White Oak Walk-A-Bout

by: Davis Yancy Clegg

Conservation has been on the front lines of government and private agendas for quite some time. As we evolve, we inflict changes on our planet that must be countered by an effort to save the lives of the ecosystems which we infringe upon. Spending much of my life in the rural parts of Mississippi, I was among the wildlife. One thing is for certain. It is most decidedly worth saving. At a glance it’s easy to take the crane outside your kitchen window perched on a post for granted. Thanks to the efforts of places like White Oak Plantation, we can see firsthand many of the species that are no longer in abundance.


View at White Oak Plantation, Florida

View around the White Oak Plantation, FL


White Oak has been around for much longer than most visitors and Florida folk realize. The earliest history of White Oak was recorded back on April 16, 1768. It was then when the British governor of Florida made a decision to give land that runs along the St. Mary’s River to a man named Andrew Way. He did so via a land grant. However, Way was not the only one to receive parts of the area in the grant. Jermyn Wright did as well. Just a few years after this, Wright purchased Andrew Way’s portion of the land. In the beginning, the plantation served a much different purpose than it does today. It was an important source of timber, and provided food stores for the navy vessels that traveled along the river coming to and from the naval base. The plantation was riddled with stands of cypress in the more swampy areas. After Wright removed these, he began cultivating rice (quite well it turns out). He had formed the southern-most rice plantation on the entire Atlantic coast. This carried on into the 1830′s. In 1833, a pre-Civil War agricultural baron name Zephaniah Kingsley had bought the plantation. The plantation sold once again in 1842. This time it was bought by Abraham Bessent. He was a shopkeeper who lived in St. Mary’s, GA which is fairly close to White Oak. It wasn’t just rice and timber he was purchasing though. The sale also included all the Machinery used on the property as well as 109 slaves. Their names all were listed on the deed as part of the sale.

Horse Staples at White Oak Plantation, FloridaWhite Oak was host to nearly 350 acres of rice paddies before the American Civil war took place. That’s a large amount of rice folks. When the war happened, many of the cultivators of rice paddies relocated to their summer homes. It is largely likely that the plantation was unattended during the war. The now dormant paddies are still visible today. You can also see one of the structures that Kingsley erected still standing in what is now the Cheetah enclosure. I recommend just taking in the view from the perimeter. Unless of course, you can run 60 mph! In the 1930′s, Isaac Gilman of the Gilman Paper Company acquired the 7400 acres that are White Oak. It was at this time when animal life began to be a staple of the plantation. Once Gilman’s son Charles took over, the breeding and training of horses was one of the more prominent uses of the property.

Cheetah at White Oak Plantation, FloridaWhen we hear of White Oak today, we think mostly of beautiful landscapes and animals in refuge. White Oak has been very successful in breeding and conserving a large variety of species. The decreases of the wildlife that have been conserved can be attributed to all the farming, habitat loss, and unfortunately the poaching that has taken place over time. One thing is important to note. White Oak is relatively unknown to the public. Some confuse it as a Zoo. The truth is that White Oak only has begun allowing the public to enjoy the property in the past 10 years. Reservation must be made in advance. That’s not to say that the property has no place in the zoological area. The zoologists at White Oak provide offspring to conservation breeding programs all over the United States and worldwide. They also contribute to the research and field conservation efforts of programs that have strong focuses on aiding in the survival of several rare species. Although only its early stages, there is an outreach program that is designed to educate people of all ages in wildlife conservation.

If you can make it out to White Oak, you will have an experience that goes beyond that of zoo. There’s not a glance you can shoot in a direction that doesn’t yield a spectacle of beauty. It is a moving experience to see the well protected animals thriving in habitats that are large enough and well accommodating to their natural instincts and behavior.


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