The History of Taft
Native Americans made the first footprints in area. Most historians believe that tribes such as the Seminoles, Timucua and Calusa inhabited the area. Nearby Fort Gatlin, served as the main headquarter fort in the area during the Seminole wars. Our neighbor to the south, Osceola County, is rich in Native American influence, starting with the word Osceola, the name of a great warrior.
California had its gold rush; Florida had its own “ citrus rush”. In the 1880’s many northerners were migrating to Florida to make their fortune in citrus. Lester Newelton was one of these men. He moved to area in 1884, named the area “Newelton”, and soon discovered the soil not conducive to citrus. (This would later prove to be false.) The area now became known as “Big Cypress.”
Around the turn of the century the area became known as “Smithville”, in honor of M.M. Smith a real estate developer and operator of turpentine stills. This industry flourished in the area for many years and provided a source of income for the citizens.
In 1903 the Sphaler brothers moved to the area and bought the general store as well as acquiring many parcels of land. They bought out Mr. Smith’s interest in the turpentine still as well as operating a sawmill and shingle factory. The boys became the area’s “first family.” Besides employing many of the residents in their businesses they donated land for the first school as well as the Baptist church.
In 1909 Braxton Beacham and W.L. Van Duzor saw potential in the area for agriculture. They purchased a substantial amount of land in the area and divided the area into five and ten acre lots and sold them to eager northern buyers. Buyers also received a lot in town. “Prosper Colony” was born. Agriculture became a viable industry in the area. Flooding would later doom the project, however the Taft Drainage District, established in 1913, resolved the flooding problem.
How did the area become known as Taft? The area is named after President William Taft, but despite legend, he did not stop in the area. They are many theories on this question but no definite answer.
The area would flourish for many years. It incorporated in 1912. During its heyday it had a mayor, a motorcycle policeman, a jail, a grader, tractor and electric lights. Hurricanes occasionally wrecked havoc on the area but the Depression sounded the final death knoll. Taft, like many small communities at the time, had no money in its coffers, and on August 1, 1933 the town was abolished.
Although the town was abolished, the area lived on. New industries settled in the area. Pine Castle, later McCoy Air Force Base, brought new residents. Many pioneer families still reside in Taft, embracing the small town life. The residents, responding to needs, have established a volunteer fire department, built a community center and formed a water association. Taft residents are proud of their community.