Ghost Towns of West Florida

Ghost Towns of West FloridaArchaeological Survey Uncovers Vanished Settlements 

By Faith Eidse

Time took a village in West Florida, a successful mill town with stores, boarding houses, a hotel, a school and two churches – Baptist and Methodist. So solid were the values of this town that at one time its one-room school sent more graduates to college than any other school in Florida.

PROSPEROUS AND PROMINENT At its peak,  the Southern States Timber  Co. (renamed the Southern  States Lumber Co. in 1905)  in Muskogee Mills employed 1,000 men and exported 60 million feet of lumber. Photo courtesy the Florida Archives.

Moreover, the town produced “Speed Queen” Jackie Cochran, the first woman pilot to go supersonic. At the time of her death in 1980 she held more speed, distance and altitude records than any pilot on Earth – and she refused to acknowledge her roots in Muskogee Mills.

So how and why did “Old Muskogee” disappear, and why is it not the only ghost town of West Florida? What happened to Fundy, a turpentine settlement, and the aboriginal village it was built on? What happened to the prehistoric settlements on Lafayette Creek in Walton County? Why did Cochran refuse to acknowledge her mill-town roots?

An archaeological survey of Northwest Florida Water Management District lands recently recorded 47 new sites in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Walton counties. Many of these sites point to vanished settlements near water resources where inhabitants focused on extracting any natural resources they could find – timber, turpentine, oysters and fish. When the resource disappeared, so did the people. There was little effort to replant, restore, adapt or offset losses, and the towns faded away.

FULL HOUSE  The Southern States Lumber Co. used five locomotives and 70 cars to transport lumber along 50 miles of logging railroad and spur track. Photo courtesy the Florida Archives.FULL HOUSE  The Southern States Lumber Co. used five locomotives and 70 cars to transport lumber along 50 miles of logging railroad and spur track. Photo courtesy the Florida Archives.

Dating from 1500 B.C. to the early 20th century, numerous camps, villages and towns were established and later disappeared along with the primary resources the inhabitants exploited. Aboriginal populations left behind village middens and refuse from camps dating between the Late Archaic and Mississippian stages (1500 B.C. to A.D. 1500). Early Americans timbered and turpentined the virgin longleaf pine and later farmed the cleared land, removing archaeological evidence. People soon forgot and moved on, and physical evidence was looted or worn away by time and the elements.

“Surveys of district lands have shown that many historic and prehistoric sites are located near reliable sources of potable water such as springs, streams and rivers,” said Douglas E. Barr, executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District. “This survey was commissioned to help the district protect archaeological findings as it performs environmental restoration on public lands.”

The District hired Panamerican Consultants Inc., led by Gregory A. Mikell, the senior archaeologist and principal investigator. The team recorded nine new sites in the Perdido River Water Management Area, six on the Grassy Point tract of the Yellow River Water Management Area and 32 on the Lafayette Creek tract of the Choctawhatchee River/Holmes Creek Water Management Area.

Muskogee Mills was a town founded by Georgia lumbermen in 1857, about 20 miles northwest of Pensacola. From the 1870s to 1905, the Muskogee Lumber Company operated a mill on the Perdido River. In 1905, the company was consolidated as Southern States Lumber Co. and employed more than 1,000 men in its logging camps and four large mills. It exported from 45 million to 60 million board feet of lumber annually from 340,000 acres in Alabama and Florida, according to documented accounts. The company operated five locomotives and 70 cars on 50 miles of railroad and spurs. A spur into Muskogee was destroyed by the retreating Confederate Army in 1862 but was rebuilt in the 1870s.

However, no effort was made to replant depleted timber resources, and the hurricane seasons of 1917 and 1918 reportedly destroyed 80 percent of the mill’s remaining standing timber. Workers, who were paid a percentage in scrip tokens for use at the company store, went on strike a month after the 1918 hurricane. According to published accounts, those who did not join were threatened with violence, creating further unrest in the town.

FROM PROFIT TO PERIL  Men retrieve logs from a Perdido River log pen. Two devastating hurricane seasons wiped out the prosperous lumber business, forcing workers to move elsewhere. Photo courtesy the Florida Archives.FROM PROFIT TO PERIL  Men retrieve logs from a Perdido River log pen. Two devastating hurricane seasons wiped out the prosperous lumber business, forcing workers to move elsewhere. Photo courtesy the Florida Archives.

As timber holdings dwindled, Southern States Timber Company began liquidating its holdings. In 1928, it sold the town and 2,300 adjoining acres to land agent and turpentine operator B.C. Davis of DeFuniak Springs. The town, with its homes, businesses and churches, was vacated and dismantled, and the timber was sold or used elsewhere by 1938.

Gifted racing pilot Jackie Cochran was born Bessie Pitman in “Old Muskogee” in 1906. She married a Pensacola airplane mechanic. But the marriage ended and her 4-year-old son died tragically in a fire.

Embarrassed by her origins and ready for a fresh start, Cochran put her past behind her, claiming she was adopted. Bessie became a hairstylist in New York City, launched a cosmetics business and changed her name to Jackie. A friend flew her around in his plane and Jackie took to the air like a natural, learning to fly within three weeks. She married a California millionaire and during World War II became head of Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP). She trained 1,000 women pilots, received a Distinguished Service Medal and was featured on a 1996 U.S. postage stamp. (Many more Old Muskogee stories are available on the Internet at

Panamerican investigators revisited and documented two Muskogee Mills foundations considered to be the planing and finishing mills that are potentially eligible for preservation and protection by the National Register of Historic Places. Associated resources included a brick well, a rail line and possible locomotive roundhouse remnants, as well as a log pen and canal dating to the late 1800s. The brick well likely supplied water for the company’s steam locomotives, which ran logs to a Pensacola wharf via Pensacola-Northern and Pensacola, Alabama and Tennessee railroads, formed in 1892, and later the Pensacola, Mobile and New Orleans Railroad (1911-1920s). A water tank dating to a 1910-1950s cattle ranch operation owned by Elijah Smith was also recorded. The Old Muskogee Cemetery, dating to the late 1870s, has been surveyed and recorded and is also eligible for National Register protection.

Two prehistoric artifact scatters dating to the Woodland (500 B.C.-A.D. 1000) and possible Archaic (8500-1000 B.C.) periods also were documented on the Perdido River tract. Sand-tempered pottery fragments and stone tool byproducts indicate a sedentary culture with large trade networks that typified indigenous Deptford, Santa Rosa or Weeden Island cultures. These settlements favored coastal live oak stands or inland river valleys and were adapted to fishing and shellfish exploitation.

SOLID EVIDENCE  Foundation pilings of the Southern States Lumber Co. mill foundation still stand in old Muskogee Mills. Photo courtesy the Florida Archives.SOLID EVIDENCE  Foundation pilings of the Southern States Lumber Co. mill foundation still stand in old Muskogee Mills. Photo courtesy the Florida Archives.

Grassy Point in Santa Rosa County was well suited to supporting a large aboriginal population since it had numerous oyster beds and miles of shoal in East Bay that were ideal for spear fishing. It may be the location of archaeologist C.B. Moore’s documented “mound near Maester Creek,” excavated in the late 1800s. The first private land claims on Grassy Point were patented in 1835 by Louis Maestre (the creek’s namesake, with the Americanized spelling) and Antonio Garcia.

There are also numerous Santa Rosa/Swift Creek ceremonial structures in Santa Rosa County, many near the project area. These are identified by complicated-stamped, incised, shell-stamped, punctuated, cord-marked and burnished ceramics. The pottery was locally made, though artisans may have been influenced by the Ohio River Hopewell, Mesoamerica and lower Mississippi Valley socio-religious practices.

Lafayette Creek, in Walton County, had no previously recorded sites, so all 32 sites were discovered in the recent survey. They ranged from pre-ceramic Archaic (8000-3000 B.C.) artifact scatters to early 20th-century homestead scatters. The pre-ceramic artifacts suggested temporary occupations to extract resources, archaeologist Mikell said. The homestead sites were identified by Mikell as those of Charles Silcox (1901), Alfred D. Mayo (1907), James H.B. Pyles (1908) and William Goodwin (1909).

An early American logging road or rail tram apparently ran along Lafayette Creek, with an associated log pen in the creek. A cattle dip vat and turpentine cups dating to the early 1900s also were documented.

Investigators recommended testing and evaluation of several sites for potential protection by the National Register of Historic Places.

The survey was financed in part with historic preservation grant assistance provided by the Bureau of Historic Preservation, Division of Historical Resources, Florida Department of State, assisted by the Florida Historical Commission.

“Since these lands are adjacent to nearby population centers, the district is moving to protect these cultural and historical treasures as it protects the region’s pristine water resources and restores habitats,” said William O. “Bill” Cleckley, director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District’s Division of Land Management and Acquisition.

After years of intensive industrial forestry, portions of the 5,454-acre Perdido River Water Management Area are slated for restoration to native longleaf pine/wiregrass, and portions will be managed to restore old growth forest. The Grassy Point Conservation Area is located in the 17,000-acre Yellow River Water Management Area. The Lafayette Creek tract, near Freeport, is part of the Northwest Florida Greenway. It protects the water resources of LaGrange Bayou/Choctawhatchee Bay and several globally imperiled steephead ecosystems. Lafayette Creek has been affected by soil erosion, and restoration is planned.