LAKEWOOD RANCH — There were fossils millions of years old. Vertebra from ancient whales. Coral turned rock-hard. All from a sea that once covered what is now the peninsula of Florida.
The fossils, recovered more than 15 feet below the surface of the earth, were excavated by SMR Aggregates, the Schroeder-Manatee Ranch mining operation. Sea fossils are frequently found in a thick layer of shell that the company mines and sells, often to spread on dirt roads to improve traction and prevent drivers from getting stuck.
During a media tour Thursday, SMR showed the face of the 30,000-acre community that is less well-known than the neighborhoods and shopping areas.
That face includes a cattle operation, sod and tree farms, citrus groves, and thousands of acres that will never be developed.
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And it includes mining.
Eugene E. Henshaw Jr., president of SMR Aggregates, led the tour through deeply mined areas, and small mountains of sand, sorted by the size of the grains, ranging from fine to coarse.
“All we do is wash it and size it,” said Henshaw.
Products from the mines may be used in paving, making concrete, in oyster bed restoration, or many other purposes, he said.
When an area is mined out, it becomes a clear, blue lake, like Lake Uihlein, the largest lake in the community.
The mines are located on the Sarasota County side of Lakewood Ranch, close to the Sarasota Polo Grounds.
Several miles to the north is the domain of Mac Carraway, president of SMR Farms with thousands of acres reserved for citrus, sod, and tree farming.
The sod farm resembles a vast, flat prairie, and produces turf that goes to sporting fields, golf courses and residential neighborhoods.
Carraway also showed off the tree farm, where live oak, slash pine, holly, magnolia and more are grown in containers.
Roger Hill, ranch manager, and Jason McKendree, cattle manager, standing in front of the bunk house, talked about how management of 1,500 head of cattle has changed over the years. In a few months, when calving season arrives, the size of the herd will nearly double.
McKendree and Hill exchanged stories about cattle drives of old. Hill said he remembered driving cattle from County Road 675 along State Road 70 to Lakewood Ranch. But that was before S.R. 70 was paved, much less a six-lane highway in places.
Tour members then mounted what SMR called “bird buggies,” big-wheeled vehicles that can maneuver through mud or backwoods roads, for a look at Heritage Ranch, 2,000 acres that will never be developed. The property will forever be home to deer, bobcats, otter, rattlesnakes and other native species, free to roam pristine areas with colorful names like Persimmon Hammock, Dead Bull Crossing, Whiskey Pond and Clive’s Crossing.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.