HISTORY OF HERNANDO COUNTY SCHOOLS
The Ozello School
The Ozello School (Truxal)
The following is excerpted from a 1985 article “Early Schools in Hernando County” by Nellie L. Truxal.
In 1880, the little settlement of Ozello had a serious problem in locating a school. Until this time the only school was a tiny building on a point of land on the bay. A family had settled there and since there was no school, the mother collected eight or ten children and taught them herself. As other families moved into the area and settled on both sides of the St. Martin’s River a new school was needed. People on the south side of the river didn’t want the school located on the north side. People on the north side didn’t want it on the south side. Finally a compromise was reached. The school was built on an Indian mound on a small island in the middle of the river. This was agreeable because it was said that a child who could not row a boat by the time he was six years old was beyond the hope of education. The peak enrollment at this school was fifty-two pupils.
After 1887 Ozello was no longer a part of Hernando County but it is of interest to note that the school continued to operate until the mid 1940’s. By that time the older children wanted to attend high school in Crystal River so all of the pupils were transported there by bus. A school boat picked up the children in the morning and took them to the bus. After school they returned to Ozello by bus and were taken home by the school boat.
Mr. Robert Wells of Crystal River, who attended the island school many years ago, described it as a 24′ x 30′ building with a wood burning heater and three hanging coal oil lamps. There were never any electric lights in the building. He had very pleasant memories of the school, except for one man the teacher who made derogatory remarks about the community and the way of life there. He was “run off” by the pupils and replaced by a woman teacher. Robert Wells remembers the school as being like a big happy family. He related that after the school closed it was used as a polling place for a time. When a storm washed the building off its blocks it was finally demolished. The island in the middle of the river is still known as “School House Island.”
The Ozello School (Dunn)
The following is taken from Back Home: A History of Citrus County, Florida, by Hampton Dunn.
Another landmark went up on the west side of the county in 1880: The neat little schoolhouse at Ozello, which was to gain world-wide recognition as “The Isle of Knowledge” when noted cartoonist Robert L. Ripley featured the unique school in his syndicated newspaper feature, “Believe It or Not!” Mrs. Epie Bullard, went to school there and has researched the history of the island. She reports the school was built on an island in the center of the St. Martin River because the people who lived there could not agree to have it built on either side of the river. Finally, they decided to put in on an island equal distance from each side. Families living in Ozello were the Heads, Debusks, Stanalands, Stephens, Browns, Martins and Boatrights. Mrs. Bullard recalled, “The most amazing thing to me at the time was the fact that all the children from first to eighth grade had to row a boat to school. Needless to say, we had plenty of muscles, blisters, and worn out seats.” On Sundays, the old school was used as a church, this time with parents using the boats.
At first, there was a log house with a palm-thatched roof that was used for the school, then later came a frame structure. It was phased out in 1943. According to Mrs. Cattie P. Martin, a former teacher at Ozello, the. school reached its peak attendance of 52 pupils back before “The Freeze” of 1894-95. Other teachers who taught at the Ozello school were Miss Marian King, Miss Bessie King, Miss Emily Vause, Miss Rosa Hammond, Miss Leila Zeilner, Miss Mamie Love, Mrs. Jessie Gay Winn, Miss Bessie Martin, David Tyre, Mrs. Cattie Priest, Mrs. Idella Wells, Miss Sallie Jim Moore, Miss Mary Dell Waring, Miss Sallie Feliston, Alfred O’Steen, Miss Anne Ashworth, Mrs. Katie Lashley, Dan Rooks, and. Miss Elaine Barnes.
Since 1943, when Mrs. Martin resigned as teacher, the children have been transported by school boat and bus to Crystal River school. School boats have been used in many Florida counties since schooling became mandatory in 1939.
Ozello Children Rowed to School; If Youngster Couldn’t Row Boat He was Beyond Hope of Education
This article appeared in the Tampa Sunday Tribune on Feb. 26, 1956.
The old town of Ozello, Fla., retains its two most distinctive features. You still have to cross its principal thoroughfare — the St. Martins river — by boat; and the community schoolhouse, in use from 1880 until 1943, still stands on a tiny island in midstream.
Ozello and its environs on the Gulf Coast have been populated, though sparsely, since pirate days; but, due to difficulty of access by land, until recent years were not even shown on Florida road maps.
Today, however, there is a newly surfaced secondary state highway turning due west off Route 19, between Homosassa Springs and Crystal River, dead-ending at Ozello. This black-topped road takes you through four miles of jungle and then, for the last mile, across a salt marsh dotted with palm islands.
These islands are largely formed by generations of shucking the millions of succulent oysters that abound in the numerous salt water streams that meander through this coastal savanna.
The lonely landscape is only occasionally enlivened by heron or crane or a roaming herd of cattle. Thus approaching this isolated place on the Gulf Coast somewhat prepares you for the rugged individuality and tenacity of the inhabitants, which is traditional.
Ozello once had a post office. That is how it was finally named. The names suggested were numerous and opinions strong. But postmaster William H. Pratt settled all argument by sending the entire list of names submitted to his superiors in Washington, D. C., with this terse note: “You fellows pick a name. I’ve got to live here.”
There were some nice groves in the making around Ozello when the Big Freeze hit them in 1895-96. Unlike most other Florida areas, citrus growing was abandoned after that. Folks just went back to fishing, their main livelihood.
The decline of Cedar Key as a shipping point was another blow, but the more hardy stayed on here.
The unique schoolhouse in Ozello, however, remains today a monument to how this independent little community compromised one of its most contest issues.
Back in 1880 the folks living on the north bank of the St. Martins river wouldn’t agree to its being built on the south bank — any more than those living on the south shore would stand for its being erected on the opposite side of the river from them. So a tiny island in the middle of Ozello’s main street — the St. Martins river — is the site of the old schoolhouse, where everybody had to row to get there.
Ten years ago Stephen Trumbull, then a roving reporter for The Miami Herald, looked up Jim Brown, an old-timer who had moved to Ozello just as the earlier school was being abandoned and the local youngsters were beginning to go to the island school.
He said the first school was palmetto-thatched and stood on top of an Indian mound on the north side of the river. When his son, John, went to the new school there were 20 pupils attending.
Locating their school on an island was accepted by all, he explained, because “a youngster who couldn’t row a boat by the time he reached school age, in those days, was considered beyond all hope of education.
Then, too, there was a lot of boat-pooling, one family doing the hauling one week, and another the next.
But some say that’s why they couldn’t get another teacher after Mrs. Catty Martin got herself a better job teaching in Crystal River. They couldn’t find another teacher willing to start and end her day with an uncomfortable boat ride.
Others say that, by 1943, lots of the boys started getting a hankering for high school and since there had to be a school bus to take them to Crystal River they decided to take the young ’uns there too.
Ozello’s isolated little schoolhouse still serves its purpose as official polling place, though.
There’s been no recent agreement among the 20~odd registered voters in the precinct on a more reachable place. And, the approach by water is no hardship for those fishing folk, more accustomed to traveling by heat than car.
Ozello’s island school had its peak attendance (52 pupils) in the prosperous days when Cedar Key, to the north was the metropolis of the West Coast. That was before the Big Freeze when most folks hereabouts planned to get rich in the citrus business.
There was no paved highway into Ozello in 1946 when Mr. Trumbull undertook to drive there.
After making the trip he wrote: “The six miles down here from U. S. 19 may not be the worst road in the world, but it’ runner-up for that dubious distinction. No cars were passed on the way in or out, which was fortunate. It’s a one-way, one-land affair, starting in the cabbage palms and ending on a salt marsh. John Brown says the duck hunting and fishing is so good that a lot of people brave that road, but it’s a well known fact that duck hunting and sports fishermen are nearly as crazy as roving newspaper correspondents.”
By 1954 the state road department had widened and surfaced the road to the banks of the St. Martins River; and, recognizing the natural attractions for sportsmen and tourists, erected a wayside picnic area alongside the new highway.
Ozello began to be shown on the latest road maps and The Miami Herald sent a staff writer, Bob Preston, to do another feature picture-story on it. Free of the road hazards Trumbull described, he found: “The newly surfaced secondary state highway connecting Ozello with the outside world provides five miles of the most picturesque scenery of any highway in Florida.”
On arrival, however, all he could see of the community was two houses, the school and a fishing pier. The homes of the other five families then living there faced either bank of the river. No store, street lights—or municipal government—disturbed the peaceful surroundings yet. There was evidently more river than road traffic locally.
Noticing a new truck among the boats in the front yards of one of the two houses near the new road, Mr. Preston approached and discovered the younger Mr. and Mrs. John Brown and their two little boys, Jim and Thomas, live there.
John Brown, constable of the district, declares this is just a title. Nobody gets in serious trouble in Ozello. The natives, unaffected by the civilization to their east, are attuned to the great silence of nature in their watery wilderness.
But some, like himself, had bought better cars or trucks with a modern road connecting them with the outside world. And most expect a local boom because of the exceptionally good fishing and hunting there.
While Ozello children now commute by bus to school in Crystal River, the majority still begin and end the journey by water. School bus driver James Stephens starts his morning trip by boat from his riverbank home and picks up most of the children in his boat before reaching the bus parked where the new road begins in Ozello. The old schoolhouse here is still official voting place for the precinct.
This winter Mrs. John Branch revisited Ozello, having spent several years of her early youth in the vicinity. She borrowed John Brown Sr.’s copies of the several clippings from The Miami Herald quoted above and kindly forwarded them for appropriate use on this Pioneer Florida page.
Persistent rumors of buried treasure near Ozello recall the earlier history of this remote stretch of the Gulf Coast in Citrus County, when pirates frequented the shores. The remains of a huge Indian mound in Ozello prove more ancient habitation of this waterfront. And there are ruins where big salt kettles were operated only a few miles away on the Salt river during the Civil War—though these are almost concealed by dense woodland now.
Mr. and Mrs. M. Coate of Floral City and others interested in preserving the colorful history of Citrus County have indicated they would make generous contributions to establish a museum. The organization of a county historical commission, as provided by law in Florida now, would be the logical first step towards this end. We hope the old island school in Ozello will be considered as a most appropriate site for a local museum there.