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A little history of the area – while it’s too wet to hike!

By Sandra Chafin
Special to The Star

Well, it’s stopped raining – for now – however, the roads and trails are too wet to enjoy unless you wear waders! The low-water crossings are full so . . . let’s talk about some history of the area. You might remember an article in July about Old Shell Road and part of Treasure Road. We will talk about it some more since it is not feasible to walk it right now. 

This week will feature Installment one with pictures from the 1920s, 30s, 40s of Henry Drake, family and friends.  

Henry A. Drake pictured at Port St. Joe in 1934.

The connection to the Buffer Preserve is that Henry A. Drake wrote an account of St. Joseph. He had pictures taken from the 1920s to the 1940s of the area. This article includes pictures of the Drakes and Friends as they were driving on Shell Road on their way to Cape San Blas and St. Vincent Island in the 1930s.  

On way from Port St. Joe to Apalachicola for boat trip to St. Vincent Island circa 1930s.

Henry A. Drake was a cashier in Iron City, Georgia at the Citizens Bank. Being only 18 years old, he was the youngest in Georgia at the time and probably in the nation. Pictures tell us he lived in Port St. Joe in 1917, however, not the exact time he moved to Port St. Joe. 

The history of Old St. Joseph is fascinating and to think that travel took place along a road part of which goes through the Buffer Preserve is even more exciting.  

Henry A. Drake in March 1967 wrote The Rise and Fall of Old St. Joseph, Birthplace of Florida (1838). This is his version of the history of the ancient city from 1812 – 1854 and the ensuing dormancy of the area prior to 1910. 

Florida was first explored in 1512 by Ponce de Leon, a Spanish adventurer. It was ceded to Great Britain by Spain in 1763 in exchange for Cuba and reacquired by the Spaniards in 1781. It was ceded to the United States in 1821 and organized as a territory in 1822 . . . Winston’s Encyclopedia.  

The year 1838 was an important one in Florida history. On February 2, the Territorial Council, seated at Tallahassee, selected St. Joseph over such older and larger cities in the territory, as Pensacola, St. Augustine and Tallahassee, as a site for the drafting of a state constitution, preparatory to Florida becoming a state of the Union. According to legend St. Joseph, situated on beautiful St. Joseph Bay, had its beginning as a community about 1812 while the territory was still under Spanish rule. The United States Government established a post office at St. Joseph on December 28, 1835 and the community, then in Franklin county, was chartered as a municipality on January 11, 1836. The site is now Gulf County. 

The Convention date was set for Monday, December 3, 1838. Florida had been a territory only since 1821 when it was purchased from Spain at an average price of 14 cents an acre. At the time there were only an estimated 4,560 white persons in the territory. According to a special census just prior to the Convention, Florida had only 48,223 residents. 

In a special referendum held in 1837 on statehood, only 2, 214 votes were cast, and of this number 1,274 were against statehood.  

Delegates from throughout territorial Florida began arriving at St. Joseph, by land and sea, the first weekend in December 1838. The promoters of St. Joseph had been quite successful in getting the town well established during the year 1835 and by the time of the Convention it was prospering well. Among the hotels offering excellent accommodations for the Convention were the Byron, Pickwick, Fontaine Mansion House, Shakespeare, Railroad Cottage and the German Ocean House. The Convention Hall had been built by E. J. Wood, one of the leaders of the St. Joseph project, a director of the lake Wimico and St. Joseph Canal and Railroad Company and a representative of Franklin county in the Territorial Council. Paintings of many famous American statesmen decorated the interior walls of the Hall. Only 46 of the 56 delegates elected were on hand when the Convention assembled at high noon December 3. The Rev. Peter W. Gautier, Sr., Methodist minister, opened the Convention with prayer.  

Highway from Port St. Joe to Apalachicola circa 1930s.

In the selection of St. Joseph as a site for the convention shrewd politics (then as now) played a major role. Peter W. Gautier, Jr., editor of the St. Joseph Times and also a Franklin county representative to the Territorial Legislative Council of Florida, succeeded in getting the new county of Calhoun created from Franklin county, with St. Joseph designated as the county seat. In the same year Gautier, a lawyer by training, received an appointment as United States Marshal for the Apalachicola District, which covered most of the present area of Northwest Florida.  

The Calhoun county delegates, controlled by the promoters of St. Joseph, were William P. Duval and Richard C. Allen; considered tow of the ablest men n the territory in point of prestige and ability. The Saints had hoped to get Duval named Chairman and thereby control the Convention. However, upon a count of the votes cast, Duval lost the Chairmanship to Judge Robert Raymond Reid of St. Augustine by one vote. On January 11, 1839the constitution was read for final passage and when put to a vote resulted 55 for and one against. The lone dissenting vote was by Dade county delegate Richard Fitzpatrick who was still angered over the controversy regarding Territorial banks whose bonds, under law, had been guaranteed by the Territory. Agreement on this was reached, however, when the convention voted to submit the constitution to the people for ratification.  

The referendum election was held May 6, 1839 and the results were close with a majority of only 113 votes for ratification, the vote being 2,071 for and 1,958 against. The results were not announced until February 19,1841. The exact reason for the delay is not known but Calhoun county which had lost the chairmanship upon organization of the Convention voted heavily against ratification – the vote being 275 to 73. 

The constitution specified Tallahassee as the capitol for five years upon Florida becoming a state, after which a permanent capitol would be chosen. This might have been except for the desolation and destruction that had befallen St. Joseph prior to the Territory’s admission as a state in 1845, -- as a consequence of the 1841 epidemic of yellow fever and the bank failures throughout the country which, with the decline in cotton prices, resulted in the 1842 bankruptcy of the St. Joseph and Iola Railroad built in 1836. 

Following the referendum vote and after six years of political strife and turmoil, in which statehood as well as the proposed division of Florida into two territories (East and West) was debated throughout the territory, Congress passed an Act admitting Florida and Iowa as states.  

Pine Lily in full bloom at Buffer Preserve

We will save more on Old St. Joseph and the state of Florida for later articles and talk about what you might see if it were feasible to walk on the trails at the Buffer Preserve right now. We will try to let you know when it looks like most of the water has dried up and you can enjoy once again the roads and trails.  

Walking along Treasure Road you should see the beautiful Pine Lily close to the ditches. The Pine Lily is listed in FL as a threatened flower. It blooms from July through October and likes to grow in the Wet Prairie/Mesic Flatwoods.  

Liatris or Blazing Star with Butterfly

Liatris like roadsides, open woodlands, damp or dry soils depending on the species. Liatris are unusual because the flower buds open at the top of the stalk open first, succeeded by those lower on the stalk. 

Our last topic for this article is a shout out for our Friends of the St. Joseph Bay Preserves. This fine group of supporters for the Buffer Preserve and the Aquatic Preserve are meeting (with precautions) and planning how exactly they can help the Preserves. Active since 2003, the group spearheads membership drives, special events, community interactions, and sometimes just the down and dirty work (clean-up) in the Buffer Preserve. To say we appreciate them is an understatement! As our volunteer t-shirts says: Volunteers are our greatest resource! Join them and get to know the preserves. Feel free to ask questions by calling 850-229-1787. Dylan Shoemaker, Buffer Preserve Manager, encourages everyone in the community to join and become active in the Friends CSO. Citizen Support Organizations are so important to state facilities like the Buffer Preserve. 

Tram Tours will begin as quickly as possible. Sophia Foncesa is anxious to get them going and had hoped to start this week. The weather will prevent this month’s, however, be on the watch for next months. 

On the First Friday of October you are invited to join one of our illustrious Friends’ Directors for an extraordinary tram trip to explore the trails and roads talked about in the series of articles on the Buffer Preserve. First road to explore is Cattle Dip. Just participating and getting outside will be a plus and . . . you can learn a lot about the area in the early 1900s. Mark your calendar and call 229-1787 to reserve your seat on the tram.