Gamble Place and Its Many Ecosystems

Wed, Nov 15, 2017 at 10:41AM

By Kelsey Hansen, MOAS Education Assistant

Gamble Place, located off of Taylor Road in Port Orange on the Spruce Creek River, is more than just a historic landmark - it is an environmental oasis that can take anyone back to the natural and wild setting of old Florida. James Gamble, an avid outdoorsman, purchased the large property in 1898 with the intention of creating a hunting and fishing retreat. Over 100 years later, Volusia County preserved it as an environmental, cultural, historical, and outdoor recreation site for public use. 


Spruce Creek at Gamble Place, illustrating the creek as a blackwater stream because of its tea-colored water.

The 175-acre property is filled with important flora and fauna native to Florida, such as gopher tortoises, longleaf pine stands, and ancient cypress and oak trees. The land cover represents four types of ecosystems: mesic pinelands (pine flatwoods), scrub and sandhill, blackwater stream, and upland hardwood. Mesic pineland, the dominant ecosystem on Gamble Place property, is an ancient ecosystem and houses some of the most useful trees known to man. Scrub and sandhill are natural communities with low-lying evergreens and some pines. This unique ecosystem is only found in Florida. The upland hardwood community consists of many types of hardwood trees, such as oaks, magnolia, and hickory. 

Seven species of pine that are native to Florida are represented at Gamble Place, but they are very similar in appearance. The distinctions are found in tiny physical details and their specific function in their particular environment. Pine flatwoods are also home to many different types of animals that depend on the environment for protection, shelter, and food. 

Some pine trees have the unique ability to withstand forest fires, and in fact, require fire to reproduce. For example, a longleaf pine sapling is able to withstand forest fires because its thick bark insulates the trunk while the scaly bark on the outside burns off. The pond pine also has a unique adaption to fire. It can only open and drop its seeds from the cones when the resin, which holds the scales together, is heated by fire. There are many plant species that live alongside pines that depend on the fires of survival as well. Pines, such as the loblolly and some species of slash pine, are not able to survive as saplings if they are located in regularly burned habitats. 

Pines are not just ecologically important, but they are also extremely economically and socially important, especially in Volusia County and throughout Florida. Before James Gamble purchased the property, the pines in the area were used for timber, tar, and turpentine. The tar (or pitch) from the pines was used to waterproof pre-20th-century wooden ships. Even today, the timber industry is still a large source of revenue and jobs in Florida. However, the overharvesting of pine trees in the southeastern United States almost destroyed the native pine woodlands. There are some forestry practices that are still in use today that erode and degrade the topsoil in pine flatwoods. Most progressive foresty companies use more environmetnally friendly methods, such as replanting saplings and plot rotation. 

Among Florida's natural diversity of plants and animals, the palm is one of the most recognizable of the state. Although the palm is often referred to as the "palm tree," they are more closely related to grasses, rather than tree species. Palms lack the "true wood" that hardwood trees produce during their second growth. They go through a specialized primary growth stage, which produces a thick fibrous stem. The palm trunk will then have the same diameter throughout its entire life. 


An ancient magnolia tree on the back of the property going towards what used to be an orange orchard.

Because of its warm climate, Florida has more native plants than any other state in the contiguous United States. There are several palm species throughout Gamble Place. The saw palmetto and bluestem palmetto can be found as the dominant groundcover in the pine flatwoods, and the cabbage palm can be found in the upland hardwood and into the hydric hammock.

Some of Gamble Place's hardwoods are the oldest in Volusia County. There is an oak tree that is estimated to be 500 years old towards the back of the property near the orange orchard. These hardwood trees can be found all over Florida in environments known as upland hardwoods. As described by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI), upland hardwood forests are well-developed, closed-canopy forests, dominated by deciduous hardwood trees on mesic soils in areas sheltered from fire. Some common trees you can find in an upland hardwood forest are southern magnolia, laurel oak, live oak, and pignut hickory. The dense canopy of the deciduous and evergreen trees makes the forest floor a perfect spot for shade-tolerant shrubs, vines, and graminoids to grow and thrive. Upland forests are found on rolling mesic hills above river planes and merge with pine flatwoods and hydric hammocks. This same environment is represented at Tuscawilla Nature Preserve located at the Museum of Arts & Sciences. 

Egwanulti, "by the water" in Cherokee, is a cracker-style bungalow built by James Gamble in 1907. 
In front is a freshly dug gopher tortoise burrow.

Gamble Place is home to some very diverse and important fauna. The only land tortoise to live east of the Mississippi River, the gopher tortoise, is a common resident of Gamble Place. This keystone species plays an extremely important role in the ecosystem. The tortoise digs long, deep burrows with many tunnels going off to the sides. The burrow becomes home to a variety of animal species, such as the rare gopher frog, the Florida mouse, the striped skunk, and even the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake. The gopher tortoise is also on the endangered species list due to human activities, such as the conversion of its habitat for agriculture, timber, and development. If this tortoise were to go extinct, many other species that rely on it would eventually become extinct as well. 

James Gamble fell in love with the property for a number of reasons but the primary one was its location on Spruce Creek. This blackwater stream runs out to the Halifax River and into the Atlantic Ocean. The creek was a crucial access point for Mr. Gamble and his guests. He was able to sail his yacht, the Seabreeze, up the creek from the Halifax River to his bungalow for day trips. Spruce Creek is characterized as a blackwater stream by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI). Its color is described as tea-colored, with a high concentration of particulate and dissolved organic matter (leaves and branches) from the swamps and marsh drainage. As the creek meanders east, the water turns from fresh to brackish - a combination of fresh and saltwater. Spruce Creek, as well as the Atlantic Ocean, provides water for the estuary, which sits between Ponce Inlet and Spruce Creek Park. 

James Gamble purchased the 175-acre property for many reasons, but history has shown that the preservation and the acknowledgment of the ecosystems on the property is probably the most important one. Visitors are always surprised and excited to find this hidden picket of Old Florida nestled in Port Orange. The Museum of Arts & Sciences will continue to use the property as an environmental, historical, cultural, and recreational experience for many years to come. We hope the public will continue to use the trails and visit the historic homes for a long time. If you wish to visit Gamble Place and its many ecosystems and trails, you can contact Cracker Creek at 386-304-0778. 


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