As a kid growing up in Chipley, Florida, Jacob Strickland and his classmates explored the caves close to home. He never dreamed that one day he would be manager of Florida Caverns State Park—not once, but twice—at what was then one of his favorite haunts.
Jacob was introduced to the caves as a first grader, traveling with his classmates 30 miles from home to see this natural wonder in Marianna. As he grew older, he and his friends made many trips back and forth.
“These amazing caves provided many hours of fun for us back then,” Jacob says. “It’s special to me to be able to work here and introduce visitors to the state’s only dry caves that offer public tours. Many people don’t even know that there are dry caves in Florida, so in a way, we’re a surprise even for the state’s residents.”
Jacob is in his second stint at Florida Caverns State Park. After graduation in 1994 and serving in the U.S. Army, he worked for the state’s Division of Forestry and Parks and Recreation for Washington County before joining the state park organization. Initial parks assignments included Falling Waters and Ponce DeLeon Springs in the Panhandle.
“I had my eye on this assignment at Florida Caverns from the time I started working for state parks, but I was happy to work anywhere they needed me,” he says. “When I was asked to come here in 2009, I jumped at the chance. Two years later, I was needed at three other parks, so of course I went. Yes, I was a little disappointed. But, like I said, I just really enjoy working outdoors and introducing people to our state parks.”
Jacob wasn’t gone long. Four years later, in 2015, he was brought back to Florida Caverns—this time as park manager.
“Having access to dry caves is a rare experience for most Floridians,” he says.
“To see all the limestone stalagmites and stalactites, plus all the other fascinating formations, can be breathtaking. Over the past several years, we’ve installed special LED lighting to heighten the effects of the formations that were created over centuries of water gently dripping and seeping through the rocks.”
The area was used in the 1920s as a federal fish hatchery.
“The series of ponds were ideal for stocking and raising fish, but it only lasted a couple of years,” Jacob says. “As part of the Civilian Conservation Corps work program, a National Park Services geologist named Oliver Chalifoux came here to find out what was on the site and discovered the cave system. Workers came in to stabilize the walls and enlarge the passageways in the late 1930s.”
The property became a state park in 1942. Today, visitors can take guided tours through nine different rooms lined with wall-to-wall formations, including stalagmites, stalactites, draperies, curtains, soda straws and large flowstones.
With a long and storied geological history, the beginnings of the caves date back approximately 38 million years.
“At that time, sea levels were higher and a great deal of the southeastern United States was submerged,” says Alex Cronin, with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “As a result, shells, sediment and coral built up on the sea floor, and as the water levels receded, these items hardened into limestone.
“Over the past 1 million years, acidic groundwater produced cave passages large enough to walk through. Cave-drip formations along the roof and floors created the stalactites and stalagmites that fill the caves today and are still forming.”
Through guided tours, visitors can see the results of millions of years of natural development in the caves.
Rooms are named for the formations contained there. For instance, the Wedding Room has large limestone formations that resemble a pipe organ and a giant wedding cake. Another room contains a pool of water that’s shaped like South America.
“People are fascinated by all the formations, and with our recently added LED colored lighting, it is really spectacular and dramatic,” Jacob says. “The park is also known for our disappearing spring-fed river that runs about three-eighths of a mile under the land before coming out the other side.”
More than 140,000 people a year tour the caves at the park and stop by the on-grounds visitors center and museum to learn about the Native American, pre-Colonial and Colonial history of the area.
The park offers other recreational amenities, including canoeing, kayaking, hiking, fishing, camping and horseback riding. There’s a nine-hole golf course as well.
For Jacob, being able to share his insights about Florida Caverns State Park is his dream job.
“Having grown up here, I know these caves,” he says. “I’m always so glad to be able to share their history and marvels with visitors. It continues to amaze me that so many residents don’t even know there are dry caves in Florida. Once they visit, they’re believers. It opens up a whole new world for them.”