Today, Cherry Lake is a home to one of Florida’s most spirited 4-H camps since 1937 but even before that, it was booming with life.
Cherry Lake was originally named “Ocklawilla” by Native Americans but it became ideal farming land for many American settlers after they ventured into the area in the 1820s and 1830s. According to Florida Memory, Lucius A. Church, a native of New Hampshire and former Georgia merchant, moved to Ocklawilla around 1830 and purchased two thousand acres of land for a plantation. Other early settlers included the families of William L. Tooke and Reddin W. Parramore.
By 1837, Ocklawilla had officially changed its name to “Cherry Lake” after the local post office began carrying the name, which derives from the presence of wild cherry trees near the lake’s edge.
The Florida Archives touch base on Cherry Lake’s history through the years; many members of the community who served in the Civil War and later received pension may be traced through Cherry Lake. Cherry Lake was also the headquarters of a voting precinct from time to time and two militia units were formed there.
However, Cherry Lake really became the scene for development during the Great Depression. The American economy continued to spiral downward until the early 1930s and as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” the federal government began a series of projects to jumpstart economic activity. The Federal Relief Administration (FERA) was one of the many agencies coordinating that jumpstart.
In the early 1930s, FERA purchased 15,000 acres of land in Cherry Lake and made plans for a community to house families who resettled from large urban areas. FERA’s plan was to develop the purchased land into a farm and industrial plant. By 1935, well over a hundred families were relocated to Cherry Lake from cities such as Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami. The settlement was called the Cherry Lake Rehabilitation Project and later shortened to Cherry Lake Farms; the post office called itself that same name in December of 1935.
Cherry Lake Farms was an ideal place to live, as it had everything for a population to function, including roadways, a meat market, general store, temporary barracks, an auditorium, a school, a lumber yard and mill, public meeting places and housing. Families lived in 170 cottages with working phones, water and electricity.
Cherry Lake settlers and FERA made many attempts to make the community profitable. At first, they tried raising sugar cane but had little success. They attempted to raise grapes but that failed as well. However, settlers found some luck in manufacturing furniture and small crafts, as well as chairs, desks, tables and other home furniture. Ashtrays, table pads, artificial flowers and other items were constructed as well.
But Cherry Lake wasn’t all about work.
The residents made use of the settlement’s auditorium, hosting plays, picture shows and musicals.
Private land ownership of Cherry Lake returned during and after WWII and many residents returned to their former homes or moved elsewhere. However, a few families stayed put in Cherry Lake.
A 12-acre tract of land on the west side of the lake was leased for camp operations around 1937 and the property was later acquired for 4-H purposes and still stands today for year-round 4-H activities.
Cherry Lake offers water sports of all kinds, such as water skiing, knee-boarding, swimming or sailing and provides quality fishing for bass and most pan fish varieties. It is a beloved lake of Madison County that gives beautiful sights and unique activities for all ages.