Cherry Lake is a small community located less than five miles from the Georgia State Line in Madison County. It has been home to one of the state’s most vibrant 4-H summer camp programs since 1937, but it was a hub of activity long before that time.
According to Dr. Alonzo Blalock, who grew up in the area during the mid-1800s, Native Americans originally called Cherry Lake by the name “Ocklawilla.” The terrain surrounding the lake was well-suited for farming, and as more American settlers began venturing into Florida in the 1820s and 1830s, several selected Ocklawilla as the place to make their fortunes. Lucius A. Church, a New Hampshire native and former Georgia merchant, moved into the area around 1830 and bought up two thousand acres of land for a plantation. Other early settlers included the families of William L. Tooke and Reddin W. Parramore. Both of these men were from North Carolina, but spent time in Georgia before moving south into Florida. By 1837, the local post office carried the name “Cherry Lake.” The name stems from the presence of wild cherry trees near the water’s edge, according to Allen Morris’ book of Florida place names.
Several collections at the State Library & Archives touch on Cherry Lake’s history through the years. Members of the community who served the Confederate Army during the Civil War and later received a pension from the state, for example, may be traced through our collection of Confederate Pension Applications. The application below was filed by Thomas J. Blalock, who lived near Cherry Lake when the war broke out.
Cherry Lake was also at times the headquarters of a voting precinct, and at least two militia units were formed there. The muster roll below, for example, lists the members of a company of volunteer militiamen commanded by Captain Charles Williamson. The unit formed at Cherry Lake in September 1870.
During the Great Depression, Cherry Lake became the scene of a more profound development. As the American economy continued to spiral downward in the early 1930s, the federal government embarked on an unprecedented series of projects to jumpstart economic activity – President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) was one of several agencies coordinating this work. In the early 1930s, FERA bought up 15,000 acres on the shores of Cherry Lake and made plans for a community to house families resettled from crowded urban areas. The idea was to develop the land into a farm and industrial plant that would sustain the inhabitants and help take pressure off the cities. By 1935, well over a hundred families had been relocated to Cherry Lake from Tampa, Jacksonville, Miami, and elsewhere. Officially, the new settlement was called the Cherry Lake Rehabilitation Project. This was later shortened to “Cherry Lake Farms,” which was the name given to the post office in December 1935.
The community had everything it needed – roadways, water, electricity, a meat market, a general store, public meeting spaces, and housing. FERA and the Cherry Lake settlers tried several avenues for making the community profitable. At first, they tried raising sugar cane. The project was not successful, so they moved on to raising grapes. This too failed to pass muster, but residents had some luck manufacturing furniture and small crafts. Chairs, desks, tables, and other home furniture were constructed, along with ashtrays, table pads, artificial flowers, and other articles for sale.
Life at Cherry Lake wasn’t all about hard work, of course. The residents made regular use of the settlement’s spacious auditorium, hosting plays, picture shows, and first-rate musical entertainments. According to eminent Madison County historian Edwin Browning’s account of Cherry Lake Farms, even the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and bandleaders Chick Webb and Jan Garber were featured on that stage in its heyday.
Most of the Cherry Lake infrastructure returned to private ownership during and after World War II. Many of the residents returned to their former homes or moved elsewhere. A few families stayed in the area. The state’s 4-H program began leasing a 12-acre tract of land on the west side of the lake for camp operations around 1937. That property was later acquired outright for 4-H purposes, and remains a headquarters for year-round 4-H activities today.
Are you researching the history of a Florida community? How about your family’s Florida roots? The State Library & Archives have the resources to help you find what you need. Search Florida Memory for documents and media in digital format, search the Library Catalog for rare Florida publications, or plan a visit to our research facility in Tallahassee. Have a question about our collections? Not sure what you’re looking for? Contact us by email at Archives@dos.myflorida.com and let us know how we can help.