Brief History of Taylor County, Florida

Taylor County is a growing rural community in Florida’s Big Bend region. The county seat is at Perry, and the population was just short of 23,000 residents as of 2013. Principal industries include forestry, pulpwood processing, and manufacturing.

The county was established by an act of Florida’s legislature on December 23, 1856. The act created both Taylor and Lafayette counties from the southern portion of Madison County, which prior to that time had included nearly all of the territory between the Aucilla and Suwannee rivers. The name “Taylor” derives from Zachary Taylor, 12th President of the United States and a decorated general in the United States Army.

Prior to Taylor County’s establishment, the territory it contains was inhabited in turn by prehistoric Native Americans, the Timucuans, the Spanish, and various tribes allied with the Seminoles. Numerous burial mounds, shell middens, and other remains of Native American habitation are still visible throughout the county. Documentary evidence of the Spanish presence is lacking, but residents have reported finding artifacts of Spanish origin in the area.

In the 1830s and early 1840s, the region was heavily involved in the Second Seminole War. Reports from U.S. military personnel indicate that the Seminoles and allied tribes used the swampy and thickly forested parts of this area as cover during the conflict. The United States Army established several forts, including Fort Frank Brooke near present-day Tennille, Fort Pleasant near present-day Shady Grove, Fort Andrews along the Fenholloway River near Hampton Springs, and Fort Hulbert, also on the Fenholloway. General Zachary Taylor used forts Frank Brooke and Andrews as his headquarters at various times during his tenure as commander of the U.S. Army in Florida.

When Taylor County was officially established in 1856, it had only one post office, located at Fenholloway, a few miles northwest of present-day Perry. This is not to be confused with the town of Fenholloway that later emerged east of Perry; this first Fenholloway was located closer to Rocky Creek near Pisgah. By 1856, settlers had already established several small communities at Shady Grove, Oakland, Lake Bird, Thomas Mill Island, Sunnyside, and Carlton Spring. None of these, however, were selected as the site for the new county’s courthouse. In October 1857, the county’s first board of commissioners voted to purchase forty acres of land for a county seat, which was ultimately located where the current courthouse stands. The first courthouse was built from locally cut logs. For over a decade, the county seat went without a formal name, aside from “Taylor County Court House.” In 1869, however, a post office was established at the site with the name Rosehead.

Taylor County’s role in the American Civil War was a complicated one. William H. Sever represented Taylor County at the state convention held in January 1861 to decide whether Florida would secede from the United States. Sixty-seven of the sixty-nine delegates, including Sever, voted for secession. Numerous Taylor Countians volunteered for service in state and later Confederate military units. Some served in “home guard” units whose main responsibility was to protect the homefront, especially the herds of cattle so badly needed by the Confederate Army.

During the Civil War, ship travel to and from Florida’s coastline was severely restricted by the Union blockade. Supplies of arms, ammunition, medicines, certain foodstuffs, and other goods quickly became scarce. The shortage of salt was one of the most critical problems, as this basic product was needed for food preservation. To replace the salt normally acquired through trade, a number of Floridians and individuals from other states flocked to the Florida coast and began manufacturing salt by boiling seawater in large metal vessels. Taylor County’s marshy, wooded coastline was perfect for this activity, and led many of the saltmakers to set up their operations there. Remains of some of these salt works can still be found along the coast near Adams Beach, Dekle Beach, Jug Island, and elsewhere.

While many Taylor Countians served in the Confederate Army, a number of others either declined to volunteer for military service, left the service after their initial tour of duty, or deserted outright. This did not necessarily mean they sympathized with the Union. The majority of Taylor County’s citizens were small-scale farmers with relatively little interest in the slavery question. Many dutifully answered the call to defend the state, but hesitated at the prospect of fighting on distant battlefields while leaving their families to fend for themselves in a weakly secured Florida. The Confederate government in Richmond aggravated matters by instituting policies that did not take these concerns into consideration. Conscription, the seizure of private property through the “impressment” system, and the inadequate defense of Florida’s coastline all contributed to feelings of resentment or at least apathy among many Floridians.

Taylor County’s thickly forested terrain made it an ideal place to lay low and avoid the Confederate authorities. Three separate groups of deserters and other refugees developed in the county. William W. Strickland established a group known as the “Independent Union Rangers” or “Florida Royals” of Taylor County, Florida. Strickland’s company was headquartered near the mouth of the Econfina River. Additional groups were established by James Coker on the Fenholloway River and William White near the Steinhatchee River. Muster rolls from these independent groups indicate that the members were a mix of local Taylor Countians and refugees from elsewhere in Florida and from other states.

These companies occasionally raided Confederate-allied farms in the area, and kept up a regular trade in goods and information with the ships of the Union blockade. After Confederate troops commanded by Major Charles Camfield indiscriminately burned the homes on either side of the Econfina River in 1864 to flush out the refugees, many of the men chose to cast their lot with the Union Army. A number of Taylor Countians joined the Second Florida Union Cavalry at Cedar Key. Many of these men would ironically find themselves fighting against other Taylor Countians at the Battle of Natural Bridge the following year. Their families, whose homes were destroyed by Camfield’s torches, were taken by the Confederate soldiers to Camp Smith just outside of Tallahassee. Governor Milton denounced Camfield’s actions as “a warfare upon women and children,” and ultimately helped arrange the transportation of these women and children to Cedar Key to rejoin their menfolk behind Union lines.

Civil government did not fully resume in Taylor County after the war until 1868. An election was held in 1869 to determine whether the county seat would be moved from its original location, which by then went by the name of Rosehead. The county seat did not move, and a new wood-framed courthouse was completed in 1873. In 1875, the post office at Rosehead was renamed Perry. Some have suggested the name “Perry” was intended to honor General Edward A. Perry, commander of the Florida Brigade during the Civil War. Eminent county historian W.T. Cash and others, however, assert that the town was named in honor of Madison Starke Perry, who was governor of Florida when the original courthouse site was selected in 1857.

Cattle production became Taylor County’s most lucrative industry during these years. Ever since the Spanish arrived in the 16th century and brought the first cows to Florida, cattle had roamed the open range, feeding and procreating without much intervention. Native Americans and white settlers alike had cultivated the herds, rounding up the cows they needed from time to time. More sophisticated methods of herd management eventually came into use, including regular cow penning, controlled burning of the woods to promote better grass growth, and the use of marks and brands to distinguish one cattleman’s stock from that of another. Most families owned at least a few cows, but some families owned hundreds, such as the Brannens, the Blues, and the Towleses.

Toward the end of the 19th century, another abundant Taylor County resource drew the attention of outside investors. This was the county’s expansive stands of virgin pine and cypress trees. Both kinds of wood were valuable as building materials, but pine trees offered a bonus. A living pine tree could be “tapped” to produce resin, which could then be boiled down to extract turpentine. This substance was widely used in medicines, cleaners, and other chemical applications. A number of small companies emerged at the turn of the twentieth century to develop the turpentine (or naval stores) industry in Taylor County. Lumber companies began eyeing the area as well.

At first, the county’s participation in these industries was kept small by a lack of railroads running through the area. The nearest railroad siding was at Greenville, and could only be reached by sandy trails unsuitable for any large-scale shipping operation. Several railroad companies and their allies began making plans to lay tracks to connect Taylor County with the outside world. In 1903, the Suwannee & San Pedro Railroad became the first rail line to reach Perry. The South Georgia Railway arrived the next year, connecting Perry with Greenville, Quitman, and Adel. The Live Oak, Perry & Gulf Railroad, a competitor of the Suwannee & San Pedro line, finished its route to Perry in 1906, and ultimately squeezed out its rival.

In town, business and civic leaders began making improvements to attract more commerce. The Town of Perry was officially incorporated under the laws of the state in 1903. In 1906, the county commission began accepting bids for a handsome new courthouse, which was completed in 1907 and would house the county government for over sixty years. The town council passed ordinances regulating everything from sidewalks to the smoothness of railroad crossings to the impounding of stray livestock that wandered into town. When the rising popularity of automobiles inspired efforts to build major highway systems like the Dixie Highway, Taylor County’s leaders were proactive. In 1916, after much campaigning on the subject, the local electorate voted for a $600,000 bond issue to pay for a new system of “hard roads” through the county, which would allow Perry to become a waypoint on the Dixie Highway.

A variety of new businesses took hold during this period. By 1925, Perry had three hotels, three restaurants, an ice manufacturing plant, two jewelry stores, 12 dry goods stores, telephone service, and a printing press. Along the coast, spongers and commercial mullet fishermen populated small communities at Steinhatchee, Jug Island, and Spring Warrior. One of the county’s showiest attractions at this time was the Hampton Springs Hotel. This resort was built around a mineral spring feeding the Fenholloway River not far from where Rocky Creek empties into it. Visitors came from all over the United States, both to drink and to bathe in the cool waters of this spring, which were said to have curative properties. James W. Oglesby of the South Georgia Railway purchased a controlling interest in the hotel in the 1910s and began expanding it. Developers from Chicago leased the hotel from Oglesby in the 1920s and continued to add new features.

The early decades of the 20th century were also the heyday of the timber companies in Taylor County. The Carpenter-O’Brien Lumber Company was one of the first large concerns to locate to Taylor County. Carpenter-O’Brien had a sawmill in Jacksonville for pine, but it lacked the equipment to properly process the valuable cypress timber on its lands. The directors invited their colleagues of the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company in Louisiana to set up shop in Florida and process the cypress. Ultimately, the two companies set up a joint logging operation, giving rise to several large lumber camps around the county, including Carbur.

Carpenter-O’Brien sold its Florida interests to the Brooks-Scanlon Corporation in 1917 after a fire severely damaged its Jacksonville mill. Brooks-Scanlon’s leaders attempted to get a good deal from the Atlantic Coast Line for shipping logs, but the courtship produced no results. In 1928, the company tore down its sawmill and rebuilt it south of Perry. The new mill and the surrounding town were named Foley in honor of J.S. Foley, president of Brooks-Scanlon at the time. The Weaver-Loughridge Lumber Company was another significant timber concern operating in Taylor County at this time. Its sawmill was located at Boyd.

Taylor County’s progress was attractive to investors. Businessmen from the northern states envisioned a number of major projects to develop Taylor County and its coastline. Ellis Bartholomew, a banker and railroad magnate from Ohio, attempted to develop a subdivision along the coast near Spring Warrior. It was to have been called Boneta Beach. Northern investors formed the Hampton Springs Development Corporation in 1925 and platted out an enormous new town surrounding the Hampton Springs Hotel. Investors from the Florida West Coast Development Company bought up land along the coast, hoping to run a new railroad through Taylor County en route to their flagship development project at Homosassa. None of these fanciful plans came to complete fruition, although a few remnants of this Taylor County “boom” still remain, including parts of a sidewalk out at Bartholomew’s would-be site for Boneta Beach. The big achievement of the 1920s was the construction of the Seaboard Air Line Railway’s “Perry Cutoff” between Drifton and Perry. The new track shaved a considerable amount of time and distance off the standard route between northern cities and Florida’s Gulf coast. It also helped establish Perry as a major waypoint in the region.

Taylor County was not without its problems amid all of this growth and prosperity. The turpentine industry, for example, while lucrative for the managers, relied upon an exploitative labor system. For decades, companies were permitted to hire convicts from county and state prisons to perform labor in the turpentine camps. This system was highly prone to abuse. Other workers, particularly African-Americans, freely sought employment in the camps, but were generally paid in company money, sometimes called “scrip.” This currency could only be used in the company store, to pay for goods at prices set by the company. Turpentine managers frequently used this system to keep their employees in a perpetual cycle of debt to the company. The convicts, naturally, were not paid at all, and often received very harsh treatment.

Race relations were not as strained as they were in some other parts of Florida at this time, although newspaper reports pointed to occasional violence. The alcohol prohibition question was a point of considerable trouble. Many Taylor Countians believed prohibiting the use and sale of strong drink would help preserve moral order, but many others relied on the sale of moonshine to supplement their income. When the State of Florida established its “local option” law, the county first went dry, then wet in 1909, then dry again in 1911. After nationwide prohibition was enacted by a Constitutional amendment in 1920, moonshining continued in various parts of the county. In 1926, two federal revenue agents were shot when they attempted to enter a moonshiner’s home. Even after nationwide prohibition was repealed in 1933, Taylor County continued to struggle with the question of how to regulate alcohol production, sales, and consumption.

The Great Depression hit Taylor County just as it did the rest of Florida. The grand investments at Boneta Beach, Hampton Springs, and elsewhere ground to a halt. The First National Bank lost so many deposits it was forced to close in 1930. Business leaders scrutinized their tax assessments and demanded reductions when they found anything even slightly overvalued. The Town Council became so strapped for cash that at one point it authorized payment of public debts in promissory notes.

Times were tough, but the sluggish economy didn’t break the citizens of Taylor County. Many families trimmed expenses by congregating with kinfolk in large, multi-family households. The Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration, and other New Deal agencies often used workers from out of town for their projects, but the presence of the workers helped boost the local economy. Sporting events, especially baseball, and the movies offered ways to relax. Furthermore, signs of recovery emerged from time to time. As early as 1931, town officials began studying potential sites for an airport, eventually selecting a site near where Dorsett Stadium and the county health department are located today.

Then came World War II. Scores of young men and women from Taylor County served their country during the conflict, while the county itself became home to an Army air base. A county chapter of the state’s Defense Council formed to coordinate local civilian efforts to assist the war effort. Taylor Countians volunteered for scrap metal drives, carpooling, airplane spotting, food conservation, blackout training, and other measures to conserve resources and protect the homefront.

The two decades following World War II witnessed tremendous growth in the county. Between 1940 and 1970, the population grew by nearly 20 percent. U.S. 19 was widened to four lanes, making it one of the principal routes connecting northern tourists with the Florida peninsula. U.S. 98 was also completed between Perry and Newport in 1954, which brought in even more traffic. Motels, restaurants, filling stations, and roadside tourist attractions popped up all along these routes to serve the traveling public.

The timber industry was booming, but it was also transforming. Taylor County’s stands of virgin pine and cypress were quickly running out, and the older timber companies were not equipped to change their methods. In 1942, the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company sold out to Lee Tidewater Cypress Company, which began using the old Burton-Swartz sawmill to saw logs cut on its land down in the Everglades. The Buckeye Cellulose Corporation bought out Brooks-Scanlon and constructed a pulpwood mill, which opened in 1954. Buckeye invested in reforestation techniques that allowed the company to have an adequate local supply of wood without depleting the county of trees. Weaver-Loughridge, the last of the large old lumber companies, announced in late 1966 that it was selling Buckeye its extensive land holdings. This gave Buckeye Cellulose a total of about 500,000 acres in Taylor County, making it the county’s largest landowner. The only other large-scale landowner of any significance was the Canal Timber Company directed largely by Pete Gibson.

The beaches also began to develop during the postwar period. Civic leaders in Steinhatchee worked to bring electricity and telephone service to the village. Developers platted out new communities at Dekle Beach, Cedar Island, Dark Island, Ezell Beach, and Keaton Beach. In 1968, the Taylor Beaches Fire Department received its own fire engine to serve these growing communities.

As in the 1910s and 20s, a few troubles accompanied Taylor County’s successes in the postwar era. In the 1960s, for example, the community became sorely divided over whether to replace the aging county courthouse. Ultimately, the county chose to replace the building, and a new courthouse was dedicated in 1970. In another unfortunate episode in 1958, disagreements among city leaders and law enforcement personnel led a number of Perry’s police officers to walk off the job. In the confusing series of events that ensued, the city of Perry was briefly policed by two separate sets of officers, each claiming the other was illegitimate. Perhaps the most dramatic misfortune during this period was the revelation in 1973 that a network of local citizens and county officials in Taylor and Dixie counties were participating in a complex marijuana smuggling operation. Numerous arrests and convictions stemmed from the investigation that ensued.

These unfortunate events aside, Taylor Countians were proud of the community that emerged after World War II. The local Chamber of Commerce and forestry industry leaders promoted the county as the “Pine Tree Capital of the South,” and established the annual Pine Tree Festival in the 1950s. These yearly events became enormous, featuring regular visits from national beauty queens, speeches from Florida’s top political leaders, and what reputedly became the world’s largest free fish fry.

One of the most significant turning points in Taylor County’s recent history occurred in the dark morning hours of March 13, 1993. With very little warning, an unusually powerful winter storm came ashore, packing hurricane-force winds and a storm surge as high as 14 feet. The entire county was affected, but the beaches were hit hardest. The storm washed away entire houses at many of the beach communities, often leaving nothing more than a few pilings and twisted sections of plumbing. Ten people perished in Taylor County that night, five from a single family at Dekle Beach. The property damage was substantial, but the so-called “Storm of the Century” had a much more profound effect. To some extent, an entire way of life was lost. Strict building regulations, changes in land ownership, and the loss of many favorite restaurants, institutions, and hangouts forever changed the Taylor County coastline. More than two decades after that fateful night, the beaches are back in business, with a whole new generation of residents and visitors to enjoy everything they have to offer. As those who remember what it was like “before the Storm” can attest, however, it will never be the same.

In recent years, industrial development and job creation have been major priorities for Taylor Countians. How development should occur and what concessions should be made to attract new businesses have been the most difficult questions. The City of Perry and its taxpayers have invested a tremendous amount of money into revitalizing the downtown area. The county has built a superb sports complex on the edge of town, and Doctors Memorial Hospital now occupies an attractive modern facility. New challenges regularly arise, but citizens have only to look at the history of this seasoned Florida community to find inspiration on how to keep moving forward.
This historical sketch was composed using a variety of source materials, many of which were obtained from the research collections of the Taylor County Historical Society. If you are interested in learning more about a particular aspect of Taylor County’s rich past, consider visiting the Society to take a look around.