Longtime residents know that late Villages Developer H. Gary Morse was an extremely private person. But ask them if they know anything about him at all and chances are you will hear this – he loved buffalo.
It’s true. The quiet billionaire who loved his private life but liked to play big-money politics was a huge fan of the large, stocky ox-like creatures that are known for looking cool but having a somewhat nasty disposition. Of course, left alone, those big animals are known to graze and will pretty much mind their own business.
Morse joined his father, Harold Schwartz, in Central Florida in 1983 in what was then called Orange Blossoms Gardens, a small trailer park containing a few hundred mobile homes. The community eventually was renamed The Villages and would offer many unique things – a polo club, a $10 million replica of a saloon named Katie Belle’s, a one-of-a-kind golf cart bridge over U.S. Hwy. 27/441, a movie theater and unparalleled recreational facilities.
But without a doubt, one of the favorites among Villagers was the buffalo that could be seen roaming fields throughout the community. At one time they had a home in the area near the corner of County Road 466 and Buena Vista Boulevard. They also roamed other large fields in the area. And it was commonplace to see Villagers stopping to take photographs as they showed them off to visiting family and friends.
For at least a decade, those bison lived in fields near the homes of retirees. The residents enjoyed seeing them and the bison did what they do best – graze. It was the perfect marriage – but one that was doomed to fail as more and more residents started moving into Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.
Over the years, stories surfaced of people doing stupid things when it came to the buffalo. Villages lore had it that one resident actually held his small grandchild in the air over a fence that contained a quickly approaching buffalo. Rumor had that another Villager leaned over the fence close to a buffalo and was promptly head-butted. And there were other stories of people trying to feed the buffalo – despite signs that were posted on fences warning against such behavior.
Unfortunately, it all came to a head in mid-2008 after the community’s population reached about 70,000. A slew of new Villagers were moving in by the day and many seemed to lose any semblance of common sense when they spotted the roaming buffalo.
News spread about several incidents with legal implications involving injuries inflicted by the buffalo. The Villages Developer quickly saw the potential for his wallet to significantly shrink – through no fault of his own – and decided enough was enough.
So in May, word leaked out that the buffalo were being moved away from areas accessible by the public. The Villages owned plenty of land in those days that was being used for cattle – the company actually was the second-largest cattle rancher in Florida at one time – so the buffalo were relocated to areas that one day would contain homes in the mega-retirement community.
But for the time being, the buffalo had a new place to graze. They weren’t bothered by encroaching residents. And the Developer could stay out of court over frivolous lawsuits brought by people who put themselves in harm’s way with a 2,000-pound wild animal – for no good reason!
Not surprisingly, a bunch of residents were upset with the decision. Some launched protests. Others wrote letters and gathered petitions. And some called to tip off the Orlando media, who were known for swooping into the community at the first sign of controversy in those days.
It’s not clear if the parent company of The Villages continued to own buffalo after Morse died in October 2014. For years, they would make it quite clear that buffalo meat served a local restaurants didn’t come from Villages-raised bison. But after the animals were moved to secluded areas and the community continued to grow, they slowly became just another forgotten element of the many things that made The Villages a special place in its early years.
Today, the love of Buffalo in the community lives on through The Villages Charter Schools. Student sports team there called the Buffalo. And there are at least two very prominent statues of the animals on the high school campus.
The school’s football field is named the H.G. Morse Range – a tribute to the late Villages Developer – which is prominently displayed on a large, digital scoreboard that resembles something one would expect to find at a small college. And at bottom of the scoreboard, the words “Home of the Buffalo” are written.
The same can be said for the school’s gymnasium, which touts a “Buffalo stampede” on one wall and carries the slogan “Where the Buffalo Roam. It’s all about the team!” on another. And on the basketball court there is a large, professionally done mural of stampeding buffalo that’s sure to catch the attention of any visiting team that competes with The Villages High School’s basketball team.