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Northwest Florida was an untamed wilderness and after the Civil War it became home to a handful of hardy homesteaders. They made their way south on foot, ox carts, boats, and mule wagons to establish small sustenance farms. These resourceful settlers made ends meet by fishing, hunting, and trading. Small outposts sprang up and served as gathering places for these isolated pioneers. Okaloosa pioneers gathered often to exchange ideas, goods and news. Soon, these trading posts became small towns, which in turn, grew into the cities and towns we recognize today.
A New Direction
The formation of Okaloosa County can be closely tied to Laurel Hill resident and State Representative, William Mapoles. In 1915 it was Mapoles who introduced a bill to the Florida House of Representatives that called for the creation of a new county from the existing counties of Santa Rosa and Walton. Mr. Mapoles named the county after a steamboat called “The Okaloosa” named after a Choctaw word meaning black water. This Okaloosa steamboat brought passengers up and down the Blackwater River from Milton to Pensacola. A temporary county seat was established in Milligan until a special election was held in 1917 and Crestview was chosen as the new permanent seat.
An Industrious People
Lumber, Turpentine and Fishing were the main economic drivers of the time and they, in turn, were supported by the Pensacola & Atlantic Railroad (P&A) which was a division of the already existing Louisville & Nashville Railroad (L&N). The P&A railroad was chartered and completed by William Chipley and ran between Pensacola and Jacksonville. Thanks to the P&A Railroad, much of Okaloosa’s commodities traveled to Florida’s east coast.
Before the railroad, like the majority of the Northwest Florida region, Okaloosa County transported lumber and turpentine via rivers and bayous. The small communities that grew around the lumber and turpentine camps found themselves more mobile and had better access to large stands of virgin timber and pine.
The life of the local fishermen was also made easier by the railroads. Coastal fishermen would take their haul to Pensacola by boat, and then loaded onto trains. The inland fishermen could take their catch to the small railroad towns for export. These fish hauls were then moved to the east coast by the P&A, or further north on the Yellow River Railroad from Crestview. The railroad proved its worth as a reliable and efficient means of moving local commodities to market in a short period of time. Today, highways and airports help the railway link Okaloosa County with the rest of the world.
It Was Only Yesterday
Okaloosa County retained its primitive pioneer character for over a century which allowed the small farming and fishing communities to enjoy a quiet and private existence. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that the military and tourism brought modern conveniences such as paved roads, telephones and electricity.
A local businessman and airplane enthusiast, James E. Plew, saw the advantages of bringing the military to a county suffering from the depression. In 1934, Plew proposed to donate 1,460 adjoining acres to the U.S. government for a bombing and gunnery range. Later in 1937 the U.S. Army Air Corps mandated that the Valparaiso Bombing and Gunnery Base be renamed “Eglin Field" after Lt. Col. Frederick Irving Eglin. After the establishment of the Air Force, Eglin Field later became Eglin Air Force Base extending across a territory the size of Rhode Island. Today contemporary aircraft and modern weaponry are now tested on the land that only yesterday, Native Americans and pioneers struggled to survive on.
Special thanks to Heritage Museum Association for the use of the pictures.
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