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Ocala historic district
Building in the ocala historic district
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Building in the Ocala Historic District

Downtown Ocala Historic Context and History

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During the period that Florida was under Spanish rule, Spanish Governor Don Jose Coppinger made generous and extensive land grants to those individuals in his favor, or to those having performed some service to the Spanish crown. Eleven grants were made between 1817-1818 for lands within today's Marion County. These included grants to Alvarez, Sanchez, Perpall and Hijuelos. A large area of today's city of Ocala is located upon property purchased from heirs of Antonio Alvarez, who received a land grant in 1817.

The Legislative Council of the Territory of Florida authorized the formation of Marion County on March 25, 1844. The county received its name in honor of Francis Marion, one of the Florida heroes of the Revolutionary War. Florida Governor William D. Moseley appointed the first board of county commissioners on October 31, 1845. Members included Thomas Barnes, Abraham Geiger, John Morrison, and Cotton Rawls. John M. McIntosh was appointed chairman. E.D. Howse became the first appointed sheriff and John G. Reardon, the first county treasurer. Reardon also served as the county's first representative to Florida's legislative Assembly. It was Reardon who filed for a patent from the United States for 212.38 acres of land in 1846 for Ocala, to be established as the Marion County seat. The earliest known minutes of the board date from February 20, 1846. Six days later, at another meeting, the board selected Ocala as the county seat.

In March, 1846, David Bruton, a former South Carolinian and the Marion County Engineer, completed the city's first survey and created the first plat of Ocala. The survey took thirty and a half days and Bruton was paid $35.50 for the work. The area contained eighty blocks, ten from north to south, eight from east to west, roughly from the Magnolia Avenue railroad crossing on the north to Fifth Street on the south. Block 56, one block slightly south of the center of Bruton's survey was set aside for a "Public Square" for the construction of a permanent courthouse. The remaining lots were offered for auction. Streets were laid out with those bounding the Public Square being ninety-nine feet in width, with others being sixty-six feet wide to allow for future growth. Later these were reduced to fifty-nine and forty feet, respectively. All blocks, except for those on the north and west sides of the plat, measured 198 square feet and were divided into four lots each selling for $5.00 to $20.00 per block. Lots facing the courthouse square were priced higher than others but the first lots sold were for $5.00 near the site set aside for a temporary courthouse, east of South Main Street below King Avenue. The north half of the square was purchased by Josiah Paine of Maine for $17.25 In April 1847, Paine paid $50.00 for the south half of the same block. Paine erected a store building and the first boarding house in the city, the first "Ocala House." In 1846, John G. Reardon had acquired the block diagonally across from the northwest corner of the Public Square on which he built a home, believed to be the first private residence in Ocala. It was here that John Reardon, Jr., the elder Reardon's namesake, and said to be Ocala's first white child, was born. Judge Thomas Douglas, a resident of Jacksonville and Judge of the Eastern Circuit of Florida, acquired the second block north of the square.

In 1849, William S. Harris purchased two lots on N Magnolia Street, adjacent to the present site of the historic former Hotel Marion. That same year, Charles A. Mitchell acquired the block north of the square. Robert Bullock established a home on property he purchased two blocks east of the Square, fronting today's E Broadway. A jail was also located on the square until 1854, at which time a new jail was built on the north side of Ft. King Avenue, east of Osceola Street.

A temporary courthouse, a small one-story log building almost square measuring 20 by 28 feet square, surrounded by large trees, was completed by builder James Caruthers on S Main Street at Fort King on the north in the summer of 1846. The building had walls of peeled pine logs and there were entrances on three sides, each having a window to its side. Doors and shutters were of wood hung with massive handwrought iron hinges. Window sills of 12 inch heart pine rested on large blocks of hard wood. Records were brought from the Fort King courthouse and the building was first put in use at a commission meeting on September 7, 1846. This building also served as a public hall, provided a location for church services, and served as the town's theater. A house containing jury rooms was also built on the same block. In 1848, a jail was constructed on the northwest corner of the lot reserved for the Public Square.

A post office for the county was officially established on March 18, 1844 at Fort King and one was established in the city on September 12, 1847. William Roberts was Ocala's first postmaster. At about the same time the Ocala post office was established, streets were being laid out.

Three general stores were in operation in Ocala by 1848. One, owned and operated by Josiah Paine on the east side of the Square; William S. Olmstead's store on the west side; and that of John Bullock, at an unknown location. These stores offered a wide variety of goods shipped in by river from Palatka by the Ocklawaha River route and unloaded at Silver Spring, and brought to town by ox-carts. Ocala's shopkeepers offered tea, coffee and imported wines, newly invented oil lamps, as well as supplies to satisfy both city and farm customers. The city became a trading, religious, and social center for the area but had few residents. Most early settlers lived in the country. Newcomers purchased large acreage for agricultural use.

In 1848, efforts to construct a permanent courthouse began but due to a lack of funding, the project did not seriously begin development until the summer of 1850. Funding was eventually secured by local contributions and assistance from the State of Florida. The new Colonial Style Marion County Courthouse was completed, proudly supervised by the county commission without the use of architectural services, in December of 1851.

In 1854, a decision was made to construct a new jail to replace the earlier one built on the northwest corner of the courthouse square. Previously, Block 18 in the northwest section of Ocala had been reserved as a jail site but the commissioners chose to build the jail closer to the center of town. Lot 75, just east of the Coast Line railroad track, with Fort King Avenue on the south and Broadway to the north, was purchased for the new jail site.

Ocala maintained its importance as a commercial center with supplies being shipped in large quantities to settlements in south Florida. Steamboats from Palatka via the St. Johns River into the Ocklawaha River and then on to Silver Springs carried both passengers and freight and brought many visitors to Ocala. This was before the establishment of rail service in the city in 1876 when a rail line was established between Waldo and Ocala by the Atlantic, Gulf and West India Transit Company. A depot was built west of the track on North Magnolia Street. Ocala was the end of the rail line until Tropical Florida Railroad Company built a line south to Wildwood in 1877. An additional route came about in 1882 when the Florida Southern Railroad, which became part of the Plant Railroad System c.1885 and still later part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, was extended to Ocala from Palatka and Gainesville through Rochelle. Ocala's first passenger depot was located on the southwest corner of Osceola and Fourth Streets. Short rail lines were also established. The arrival of the railroads gave impetus to a much speedier development of the city.

The first official census of Ocala was taken in 1870. Six hundred residents were counted. As the Civil War greatly influenced Ocala's prosperity, it is speculated that Ocala formerly had a much larger population. Three years after the war, Ocala's population had been reduced to approximately 200 and property values plummeted.

In 1875, the Courthouse Public Square was improved with the planting of trees, installation of a pump and the replacement of buckets used by citizens at the public well. Costs were borne by the city's aldermen. In the summer of 1883, the Ocala Banner reported that there was more building taking place at that time than any other and the city was experiencing a period of economic growth. The town had become the largest commercial and trading place in the interior part of the state. A large number of new residents had arrived and the city limits were expanded in 1883 in all directions to a distance of one mile from the courthouse. By 1887, the population was 2,700 and by the time the decade came to a close, the population had swelled to 2,904 and Ocala was one of Florida's larger towns.

By 1880, the town had scarcely grown to 803, with most of the population residing in close vicinity to the Court House Square. General Ulysses S. Grant visited Ocala that year, following his term as President and a world tour. At the time of Grant's visit in 1880, only a few buildings were built around the square. These consisted of a few frame buildings constituting the physical plant of the Ocala Banner, a barber shop, and several residences. Additional structures including; dwellings, cabins, bakeries, blacksmith shops, stables, and outhouses were diversely scattered to the north, west, and south of the courthouse. Four wide streets set off the courthouse square. Several hundred yards east of the square, pioneer settler, Samuel Oliver Howse, operated a cotton gin. Live oaks, white and red oaks, and hickory and sweet gum and Magnolia trees adorned the streets and fenced yards.

Local telephone service was established by E.W. Agnew & Company in late 1883. That same year, Adolph Schlosser's barber shop opened at the corner of Main and Broadway, south of the hotel. Captain Samuel Agnew was just completing the three-story 65 room brick and concrete Palace Hotel. The hotel had a mansard roof, crowned by a cupola.

On Thanksgiving day, November 29, 1883, amidst the welcome of three special trains of the Florida Southern Rail Road by a crowd of 2,000 for an all day outing at Lake Weira, fire broke out. The fire started in the two-story frame store of Benjamin & Company at the southeast corner of Main Street and Ocklawaha Avenue. The fire spread destroying the frame Snowden's Drug Store to the south. The fire quickly engulfed and consumed the new Ocala House Hotel, despite bucket brigade efforts to save it. Flames moved on to destroy Schlosser's barber shop and shortly thereafter, all the buildings located on the east side of Main Street, between Broadway and Fort King Avenue. When the wind shifted, the fire turned westward across Main Street and destroyed another two blocks to Orange Street. On the south side of the Public Square, the Banner office was destroyed and the home of its editor and one additional residence were consumed. The new Palace Hotel burned. The Magnolia Street home of Dr. Thomas Gary and James H. Whitfield's boarding house at the end of Fort King Avenue went up in flames. Finally, another dwelling and a mill that processed the moss from oak trees for various uses were destroyed before the fire ceased. All of the buildings on the east side of today's SE 1st Avenue from Silver Springs Boulevard to Ft. King Street were destroyed. In all, ten stores were wiped out and five (four) blocks of the business district were left in ashes or only with blackened chimneys. Some of the estimated $350,000 in losses were insured while others were not. Rescued articles ignited when placed too close to the fire's path and theft and looting increased the loss. Numerous records were destroyed, including newspaper files containing a great deal of Ocala and Marion County's early history. Many persons were left homeless. Within weeks of the Thanksgiving Day fire, fire bonds in the amount of $2,500 were authorized to be sold to raise needed monies to fund a first rate fire department. By the Spring of 1885 an ordinance was prepared for the creation of a professional fire department. On May 20, 1885 a second reading of the ordinance was passed by city council, establishing the Fire Department of the City of Ocala. Existing volunteer firemen were absorbed into the newly created fire department, and William Fox was elected to serve as Ocala’s first fire chief. The original fire companies were named Marion Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1 and Ocala Hook & Ladder Company No. 1.

The re-building of the town began almost immediately. Frame buildings were replaced with buildings utilizing brick, granite, and metal. Within five years, Ocala was identified throughout the state as "The Brick City". Large brick stores of two and three-stories, which were at the time termed to be of "modern styling" and "ample capacity," stood in place of those destroyed by the fire. The development of the Brick-Front Store building type as many of Ocala's buildings built following the fire could be categorized, was directly related to the availability and desirability of brick masonry as a fireproof, relatively maintenance free construction material. Brick was commonly used in the construction of Masonry Vernacular buildings but was used more prevalently in the northern part of the country than in Florida. It was not easily transported to Florida during the state's early development given the limited availability of railroads.

In the year following the fire of 1883, the three-story Marion Block (Marion Opera House) was erected on the southwest corner of Main Street and Broadway by D.C. Wharton Smith of Philadelphia. Other buildings that rose out of the ashes of the fire included; Ocala's first two bank buildings, the Montezuma Hotel, Rheinauer's store, the Union Block and Gary Block, all on the south side of Broadway between SE 2nd Avenue and Magnolia.

By 1884, the town had several wholesale warehouses and more than 25 retail establishments. Two mercantiles were also conducting private banking. A wide variety of people frequented the Ocala House hotel including not only tourists but settlers and capitalists. Distinguished northern visitors, authors, railroad engineers, grove owners, planters, real estate brokers, promoters, and European travelers registered at the desk.

Plans to replace the temporary courthouse on the Public Square began in the early 1880s. John F. Dunn offered to erect the building on a site not more than one thousand yards from the Public Square, if the County Commissioners would give him a deed to the square so that he could donate the site to the town for a park and parade ground. His offer was rejected when it was decided that the town would retain the original courthouse site. The old courthouse was demolished and preparation for the completion of the new courthouse progressed.

A new courthouse at the center of the Public Square was completed in 1884. This modest "box-like" building was topped with a cupola. A new, much larger three-story Ocala House of red brick was also completed in 1884, fronting Main Street from North, later Ocklawah (today's Silver Springs Boulevard) Avenue to Broadway. (See Figures 2 and 9). It included a wing along Broadway from Main Street (today's SE First Avenue) to Osceola (today's E Second Avenue). A square tower with a balustraded deck topped the roof, providing a view of most of the town. A number of other two and three-story brick structures were built, including Ocala's first two banks, one occupying space in the Ocala House and the other at the southwest corner of South (today's S Broadway) and Magnolia Avenue. The Montezuma Hotel was at the northeast corner of Main Street (today's Silver Springs Boulevard) and Fort King Avenue, the Marion Block, the Rheinhauer & Company store, the Union Block, and the Gary Block, were all on the south side of Broadway, between Main (today's Silver Springs Boulevard) and Magnolia Streets. (See Figure 2). As evidence of Ocala's re-establishment as a prosperous trade center, a number of prominent Jacksonville merchants, including S.B. Hubbard and Philip Tischler and others, established branch stores in Ocala and saw great success.

Although Ocala's original city charter was granted in 1866, the charter was misplaced and it was necessary to obtain new articles of incorporation by an act of the Legislature. The new charter was dated January 28, 1885. This second charter established the town limits at one thousand yards in each direction from the Public Square. Within a few years, the boundaries were extended one mile each direction from the Square. The town's population settled into the new areas, but mostly to the east from Osceola Street. Limerock began to be used for the construction of streets and roads. A limerock mine was established at the southwest edge of the city.

In the years following the Civil War, Ocala's economy grew considerably as a result of improved communication and transportation systems, increased tourism, and citrus and phosphate production. Banking facilities began to sprout up within downtown Ocala. In 1882, John F. Dunn & Co. organized Ocala's first financial establishment, the Bank of Ocala, on the southwest corner of Broadway and Osceola Street. The bank was housed in the Merchants' Block, one of the city's finest commercial structures, built of red brick with imported granite trim. In 1887, the institution was reorganized and changed its name to the Merchants National Bank. The bank's first officers were Hon. John F. Dunn, President; H.C. Wright, Vice President; and R.B. McConnell, Cashier. The bank was relocated two years later to the southeast corner of Main Street (today's Silver Springs Boulevard) and Broadway within another building erected by John Dunn. (See Figure 3). The upper floors provided a variety of office suites for local businessmen including L.J. Haisley, who was one of the leading commercial real estate men in the city at the time. In 1897, the bank was taken over by Z.C. Chambliss and T.T. Munroe.

E. Walter Agnew, originally of South Carolina, took over his father's Ocala store in about 1883 and control of one of the largest mercantiles, not only in Ocala but in Florida at the time, E.W. Agnew and Company on the corner of Magnolia Street and Broadway. The mercantile building was completed in 1883 and enlarged in 1890. The three-story brick building with a basement displayed granite trimmings and had a frontage of 60 feet and a depth of 150 feet. The store handled a variety of general merchandise including dry goods, millinery items, notions, clothing, hats, caps, boots, shoes, fancy groceries, carpeting, hardware, and home furnishings. The store also did a limited banking business. Agnew, a contractor and diversified investor, established the First National Bank in 1886, with authorized capital of $150,000, in a three-story building he erected on the southwest corner of the square at the intersection of Magnolia Street and Broadway (formerly Exposition Street). The bank was constructed on the former site of his father's Palace Hotel, destroyed in the downtown fire of 1883. At the time of completion, the bank had the "largest and finest" depository safe in the State with the safe having been built expressly for the banking facility.

The Buffum Loan and Trust Company was established in 1888 by Frederick C. Buffum and Edward, natives of Westerly, Rhode Island. It occupied space in the Ocala House Block. Original officers included; Frederick C. Buffum, President; Edward H. Buffum, Vice President; and Claude E. Connor, Secretary and Treasurer.

By 1885, the city had an ice plant, several mills and gins, and an establishment for utilizing Spanish moss. All were in successful operation. A Tourist's and Settler's Guide to Florida 1885-1886 by H.K. Ingram promoted Ocala to businessmen as "second to none in the State" as a place to "engage in lucrative business" or as somewhere for those "seeking a safe investment for his capital." A Florida atlas, "Historical, Industrial and Biographical Florida" by Wanton Webb and published in 1885, heralded Ocala as "most advantageously located in the midst of a beautiful tract of country and is directly on the line of the Florida Railway and Navigation Company and the Florida Southern Railway." Webb went on to praise the city's citizens for rallying and rebuilding lost businesses after encountering the major fire in the downtown district in 1885. In his publication, he set forth the city's population in 1876 at 300 but according to Webb, the population had grown to 2,000 by 1884. A list of a number of Ocala's most prominent citizens at the time was incorporated into his work. These residents included J.J. Finley, Dr. T.P. Gary, Frank Harris, Col. S.M. G. Gary, E.J. Harris, S.F. Marshall and Harter.

The Florida State Gazetteer and Business Directory of 1886-1887 indicated that merchandise, fruits, vegetables and cotton were the principal shipments from the city. The publication indicated that the city had a good local retail and jobbing trade, was growing extensively in business each year, and was rapidly increasing its wealth and importance. The chief business pursuits were mercantile, manufacturing, and shipping fruits and early vegetables with tri-weekly stage service between the city and Crystal River. Although the city was located inland, it was connected by railway lines with the principal points in all directions, as well as with all the coastal cities of the state. There was a carriage manufacturer in the city, a machine shop, and several lumber manufacturing establishments. The town's good location and substantial business district and sightly residences were also noted as creating an "impression of thrift and prosperity."

In a history of Ocala by J.O.D. Clarke, published in 1891, Ocala was said to be among the most progressive, prosperous, best-planned and picturesque cities in the South. With the public square at center surrounded by shade trees, banks, hotels and business blocks of brick, stone and plate glass aligned the square in all directions. Broad boulevards, some with rows of trees, led from the square. City streets were broad, well graded and paved with lime rock.  A street car line operated to all parts of the city and to the exposition grounds. Clarke proudly boasted of a first-class City Market offering a variety of food stuffs such as meats, fish, vegetables, and butter. The market, built in 1888, was located on Main Street within a 50 x 100 foot open to the roof two and one-half story brick structure resting on a cement floor. In 1912, the market was purchased by W.H. Marsh. It would remain a fixture in downtown Ocala in the same location into the 1920s when it was known as the Main Street Market.

Ocala had a "natural sewage system" allowed by a swift flowing underground river connected to by two "sinks" or natural sewer wells. In addition, there were three private sewer wells, one at the jail, another at the Ocala House, and the third at the Montezuma Hotel.

By the last decade of the 1800s, Ocala had prospered and was the site of two national banks, one banking loan and trust company, one iron foundry and machine shop, two carriage manufacturers, two saw and planing mills, two cigar factories, two lime industries, a ten-ton factory, and six or seven hotels. Between fifty and sixty mercantile houses were in operation in the city.

During a one year period between 1892 and 1893, Ocala building activity included $250,000 for the construction of new buildings. This was exclusive of $25,000 in remodeling and building additions. Stores, factories, warehouses and dwellings were under construction in all areas of the city.

In December, 1894 and February, 1895, major freezes damaged the local citrus industry which had broader economic repercussions. Because of what was seen as over investment, what has become known as the "Big Freeze" contributed to the failure of Ocala's two existing banks, the First National and eventually the Merchants National. The city faced bankruptcy and for a period of time after the failure of the banks, city government operated on a cash only basis.

Ocala firmly established itself as a religious center for the area with the erection of a number of churches within the city during the last quarter of the 1800s. Grace Episcopal Church was completed in 1880 at Orange and Washington Street. St. Philip Neri's was a small Catholic church built in 1883. Later, in 1921, another Catholic Church was built on East Ocklawaha Avenue at Tuscawilla Street. It was located on the west side of Magnolia Street, just south of Monroe. In 1884, construction began on the First Baptist Church on the northwest corner of Magnolia and Washington Streets, the present site of the Marion Hotel. The Baptist church was erected to replace an earlier frame church building on the northwest corner of Lime and Washington, completed in 1851. The church's second building was dedicated in 1885 and would serve the congregation until c.1927 when a third church was built on block east of Third Street and Alvarez. The First Presbyterian Church was dedicated in 1887. Said to be the "handsomest" church in the community was the First Methodist Church on the southeast corner of Main Street and Fort King Avenue. Dedicated in 1891, it also replaced Ocala's first church building, built with slave labor in 1850, and used by the Methodists for over forty years. The new church was constructed of brick in a modified Gothic style. This building served its congregation until a new masonry church in a Neo-Colonial style was completed in 1927. In 1885, the Church of the Disciples of Christ, later the First Christian Church, was organized. The congregation erected a building on the south side of Broadway near Osceola Street. A small Jewish synagogue was constructed on the north side of Adams Street and Anthony Road. Other church group organization followed in later years. The First Church of Christian Science, was formed in 1915 and their church building on Third Street at Watula was dedicated in 1925.

The city also gained prominence in the area of education. By 1880, Marion County had more public schools than any other county in Florida. A number of private schools were also established. The first public high school opened in 1890 on the west side of Pond Street, between Fifth and Sixth Streets. A school for African Americans had already been established on Orange Avenue. After fire destroyed that building, a new school building for black students was built at Academy and Adams Streets. Later other schools were erected. A red brick elementary school opened on Third Street at Tuscawilla, a grammar school on Eighth Street.

In January of 1889, the Florida International and Semi-Tropical Exposition opened in Ocala.

The exhibition was housed in an expansive frame building on West Broadway, which was temporarily named Exposition Street in honor of the occasion. A tower was located above the central entrance of the elaborately designed exposition structure. Both agricultural and horticultural products from Ocala and throughout Florida were showcased in the hall. Special excursions by rail from various parts of the state were run to bring visitors. The event received wide press coverage in the Florida press, as well as the New York World publication and other northern newspapers. The exposition lasted for two winters. Later, the former exposition building was put into use as a cigar factory. Cigar manufacturing became a major flourishing industry in the Ocala area beginning in the 1870s. Herbert L. Anderson, an attorney, and E.W. Agnew, a prominent banker, were both strong Ocala promoters. They envisioned cigar making as a way to make money and heavily promoted the business in the city. A factory for the manufacture of red cedar cigar boxes at the southwest corner of Osceola and NE Third Street, outside the survey area, was also established. Several factors, including the Big Freezes of 1894 amd 1895 and subsequent local bank failures, contributed to the demise of the cigar making industry in the city. What could be identified as the last cigar "factory" operated in the city by Charles Peyser in the back of a store remained in existence until the early 1920s. By this time, Tampa had clearly become Florida's cigar capital, previously taken over by Key West for a period of time.

An Ocala Board of Trade was organized on July 22, 1887. John F. Dunn served as the first president and Charles Rheinauer, instrumental in the group's founding, was an original director. Rheinauer and his brother, Morritz, had opened a dry goods and clothing business on the west side of the Court House Square near Ocklawaha Avenue. They were later joined by another brother, Benjamin. Charles erected a building to house the store in 1888 on the south side of the Square. The business continued to operate as Rheinauers, Ltd. at that location for over fifty years. From the Board of Trade's inception, the organization sought out new industry into the early 1900s. Records dating from 1915 indicate that the group was building three boats to use on the Ocklawaha River to establish a base for fixing freight rates to Ocala when charges were made that the railroads were retarding growth of the area by charging excessive freight rates. Coinciding with about the same time, the Board of Trade is credited with recommending the leasing of the city market to Cherry Cola for six years. The Board also oversaw the review of floor plans for the new union passenger station. In 1919, the Ocala Board of Trade was reorganized as the Marion County Chamber of Commerce. Within a year, Louis Chazal was elected the secretary of the Chamber until he resigned in 1924 and Horace Smith replaced him. Smith subsequently served the Board in that capacity for over twenty years.

Between 1889 when phosphate was discovered in Marion County and 1891, Ocala tripled its population and the city's business aggregate increased 600%. This was in large part as a result of capitalists arriving from all over the world and making liberal investment in phosphate and forming new business enterprises. Within a year of the discovery of phosphate, Ocala made the transition from a market town to a financial and business center and supply base for major industrial interests.

In 1888, A.E. Waterman completed an electric plant at the northeast corner of Osceola and May Streets to supply electricity to the city. Steam to power the generator came from the adjoining Taylor Mill. Electrical service began on July 23 following completion of the plant. Gas, heat and power services were provided by the summer of 1888 by the Citizens Gas Light, Heat and Power Company.

The Ocala Water Works was finished and put in service by the Jeter and Boardman Gas and Water Association of Macon, Georgia in 1888. C.H. Campbell was the first superintendent of the Ocala facility. A brick pumping station and several auxiliary structures comprised the plant. Water was obtained from two six-inch drilled wells of 230 feet in depth. Each well had a pump for supplying the reservoir. In addition, there was a "reserve tower." The facility also supplied eighty-five double fire hydrants and two drinking fountains.

Black Ocala residents played an active role in the politics of Ocala in the 1880s and the 1890s. Ocala had a black Treasurer, Tax Collector, and member of the Board of Aldermen. Black Ocala community leaders dominated the State convention of the Republic Party, held in Ocala in 1888. Black residents also became successful merchants in the city, owning and operating a number of businesses in the central business district. Their ventures included stores, a bakery and a restaurant. African Americans also fulfilled a much needed role as master carpenters, brick layers, and painters in the city. A number of Ocala residences and commercial buildings were built by black contractors.

By 1890, large deposits of phosphate had been discovered in Marion County. Newspapers and magazines reported the findings. Large tracts of area property were sold and millions of dollars were invested in the establishment of mining plants. A number of plants were designed and constructed by George MacKay, a Scottish engineer recognized as a prominent early Ocala architect. Land sales and building activity increased in Ocala. New subdivisions were laid out. The Ocala Street and Suburban Railway laid tracks on Main and Magnolia Street for mule drawn cars. These tracks were removed before the end of the decade. Four railroads entered the city by this time; The Florida Central and Peninsular Railroad, the Silver Springs, Ocala and Gulf, and Florida Southern Railways.

The town had grown to provide a larger variety of services by the last decade of the century. Large steam laundries, cigar factories, foundry and machine works, wagon and carriage factories, and saw and planing mills served the community's needs. Between sixty and seventy mercantiles offered clothing and groceries with varied stocks.

In 1893, a formal street plan was adopted. Numbered streets were to run east and west named streets North and South, excepting in the West End and Marti City (at that time beyond the city limits), where the order was reversed. Numbered streets were designated with reference to the Public Square as North, N. First, N. Second, etc.; South, S. First S, Second, etc. Streets east and west of Magnolia were distinguished with N. First, E (east), N First, W (west), S First, E, S First, W., etc. Numbered streets were designated with reference to North Street and Ocklawaha Avenue as N. Magnolia, S. Magnolia, etc. Some streets received dual street designations. These street included; Ocklawaha Avenue, May Street, Broadway, Ft. King Avenue, Caldwell Avenue, Buckelew Avenue, Scribner Avenue. The sections of Ocklawaha Avenue, Main, South and Magnolia Streets that bordered the Public Square were also designated respectively as North Square, East Square, South Square and West Square. At the same time, Ocala's streets were also numbered. Streets were numbered east and west from Magnolia Street and north and south from North Street and Ocklawaha Avenue. Odd numbers were designated to buildings on the right and even numbers to those on the left. Each number was to represent an imaginary lot of 25 feet street frontage. Buildings took on the numbers of lots upon which they were sited.

According to The Brick City Directory and Guide to Marion County, published in 1893, downtown had 28 business blocks and 6 social or fellowship halls standing at that time, virtually all sited on Main or Magnolia Streets and/or facing the Public Square. Social, recreational organizations, lodges, and fraternal groups were well established. These included a local diving club, swimming club, womens' clubs, rifle club, tennis club, and a local orchestra and coronet band. The town had a substantial legal community with 19 attorneys. Six barbers catered to the public. Six boarding houses were in operation. A half dozen druggists were in business. Two dentists and eight physicians met the needs of residents. Four builders were noted. Seven dry good stores were operating under prosperous conditions. Nineteen grocers provided necessary foodstuffs to residents while six other merchants sold general merchandise. Nine hotels were in operation. Other businesses included: a gun store and locksmith, hat and shoe stores, hardware stores, clothiers, meat markets, milliners, watchmakers and jewelers, tailors, liquor stores, saloons, real estate offices, law offices, physician and dental services, plumbers, and tinsmiths. All of these businesses were in operation in the original commercial center of the city.

Telephone service arrived from Silver Springs Park in 1894. James B. Carlisle and others were able to obtain a franchise for Ocala in July of that year. The Ocala Telephone Company's office and switchboard were located on the upper floor of the Gary Block on South Street (SE Broadway). The telephone company was sold to the Florida Telephone Corporation in January, 1926.

Ocala's population had grown from 300 residents in 1876 to 2,904 (3,400) residents in 1890 to 4,597 by the 1895 census. This growth made Ocala the fifth largest town in Florida and a principal commercial center.

In 1896, following a request by local ministers, the town's alderman ruled that all cigar stands and soda fountains were to be closed on Sundays and the sale of newspapers was also to be prohibited. The same year, Ocala was introduced to motion pictures with one night "stands," single night presentations.

Both Ocala and Marion County continued to grow in the last part of the 1800s and the early part of the following century. A number of new commercial buildings were also erected in the business district. Numerous advertisements for Ocala businesses appeared in local newspapers during this time offering a variety of goods and services to the community. Such advertisements included promotions for the Ocala Lumber Co., the Railroad Restaurant, Nash's Dry Goods, The Olive Wheel (bike shop), The Davis City Market, and the Anti-Monopoly Drug Store, all located facing the Public Square. Regardless of the growth in new business, at the dawn of the new century, Ocala began to suffer an economic depression as a result of the failure of the phosphate boom in western Marion County and continued repercussions from the citrus freezes during the winters of 1894 and 1895. Following a few years of recession, recovery came about. In 1907, a new county courthouse (non-extant) of veneered Indiana limestone was completed in the Public Square. Within two years, the United States government began construction of a post office and a court and office building on the second block to the north, formerly identified as Dunn Park. By the end of the first decade of the century, several miles of cement sidewalks had been laid on the main business streets and additional walks were being laid.

A need arose for additional banking facilities. The Citizens Bank and the Ocala National Bank were established. An attractive Neo-Classical  building of Indiana limestone was built on the northeast corner of Ocklawaha Avenue and Magnolia Street in 1911 for the Ocala National Bank. The Citizens Bank occupied space in the former First National Bank on the southwest corner of Magnolia Street and Broadway. By c.1909, this bank again changed names and became the Commercial Bank with J.H. Terrell as President. It remained in the building until the mid 1930s. The Central National Bank operating in a one-story brick building on the north side of the Public Square operated for only seven years. The Metropolitan Savings Bank, another banking establishment, was alleged to be the only bank in Florida owned and controlled by African Americans at the time, opened in 1913 on the first floor of a three-story building on the southeast corner of Magnolia and Second Streets. The building also housed the Eagle Furniture Company for many years. The bank continued in operation until 1928 and the building was demolished in 1995.




First National Bank of Ocala taken between 1889 and 1895. 
Florida Photographic Collection

The first motion picture theater in Ocala, the Edison Electric Theater, opened in December, 1907 in the Armory on Fort King Avenue, east of Osceola Street. The Temple Theater (demolished c.1962) was erected on Fort King in 1910 by the Masons. It was the first theater in the city planned as a theater. The interior plan included an orchestra floor, balcony, and boxes on either side of the stage. Famous orator and presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryant, gave a public speech at the Temple Theater when he visited the city in 1912. Henry W. Savage, prominent theatrical producer of the time, brought a number of successful stage productions to the Temple in the years following World War I. Productions included Ziegfield's Follies, Irving Berlin's "Music Box Revue", and George White's "Scandals". Each performance featured famous stars. Plays were also booked during the winter seasons. The Marion Opera House, which opened c.1884 when the Marion Block was completed closed its doors by 1908 or 1909 when the building was purchased by Edward Holder, a phosphate mine owner. After such time, the building was identified as the Holder Block for several years. Holder converted the former opera house space and the floor below into offices. He also installed the first electric elevator in Ocala in the building.

By 1914, black residents of Ocala and the surrounding areas were alleged to be the most prosperous African Americans in the South. They owned almost all of the businesses on West Broadway, from Magnolia Avenue to 16th Avenue and beyond. They also owned nearly all of the businesses on Magnolia Avenue from Broadway south to 10th Street and on S Main Street and had other businesses in the downtown area. A cotton gin east of the black-owned Metropolitan Savings Bank at Magnolia and Second Streets was owned and operated by George Giles, the principal cotton gin operator in Ocala from 1912 to 1919. West of the Metropolitan Savings Bank was one of the finest black-owned hotels in Florida.

Ocala's population was approximately 3,385 in 1900, 4,300 in 1911, and 5,370 by 1915, according to state census records. In 1916, a public library was opened on the south side of Ocklawaha Avenue near Osceola Street. The library was built with funds from the Carnegie Foundation. Louise Gamsby became the Ocala Library's first librarian.

Ocala failed to become swept up in the great real estate boom during the 1920s as other Florida cities but by 1925, the city's population had grown to 6,500. Great plans were made during this time for the construction of a $500,000 hotel to be financed by the community. Most of the stock was purchased locally and the Hotel Marion was completed and opened in February, 1927. Rents in the city during the early and mid-1920s accelerated to record levels. With many plans unrealized, the real estate boom was nearly over by 1926 but nevertheless, the city had gained a number of improvements and a renewed sense of civic spirit.

Following the stock market crash of 1929, the city experienced financial troubles. Independent merchants struggled to stay in business faced with competition from chain stores. Unemployment was staggering. The banks of the city and county were closed by order of the president but were reopened shortly thereafter. Units of the Federal Emergency Relief, Civil Works Progress, and Public Works Administrations were organized locally to aid in the unemployment issue. These groups built, paved, and widened sewer lines- along with a number of other projects. Ocala was provided some relief from the national depression by its proximity to Silver Springs, one of Florida's most exceptional natural tourist attractions, both in years past and today. Automobiles brought these visitors which increased hotel business and the number of guest homes and motor lodges established and built. The Marion County Chamber of Commerce continued to promote Marion County and fortunately the area's diversified economy helped local businessmen fare much better than counties farther south in Florida who were reeling from the shock of the failure of the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s.

After experiencing a somewhat slow recovery from the economic hardships of the Depression, more buildings were being built in Ocala's business district by 1940 than at any time in nearly half a century. Older buildings were updated, brick walls were stuccoed, and what, at the time, was considered meaningless ornamentation was replaced with streamline designs. A few older buildings, including the landmark H.B. Masters building on the southwest corner of Magnolia and Broadway, were torn down to provide space for new structures. Such changes began to alter Ocala's previous dominating brick appearance.

In January of 1941, construction began on a new theater for the city, the Marion Theater. The permit was issued in the name of Florida State Theaters, owners and operators of two of Ocala's earlier theaters, the Ritz on Ocklawaha (today's Silver Springs Boulevard) which presented live theatrical productions, and the Dixie on the west side of the courthouse square.

Beginning in 1959 and During the 1960s, a large number of historic buildings in Ocala were demolished to make way for modern structures. Buildings demolished during this period included the offices of the Marion County Health Department, originally the home of the Florida Baptist Witness, then the Ocala Star-Banner. The county's first hospital was razed to make way for a parking lot. The Temple Theater was also demolished. In order to accommodate the construction of a new courthouse in the late 1950s, Ocala's red brick jail building was demolished and Pond Street (now Third) running north to south behind the old jail was closed. A four block area was also cleared between Ocklawaha Avenue (now Silver Springs Boulevard) and Adams, to make way for the new courthouse.