Historic Ocala, Florida: the Brick City
People investing in Ocala rental properties may wonder why so many buildings in historic Ocala are brick—and the reason is that, in the 19th century, a devastating fire destroyed much of the town. When rebuilding, residents decided to use brick.
If we could travel back in time, back to the 1880s, we’d see a bustling town of Ocala. It was on the brink of becoming Florida’s fifth largest town, with nearly 2,000 residents. The railroad was new in the area, giving townspeople the opportunity to prosper by exporting their citrus fruit, cotton, vegetables, and livestock. The town even had an orchestra, which wasn’t necessarily common in that region in that era.
On the windy morning of Thanksgiving 1883, many people had planned to enjoy a free train ride, which was being sponsored by the local newspaper, culminating with a picnic by Lake Weir. As they were gathering, though, they saw smoke. Rushing over, they found that the fire had begun at the Benjamin Building on Ocklawaha Avenue, a building filled with mattresses and furniture.
No one can say, with certainty, what started the fire. The best guess is that a clerk sleeping at the top of this store had left a lamp burning. People believed the lamp was knocked over somehow and the fire started. Mattresses then caught on fire, causing the store to go up in flames.
What is known, with certainty, is that townspeople could not successfully put out the fire. Ocala only had one water pump, located in the town square. The fire spread rapidly and, by the time Thanksgiving had ended, ten businesses, five hotels, and the town courthouse had been burned to ashes.
On December 1, 1883, the Ocala Banner used the printing press of another town to put out a special edition newspaper, with this text included: “Beautiful Ocala is no more. The fell destroyer has laid to rest, in all probability for the next ten years to come. Sad indeed do we chronicle the destruction of our town—the pride of our life and the home of our companions, friends and happiness. Is this a dream? No dear readers, but a reality.”
A Savannah newspaper called the fire a “disastrous conflagration, sweeping houses and destroying the Ocala and Palace hotels. The loss is half a million dollars.”
Fire bonds were sold to raise funds to establish a fire department and to pay for its equipment. Two rain-catching cisterns were added and, as buildings were reconstructed, they didn’t use lumber. Instead, they used stone, iron, and brick. As Ocala was rebuilt, the town square now featured four-story brick buildings and looked quite different from other Florida towns of its day.
Hence, Ocala became known as Brick City.