in Citrus County, Fort Cooper has an excellent playground overlooking the spring-fed lake.

Rich in history and blessed with shady trails, this state park is an ideal day trip for Tampa Bay area residents.

Only a short drive from Fort Cooper is another place that played a major role in Florida's history, Dade Battlefield Historic State Park. On a cold winter morning in December 1835 outside of present-day Bushnell, more than 100 U.S. soldiers led by Maj. Francis L. Dade were marching from Fort Brook in Tampa to reinforce Fort King in Ocala when they were ambushed by Seminole warriors.

All but three of the soldiers and officers were killed, prompting the start of the Second Seminole War. The historic battlefield hasn't changed much over the years. The majestic live oak trees still stand tall, shading the ground where the soldiers fell. Today, visitors can stroll along a half-mile trail that meanders through pine flatwoods, home to gopher tortoises, woodpeckers and indigo snakes.

Every year, the state park holds reenactments of the historic battle. The next ones are scheduled for this Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $5 for those 6 years of age and older. Children under 6 are free.

FAST FACTS

If you go

Fort Cooper State Park: Located just off U.S. Highway 41, on South Old Floral City Road, 2 miles south of Inverness. For information, call (352) 726-0315.

Dade Battlefield Historic State Park: Located off Interstate 75 and State Road 48, west of U.S. 301. For information, call (352) 793-4781.

North Suncoast spotlight: Fort Cooper State Park and Dade Battlefield Historic State Park 12/31/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 31, 2009 3:30am]

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