The following is a publication of interviews with the people who lived along the Choctawhatchee River done by Northwest Florida Water Management in 1988:
The Northwest Florida Water Management District (NWFWMD) made its first attempt at gathering oral accounts of life and resources us in northwest Florida. Ten “old timers,” each selected to represent an economic or subsistence activity common around the Choctawhatchee Bay during the early part o the 20th century, were interviewed and featured in a District publication. This publication, Historical Remembrances of the Choctawhatchee Bay, proved to be one of the most popular the District has produced. It was also a very useful publication in that it provided the District with insight into important conditions and attitudes concerning the bay. For example, the location of sea grass and oyster beds as they were 50 or 60 years ago, the earlier distribution of fresh and saltwater creatures, and first-person accounts of the origins of commercial fishing in the area all provided for a greater understanding of “natural” conditions in the bay while also allowing District to more fully comprehend local attitudes concerning water and wildlife resources.
The popularity and especially the usefulness of the Choctawhatchee Bay interviews contributed greatly to their decision to carry out a similar project, this time focusing on the “bottomlands,” or floodplain of the Choctawhatchee River. In this instance, we were primarily interested in interviewing individuals who had spent a lifetime on our near the river and who could help us better understand traditional uses and activities as they related to this particular floodplain. Our need for this information was more pressing than would normally be the case. This was mainly because we were in the process of planning public uses for the 35,198-acre Choctawhatchee River Water Management Area recently acquired by the District. An extremely important consideration in this planning was that, whenever possible, there should be a “continuation of local and traditional land and water resource uses.” We could think of no better source for this information that to interview in depth those who had been born and raised on the river.
Out of many dozens of people recommended as being excellent sources of information about life on the Choctawhatchee during the first decades of the century, we had to select a few that we thought could provide us with the broadest possible range of life-styles, experiences, livelihoods and personalities. Our eleven selections turned out to be extremely fortuitous; these were the most diverse and informative interview subjects we could have hoped or, and they were, without exception, tremendously interesting, entertaining, and hospitable. Everyone involved thoroughly enjoyed doing these interviews, and we greatly appreciate the cooperation and contributions of all those who participated.
The interviews were carried out in the spring and summer of 1988 by Susan Whittle, Lee Cobb, Kim Davis, Tom Pratt, Jan Smith, Tom Francis, and George Fisher. The latter assumed overall editorial responsibility when Susan Whittle (who initiated and designed the project) moved on to other pastures in another state. Whenever possible, the edited interviews were sent to the principals for corrections, but any errors of fact or interpretation of intent remain those of the editor. The unenviable task of transcribing the lengthy recordings fell to a number of secretaries including Maria Culbertson, Elaine McKinnon, and Carla Campbell, but Thelma Whitefield put it all together in the end.
The mission of the Northwest Florida Water Management District (District) is to implement the provisions of Chapter 373, Water Resources, Florida Statutes, in a manner that best ensures the continued welfare of the residents and water resources of Northwest Florida. Their core mission is to ensure a clean and adequate supply of water for the people and natural resources of the region; working to protect, maintain, and improve the quality of resources across the panhandle; promote flood protection through non-structural techniques; and protect and improve natural systems in Northwest Florida through land acquisition, management, and ecosystem restoration activities.
Here are the river interviews:
E.W. “Judge” Carswell
E.W. “Judge” Carswell was born on a farm in the northern part of Holmes County in 1916. He has been a devoted student of the history of Holmes County and neighboring areas nearly all of his life. He is a proud graduate and alumni member of Louisiana Polytechnic University in Ruston, Louisiana, and a semi-retired staff writer of the Pensacola News Journal. Mr. Carswell is also well-known for his many publications including Homesteading: The History of Holmes County; Holmes Valley’ Tempestuous Triangle” A History of Washington County; He Sold No ‘Shine Before Its Time; and Possum Cookbook.
E.W. Carswell interview:
Are the people who live down near the Choctawhatchee River different from those living in the uplands?
Yes, a lot of the people living in that area were isolated in the early days. They were pretty isolated at least until the railroad came in the 1880s. Those who went down to the flats had motivations other than farming. There was no industry to speak of; mostly a subsistence existence. They did a variety of things: timbering – sometimes floating logs down the river, some turpentining, hunting, and gopher catching. They didn’t catch gophers in the flats, but up the sand hills. By way of poling a barge, they would carry them down to Pensacola. Along with gophers, whey would carry honey and beeswax, skins, and other produce to trade for matches, gunpowder and other things needed on the frontier.
The descendants of some of those folks are still here but they are being mixed up with the rest of us. Several things have helped bring that about: compulsory school attendance was one, and during World War II people care out for jobs in the shipyards and other places in Panama City. Since then, there have been a lot of departures. People were leaving to look for work.
There was no particular name for the people that lived along the river. The younger generation has been pretty much assimilated but there are several of the older folks you can talk to that know the ways of the river.
What uses of the river and flats no longer exist?
A lot of things went with the timber, Hunting and fishing, as a way of life, were among them. The Carolina parakeet’s last stronghold was along this river. The people would shoot one and the rest would come to help it; they would be shot until all were killed. That kind of characterizes this area. We shot the last duck, the last turkey, the last whatever, so that when I was a boy there were not turkey or deer in this whole area. Both have been brought back since then. Today insurance men pay more for deer damage to cars that about anything else. The river has been a treasure for hunting and fishing and a habitat for wildlife.
At one time there was quite a lively sturgeon fishery on the river. It ended about 1930 to 1935. It was basically for the caviar but they shipped the meat out too. They were caught from the bay all the way up to Geneva. A few people actually made a part-time livelihood catching those fish. That’s all the commercial fishing on the river that I know about.
The fish out of the lower Choctawhatchee are wonderful tasting. The reason for that is the lower river is fed by a tremendous number of springs.
They put so much fine fresh water in the river below Caryville, the fish absolutely taste different.
Any other uses that no longer exist?
Steamboating is one. I believe it was in 1833, the government set out to make the river more navigable by pulling some snags out of it and doing some dredging. It wasn’t very successful, but people well up into Alabama had long used the river for floating logs and for communications with Pensacola. They continued until the 1840s when the little steamboats came in. I can remember steamboats still running from here up to Geneva until about 1930, long after the railroad came. Nearly all these boats had gopher boxes on the and merchants could buy gophers from the people that hunted them. Gopher was an important idem of trade particularly in Pensacola. There was no refrigeration and gophers could live for weeks without food or water. Sailors like to take them to sea as a source of fresh meat. In the 1950s, even though we had exhausted our supply of gophers around here, the demand for them continued and they were trucked in to Pensacola from central Florida. The last gopher market in Pensacola closed around 1970. Milton had a big market too.
There’s also something on moonshining I wanted to touch on. A lot of our people, particularly those that are Scottish and Scotch Iris, had a reputation for making very good whiskey. I wonder if some of those people brought with them the art of whiskey-making. It didn’t really come into its own until prohibition but we had local prohibition here since about 1899. That fueled the making of moonshine and then when national prohibition came along, it became a great industry. Timber was playing out, boll weevils were playing havoc with cotton, turpentining had seen its day and people were looking for a new livelihood. People, particularly along the Choctawhatchee, were in the business. They had a great reputation for making good whiskey. There were no real large operations, just small ones that could be moved or hidden easily. There were “organizers” who would supply maybe 20 individuals with distilleries and a market. There was a lot of trust involved in that the whiskey would be left hidden somewhere in the countryside to be picked up at a certain time. This whisky went all over the county. Nearly al of this whiskey-making took place down near the river. It was a good place to get killed too. We had an awful lot of violence with a surprisingly large number of murders each year, especially along the river. Many got away with murder because they claimed self-defense. Even after repeal, we had a local option and Washington County Still doesn’t allow liquor stores. Bootlegging continued long after prohibition.
I wanted to mention the Civil War. We were a divided people. We had no great plantations with large numbers of slaves. We had very few slaves in this area and when it came time to go to the army, some I know o took to the bushes. Some people from Washington County enlisted wit the Federal forces and raided up and down the river.
We dud have some grist mills down in the flats. There was one at the confluence of the Choctawhatchee and Holmes Creek and some other mills along the small streams in the area.
Was there ever much clearing of land along the river for farming?
No, I don’t remember seeing much to speak of, except in Holmes Valley and up the pine lands.
When the timber was cut around here, did they get down into the flats?
Yes. They took it all. The last to go were the big cypress in the river swamps. You can still see the big stumps. I believe this cutting was done in the 1920s. They would cut the cypress off high, leaving bit butted stumps. The river used to be lined with these stumps from Caryville on down.
One of the most common things were hear about the Choctawhatchee River is that sedimentation is a major problem.
In my mind I have always connected that with row cropping and erosion in Alabama. As row crop farming increased up there early in the century, a lot of that soil came down the river. It has always made me sad to see the color of that stream, to see the good soil washing down here and not doing anyone any good.
Were there any old resorts or tourist centers on the river?
None that I know of but there were some old towns like Cerro Gordo that was county seat of Holmes County. Miller’s Ferry on Holmes Creek is also gone. Douglas at Douglas Ferry was a little hamlet with four stores and may a dozen houses that no longer exist. Pittman Ferry in Holmes County many have had a store.
The ferries I remember seeing were guided by a cable from one bank to another. The fellow would have some sort of lever instrument attached to the cable to pull the ferry across.
Most of the bridges today are near the old ferry landings. Pittman Ferry was where Highway 2 is now. There was one at Caryville until 11925. Douglas was about 12 miles down from Caryville, at Hinson Crossroad. There was another ferry at Ebro near where Rout 20 crosses.
What is your remembrance of floods on the Choctawhatchee?
The one in 1929 was probably the worst we ever had. I went over to Caryville and watched the water. There was a bad one in 1865 they called the Lincoln flood, just to blame it on somebody. There was a good one in 1927 that was caused by a hurricane and one on July 4, 1916 that always was referred to as the “July flood.” My parents and their neighbors dated things before and after this July flood. They got 35-inches of rain from Wednesday to the next Tuesday. It floated a steamboat right out into a cornfield. There were frogs everywhere and people said, “it must of rained frogs ‘cuz Chipley was on the hop.”
What would you like to see done with the Choctawhatchee area?
I would like to see it restored to what it once was. There is one place that could be improved. It’s called Yates Millpond and it’s where the last Carolina parakeets were seen. There was a time when a lot of water fowl came in there but none do anymore. It could be a great wetlands habitat. It’s probably over a 1,000 acres, it it’s not much good for anything else. I don’t know I a dam would be needed but it would have to be protected so it could be productive.
Mrs. Addie and Mr. B. Gomillion
Mr. and Mrs. Gomillion were both born in the Redbay area whey they currently reside. Mrs. Addie was born in 1912 and Mr. Gomillion in 1900. He helped build railroads and bridges for most of his life and she was a dedicated homemaker who raised five children. Both the Gomillions claim their hobby is to “sit at home and look at each other and grumble and grow.”
Mrs. Addie and Mr. B. Gomillion interview:
Tell me about the river and surrounding land – how it is used today and how it was used in the past.
Mrs. Addie: The older folks, lie our parents, drifted logs down the river. When the water was down the would go to the swamp and cut the trees and when the water was up, they’d tie ‘em up and take them to Freeport. They’d do what you call a ‘log drive’ when they’d tie ‘em and follow them down the river.
Do you remember the flood of 1929?
Mr. G.: Yes, but I was living in Ponce de Leon at the time. It covered the woods. It was several days before it dried out of the woods.
Mrs. Addie: I was staying near the river with my sister and her husband when it came. It was awful. The water was coming up through the floor of the house. I was scared to death!
Have you spent much time fishing the river?
Mrs. Addie: Oh yea, you used to be able to go and catch a mess of fish and be back home in three hours. There are no fish in the Choctawhatchee River. They’re gone!
Mr. G.: The big boats and their motors scatter the eggs.
Mrs. Addie: I’ve never seen but one shellcracker bed in my life. It was at Smokehouse Lake and the water was about two-feet deep and you could see the shellcrackers. We made a ‘snatch hook’ where you put a treble hook on a line and snatched them up. Today, I don’t know where I’d go. I guess you could go up to the river bridge, but the fishing isn’t good today.
Have you spent much time hunting in this area?
Mrs. Addie: He always turkey hunted and squirrel hunted. The wood ducks, “greenheads” I call them, are the best eating in the world. But you can’t get them. You see, these companies have come in and cut all the oak trees and everything and there’s nothing for them to eat. You can’t deer hunt today. They’ve got all the land leased around here and it costs $250 a year.
Mr. G.: There’s a sign down there. “Keep out, no hunting allowed.” Some places have wires and chains.
Mrs. Addie: He did trapping. Coons, otters, things lie that. When it wasn’t against the law, he used steel traps. A man from Marianna came through every two weeks to pick up the hides. We made a good bit of money trapping in the winter.
Mr. G.: I used to make as much as $11 for one coon hide, and $35 for an otter hide.
Mrs. Addie: There was this old fellow who lived out here on the sand hills who had an ox and cart and he dug gophers and would haul those gophers to Wise Bluff where the “Fritz” landed. He sent them to Pensacola by the “Fritz.” By the cart loads! And people would eat them like they were going out of style. There was a bear that passed through here. Somebody killed him, I heard. I never saw a panther.
What did people who lived along the river do to make a living?
Mrs. Addie: We had 40 acres and we made what we ate, except for the flour and stuff like that. We grew corn and peanuts and cotton.
Mr. B.: I was living on the other side of Bruce before I was married, and I had hogs in the swamp back there.
Do you remember the riverboat trade?
Mrs. Addie I remember the “Fritz” and the “Bruce.” The “Fritz was at the Miller place when it burned. I was young then, but I could be at the Miller place the days the boat ran, and when that boat would blow that horn when it was coming around the turn, it would near about scare me to death! It was big. I know J.D. Sharron was captain of the “Fritz,” but I don’t know who was captain of the “Bruce.” I think the “Bruce” burned at the bay. The riverboats were used for hauling freight. Hauling whatever needed to be hauled, I guess. There were no big trucks then, and everything went by water. It would come from Pensacola and go up to Geneva and back. The riverboat landings were at Miller’s landing and Wise Bluff. Everybody would go out to see the boats, and they’d land down here at what they called the Wise Bluff. It carried passengers too. It was transportation to Pensacola and back.
We also used our own boat. It was a scull boat – we had to put an oar in a slot in the back of the boat and scull right on down the river. When the motor boats started coming, that’s when I quit that.
The big boats can’t come up the river now. They used to have a drawbridge for the boats.
Do you know of any people who fished the river commercially?
Mrs. Addie: I know there’s a bunch of the Rooks family down there on the river that was raised on the Choctawhatchee River. They were raised on what came out of it.
What do you know about the old railroad system?
Mrs. Addie: Geneva Mill Logging Company used to have a railroad around through these woods when they were cutting timber. That was several years ago. Mr. G. worked on the railroad.
Mr. G.: I was 12-years-old when I worked at Geneva Mills, helping the lay steel. They transferred me down to Freeport and I helped build railroads all across this area. I’d build railroads and move those “skitters” in there. This was about 1921.
Mrs. Addie: You see, the timber was cut in the woods and it was hauled, what we used to call “snaked,” to the railroad with oxen and mules. They’d load the logs on the flat-cars and carry them in. “Skitters” are that thing with the motor that pulls the logs. They had mules pulling a cable going back into the woods, they’d hook the logs and then the skitter would pull the logs in to be loaded. The mules would have to come back and get the skitter line and carry it back out again.
Have you ever done any beekeeping along the river?
Mrs. Addie: We have a son-in-law that makes tupelo honey. He carries his hives down to Rooks Bluff, way down the river, and goes across on that big island to make his tupelo. My son-in-law has a little bee house out back of his shop. He ad to burn them last year when an inspector told him the bees had a disease.
What about moonshining?
Mrs. Addie: Oh ho! I’ve always heard of moonshining! Yeah, there used to be plenty of it. There used to be an old Model A car go down the road pulling a trailer with his load in the back. Now that was a business.
Mr. G.: Yeah, there used to be plenty of them around the country. I never did join them.
Mrs. Addie: Just about everybody else did.
Was it a dangerous business?
Mrs. Addie: Oh yeah. Now that’s about like walking up on a marijuana patch today. Now you talk about “hauling dildy,” I would’ve “hauled dildy” if I walked up on a still.
Did you ever drink from the river?
Mrs. Addie: Yes, I used to. I wouldn’t drink from it today. I just don’t think I’d want to.
Mr. G.: I would if I was thirsty.
What do you see are the needs of the river?
Mrs. Addie: For my grandchildren, I’d like the river to be dredged, where there could be room for boats to go up, and a bridge for them to go under, like they used to when we went to Geneva. I think the river is an important thing. The river’s filled up with dirt and old tree tops and stumps and things. That would sure help the fishing, I believe. The game wardens would tell you there’s plenty of fish in the Choctawhatchee River, but when you go fishing and stay all day and don’t catch a mess of fish, you know there aren’t many fish.
What are your favorite areas along the Choctawhatchee?
Mrs. Addie: The prettiest place I now is around Rooks Bluff. That’s about two miles below Bruce. It’s a beautiful place down there.
Are there any other things you would like to say about the river?
Mrs. Addie: There’s people that made their living out of the Choctawhatchee River by catching fish and selling them, and logging and all. They’re not doing that today.
Mr. John Leonard Morrison was born in Holmes County on April 23, 1903. He was deputy sheriff in the County for eight years, a security guard in Texas, a private chauffeur in West Palm beach, and New York City, and a maintenance foreman for the State Road Department until his retirement at age 61. He presently lives near the Choctawhatchee River in Westville and has five children: Donnie, Dale, Philip, Leonard, and Margaret.
Mr. Johnnie Morrison Interview:
Tell us about yourself.
I retired when I was 62, and I’ve been working ever since. I’ve never drawn unemployment in my life. My best experience, I believe, is when I moved down south and worked in the Everglades on a dredge boat. From there I went to West Palm Beach and worked at the police department and then I got my private chauffeur job. But was too far away from the Choctawhatchee River every time, and I love that old river so well and I was raised on it, so I had to come back. I work Monday through Wednesday for Greenthumb and I repair old homes. I’ve been working at Greenthumb for 12 years. I believe I enjoy this most of all because I’m helping retired old people who can’t do for themselves.
I love that river. I’ve worked among the wealthiest people in the world and I’d rather be sitting on a log in the river swam with $5 in my pock than have a million dollars in New York City. It’s the best fishing here, the best water in the world. But it is the most neglected river that I know of anywhere.
I love the old hoot-owls on the river, hollering and screaming. I’d rather one of them hollering that hear the Grand Ole Opry. There’s just so much to see up there and so much to live for. I’ve had good opportunities everywhere, but I had to come home to my river.
How clean is the Choctawhatchee?
When we were camping on the river we didn’t have any ice or anything, so when we were thirsty we would carry “bail cups” and drink right out of the river. And it was good.
I still drink the water out of the river if I get thirsty. It’s good water. It’s pure water. It’s not like it used to be, though. You’ve got streams coming in and trees falling in the river.
Has the river ever been clear?
Yeah! It’s just unusually muddy now because of the storms in Alabama washing the clay into the river.
Can you name some interesting areas located along the river?
Old Creek was a place I went to on wagons. Everybody enjoyed Old Creek and everybody would catch “butterbeans” (little bream) and cam and eat and have a good ole time.
There weren’t any bridges from Westville to Caryville when I was a boy. We had to use ferryboats. And I’ve seen them load up cows on the ferryboats. They used cables to pull the ferry across. It was pretty rough going around here back then. You ccould hardly get to the ferryboats in high water. We also used scull boats.
Did you ever make your living off of the river?
I commercialized on catfish for a little while after I retired. I got 10-cents a pound for catfish then; today it’s about $2 a pound dressed.
What did you use?
We used baskets when it was legal. After that we used bush hooks and trot lines. We sold them to restaurants and local people. We could always get rid of them. I’ve eaten fish out of every river in Florida, and I know that the Choctawhatchee has the best.
Is fishing better or worse than in the past?
The fish are not as plentiful as they used to be, but I think that’s because there are so many people around. The fishing is great from one end of the Choctawhatchee River to the other! I’ve fished all the way from the Alabama line to the Choctawhatchee Rbay, but I believe right up in here (around Caryville) is the best place.
What do you catch?
Bream, catfish, bass, jackfish, shellcrackers.
What kind of bait to you use?
Wigglers, earthworms, crickets, and when I could find them, catalpa worms. Crawfish is good for catfish. Cut mullet is good too.
We did people who lived on the river do to make a living?
Make moonshine. Some tried farming. The moonshiners used to be from one end of the river to the other and they used to have to wear badges so they wouldn’t sell the moonshine to one another. I was Deputy Sheriff from 1932-40 and I worked with a federal man.
How did you find the stills?
The bootleggers could scatter their traffic (so trails would not be visible) but the hogs and pigs would make straight trails to the stills and we could follow those trails. They loved the mash. When we would start to tear up a still and the pigs would hear us beating on the drum, they would come running. Whisky was $2 a gallon back then. There were some real big stills and some were as nice as kitchens too.
When you were raiding the still, did you run after them or shoot at them?
You had to catch them by surprise and they would freeze right there. But other times, as soon as they heard a stick break they were gone, just like a deer, and you were lucky if you could catch them. I’ve chased them as far as the Alabama line.
What is the hunting like on the river?
You used to be able to go up and get turkeys and ducks anytime you wanted one. There are a lot of wild hogs. Nowadays, the turkey population is gone from the river swamp and the deer have taken over. The squirrel hunting is pretty plentiful, but I don’t ever shoot a squirrel. I think they’re too pretty.
Have you ever heard of bear being out there?
I’ve never seen any, but I’ve heard of some being killed.
What about panther?
I don’t believe there’s any panther. Sometimes when those hoot-owls scream they sound like a panther. We have plenty of wildcats and bobcats. One day I was sitting on a log and I heard something jump on the other end and it was a bobcat. I killed him.
Have the beaver always been here?
I didn’t know about the beavers until a few years ago. Now they’re all over the country. I don’t believe they’re good for the area because they kill trees. They’re pests, but maybe they are as good as they are bad.
How have the woods changed since you’ve been here?
It’s changed some. There’s more people hunting now that when I was a boy. One hunting season morning, it sounds like a war!
When you were born, had they begun cutting out the trees?
Yea, they turpentine it, and logged it and sold the lumber and built houses. They started with “skitters” and oxen and a cart. Skitters are like a “come-a-long.” Mules would drag the cable back to the logs and the steam powered skitter would bring the log back.
Do you remember the steamboats on the river?
I heard about them, but they were played out by the time I was around. I guess they stopped running because they became out-of-date. They were like the horse and buggy, they become obsolete. My daddy was involved in the riverboats, but he didn’t live long enough to tell me about it.
What do you remember of the floods on the Choctawhatchee?
In the 1929 flood I was in New York City, but I’ve seen the signs of that flood. I’ve seen the water all over the place in my lifetime. It would come almost all the way to Westville at times. In the last 10-20 years, we’ve had some times when the Army Corps of Engineers would have to come and move some people in the lowlands out.
Do you remember the Corps doing any work on the river?
I remember just one time when they came down there and did a little sawing off (of snags), but it didn’t amount to much. This was about 1970.
Do you know of anyone doing beekeeping on the river?
Around there they get around the tupelo trees and make tupelo honey.
What do you suggest that we do with the land that we bought around the river?
Keep it for the enjoyment of the people, for fishing and hunting and commercial traffic. It would be productive if they got (mined) the limerock in there. They need to get in there and channel the river out so they can get up and down. We could have ferryboats coming up. If it keeps on getting flatter and flatter, we’re going to have salt water up here. The sandbars keep piling up and pushing the river toward the coves. The timber is still there and I was proud of the State of Florida when they bought this up and stopped the logging. It’s just a beautiful scene from one end of the river to the other.
How would you describe the kind of people who lived around the river?
They were good ole country people. They would make their own moonshine an drink their own moonshine. They’d fight, shoot and kill one another!
Do you know of anyone who tried to arm the river swamp?
No, I don’t now of anybody. The river is too uncertain; it’s like an elevator – up and down, up and down. I bet you in a hundred years, there will be houses there. If they could control the river it would be a beautiful place to live.
What would you like to see preserved along the river?
There use to be so many turkeys and they were just as fat as butterball, but you can’t find any today. I guess they beauty of the river, the shrubs and trees, the hogs, fish and ducks should be preserved. Some people don’t know when to quit catching fish, and they don’t know when to quit killing ducks.
What do you think is the best thing that ever happened to the river?
I believe the best thing that ever happened is that there’s still a river there that we can use. The water level is so low, and in a couple of years, water is going to be very valuable and it’s just wasting into the bay now. I just love that river. This is just a wonderful place. There’s something else I’d like to say. It’s one of the dirtiest tricks ever when somebody puts up a gate on an old road that’s been open a hundred years. The people who are leasing some of this land near the river to a certain few are depriving the other people of the privilege of using the river. It belongs to the State of Florida and everybody here should be able to enjoy it.
Daniel Walton Padgett
Daniel Walton Padgett was born in Caryville on January 30, 1927. He is marred to Polly Donaldson Padgett and has three children, Pamela, Paula, and Philip, and two grandchildren. He is presently executive director of the Washington/Holmes Association for Retarded Citizens and pastor of the Sandy Creek Baptist Church in Holmes County.
Dan Padgett interview:
What did people do in the area?
My maternal grandfather, John Bronell, was Scottish and an expert in the making of turpentine and moonshine. He had a farm with sheep, horses, cattle, hogs, corn, and other grains for feed in the winter. He had a shepherd dog he used in bringing in the cattle and sheep. With open range, the animals roamed the countryside. They would spend our or five weeks shearing and marking the sheep. My granddaddy had 14 children and each had his special marking on the ears of the sheep. When they sheared the sheep, they would put the code on the tally sheet hanging on the wall of the sheep pen, and then they would divide up the money when they sold the wool. They had big wool sacks which must have been eight-feet deep, and they would pack the wool in them. We boys would try to pack the wool in, and sometimes we would sink down to near the bottom of the sack and would need assistance to get out.
What did they do with the wool?
It was taken by wagon to DeFuniak Springs. I’m not sure where it went from there. Sometimes there were black sheep mixed in the white, and they would bag the black wool in separate bags. The sheep shearing was the most interesting aspect in my memories of my grandparents. They would lay the sheep on the bench, tie the sheep’s feet, and then shear them on one side with clippers, the flip them over and shear the other side. They did this every year. When my grandfather died in the early 1940s, all that came to an end.
The Choctawhatchee River is interesting. Cerro Gorda, along the river, was the county seat from 1848 until 1894. My great granddaddy, Daniel Brownell, was sheri there in 1882 and got into a duel. Both men were killed.
Tell us about the timber.
There was non industry around here at all, except for the timber. The railroad did come down from Geneva, Alabama, and my father, Dan M. Padgett, was an engineer on the railroad. When he was still a teenager, he became a fireman on the steam engine that came rom Geneva through Ponce de Leon and on to Freeport. They lad the railroad and loaded the virgin long-leaf and yellow pine and took it to the Geneva Lumber Company. They would usually cut of the section of the tree that had been turpentine and use it for firewood. We called it “lighter.” They would have teams of oxen, ten yokes of oxen, with eight oxen in each yoke, and the would pull the logs to the railroad cars. That was quite a scene. Imagine men having to cut all those trees with cross-cut saws. And they didn’t cut the trees close to the ground, they cut them about waist high so they wouldn’t have to bend over. About 1925 or so, the mill at Geneva closed up, and they quit bringing the logs in. At this time my daddy moved to Caryvie and that’s when I was born. Mr. Fern Arnold still has a small lumber business around Caryville, but it quite a business in Caryville back in those days. They had thousands of men working. The business burned, and they rebuilt it, but then the lumber played out around 1934-35.
Were the railroads used mainly to transport the lumber?
The railroad was used to transport the lumber and turpentine. My grandfather was into turpentining, too, and before the railroad they would take the turpentine down to the river and load it on the steamboats. I guess it was moved to Pensacola. The think when the railroads came, they were primarily moving the spirits to Jacksonville. They did have turpentine stills in the area. They did turpentining about like they did the moonshining; they boiled it and cooled it through the evaporation process. Another use of the pine tree was the straw. We would gather the st raw and put it in the barnyard with the cattle and horses and in the spring, the compost would be used as fertilizer. This was quite a pine tree business around here.
What did the people do to make a living when these businesses stopped?
About that time, World War II was brewing and the Eglin Field was beginning to develop. Many people went down there to help clear out that wilderness. People worked in Eglin Field and Tyndall Field in Panama City. Many people moved to those areas from here after the war. These were poor people, and farming was not profitable. The only time they had shoes was in the winter. The moonshine business helped provide food for their families, and had it not been for moonshine, things would have been much worse. Westville was known as the “moonshine capital of the world.” They used to ship it from Westville to Chicago in medicine bottles on the railroad.
The had large families and farm hands to work on the farm for syrup making, hog killing, and sheep shearing – to the farming, moonshine, turpentining, and railroad helped. People would cut the “lighter” and use it for firing the engines on the steam engines. The train would stop and pick up the wood and leave a few dollars for the person who had left it there along the tracks.
How did they make the turpentine?
They first started with the little aluminum cans, kid of like a potted plant container, and they nailed them to the trees. Later they used rectangular aluminum cups, with a thin strip of aluminum as a ledge to let the resin run into the cup. They started at the base of the tree “hacking,” or “pulling,” a strip of the bark off the tree. These would sometimes reach as high as eight to ten feet over the years. It would take a few weeks to fill the containers. They had what they called a dip bucket with a handle, and they would dip the turpentine out of the cups into the bucket with a handle, and the would dip the turpentine out of the cups into the bucket. When I was a boy, they let me drive the mule and wagons with the barrels, and they would pour the resin into them. That was a lot of fun. The woods were not as thick with undergrowth as they are now because the woods were burned every year and the cows would eat the vegetation in the spring and summer months. You could see long distances, but today you can’t even see across the road. In the winter, when they burned the woods, they would hoe all the straw and vegetation away from the turpentine trees so the trees would not catch on fire. They took the turpentine to the still in the wagons, and then the still would produce the clear mineral spirits. They shipped the spirits off to the naval stores via railroad or steamboats.
My maternal grandfather only did the turpentining; he never did the sawmill. But my paternal grandfather, Bull Padgett, did have a big lumber mill. He had to move the logs by log carts pulled by oxen because he was quite a ways from the railroad and river. He did build a “pole railroad” from Leonia down to Westville. My Aunt Annie Padgett Wells had that in her book. I can’t imagine how that thing operated, but he moved the machine along poles laid on the ground. He also designed a road building machine, and he got a patent for it. The machine would go through the woods and build the road as it went along. He was quite an industrious person. I remember helping him with the sawing of the logs. I helped get nails out of the logs which were left over from turpentining. Sometimes you had to have a hatchet to cut down into the logs to get all of the nails out, because the nails could have easily broken the teeth on the saw. That business ran until about 1940. A great deal of lumber was used in building houses for people living in the area. And in some cases, people would cut timber off their property, bring it up to the sawmill and help saw it, and then they would build a house. My grandfather would take a percentage of the lumber for payment.
What do you know about the riverboat trade?
The riverboats had already passed away when I was born in t1927, because when the railroad and Route 90 came through that ended the riverboat business. It was quite active, though, along the river, all the way to Geneva, Alabama, because that’s where they loaded the cotton. It was a blessing when the boll weevil cam through because it made the farmers diversify their farming, and not depend only on the cotton. Cotton was king in those days, and the riverboats went down the river from Geneva loaded with cotton. They carried lumber and turpentine as well. They proablly picked up moonshine too, for their personal use. The riverboat was used from stransportation as well. They would travel to Freeport, to Cerro Gordo and up to Geneva. The last paddle wheel boat to navigate the river was the Captain Fritz, and it even came up to Vernon on Holmes Creek. My Aunt Annie Wells went about it one time when the river was low and they had a long plank from the baot to the docking ramp to walk on board. She made her brother hold her had when she walked across. Evidently, it would have been a scene to see the paddle wheels going up and down the river. They ware necessary for the commercial trade before the railroad came.
Is there anything different about he looks of the river?
The river is changing its course quite a bit especially there at Cero Gordo, and they say that the actual site of the courthouse is no on the other side of the river from where it was originally. The river is cutting in a westerly direction because you can see where the curves are, and how the erosion is taking place along the west bank, and the sandbars on the side keep coming this way. Back when I was a boy, you never saw the water as low as you do now. Maybe it’s caused by the lack of rain, but the creeks that use to run into the river were never dry. Over the past two or three years, most of the creeks have been going dry. The rainfall has not been up to par lately.
Is the river ever clear?
Yes, the river is clear. The only time it gets muddy is when it rains up in Alabama and the water level rises.
Would you drink from the river?
Yes, if I were thirsty. I wouldn’t have any problem with that. I think it’s pretty clean water. Out of Ponce de Leon there is a lot of spring water that runs into it. Those are clear springs, and the river is basically clean.
Would you like to see the river dredged?
I don’t think so. I believe it would be better off just like it is. All the vegetation, logs, and bugs are good for the fish and it’s really not a river for boats. It’s more for fishing and wildlife. Boats just make a mess anyway when they throw their garbage in the water.
But the annual “River Rats” that come down the river from Geneva complain about snags in the river. I believe they would like to have the river dredged.
Do you remember the Army Corps of Engineers doing any work on the river?
No, I don’t remember them doing any work north of Highway 90.
Do you know of any towns or settlements along the river that no longer exist today?
Not necessarily along the river. The farmers settled out away from the river to do their farming, and not many of them lived near it. They lived further out so they wouldn’t have to worry about flooding. There were a lot of little villages scattered throughout the area. There were different little post offices – with such names as Prosperity, Holmes, Putts, and Fair Play, and everywhere there were a few people, the was a post office. The mail didn’t run but once or twice a week. The early settlers would usually settle on a hill where there was a spring of water. A good number of people do live or have campsites at Cerro Gordo. They mostly live in mobile homes that have to be relocated when the flood waters come.
Some of those creeks can flow pretty heavily too. I remember as boy Little Reedy Creek breaking through the roadway like a river near our home. This was around 1941. After a good deal of rain, the little creeks could be powerful.
What do you think is the best thing that every happened to the river?
Well, the worse thing may have been when they built the bridges across for the railroad and highway and they served as dams. That’s why the floods really came in 1929. They had to build up the approaches to the bridges, and the water only had one or two small openings to get through, and this is what caused the flood. The same thing happened when they built the Interstate.
The best thing I believe is to let the river be natural. Let it take its natural course. In some places the river is moving west. The river does need to be observed to make sure it doesn’t change course and cause havoc.
Do you get to do much fishing?
No, I don’t fish much now, but when I retire in a few years, I plan to do a lot of fishing. Some people seem to think that there are certain times of the year when the fishing is best, but I believe it’s good 12 months out of the year.
Horace Sellers was born in Holmes County in 1903. He has lived in or near Caryville all his life. Prior to 1925 he farmed, worked for the State Road Department and was in the lumber business. From 1925 until his retirement in 1969, he worked for the L&N Railroad.
Mr. Horace Sellers interview:
What do you recall about the flood of 1929?
I was living in Caryville then and it had rained pretty much all night. I was with the L&N by this time. About four o’clock that morning somebody knocked on the door and said to get up, that we’d have to go to sandbagging, that the river was rising just like a tide. The railroad grade washed out in two places on the Westville side. We were sandbagging, trying to hold it, and the water was just like in the bay. So we’d fill up a sandbag and throw it in that gap and water would take it away just like it was a feather. We worked day and night until the water began to go down, in about a week. We had to put a truss there where it washed out to get the railroad traffic started. I imagine that it was two weeks or longer, just guessing, before traffic got started. All of Caryville was under water. It was six-feet deep in my house.
What about the lumber business?
I went to work at the mill in Caryville when I was 16 years old, during World War I. They had taken everything to the war and there was no one around to work. It was a big mill. The one down there no is just a pepperbox of what the old mill was. Dr. Carter was a company doctor down there and I believe I heard him say that there were about 600 workers that he covered. Time were hard for most people. The mill paid about $2.00 for 10 hours, and then if you waited a month you’d get your money. They had coupon booklets that you could draw out and go in the company store and buy what you had to have. You could get the coupons any time, but you let it stay until the end of the month, you’d get your money. It was rough; I tell you, this young generation don’t know nothing.
People had to use the river to get logs to the mill before they had the railroads. They would take chains and drive “dogs” into the logs to hold them together. Maybe they would have a 2×6 board nailed across the raft where the workmen could walk. Back then, they had on the log rafts what they called “the dogging man.” The dogging man was a fellow with a skiff boat and a roped tied to the raft. Before the raft go to a curve, that man would take the rope and scull the skiff down the river. He’d get out on the bank and tie to a tree on the inside of the curve. As the raft came down, he’d have to keep pulling and dogging the rope off around the curve. It took a good oaring man to do it.
After they quit running logs down the river, the company bought three trains, one from the L&N and two new ones. They had two log trans and what they called the labor train. It brought the out from Caryville. When they were putting the railroad through here, me and my brother-in-law cleared the right of way. I didn’t like it; it was too dangerous. I quit and he as in it a long time and he like to got killed.
We had one of those inch and a quarter to inch and half augers. We would bore a hole in a stump right down at the ground and pack in about three sticks of dynamite. Our regular task for loading would be ten stumps. We’d bore and pack then stumps at a time. We’d cut our fuse where we’d start lighting it in the center of the line of stumps. I’d take half the line and he’d take the other. We’d run back, lighting as we went and there would be ten boom, boom, booms. I’d get behind a pint tree and stumps would go as high as the trees. You almost had to get behind a tree. I had a good size stump almost hit me.
Have you done much hunting or fishing?
When I was a boy we hunted squirrels and rabbits. They weren’t any deer and only a few turkeys. We fished for catfish, bream, shellcrackers and red breast. We trotlined for catfish. When we ere farming, all of our time was in the field. If we didn’t catch up we didn’t fish. My daddy told us boys, “If you get over that corn or cotton you can have Saturday to go fishing,” – so we hammered that old mule to death.
Weill Miller ran a little store here at Caryville outside of what they call Cypress. One day he said to my daddy, “Don’t you have two small boys?” My daddy said, “Yeah.” “Tell those boys that if they will catch me some gophers, I’ll give them 10-cents apiece.” About a week or two later we had ten, some good size and some small. Daddy carried them to him and he gave 10-cents apiece. That was 50-cents apiece for us. If a boy had 50-cents then, he though he had him some cash. I worked with some boys on the railroad that really did love them. They said that there was one engineer that you could flag better with a gopher than you could with a red flag. Show him a gopher and he’d stop.
Do you recall the riverboat trade?
My uncle was an engineer on the river before World War I. His name as Jim Myers. Back then, the boats were the only way people would have to get their fertilizer. My daddy would go up to Geneva before he started his crops to make arrangements for fertilizer. I remember very well he went up there and go this fertilizer and a barrel of flour and big hoops of cheese. The many we bought it from would have it loaded on the boats, brought down and unload it at what they called the boat landing, right in back of the fields. They unloaded it wherever there were any orders. There were landings all the way down the river. Vernon got a lot of it. The fertilizer was in 200-pound bags. Then there was a cotton house out in the field with a shed on each side. My daddy, old man Curry and my older brother would take the mule and wagon and haul that fertilizer back up under that shed.
We raised corn, cotton, and peanuts. You raised peanuts for fattening hogs because there was no market for peanuts. Cotton was all the money crop a farm had then. My daddy carried it to Geneva to have it ginned and pay his bill. Wherever they baled it, They’d cut the side of the bag and get some of out and roll it up in paper. That was your sample. Then you carried it around the the buyers to see who would give you the best buy. Of course, they were all about the same because they weren’t going to bid against one another.
What do you remember of moonshining?
You know Westville always was called a bootlegger town. When Sheriff Driver was sheriff in Holmes County, he was rough on it. A fell called Charlie that I worked with on the railroad made moonshine, but he wasn’t in it in a big way. They claimed that whenever Sheriff Bartow Driver shook a man’s hand, he’d also search him, and back then, the thought if you didn’t have a job you could be picked up. Charlie said the sheriff came up to him, shook hands with him, put his arms around him and said, “Son, what you doing now?” Charlie said, “Well, bootlegging is my trade, but the reason I’m not working now is I’m out of materials.”
What needs to be done to the river?
It needs dredging and a channel. As my daddy use to say, “It doesn’t take much more than a shower and a foggy morning to spread it all over the place.” When it rains it just covers up everything. It used to have a channel that would take it off. It’s not deep enough to have fish now.
Donald Percy Simmons
Mr. Donald Percy Simmons was 62 years old when he was interviewed in May, 1988. He was raised on Cowford on the banks of the Choctawhatchee and currently resides in Panama City where he has a sod growing business and works in real estate. He lists his hobbies as fishing, fishing, and fishing and goes fishing at every opportunity.
Mr. Donald Percy Simmons Interview:
Tell me about the river and surrounding land.
I have noticed the sands in the river have shifted during my lifetime. I have not observed a remarkable change in water quality. As a boy, I remember the cutting of time and vegetation along the river. There was once a field clear cut down to the river bank but the vegetation has since recovered – not some of the beautiful old oaks I used to see, however.
When I was growing up, there were not many deer on the river though there seems to be more now. When former President Jimmy Carter was Governor of Georgia, he was involved with a timber company who had timber rights along the river. This company harvested quite a bit of timber.
I don’t think fishing in the Choctawhatchee River has ever been as good as on the Apalachicola River. I don’t know if the Choctawhatchee’s smaller size has anything to do with it or not.
Were there any little towns that no longer exist?
Seminole Hills was a farming area stretching all the way to Southport in Bay County. It is no longer there. I am 62 years old, and I was five years old when my family mmoved to Cowford. Cowford was where one of the ferries crossed the river. I lived there until 1971 when I moved to the Niceville area, then later on I moved over to Panama City. Vernon, Hinson Crossroads, Ebro, Bruce, and Freeport were all there when I was growing up.
What unusual things have occurred on the river?
I remember hearing it said that a paper company turned a panther loose on their property to control wild hogs which were destroying young pine seedlings that had been planted. I also remember it being said that bounties were placed on eagles because they were killing so many sheep in the area.
Do you remember the flood of 1929?
I was only about four years old at the time of the flood. My family moved to Cowford a year or two after the flood. The house we moved into had water marks at five-feet, and the house was built up on blocks two-feet above the ground. I definitely remember my folks saying the areas around Highway 20 were flooded. I do not remember them saying anyone drowned in the flood.
Have you spent much time fishing the river?
I did while growing up on the river. I pole-fished, jigger-fished for bass and catfished. I don’t believe there is a lot of difference in the fishing a few years back and now. Fishing was very bad in the 1960s because of no high water. I believe the best fishing on the Choctawhatchee was about 10 or 12 years ago. That was the best fishing there has been in my lifetime on the Choctawhatchee thus far. The best fishing, I think, is from the Wise Bluff area to the mouth of the river; the lower 15 or 18 miles. The last camp on the river was Smokehouse Landing. I once was on the owners of Smokehouse Landing.
Bluegill, shellcracker, bass and warmouth are the best fishing on the river. Stripped bass have been released by the Game Comission on the river since I last fished it.
Have you spent much time hunting in this area?
Hunting was fair to good most of the time, but I never killed any wild turkey on the river. I hunted mainly wood ducks, and I shot squirrels with a rifle. I also hunted gators.
I spent a lot of time in the woods as a boy growing up hunting, fishing, and camping. Sometimes we would stay up all night long fishing for catfish and hunting gator to sell. I have not spent much time there lately.
Are there bears?
I remember around the Jeff Old Field area there are a lot of red oaks growing and a man, I cannot remember who he was, used to whip bears out of his field with a cow whip. I have not seen a bear myself along the river.
Do you recall anyone killing a panther in this area?
I cannot ever recall anyone killing a panther in this area. I saw a panther in 1963 on the east side of the Choctawhatchee River on Highway 20. It was around 3:00 a.m., and the panther was just standing on the side of the road.
I remember a fellow I knew once saying he and his wife returning home late one night and saw the biggest housecat he ever saw and thought it was so unusual because not only was he a huge cat, but he had the longest tail on the cat he had ever seen. I am sure what he saw wasn’t a housecat at all but a panther.
What did people who lived along the riverway do to make a living?
From what I remember growing up on the river, I would say the people were just good ole “salt of the earth,” Hard working people who raised their food by planting backyard kitchen gardens or “little-bity” farms. Some people kept loose hogs in the woods so the hogs could forage for acorns. Those hogs were not to be confused with the wild hogs that ran loose along the wilder part of the river. People would round up these hogs at night or at least attempt to pen them up at night.
Some of the people worked in the PWA (Public Works Administration), some in the sawmills and logging operations. They were a very proud people, most of whom took care of their own When someone was in need, they all would share what they had.
It is true that some did dabble in the moonshine trade, but they were always the type people who stood ready to help those among them in need. I remember that a well-known school principal once resigned his job with the school system to devote more time to his moonshine operation.
What to you remember of the riverboat trade?
I remember my folks talking about the turpentine trade but this was before my time. They said prisoners were used then in the turpentine business. Logging on the river was about gone when I came along.
I do remember as a young boy and instance when pilings for the Destin Bridge were drifted down the river. The pilings were pine trees peeled back and were some 72-feet in length. I was in the eight grade at the time.
I also remember my folks talking about how the “Fritz” caught fire at Cedar Landing, near Vernon above Highway 20. They said some men chopped it loose from the bank and it drifted out into the river and sank. A black man was said of have perished aboard it when it sank just below the Miller place. Dan Ward was the Captain at the time it sank, I believe.
The “Fritz” was the last riverboat to ply the Choctawhatchee River around 1930. Other names of riverboats I remember folks talking about were the “Bruce” and the “Eugene.”
How were the river ferries operated?
Ferries were operated by boatmen who used clubs about two-feet long. There were notches cut in the end of the clubs. Steel cables were stretched across the river. The boatmen would pull on the cable with the notched end of the club, thus puling the barge literally by hand across the river.
Do you remember the Corps of Engineers doing any maintenance work on the river?
I can remember them being turned down for a project they wanted to do one time. There has been no maintenance work on the fiver as far as I know since 1969.
Do you know of any people who fished the river commercially?
I sold catfish I caught for pocket money when I was a kid and Mr. Russell Board fished for sturgeon frequently. I remember seeing one at least five-feet long jump all the way out of the river and fall back in broadside.
Have you ever seen any beekeeping along the river?
I helped with some beekeeping years ago. I was one in partnership with a man in the cattle business. We were set up along the river between Bruce and Cowford. We used bees to help pollinate the type grass we had panted for the cattle. Mr. Kenna Pate of Bruce still has some bees; he has had them for years. We made mostly tupelo honey.
What would you like to see preserved along the river?
I would like to see the river kept like it is now with a minimum of development.
What is the best thing that ever happened to the Choctawhatchee River?
The Northwest Florida Water Management District’s purchasing it for preservation. I hope that is it managed wisely.
What is the worst thing that ever happened to the Choctawhatchee River?
Clear cutting along the river years ago. Nature as reforested much of that now except for the rad oak which once grew thick in an area I remember that was clear-cut. That area never came back as it was.
Diverting the river was bad also. Diverting should be avoided anywhere on the river. What was done near Cowford should never happen again.
Did you ever drink from the river?
Yes, I did. I would not be reluctant to drink from it right now.
Are there any other things you would like to say about the river?
We need to keep the river clean and accessible to the general public. The Choctawhatchee River is the last river to the east where Alligator Gar can be found. There are none in the Apalachicola River. There are only found in the Choctawhatchee River and west of the Choctawhatchee. I invite your biologist to check me out on this.
James Franklin Smith
“Frankie” Smith describes himself as a naturalist who “guides, fishes, hunts, traps, buys, and sell,” on the Choctawhatchee. Born in Holmes County in 1945, he had lived on the river banks north of Westville all his life except while serving in the Army Corps of Engineers. He has been a police officer and sawmill operator and is a certified diver.
Mr. James Frank Smith interview:
Tell us about yourself.
I’ve hunted, fished, and trapped, and taken people on the river all my life. It’s a beautiful place and I don’t know why they call it a ‘swamp.” I had a sawmill and I cut cypress shingles, by hand, for most of the Tom Thumb stores.
People talk about being hungry but living here on the river, I have never seen a hungry day in my life. My mother made the garden, we had the cows and hogs for meat, and we could always go to the river for food.
My family has been right here for three generations. They came from Alabama; they were farmers and loggers but mostly farmers growing cotton for cash and corn for the livestock. The cotton gin w used was a Cerro Gordo on the river near what we now call Bakers Landing. There was a jail, gin, grist mill, and a ferry; now there is only a boat landing.
How is the river used today?
Mostly just for recreation. But it’s kind of sad because where barges used to go, you have trouble getting there now in a jon boat. In ten years, you won’t be able to run a boat on the river north of here. Erosion is the problem, both here and north of here. There are places that always stayed ten-feet deep and are now inches deep.
What is the solution to this problem?
Some people say we should just leave it alone. But if the river isn’t dredged, we won’t be able to use it for boats. It will wind up being a creek and an Alabama junkyard. You wouldn’t believe the trash they throw in there.
The river used to be clear all year round because we didn’t have as much erosion. The logging operations have cut the timber out, and farming has changed so that sediment is really getting into the river now. Even with fewer farmers today, we seem to have more erosion. The river has just finally filled up.
How has use of the river changed?
The time cutting changed the river a lot. They used to push barges with poles that were 24-foot long, 12-foot wide and that carried 24 to 36-inces of draft all the way from Pensacola to Newton, Alabama. I never saw any steamboats running in my time but you can find the wrecks all along the river.
“Deadheading” is about gone now. I remember some of the “deadheaders” living on the river. See, back in the 1800s, they would float big rafts of logs down the river and some of them would sink. Until about 20 years ago, you could make good money pulling these logs up out of the river. They would use a big pole to find them. Almost all the deadheads had and old brand on them put there by the logger. The sawmill people paid for the logs based on the brand and a lot of times the loggers and sawmill people never knew or saw each other. There was a lot of trust back then. It might take six or eight months for the log to float to the mill but the logger would be paid for however many feet were in that branded log.
The deadheaders would have two specially built barges that sat side by side in the river. They would use cable and winch to pull the deadheads up off the bottom. The often drove down to hook up the cable without using any diving gear except a par of overalls.
The have cut out just about all the timber, except for what they can’t get to with equipment. There is some timber there that will be there forever.
We’ve got a game here now that we didn’t have when I was a kid. I remember the turkey ‘leaving out,” partly from disease, when I was little.
I hunted at an early age. When I was eight-years old, I went up the river 20 miles and came down alone at night gator hunting. My dad worked all day for $5 or $6 and I could go up there and kill two gators with a single-shot 22 rifle. I got $3 a food for them in Pensacola. This was before it was illegal to hunt gators.
I never sold any gophers. I had a man out of Pensacola contact me about supplying him with some, but that was back before they became illegal too. I heard a rumor yesterday that the beaver is becoming protected and that is a destructive little critter. We don’t need to be protecting the beaver.
The habitat for the fish is gone. The deep water, the bedding areas, the willows along the edges, are all gone. Big boats going by cover up the beds in shallow water. I would like to see a channel put in but a lot of people say to just leave it alone.
It’s unbelievable the way the river is filling in. I can show you areas that were deadhead ramps 30 years ago that are hundreds of yards from the river now. The sandbars are moving form where they’ve been for years; they didn’t do that when I was a kid.
What about floods?
I’ve been through four pretty good ones, but none as bad as the flood of 1929. That was before my time. People do not stay out of the areas that flood. I will stay right there even if it floats off, buy my house area doesn’t flood.
Let’s talk more about fishing.
If I take a notion, I go. I love bass and bream, and using a cane pole. Using artificial bait is not really fishing. Shellcrackers for thousands of years have been eating worms and bugs and natural things, not something shiny and metal.
The main fish are bream, bass, and catfish. The major food supplier is catfish. We used to use slat baskets my dad made out of white oak, and wire baskets, but they became illegal to use in the this area. Trotlines are still legal. Bream fishing is fine, but there are not as many as there used to be. They just don’t have the habitat. You catch some that have sunspots on their backs from living in water that is too shallow.
There is still one fellow I know catching commercially down the river. They used to be a lot more. I did it when I was a kid but we just haven’t got the fish anymore because the habitat is gone out of the river.
Hunting is fine. There are probably more deer in Holmes County that anyplace else in the country. It’s very dangerous to drive this road at night; the deer enforce the speed limit here. There are bear around here but not like they used to be. The last one killed here was in the 1950s. About a year ago, I saw one with two cubs but I haven’t see her since. The tracks we see I believe belong mostly to migrating bear.
When did you last see a panther?
There are few up and down through here. I think with all the deer and beaver we have now, we ill be having more and bigger panthers. It seem we also have all kinds of red wolves, mixed with dogs, back in the swamps. I almost got arrested for killing one that we killing a dog. I saw my first beaver here in 1961. They are food supply for a lot of carnivorous animals and we will see more and more and more wolves and panthers in time. We have paw casts of these wolf/dogs that are seven and one-half inches long and four and a half inches wide. That’s a big puppy.
Do you see sturgeon in the Choctawhatchee?
The sturgeon started leaving this area bout 20 years ago wen the river first started filling inn. The alligator gar started leaving at about the same time. There is an old sturgeon that stays down here at a deep hole on the corner of my land. It’s the ugliest fish there is in the Choctawhatchee.
When I was a kid, my neighbor caught alligator gar for Sears and Roebuck. You don’t really skin a gar; you chop him out. He would boil the scales to clean them and then Sears and Roebuck bought them to make buttons A lot of the old “pearl” buttons you see are really alligator gar scales.
That neighbor also caught sturgeon. You did get some caviar but they really sold the meat. It was considered a real delicacy but I would rather have a channel cat. They caught the gar and sturgeon with a net. Stories about alligator gar or sturgeon attacking people are a bunch of junk, but they would rub their backs on a boat. You can tell if there is a sturgeon in an area by feeling under submerged logs. If it’s super smooth and grooved on the bottom side, it’s from a sturgeon scratching his back.
Have you known of anyone going after catfish with their hands?
Yes, but only in Louisiana. I am not going to reach up in a hole and grab a moccasin. I’ve never heard of anyone doing it here, mainly because there are more snakes in the Choctawhatchee than anywhere else in the world.
Is there much beekeeping around here?
Not here, but there is quite a bit of it further south on the big river.
What do you remember of the moonshining?
Well, I’m the son of a bootlegger. It was a way of life and Holmes County made the best whiskey in the world. I suppose if you really had to have some of it, you could still get it.
I know it was illegal but some of the best-hearted people in the county made it. It was a way to survive. Most was made down in the swamps because it was hard to get to them. Most of the islands and ridges along the river still have signs of stills.
People make too much out of the shootouts. Taking a gun with you to a still was one of the stupidest things you could do. The best thing to do was just run like hell.
What should be done with this land along the river?
Sometime ago, I got a letter from a man in Pensacola saying if I sent him $100, I could hunt and fish on this land I have hunted and fishing all my life. A whole lot of the land is leased now and more is heading that way. The state needs to get more of it so everybody can go in there.
Your erosion problems can be stopped by planting cypress trees along the banks, and the river north of the Interstate needs to be cleaned out and dredged so there is some depth for the fish. The beaver need to be thinned out so all these hundreds of feeder streams can flow into the river. The beaver are killing the trees.
I use to get $20 for a beaver hide and last year it was only $5. It’s not worth tot a 60-pound beaver out of the swamp for $5. They are good eating, tail and all.
We have about 20 years to save the Choctawhatchee It won’t do any goo to stop what is going into the river because there is too much on it already. It needs to be pumped up on the hill and planted to cypress. If we don’t dot it, it will be a dirty, polluted junkyard instead of a “wild river.”
Marie Wesley Swinford
Marie Wesley Swinford was born in India, Mississippi in 1920 and was brought to her home in Point Washington, Florida, at the mouth of the Choctawhatchee River when she was three months old. After graduating from high school in DeFuniak Springs, she studied nursing at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, LA., receiving her RN degree. Later she enrolled at Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee, and received her B.S. in nursing in 1936. She presently lives with her husband, Dr. Kenneth R. Swinford, retired forestry professor, In Gainesville. They have two children, George Wesley and Sandra Sue, and four grandchildren.
Marie Swinford interview:
Tell use what you remember about living around the mouth of the Choctawhatchee River.
I recall that my father, who had moved to Point Washington from Ebro, had several portable sawmills and a permanent mill at Point Washington. He started the sawmill business with his wife’s father, who was a Strickland. The company was know as “Strickland and Wesley” at first. Later it became “Wesley and Sons” when Mr. Strickland passed on.
My mother, Katie Marie Strickland Wesley, was visiting my father one of his portable mills in India, Mississippi when I was born. They returned to Point Washington when I was three months old.
I imagine we came from Pensacola on the “Fritz,” or another boat of a similar nature. I think the “Fritz” was the last of the big boats to operate in the river. Steamboats operated in the bay and I can remember my parents taking them to Pensacola around Christmas-time to buy presents.
There weren’t any good roads and if you wanted to go anywhere you traveled mainly by boat. Out trips to DeFuniak Springs required going across the bay in our launch, the “Hazel S,” and then by car from Freeport to DeFuniak. My Older brother, Willie eventually started up a daily ferry service, powered by his boat the “Lark.” He carried the mail to and from Freeport, and a small load of cars, etc. I can remember that sometimes they had moonlight dances on the ferry. I’ll never forget these, as my father wouldn’t let me participate because I was just a teenager and in his opinion, too young to take part.
The state road department later took over the ferry service and Willie and a couple of my other brothers continued to run the ferry for the State for some time.
Tell use more about the sawmill business.
My father had rights to sunken logs in the Choctawhatchee River, from earlier logging and rafting operations I presume. He had his men raise the logs and raft them down the river and across the bay to his mill at Point Washington.
Lumber was sawed at the mill, stored and partially seasoned on piling in the entrance to the Point Washington Bayou. After the lumber was seasoned, it was shipped to Pensacola on barges. The remnants of the old piling are still visible today. Very little evidence is left of the mill, however except for a few broken bricks that was a part of the boiler.
My father also owned quite a bit of land in and around Point Washington. He also homesteaded 160 acres surrounding and including Eastern Lake that is east of Seagrove Beach. He built a small cottage there and we visited it frequently, either walking or using a horse and buggy. Fishing was great in the lake and we also crabbed, floundered, and collected turtle eggs in the Spring. Eastern Lake was beautiful, natural place, and my father in his lifetime envisioned it becoming a health spa or resort area. Unfortunately, the family sold the property shortly after my father and mother died, several years before the coastal highway was built. We had no idea the property would eventually develop aas it has, with helter-skelter cottages and condominiums, many built right on the dunes overlooking the gulf. I think my father and mother would be very unhappy with the way it is today. My husband and I dislike it so much that we avoid going there anymore.
Did you spend much time on the Choctawhatchee River?
I used to ride across the bay on the ferry and I went up the river many times on fishing trips. My mother was a great fisherman. She would scull across the bay on her favorite fishing holes in Little Bunker Creek or along the river, and later used a small outboard motor that the boys bought for her. She usually went by herself or took one of the boys with her, leaving me at the house to do the chores. I did get to go with her some though. I remember the last time I went with her, before I sent off to school, we caught about 30 green trout. She fished a lot in the small creeks emptying into the bay. The bay had a lot more fresh water in it then and there were more fresh water fish available.
I can remember steering the boat for my brothers while they rode a surf board. These were not the like ones used today. The rope was tied directly to the board and one usually rode on his knees.
What schools did you attend?
I went to school at Point Washington through the eighth grade. After that I studied at DeFuniak Springs. My mother was a staunch believer in our getting the best possible education and she insisted that we go to high school in DeFuniak. She rented a house for me and three of my brothers in DeFuniak and we set up light housekeeping. She would visit us on the weekends and help us keep things going. I did most of the cooking for the group, but my brothers helped with the chores.
I laser went to nursing school at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. After graduating with my R.N., I got an assistantship in the infirmary at Florida State College for Women and completed my B.S. in nursing in 1936. Although a graduate of the forerunner of F.S.U., I’m a Gator supporter now.
Did you do any hunting on the river?
I went with some of my brothers on numerous duck hunts. There was plenty of fresh water in the marshes at the mouth of the river and duck hunting was excellent. I usually stayed with the boat wile they walked the marshes and hunted.
Did you ever have any contacts with moonshiners?
No. I know that moonshining was active in the area but I never saw any of the stills or got involved in any way.
What happened to your father’s sawmill business?
He was burned out three times by people who had some grievances against him. I remember the last burning almost like it was yesterday. I was a little over ten-years old at the time and my father was away at one of his other operations. My mother had heard rumors that some person was out to get the mill. We were ready one night when they set the fire and got it put out quickly. The next night however, they were able to get it going so quickly that we couldn’t stop it. It burned completely to the ground. I don’t think it was insured. In fact, I doubt that such insurance was available for sawmills at that time. Anyway, my father tried to get together enough capital to rebuild but couldn’t pull it off and finally gave it up.
What do you remember of the social life in Point Washington?
Most of it centered around the Methodist Church which my Grandfather Wesley, a Methodist minister, had established. We frequently had diner on the ground with a lot of singing afterwards. Quite often people would come to our house after services for a hymn-singing session. My mother, who also played the piano for the church, would play and we all would sing.
We also used to have picnics at Eastern Lake – four miles away. Sometimes there were dances at Grayton Beach.
Did Point Washington folks ever make an effort to make it a tourist area?
Not during my days there. I do recall a sort of hotel at Grayton Beach. Often people from other areas came there during the summer and a few summer homes were also built there.
Point Washington itself was a very small community. During my time there were two grocery stores and a post office. During the sawmill era, my father also operated a small commissary for his laborers. Most of the people living in Point Washington fished, farmed, or worked at the mill.
Mr. and Mrs. L. Lamar Ward
L. Lamar Ward was born in Walton Count in 1905 as was Mrs. Ward. They have lived in and around Freeport all their lives. For 35 years, Mr. Ward worked for the Walton County School System. He also worked as a light tender on Choctawhatchee Bay.
Mr. and Mrs. J. Lamar Ward interview (unless noted, answers are provide by Mr. Ward):
What do you recall of the lumber business?
The McCaskills owned a big mill right down where the bayou goes into the bay, at a place called Beatrice. It had big band saws. The mill burned somewhere around 1913. I remember the day it burned, I remember exactly what my brother and I were doing, but I don’t quite remember the date.
There’ve been three pullings of cypress around here. They used a pull boat to get the cypress logs out of the swamp. The first pull boat was a big one. It had a big steel cable. It must have hand an inch-and-a-half or two-inch cable. The two pull boats my daddy ran were made of four to six-inch deals. A deal is a squire timber. The pull boats were massively built, the had to be. The machinery was bolted down on the deck. The first one had two big winches and a set of donkey (steam) engines.
To get the cypress logs out of the swamp, the workmen could cut a trail in to where the logs were. Then they took a steel cable and dragged it out to the logs. With the cable they took a huge steel block. The block was chained to a big tree. The small cable was then looped through the block and dragged back to the pull boats. They pulled the big cable into the swamp with the small one. It was a huge job because the trees were huge. They would drag logs several hundred yards through the swamp. Some of them are still down there in that swamp. If you go up East River and go out on the island, you’ll find some. Last time I was there, I found some my granddaddy had cut. Cypress was cut down with axes. It was a massive job. In high water, believe it or not, they’d cut a notch or gap in the tree and stick a board in so they could perch up there and cut the tree when the water was high.
During World War I we got the Spanish flue. My brother Jack brought it from Pensacola. He was firing a boiler down there at Ft. Pickens and he got the flu. It killed people in Pensacola going and coming. All of us got it. We tried to stay isolated down there. I’d come and get the mail in a skiff boat and I had instructions not to stop anywhere between the landing and the post office. Momma told me. “Don’t go there and wait, if there was a big crowed, just hold back, go and get that mail and leave.” The epidemic lasted about a year. It was very tragic. It started slowly, spread rapidly and died suddenly. It killed many, many persons.
The last mill was the Geneva Mill Company and it blew its last whistle on January 15, 1931. They scrapped our sawmill and sent it to the Japanese. It went to Mobile for junk. The Japanese bough every bit they could get so they could shoot back at us. That’s what really happened. People knew it because we could see it and we talked about it. It ran the whole mill. They broke it up and carried it to Mobile on barges. Then the Japanese bought it. The only reason I knew was because my brother was in the Merchant Marine. He bough a set of books that gave a picture and the name of the navy of every country. He told me “You just wait, people don’t realize what Japan has.” He said, “people don’t realize they have a powerful navy.” He knew what they had We knew that navy was there and our government knew it too.
What about the riverboat trade?
The steamboats docked down on Fourmile Creek below Freeport in front of the warehouses. There was a wharf down there where that bridge on Fourmile Creek is now. Except for one little space there, there were warehouses for a hundred yards, warehouse after warehouse. There was a cooper shop down there also, and a big turpentine still up the hill. The cooper shop made barrels for the still and the turpentine went to Pensacola on steamboats.
One fellow floated out of the sinking of the “Belle” on a feather pillow. It was a big feather pillow with a canvas cover. He had that feather pillow that helped him get to shallow water. He knew not to put it all the way under and sink it. People drowned when the “Belle” went down. The “Vernon” sank and was burned at Rooks Bluff. The “Eugene” is its old days was parked at the Wise Bluff and the caretaker let it sink. The remains of it are there. The old “Fritz” was up here at Cedar Tree Landing and it caught fire and drifted back down the river. As a steamboat burns and loses its load, it rises and keeps on burning except for the very bottom which is water soaked and won’t burn. I don’t now what they got off the “Fritz.” Nathan McGiver, and old man who lived out here in the woods, we to the “Eugene” and got the boiler, disconnected it, and pumped the water out of it. He got him some cross-ties strapped around it and got on tat thing with a paddle and steered it right down that river. It went to Point Washington over yonder and the Wesley’s pulled it out on the hill there and used it to run a sawmill on. That was along in the 1920s, I imagine.
We got our groceries and gasoline off a steamboat;; they came wholesale from Pensacola. If we hadn’t placed an order, they’d open up somebody else’s groceries and let us have some. Poppa paid the $2.00 deposit on a Standard Oil drum. The gasoline hardly cost that much. My brother and I, when we’d hear the steamboat blow, we were ready. We took one of our big skiffs and went out there with an empty drum. He’d pull as hard as he could. I’d stand in the bow and throw them a rope. They’d hold us and take our drum out and put the drum of gasoline in the bottom of our boat. They slowed the steamboat down to give us a chance to push off. If the skiff ever got under the wheel, well, that’d be the end of you.
I got married in 1924 and I went to work on the snagboat “Choctawhatchee” for $50 a month and board. The snagobat worked all the way up to Geneva. The snagobat was a butt-headed steamboat with a paddle wheel. It had big triple bocks, a nsatch-block pulley, and a steel winch. I worked as the turn holder.
Did either of you ever travel on a steamboat?
Mrs. Ward: I did. I remember as a girl I went down there and got on the old “Fritz” and went to Pensacola. I stayed down there a day or two. While I was there I bought a big domestic rabbit for 98-cents. I brought that thing back with me and the rabbit was so tame he played around there in the yard. First thing I knew there were the most little rabbits I’d ever seen.
Mr. Ward: You paid three-dollars for your fare, and that included your meals. It took you all day. You left there in the morning and it took you all day long to get to Pensacola. It stopped down there at the mouth of Alaqua Bayou, wher Gulf Red Cypress Company had a big cypress mill. It went on up to the landing at Portland. It went in at Rocky Bayou, at Niceville and it stopped at Mary Ester. There was a stop, a stop, and it didn’t go fast anyway.
Here you ever eaten a gopher?
The woods were filled with old dead trees. The gopher always made a hole under a dead chunk. He’d come out every morning to get him some dew; that where he got water. Me Momma used to snare them. She had a little old ox and a homemade cart. When she’d caught a few, she’d carry them up to Wises’ Bluff and meet the steamboat. The steamboat shipped the gophers to Pensacola. In Pensacola people ate them in the cafes. You know they are delicious food. Momma saved her gopher money and paid Dr. Simmons $600 for that big tow-story hotel here in Freeport.
Now listen, you can say what you please but you take the gopher, he’s not like the soft-shelled turtle or the loggerhead. I don’t understand it. You can fry the loggerhead turtle, but that gopher is a tough creature. When I was a boy you could stand on one and he’d walk with you. You have to first dress him. You turn him upside down and dress him just like you would do a turtle. Then you get his legs and neck out and skin him the very best way you can. Then you take him and you have to steam hi under pressure. You tenderize him however long you have to and make thick brown gravy wit it. With rice, it’s delicious food.
What needs to be done with the river?
There was a world of fish in the river. Now here come the biologists and the game department and we like to never have gotten the appropriation to clean some of the snags out of the river. People raised such a fuss about the snagging that it didn’t get done. You talk about fish, they were here and they were there. Now there aren’t any fish on the river. I just want to clean the snags and dredge it to make a channel so the fish can live.
William Avee “W.A.” White
W.A. White was born in Point Washington on June 4, 1918. He has spent his life hunting, fishing, and cutting timber on or near the river. He is married to Grace White, has four children, Gracie Lee, William, Michael Ray and James William, and presently is self-employed and living in Point Washington.
Mr. W.A. White interview:
Would you tell us about the river?
This place (Point Washington) was like an island at one time. There was no way to get on and off of it except by boat. In the ‘30s, I reckon, they started a ferry that ran from the end of this road to Jolly Bay and then we went by wagon to DeFuniak.
The Wesley boys ran the ferry, and after they ran it for several years, the State put a fee to cross the river: $1.50 to $2.50, I can’t remember. Then the State put a free ferry that ran for years, until they built the bridge in 1940. I walked from here to Destin in 1930 and there wasn’t even a bridge across to Fort Walton. You rode a boat. The same for Panama City. This was just an island.
Did you ever ride on one of the boats?
The first boat I can remember running to Point Washington was a big old schooner. George Houseman had the schooner and he hauled freight up the river and to Pensacola. That’s the way we got our food. I can remember riding on it when we moved here when I was about five years old. They put our old milk cow on it, and she fell overboard. She swam out, got back on the boat, and we carried her with us. This was about 65 years ago.
That was before the steamboats even started. The “Magnolia” was a sailing schooner and a freight boat. But then when she got too old, they put a steamboat on by the name of the “Fritz.” Well, it burned at Cedar Tree up the river. When the river’s down real low, you can see a little bit of what didn’t burn. It hauled freight. I’d help my daddy cut wood to feed the boiler. We cut a cord of wood for $4.00. We sold about six cords a week. That’s all they would buy.
How did people around here make a living?
On this island, there was Point Washington, Santa Rosa and Seminole Hill, and Otter Creek. There as a lot of work; not much pay, but a lot of work. But everybody who lived here worked at the same things. There was sawmilling, cutting steamboat wood, or cutting crossties for railroads. There wasn’t any farming over here. We were the only ones who had a farm. We had seven and a half acres on the river cleared for cultivation. Back during the Depression, we grew what we ate. We’d trade syrup and honey, potatoes, whatever we had to swap, for clothes to ear from this rolling store that came in. It was a big truck or van. You could buy any kind of groceries from it. Point Washington was a big business town at one time. There’s nothing here now, but there was once three big stores. You could buy everything rom a needle to the finest suit of clothes.
What did people fish for in the river?
They fished for what they wanted to eat. You could catch all the catfish you wanted. We didn’t commercially fish. There were a few commercial fishermen in the bay and in the gulf, but snappers were ten-cents a pound and groupers sold for two and a half cents a pound. Me and my wife caught mullet and split them all night long for five-cents a pound.
Did you ever fish for sturgeon?
I caught them as they were going up the river. The come out of the gulf, go up the bay, and come up the river. I caught them just before they went into the river. When me and my wife got them out of a net, two or three of them was all you could put in a truck. There were eight or nine feet long, with the roe. The State stopped us from catching them and there is nine jillion of them. The State says there’s a shortage of them. They don’t know what’s going on. I can catch them by the semi-truck loads. But you can’t sell them. Years ago, I shipped some to New York for 40-cents a pound. A fellow out of Pensacola lost 2,800 pounds of them for me. They got lost in the freight somewhere.
Were you living here when the flood of 1929 came?
I didn’t over Point Washington but the mouth of the river was like Choctawhatchee Bay. It drowned the cows and everything else. It was about three weeks before we could go home. We were living in a house that was two feet up off the ground, on blocks, like they used to build old houses. At the time, there was about two-feet above the door that wasn’t covered with water that was about 20-feet high. We had a four-foot high picket fence back then. It was nothing to row a boat right over the fence and right on into the house.
What stopped all that, and what wills top it if it ever breaks out again, was that in 1929, they took a shovel and dug a ditch along Destin Pass. The river washed that channel out into the gulf. It’s called East Pass now. You know where the Green Knight bar is now? Well, right across from the Green Knight, there was a little channel that ran into the gulf. They called it East Pass. Well, when we dug that little old ditch down there in 1928, it washed that big channel out across there, and the old East Pass stopped up.
Do you do any hunting?
I hunted until I kicked all my toenails off. There used to be bears here. Last fall, I killed two big bucks.
When did the government make you take your stock off the river?
They passed a stock law in the woods, and made us take all our cows and hogs and everything out of these woods. That was in 1945 or 1947, about the time I got married.
Do you know of one spot better than another to fish in the river?
No, fish have got tails. They might be here one day and down there tomorrow.
Have you noticed any changes in the river?
Not a whole lot. The government used to keep the channel open and the river cleaned out. The boats could go up it. But they quit that in the ‘30s, because there was no industry for large boats to come in and out for.
The Corps of Engineers did a good job of digging out the river?
At the time, yes. They had jetties to keep it from filling up. I wish we could get the Corps of Engineers back here to clean out this stream so we could get our boats through.
Do you remember the ferries?
Up at the Cowford on the Choctawhatchee River they had an old hand ferry. They had a cable stretched across the river. They just had hand sticks they pulled that thing back and forth with. At the sign that says Cowford Fish Camp is where the ferry used to be. Up on Pine Log Creek, old man Tyler had a ferry. That’s how we got off these islands. We had to drive way up there, get on the ferry, and they’d pull you across. It took you the whole day to get to where the ferry was. I would take you two to three days to go anywhere. Old man Miller would ride a horse from here to Vernon. It took him two days.
Tell us more about the livestock business.
Mr. Miller had cattle. Mr. Holly had sheep and cattle. They were the only people that had any sheep around here. We had lots of cattle and lots of hogs. But when they passed that stock law, we didn’t have enough land fenced to keep them and we had to sell or give them away.
Did you have any pasture in this area?
We didn’t. The St. Joe Paper Company bought all this land up. It cost him about a dollar an acre. But a dollar and fifty cents was hard to get. A teacher only made a dollar a day. A bricklayer got fifty-cents a day for three days a week, eight hours a day. You could feed your family on a dollar and a half a week. I worked for three years for eight dollars a month and board, and thought I was doing good.
I cut crossties. We’d manufacture them here and then ship them. They’d give about fifty-cents apiece for the crossties. Two men had to work hard to cut out five or six a day.
What about moonshine?
There’s plenty of it, or there was. I made enough of it to float the biggest boats. I never drank it, though. I just sold it or gave it away. I gave a lot of it away on credit, and the trouble is, you can’t collect it. If you tried to collect it, the revenue man got you. I made it with white flour, not corn. My first cousin had a bakery, and I got the flour from him. Then we would go into town and go to all the places that sold sugar. At each one, I would buy some little old item, and 10 pounds of sugar. I would hit about 10 or 12 stores to get enough sugar. We didn’t do it to get rich. We were just as scared, as you would be now. But, it was a way to survive, to buy clothes to wear, and get something to eat.
Once the High Sheriff and three beverage men came to my house and wanted to search. The High Sheriff was a friend of mine, and told the beverage men that he knew me all his life and that I wouldn’t do nothing. I quit making moonshine that day. I’ve done other things. At one time, I owned a sawmill. I also leased a shingle mill. I got eight dollars a thousand, delivered. Me and my wife ran that mill ourselves. She worked as hard as a man.
What do you think the best thing was that happened to the river?
I know a lot of things that weren’t so good. The environmental people stopped us from getting deadheads that were valuable to us. The government came in and took our livelihood away from us, but stopping us from doing things we had worked at all our lives. It’s a violation of the law to do it now. There’s plenty of logs up in that river today that would bring three or four hundred dollars apiece. But they’ll put you under the jail, not in it, if they catch you. It ain’t gonna hurt anything.
They took all of our hunting rights away, and turned the land into state parks. You can’t hunt at all on East River Island. There’s plenty of deer, hogs, squirrels, all kind of game on it. It’s about five or six-miles wide, and about seven-miles long. The State made a breeding ground out of it, but I can’t see where it’s doing any good.
The river doesn’t needs anything, except maybe to stop throwing that garbage in it. The farmers in Alabama are spraying all the crops and polluting the bay and killing the shrimp and everything else in that river. That’s the worst thing that has ever happened. If it’s wet in the spring, we don’t have shrimp, because the farmers spray pesticides from airplanes, then we get big rains, and the runoff pollutes the river. After rains, trucks spray for mosquitoes in the ditches. Lots of crawfish will be lying there dead. That needs to be stopped. They don’t realize what they’re killing. When I was a young-un, I used to drink water right out of that ditch, because wasn’t no spraying going on. It would kill you now.
Albert “Jabot” Williams
Jabot Williams was born in the second decade of the twentieth century “about two miles from the Choctawhatchee River” in Alabama. He indicates the has never lived further than that from the river. As a youngster, he tended large numbers of hogs that roamed on the Choctawhatchee floodplain. He also briefly tried making moonshine and was locally famous for being one of the fastest runners afoot. He still hunts and fishes on the Choctawhatchee at every possible opportunity.
Mr. Albert “Jabot” Williams interview:
How is the fishing in the Choctawhatchee?
The fish are not here like they were. A lot of them are in deep freezers and there are 25 times more people fishing today that when I was a boy.
Was the timber along the river different than it is now?
There was plenty of Good timber when I was younger. They didn’t clean the forest out, they just cut the biggest and the best. When they were done, there was a good stand of timber left. Then the paper company got hold of it and started cleaning it out. They used to run them (the logs) down the river to Freeport. Then they put that big mill in Caryville that Brown Florida Lumber Company owned. They had a big log farm over there. They filled up the river so much that the fish can’t raise any more.
What about recreational uses of the river?
They don’t swim in the Choctawhatchee like they used to. Once in a while you’ll see young people swimming down by the boat ramp, but not often. When I was younger, it was about the only place we had to go swimming. There’s been a big change in the river. Back in the 1930s, the water at the boat ramp used to be from eight to 20-feet deep. Now when it’s low I can get in it and wade two miles. It didn’t start filling up so bad until the ‘40s. They used to have those paddle boats that helped stir the sand up and keep it moving. It would help keep that channel open. The river wasn’t full of treetops when I was a boy.
Didn’t the Corps of Engineers pull the snags out?
No, they didn’t. They’d get a bunch of money from a grant or something and cut the tops of the snags at the water line where you would ruin your boat motor and everything else. All they had here the last time was a little old airboat. They didn’t pull them things out; they just cut the tops off.
Do you recall any of the old steamboats?
The last one I recall sand back in the 20s just below the bridge. They tied it up and before they got back there as a log come down there with the tide. It stayed down there for years. It was a small one, but it was a paddle wheeler. Old man Warren Commander was living on the river bridge. It used to be an old wood bridge and Mr. Commander and his wife lived on that bridge in a house. He tended to the bridge and watched the water. It was a drawbridge, but there never was a boat big enough that he had to turn it.
Do you remember the flood of 1929?
It liked to get Westville. It did get Caryville. It got to 28 and a half feet. It was sloshing up on the railroad crossties. We knew it was coming. You could go down to the edge of the water, back up a few steps, and it would be up to your feet again in no time. The water went over the door of the store and halfway up to the old gas pumps. Boats drove up and down the highway.
What effect do you think the floods had on the wildlife in the swamps?
Wildlife can get out of the way of the water. But when that big storm came in 1975, the timber blew down and the smaller animals drowned in that timber. And since that ’29 flood, there have just not been many squirrels around here, and no turkeys. It’s been about two-years since I’ve seen a turkey. Every once in a while, you’ll see a sign of them. They’ve cut the timber so there’s not anything for the squirrels and the ducks to eat. Ever since they cleaned the woods out and put roads at the mouth of the lakes, every time it rains it fill all of them up. Barlow Lake used to be a deep slough. You can’t even go in there in a boat now.
How long did it take for the flood water to go back down?
Oh, probably a week. It went back down about as fast as it came up. I found fish in the fields where the water went down and left them
How much time have you spent fishing on the river?
I just couldn’t name it. When I was a boy, I used to fish about every day. Me and my mamma was raising hogs in that swamp. I stayed there looking after the hogs and the cows and the fish. Sometimes I would get some bait and stay out there all night. It was open swamp back then. There was no undergrowth because that big timber kept it down.
I was born in Alabama, about two-miles from the river, and I’ve never lived farther rom the Choctawhatchee than that in my life. I have fished it, hunted in it, raised hogs and cows in it, made whiskey in there and everything else.
In 1939 or the early 1940s, me and my mother had over 200 head of hogs in there. We’d go in there every other evening and feed them hogs. And they’d stay fat. Back then they didn’t have these big hog raising barns and they didn’t have these hog farms. Now you can count their ribs. Alabamians would come down here every year and buy our hogs. Back in the ‘30s, when times was hard, we’d live on $100 a year. Me and my mother, we’d sell from $100 to $500 worth of hogs a year and we were O.K. I’d go in there and kill our meat, smoke it, dry it and then we’d eat it.
Do you hunt a lot on the river?
I hunt squirrel, duck and deer. I used to hunt turkeys but there aren’t any ore in there now.
What about ducks?
A lot of greenheads used to stop in here when there was plenty of water and food but they don’t anymore. I’d say wood duck numbers are half of what they were when there was plenty of food for them. They eat acorns and wild hickory nuts.
I don’t believe there are as many deer now as there was four years ago. There’s quite a few of them, but not as many in the woods and in the swamp as there was four years ago. I remember when there wasn’t a deer in here. I reckon Eglin Reservation was the closest place you could go to kill a deer. About five years ago, they killed a bear about five miles from here. I’ve never seen a panther in this area, and I never heard of anybody killing one around here. They are plenty of coyotes and armadillos.
What did people do to make a living when you were growing up?
A lot of people had little farms. They farmed, made whisky and logged. That was before the paper mill came in. People have changed. Back when I was a boy, people were more neighborly. If somebody was sick, they’d walk four or five miles to sit up with them. They don’t do that any more.
What about turpentining?
There used to be a turpentine still about four miles below here. They generally ran it Saturday afternoons when I was a boy. There were bubbles that cooked up on the them rows of barrels and we’d slap them with our hands. One time I slapped one too hard and it took kerosene to get it off. The still was about two miles from the river.
Do you remember the riverboats?
I never did see but just that one that sunk. It was just sitting there when I first saw it. It wasn’t sunk. They had it tied up. But before they came and got it, that big log sunk it. They never did try to get it up. I never rode one and never shipped any hogs on them.
Where were the riverboat landings?
There used to be one at Vernon, one at Curry and one just this side of Highway 2.
When the Old Hag show came through, I was down there to see the elephants cross the river. There were two be elephants. One was named Mary ,the other one was named Jim. The Old Spanish Trail went down to the river to the ferry. But the elephants didn’t cross it. You couldn’t put them on it. The wagons bogged down, between here and that river. They walked them across. When they would put there front fee on the bridge, it would shake. The water was over the top of them. They would stick their old snout up as high as they could get it. They didn’t put them in the water until all the wagons were in. There were about 15 wagons. They would come sometimes every year, sometimes it would be every two or three years. They would set up here, in Caryville, and every little town. Then they started setting up in DeFuniak and Bonifay, Pensacola and bigger places. Then they started shipping them on trains.
Do you remember the Corps of Engineers doing work on the river?
They told me it was the game warden. The took their airboat and went down and snagged that water when it was real low. That’s all they did. They went seven or eight miles. That’s been maybe five years ago.
What kind of boat did you use when your were young?
Just a plain little od boat called batteau. I’d go across the river in two or three minutes. Back then, we didn’t have motors. We’d go down that river four or five miles, set out our hooks and scull back. Sculling is sort of like riding a bicycle. Once you learn, you never forget. You teach yourself. I keep mine plum flat. When you see somebodybearing down on it, they call that “fishtailing it.” The front end of the boat will rare up, and he ain’t going nowhere. But I reckon I could scull now if I had a good lightweight wooden boat. I’d slip down the river looking for game.
Do you remember the sturgeon?
You’d see one every once in a while come up out of the water. I’ve never caught one. But the old fellow that used to tend to the bridge down there, he’s caught them. About every year or two, he’d catch two or three.
Have you fished for alligator gar?
One time we killed eight or ten when the water was up. They kept tearing up our trotlines. My bait was good size catfish and when he hit that hook I’d use the motor to haul him out on the sandbar. I used to get some of my spending money fising but Inever did any commercial fishing.
What about beekeeping on the river?
They never would put them in this swamp. I have seen them up near Caryville, near the river, but I’ve never seen them on the bank of the river.
What about moonshining in this area?
There’s a shortage of that now but it used to be the biggest money crop in the county. Just about everybody around here made it. It was a joke that some had to wear badges to keep from being sold some.
Did you operate a moonshine still?
Not very long because I drank up my profit. In ’51, me and my nephew had a small one and he left and went down south and I got a boy to help me run it. One morning we got 10 gallons of good, strong whiskey. We brought his out to his house and hid it. I brought mine on home. That was on Monday morning. I sold three pints out of my five gallons. I went to drinking what I had left and the net Monday I took the last drink. I stayed drunk for a week and just about dead for another week. It like to have killed me. Four gallons and a pine will kill anybody in a week. I gave a little of it away but not much. I’d say it was 100 proof. I like to tuned into an alcoholic so I quit fooling with it.
You ever get caught?
They couldn’t catch me. I know my way around the river and I just flat out ran them. I used to be the fastest man around. I ran right along side of the GMC pickup truck down the road doing 35 miles per hour. If the ever recognized who it was, they stopped; they never came running after me if they know it was me. The game wardens around here would walk up on me killing a squirrel out of season and I’d take off the other way and they’d leave. The didn’t want a race.
What would you like to see preserved on the river?
I’d like to see it dredged and cleaned out so it would be deeper. Congressman Bob Sikes took up a big bunch of money to dredge the river but I don’t know what happened to the money. I would cost a lot of money to do it now but it would be worth it. There would be more fish. The water wouldn’t come out over the swamp. There would be better fishing and everything. Boats could go up and down the river.
What is the most interesting thing about the river?
It’s all good to me. I just love to be out there. I just look to catch a mess of fish every time I go. Sometimes you go to a place and catch a lot of fish. The next day you can’t catch a fish there. You just have to hunt for where they are each day. I have come down that river and I’d have 20 or more pounds of fish but I know now I should not have done that. But if they bit, I’ll catch them.