By Rebecca “Beckie” Blount Buxton
Presented at the Walton County Heritage Association Members Meeting
July 15, 2010
In order to be very factual, let me tell you that I am not a historian. I am a retired first grade teacher who is especially interested in the town and county where I was born and reared.
I married Jesse Thomas “Tony” Buxton. He was also born and reared in Freeport.
I taught 12 years in Pensacola, 1 year in Freeport, and 28 years in Fort Walton Beach.
Shortly after retiring to the home we built on the Old South Farm in Freeport, I received a telephone call from a Freeport High School student who had been assigned to write a paper about one of Freeport’s historical homes. He asked for help.
That was when I began to realize that no one was recording the history of Freeport. Thankfully I had enough information that I was able to help him.
At that point I began reading and writing down oral and printed historical information then I would enter it into my computer as I learned to use it.
Attending a City Council Meeting one night, when the subject of renaming streets came up, I volunteered information about Old Eucheeanna Road being Freeport’s First Public Thoroughfare. Shortly after that Mayor Marse and The City Council asked if I would serve as the official, unpaid, historian for the city of Freeport.
Regarding the early settlers of the area, I learned that the Yuchi Indians, whose original home was apparently in eastern Tennessee, had transplanted themselves to this area. They were said to be lured by the sun in relation to their religious beliefs and practices.
In the early 1800’s, settlers from the Carolinas began following the Indian trails southward.
Beginning in 1820, a large group of these immigrants, most of whom were from the Isle of Skye, Scotland settled in the “Euchee” Valley of Florida by the invitation of Sam Story, Chief of the Uchee Indian Tribe.
In 1822, Florida became a territory of the United States and on December 29, 1824, the eighth county, Walton, was established.
Freeport began about 1830, when settlers were attracted to the natural harbors of the area. Most of these settlers had a dock on the waterway which was referred to as “Rice Landing”, “Crawford Landing”, etc.
Among the earliest recorded settlers of the Freeport area were Captain James Mallet and his wife Eliza (Williams) Mallet. They had a boat landing on “Mallet’s Bayou” and by 1836 were maintaining regular mail-boat service to Pensacola. (Yes, it is Mallet Bayou . . . not Mullet Bayou.)
In addition to Four Mile Creek, we also have a waterway formerly known as Cedar Creek but later renamed Lafayette Creek to honor General Lafayette’s help in the Revolutionary War. Lafayette and Four Mile Creeks join and flow into LaGrange Bayou. (General Lafayette’s home in Europe was named La Grange).
LaGrange Landing was established as a post office on 15 July 1837, and served as a staging area for the Indian Wars of 1837. Before the Civil War, public lands were not subject to homestead entry, but were purchased from the United States Government at $1.25 per acre.
In 1825, a land office was established at Tallahassee and it operated until public lands were opened up for homestead.
By then, Scots from the Euchee Valley, who used a landing on Four Mile Creek, called Scot’s Landing, decided it would be to their advantage to open a store in the area.
Giles Bowers and Captain Ramsey, a Freeport area boatman, built a store on the bank of Four Mile Creek at a place they called Genoa.
They soon discovered that they had built on land to which someone else had a clear title and they found that they had located their store too far up the creek to provide easy access to the sailing ships. (Records indicate that Genoa was located in the area we now refer to as Tucker Town.)
(My husband advised me that the pilings from their dock are still embedded in the creek bed.)
Colonel John McKinnon, father-in-law of Giles Bowers, came to their rescue. He made a trip over land to Tallahassee, where he purchased 40 acres of land at the mouth of Four Mile Creek.
At first they referred to this place as Four Mile Landing. Some letters from Giles Bowers bearing the address Four Mile Landing and the date written still exist.
Colonel McKinnon soon had the forty acres cleared, laid it out to look like a town, built a road linking the town with the EucheeAnna and “Mushy Bend” (Red Bay) roads and called the town Freeport.
Giles Bowers and his brother-in-law, John L. McKinnon, then established another store. This store was housed in a building constructed of logs. It was now accessible from the waterways of the area and from the roads leading to the interior of the county. Samuel Rutan operated a sailboat between Pensacola and Freeport. He offered both passenger and freight service.
As early as 1837, records indicate that steamboats were operating on local waterways.
In 1832, the Euchee Indians had left the area following the death of Chief Sam Story, benefactor of the early settlers.
There had also been an influx of settlers who proved to be careless with the land and wild animals.
During this time, there was a period of “plenty” in Walton County (including Freeport) good health, bountiful harvests and multiplying cattle.
The women took care of their children, and their gardens, prepared the meals, milked the cows, fed the chickens, slopped the hogs, and made garments for the family.
They gathered and washed clothes at the spring or creek, kept their houses and were neighborly.
Around 1835, Creek Indians began to drift southward through the Sandy Mountains. They were warriors and soon the peaceful life gave way to the horror of tales of ambush and massacre. Letters of that time, written to the Pensacola Gazette by military men and residents of the Freeport area, tell of the frightening events. These letters were published in the Gazette and copies of them have survived to tell the story of the 1837 Indian Wars of Walton County.
In 1841, Captain James Mallet died and was buried at the Euchee Anna Cemetery because Freeport had no cemetery. His widow, Eliza, later married Samuel Rutan.
In 1845, the Robert Saunders Hatcher family moved to a site near Alaqua Bayou. He had been a legislator in Georgia where his wife was heiress to a couple of plantations. In 1848 the Goodwin family moved to the area. They settled in the area near what is now Goodwin Creek.
In 1852, Robert Saunders Hatcher died and was buried in one of his favorite spots in the piney woodlands near his home. That is now the location of Hatcher Cemetery.
By 1862, the settlement of Freeport included a store, a church, and quite a number of family homes. Because Freeport was the outlet for the northern end of the county, people kept moving in and more stores were added.
For many years, Freeport with its schooner and steamboat connections to Pensacola, and up the Choctawhatchee River to Geneva, Alabama, was the commercial and “political” hub of Walton County.
Most of the goods ordered from Pensacola were freighted from the docks in Freeport by commercially operated wagon trains which followed the route leading northeast from Freeport through the Euchee Valley to the town of Cerro Gordo located on the Choctawhatchee River above Westville. The first night out they camped at a place called “High Lonesome” near Rock Hill.
Some records state that the Samuel Rutan house, which may still be standing in Old Freeport, was built pre-1861. It is said to be the oldest house in Freeport and the Choctawhatchee Bay Area. (When the Town Planters and the City of Freeport inquired into purchasing it as a historical site, the heir to the property was not interested in selling.)
Freeport was established as a post office on June 7, 1871. Pictures exist which show that the post office was located beside Ernest Adam’s Store and Dr. Huggins’ office in Old Freeport near Four Mile Creek.
In 1874, the Freeport Baptist Church was organized according to early church records, however the 1939 W.P.A. records indicate that it was established in 1875.
In 1875, the Presbyterian Church at Freeport was established, and in 1879 it was reorganized. The old building was erected in 1884. It was located in Old Freeport.
The Freeport Methodist Church was established in 1877.
Mt. Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1883. The church building was erected in 1913.
St. Stephens Baptist Church was organized in 1898, the deed for the present building site was dated June 7, 1924, and the present church was erected in 1925 according to the 1939 WPA survey.
In 1875, the U. S. Government called for bids to put “steam” (steamboat) mail service between Freeport and Pensacola into service. The bid was won by Col. John L. McKinnon.
At that time it was advertised in newspapers that travelers could stay at the large new hotel, managed by Mrs. Tervin, have breakfast at 6 a.m. and board the mail steamer run by the firm of McKinnon and McCullough for a pleasant trip via the Bay Route to Pensacola.
In 1882, the JOLLY BAY BREEZE, predecessor of THE DE FUNIAK BREEZE, put out its first issue.
In 1886-87, Freeport had a population of approximately 200, and many veterans of the Civil War were moving into the area.
Following reconstruction (post Civil-War), the lumbering and Naval Stores industries had become important. Mills were built along waterways because they had to depend on water transportation.
With the coming of the railroad, overland transportation was provided with DeFuniak Springs providing the nearest station. Following the coming of the railroad, many families from the Freeport area moved to DeFuniak.
Quite a number of houses in Freeport then changed ownership. The house known locally as the Victor Ward house, across the street from the Masonic Hall, is said to have been built in 1888 for W. H. McCullough, a local merchant who later moved to DeFuniak. That house also served as a stage coach depot, boarding house for important guests of the Geneva Mill Company and even later as a WPA sewing room before reverting back to use as a private home.
The hall and parlor style house with recessed porch, known as the George Wahl house probably was built in 1892 for George Wahl.
The Bloodworth House, an excellent example of the Colonial Revival style “Cottage” was built about 1893. It was known locally as the “Bergeron-Boudreaux” house. The Garford Shaw house which was located just south of the Methodist Church was said to be a twin to the Bergeron-Boudreaux home. These houses were owned by two brothers who were doctors. (The Enzor brothers). The Garford Shaw house was torn down and the Bergeron-Boudreaux house has been moved.
Between 1899 and 1901, the John Mayo-George Knight house was built.
In 1900, mail was delivered from DeFuniak to Freeport by surrey and passengers could ride along for a fare of $1.00.
On November 10 of 1902, H. A. Davis purchased from Mr. and Mrs. J. J. McCaskill the lot on which the Masonic Lodge now sits.
In 1903, the population of Freeport was 1,187 and on September 12, 1903 members of the Lodge voted to purchase the lot and building from Mr. Davis for a sum of $1,300.00.
The lower floor was rented to R. E. L. McCaskill and Nimrod McGuire for use as a mercantile business. This business was known as The People’s Cash Store. (The owners were not allowed to paint the name of the store on the side of the building.)
During this same time period, the business people pooled their money to drill an artesian well to supply water for the steamboats. Water from this well was later piped up the hill and into the houses of “Old Freeport”.
A tree grew up around the faucet in front of Ira Brown’s house and because it appeared that water was flowing from the tree, it was written up in Ripley’s Believe it or Not!
The Naval stores (turpentine) industry was beginning to be more important than the lumbering industry to the area.
In 1908, A house was built for W. H. Daniels. It was later purchased by Justice of the Peace and Mrs. Douglas. Next door to the house, they built a 40′ by 60′ building, used to house their dry goods business. In later years the home was purchased by Hayes and Agnes (Mitchell) Crawford. Before it was razed, a brick house was built beside it for their son Charles “Chuck” Crawford.
Freeport’s historic buildings, for the most part, reflected Florida’s “Cracker” architecture of the Mid 19th century when the area was rural and sparsely populated.
Most of the homes and business buildings were simple structures, however it is said that the homes which lined the streets of old Freeport were attractive white frame structures, most of which were surrounded by neatly tended, picket-fence enclosed, yards.
This was borne out by pictures in an original historic brochure used to induce people from the north to buy and settle land in Bayview sight unseen.
It wasn’t long until our coastal steamers were filled to capacity with people and their freight bound for Bayview and for the Santa Rosa Plantation.
A. P. Bjorklund published THE FREEPORT OBSERVER, the only Socialist paper published in Florida, from 1908 until 1910.
Population of Freeport in 1911-1912 was 1200, and the Geneva Mill was operating on the banks of Four Mile Creek.
J. J. McCaskill and Company platted the 4,000 acres between LaGrange and Alaqua Bayous, and advertised it for sale in northern papers with the guarantee that a railroad to connect with the L. & N. would be built within two years. A one hundred room hotel was planned for Motes’ Point.
This original brochure which Dr. Cessna of the Santa Rosa Plantation Group used to promote the sales of the property in the area under the name “Bayview” indicates that Mr. McCaskill likely sold the property to Dr. Cessna for development.
The Bayview Hotel had a long dock extending out into the bay to connect with steamboats. The hotel was a major attraction for several years and young people from the generation before mine told of attending major parties and dances there. It was destroyed as the result of a woods fire.
In 1914, fire destroyed the building which housed the San Gala Hotel, which was located upstairs, and the Freeport Drug Company owned by Dr. Simmons (which was located downstairs.)
The Freeport Drug store had the first soda fountain in the county and was owned by Dr. Simmons. Adjacent to the drug store was a pool room. All facilities housed in the building were lost.
A “drummer” (traveling salesman) escaped from his hotel room by climbing down a porch post, not taking time to dress until he reached the street.
In 1915, J. J. McCaskill bought his old mill at Shipyard Point back from the Florida Cypress Company.
In March of 1915, the McCaskill House was “fitted out” as a hotel. Known today as the McCaskill-Brown House, the room numbers still exist in the house today, and the home is still owned by descendants of Marion and Pearlie Brown.
Freeport men took part in building local roads. “The Road Duty Tax’ which had begun before Florida became a state, was still on the books at the time of WWI, required each man to work on the road for 8 days a year (10 hour days!)
The population of Freeport in 1918 was listed as 500, and the Valparaiso Development Company purchased land in Freeport to develop the North and South Farms. On the South Farm they planted sugar cane, made cane syrup and, under contract, shipped it north to Chicago.
Highway 20, then referred to as Highway 10, was a “two track” dirt road from Freeport to Niceville in 1929. In that same year, work began on U.S. 331. With the completion of those roads, Freeport became “literally” the “crossroads” between North and South Walton County. On the north farm which was located near what is now called Owl’s Head, there was a very large horse ranch.
L. W. Melvin’s blacksmith shop was a long building with a center hall. Mr. Melvin had a cow horn which he blew in case of emergency such as a fire. The sound of that horn brought the men of Freeport running to help.
The blacksmith shop was at the corner of Center and Jackson Streets. After the days of the horse and buggy, Mr. Melvin rented the back of the livery to Mr. Fred Sanford, who used it as the first shop established to service his Sanford oil terminal delivery trucks.
The Geneva Lumber Company Mill blew its last whistle on January 15, 1931. One of the older residents, who is now deceased, remarked that the machine parts and other metals were purchased and shipped to Japan for use in their war efforts.
The Independent Oil Company purchased several lots from merchant A. D. Mayo to install a tankfarm and a wholesale house on the creekfront in 1934.
The oil terminals and their attendant tug boats and barges became an integral part of Freeport.
In 1936, I was born in the “fire room” of a working farm house on Old Eucheeanna Road (Freeport’s first public thoroughfare) in the “Gopher Ridge” (northern) section of Freeport. The house had been built in the late 1890’s and was purchased by my paternal grandfather James Alexander “Alec” Blount in 1910. When he relocated from New Home to Freeport. (After his father’s death in 1934, my father Louis Needham Blount purchased the home from the other heirs.)
(A replication of the exterior of that home, which is known as the Blount House, is located on Kylea Laird Drive behind the old Post Office.)
I was delivered at home by Dr. E. L. Huggins who maintained an office in Freeport.
At that same time Freeport also had a midwife, “Aunt” Dora Ramsey. These were the days before 1940 and Lakeside Clinic and hospitals in Walton County.
The Choctawhatchee Bay Bridge was under construction in 1939. Prior to the time of its opening, people traveled by “ferry boat” to locations on the south side of the bay.
Jubilation was rampant when electricity arrived in Freeport in 1941.
One cold night in February of 1943, the old two story frame building which was Freeport School, grades 1-10, was destroyed by fire. It had an outside staircase and it is said that vagrants had built a fire there trying to stay warm. My father was principal of the school at that time and I was a first grader. I was immensely proud that I had saved a book because I had taken it home to read.
Those were the “war years” and materials and men were not available for rebuilding for a long period.
We students were transported to schools in Point Washington and Portland until the school term of 1946-1947. By that time one portion of the present Middle School was constructed and grades 1-8 were able to return. Students in grades 9-12 continued to attend Walton High School in DeFuniak Springs.
Freeport Students of that era established friendships with students from all over Walton County.
Over the years many of the original buildings of Old Freeport were destroyed by fire, so in 1963, Freeport was incorporated so that the community could qualify for the acquisition of a fire truck.
This is only a tiny portion of the rich history of Freeport.
Those who are interested in learning more about Freeport will find that there is much, much more.