The Last Cowgirl of Lake Mary

Griffin Farm is the crown jewel of Lake Mary’s midtown. Until recently, it was the lifelong home of Lillian Humphrey Griffin.

Griffin Farm, last cattle ranch hold out in the core of Lake Mary, is seen here in 2011 on Google Street View.

Two nights ago, I was picking up dinner at ZaZa’s in the convenient new live-shop-work hotspot in Lake Mary. Noticing the name “Griffin Farm” on the upscale town center, it got me wondering… what’s the story behind it?

Anyone living near Lake Mary probably remembers the property. Prior to 2018, it was the island of pasture between the I-4 commercial district and Lake Mary’s revitalized downtown Central Park.

The green space was a peculiar breath of fresh air (or perhaps just a whiff of manure) at the busy intersection of Lake Mary Boulevard and Longwood-Lake Mary Road. The bovine that grazed at Griffin Farm seemed unaware that their rural outpost was the last hold out. Suburban development abutted their throwback oasis at every angle.

All good things must come to an end, I suppose. It was obviously just a matter of time. The land was just too valuable.

Lillian Humphrey Griffin was the last of her generation, the final remaining of Lake Mary’s pioneer cattle families. This is her story.

Griffin Farm shopping complex and apartments, as seen on Google Street View in 2020.

“I just like living here,” Lillian Humphrey Griffin told local historian Jim Robison in 1997. “It’s home. I don’t want to give it up. I don’t need no money. I’m comfortable on my land. My cattle and me are living comfortable.”

Lillian Humphrey was born on her family’s Lake Mary homestead in 1928. She was the third generation to be born in what became Seminole County. Her great-grandfather, William “Mac” Humprey, moved to Fort Reid (south of Sanford) in 1866 with his wife Theresa Watts Humphrey. Theresa’s father, Joseph B. Watts, settled a few years earlier along the shores of Lake Jesup in the nascent town of Oviedo in 1863.

Within a few years, Mac was well-established in the cattle business. He registered his first brand in June of 1869. He was just the second to do so in Orange County (Seminole County did not exist until 1913).

In those days without fence laws, the family’s cow hunting exploits were legendary, and their free-ranged cattle spread throughout the region. The Humphrey boys rounded up their scattered herd on rangy cracker horses, pushing them through creeks and palmetto tickets throughout Seminole, Volusia, Lake, Orange, Brevard, and even into the Kissimmee River Valley.

The relatively scrawny Spanish-descended cattle were driven to market either to the wharf on Lake Monroe at Mellonville/Sanford or south to the Gulf of Mexico at Punta Rassa. In the early days, they were paid $13 a head in Spanish gold doubloons for the Cuba-bound beeves.

Lillian Humphrey Griffin in 1998
Ross Lewis, Arthur, and Ernest with mother Lula Nolan Humphrey
Robert T. and Lafayette H. with father William Tellispan Humphrey

Mac and Theresa’s third son, William “Will” Tellispan Humphrey, continued the family business and greatly expanded their holdings. Will married Lula Alexander Nolan around the turn of the century. The Nolan family were pioneers in their own right, settling in the Elder Springs/Ebenezer area south of 427 between there and Lake Jesup, near Eureka Hammock.

The extended family held land and cow pens throughout northern Seminole County, primarily between Markham Woods and Lake Jesup. Old family lore tells about the pains they took to keep cattle from venturing into what became Alaqua. Now a haven for the uber-wealthy, back then it was deep “butt deep” marsh that was extremely difficult come cattle-droving season.

Will and Lula’s line continued to reside on Mac’s original homestead that encompassed both sides of Longwood-Lake Mary Road, including Lake Mary High School, and eastward to Country Club Road and the north side of Seminole State College near Evansdale.

Two of their children, Ross Lewis and Ernest Leroy “Bub” Humphrey, continued the business. They raised their families on the same tract along Longwood-Lake Mary Road, and the brothers (born in 1901 and 1904) were prominent actors in the early years of their hometown.

According to the book, “Lake Mary Beginnings,” at one time the Humphrey family was the largest cattle dealer in Florida. They supplied the majority of the beef to the Sanford market — up to 35 cows per week. The ranchers led more than 6,000 to the tick-dipping vats in 1919, but their herd got progressively smaller after the Legislature enacted the fence law in 1949.

The Humprey boys farmed the property together throughout their lives, never giving in to mounting pressure to sell. Even in their elder years, the brothers looked after a few dozen cows, refusing to give up on the only way of life they knew. After some years of health issues, 77-year-old Ross was first to die in 1978. The younger Ernest lived to see 86, passing in 1990.

They handed the craft down to the next generation, including the heroine of our story: Lillian, daughter of Ross and Mamie Thompson Humphrey. The rough-and-tumble cowgirl was never afraid to get her hands dirty. She was quick to jump on a horse or drive the tractor, working just as hard as any of the men.

Lillian married local World War II veteran Frank Griffin in 1949, and the two built a home on the Humphrey homestead. In the years that followed, the Humphrey-Griffin family continued to raise a smaller herd of cattle. They diversified into the construction and land clearing business, earning a large contract to help clear the path for I-4 in the late sixties.

Lake Mary, which despite having its origin in the 1860s, was the last Seminole County city to incorporate. Its residents fought off annexation fever until it finally chartered in 1973, amid a craze of new communities and industry after the opening of Disney World in nearby Orlando.

And who was on the opening day roster of the Lake Mary city council? Lillian Humphrey Griffin, of course! She served three consecutive terms, helping lead the city for twelve of its most formative years.

Lillian contributed many early town relics to the collection at the Lake Mary Historical Museum.

Lillian thought fondly upon the memories of the rural agricultural village she grew up in. She was foundational in the Lake Mary Historical Commission and the opening of the museum. The country gal spoke with a deeply Southern drawl and made her desire to never sell her little piece of heaven abundantly clear. However, Lillian was also never one to resent the developers who had transformed the town before her eyes.

“I hate to see the change in the little town,” she told the Orlando Sentinel in 1986, “but I’m not against progress. You grow or you go backward, and I’d hate to see the city go back. It’s like we get older. We’re not the same person today as we were yesterday.”

Lillian passed away on December 15, 2011, less than five months after she lost her husband, Frank, after 62 years of marriage. The Griffin family’s signature bright blue home was torn down in 2017 to finally make way for more of that “progress.”

Yes, we will mourn for the heritage lost. However, it really is a beautiful new retail and residential hub! It will define the “midtown” district for decades.

The matriarch knew the cattle industry was no longer viable in the middle of the big city that Lake Mary had become. But, she got her wish: Lillian lived out her days on the remaining 45-acre parcel that had nurtured a thousand stories of her youth.

After all my research, I can confidently say that I think she’d be proud. A bit sad for the paradise lost, but mostly proud. Her family’s legacy will live on through Griffin Farm. Let’s make sure we remember the namesake and legacy of slower, simpler times.

Next time you’re shopping or dining at the old farm, be sure to listen for the ghostly crack of the cattle whip. Then tip your hat to the generations of Humphrey and Griffin children that walked those acres for the last 140 years.

One response to “The Last Cowgirl of Lake Mary”

  1. Good story Jason. As a native floridian, pre Disney, I remember the cattle ranches and all the orange groves we used to have here. Progress is good but it’s always a bit sad to let go of the past. We don’t have a lot of “old florida” left anymore.

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