Situated on the North Florida – South Georgia state line, Hamilton County offers a natural setting in which citizens can enjoy the scenic views of rivers and lakes, forests and bogs, and dazzling sunsets through the branches of trees. Surrounded by rivers – the Withlacoochee River on the west, and the Suwannee River on the east and south – dozens of small towns and communities cropped up at various places along them. As with all communities, there is growth and decline, and many of those towns have vanished from the maps, and remain only as distant memories of old timers.
Of course, not all of those communities that have vanished were situated on river banks – some of them were grown around lumber and saw mills, turpentine stills, and family homesteads. Some of the names that are no longer well known include: Avoca, Wallburg, Micco, Rosseters Ferry, Hooker’s Ferry, Baker’s Mill, Blacks Still, Benton, Avrietville, Hollywood, West Lake, Marion Station, and Smithville. There are other areas such as Genoa, Bellville, and Facil, that once had shops and larger communities, but have dwindled to nearly nothing throughout the years. The county’s main communities – Jasper, Jennings, and White Springs – have remained throughout time, weathering great declines of population and community businesses.
The area where Hamilton County is located was first a portion of Leon County, which was then divided further, and the area fell into Jefferson County. In 1827, a full two years after the area had been settled by Daniel Bell, Hamilton County was created as the 15th in the Territory of Florida. It would be another 18 years before Florida would claim statehood. At that point, Daniel Bell became the first Senator from the county, while Israel Stewart acted as the first representative to the state legislature.
Jasper has a rather sketchy beginning. It is believed that there were settlements at the location in the late 1820s or early 1830s, but no substantiated evidence can be found. By 1892, certainly, there was a community of fair size as the Thompkins fire destroyed nearly all of the records, including those of the city. What records weren’t completely turned to ash were left in such sad shape as to be unsalvageable.
In 1839, the County Commissioners purchased 40 acres of land from William M. Reed. This property was consequently surveyed into 25 blocks. Allowances were made for streets in the area, and the Old Town of Jasper was born, nearly a mile from its current location. The following year on February 27, the Town of Jasper was incorporated by an act of the Legislative Council of the Territory of Florida. William Roberts, Josiah Baisden, Joseph B. Watts, John Whitehurst, and William M. Hunter were appointed as officers of the new town. By 1841, a post office had been established, with William Roberts acting as postmaster. In that same year, a school was officially established by another act of Legislative Council.
Eighteen years after the initial incorporation of Jasper, another was deemed necessary on March 2, 1858. All of the voters were in favor of incorporation and included W. A. Alford, James R. Bass, I. L. Brooks, Lewis P. Dunn, L. B. McTyer, John Parr, I. H. Stephens, William R. Tuten, T. J. Zipperer, F. M. Ayers, H. B. Blount, George W. Cooper, R. L. Ivy, William M. Mitchell, Solomon Rouse, Henry J. Stewart, and John W. Umstead. The population of the community had grown to nearly 300 at the time of the second incorporation. The railroad came to town in 1865, drawing in additional merchants, which in turn drew families closer to the core of town, nearer to its current center.
Clearly, Jasper was on the rise, but yet – it was felt necessary that a third incorporation of the area be performed. Therefore, on February 25, 1878, a full 38 years after the initial incorporation, Henry J. Stewart, Sam McInnes, Elisha P. Smith, Irvin R. Swilley, James H. Ancrum, James P. Watson, Lucian Frink, John C. Lee, W. H. Greene, and W. F. Staten were appointed officers of the “new” town.
The Jasper Normal Institute was established as the first formal school in 1890, although there had been other country schools that taught strictly local children. Hotels, boarding houses, and restaurants sprang up. A new courthouse was demanded, as well as a jail, town hall, and an artesian well. A saw mill, rice cleaning machinery, sugar works, and cotton gins belonging to E. C. Horne burned, as well as several homes. By 1900, the population had grown to almost 1,000.
The community continued to blossom. Hotels, restaurants, a millinery, stables and two railroad depots were added. In 1912, a city hall and fire station were constructed. More businesses opened, catering to the population that swelled to 2,200 in 1976. However, as with all of the three main communities in the county, the new Interstate built in the later 1960s put a hardship on businesses. Tourists were no longer driving straight through Jasper. Now they were being detoured around it. The economy has suffered; businesses have shut their doors. The current population remains stable at nearly 1,800 citizens, the largest area in the county.
In 1825, the Jennings area was sparsely populated, but had plenty of fertile soil – a prime area for pioneers to settle. Some of those early settlers included Dixon T. Cross, James S. Lewis, and Jeremiah B. Smith. Perhaps the most well known settler was George Jennings, who established the town of Jennings Station in 1860. After some difficulty in arriving to the area, and losing all of his belongings in the Alapaha River, Jennings built a homestead. The family developed the nearby land and built another house, which they used for boarders. Thus, the first boarding house of the area was established.
Later, a post office was established ten miles west of Jasper, with James Avriett acting as the postmaster. The town was a stop on the railroad, and a telegraph office was located there. The town soon became known as only Jennings; the “Station” was dropped. By 1900, the population had grown quite a bit, enough to support seven cotton gins, and several turpentine stills and lumber mills.
In 1909, the Jennings Hotel Company decided to construct a hotel in the city. Stockholders included J. R. Jennnings, B. F. McCall, K. K. Powell, W. C. Clayton, J. B. Shiver, Wolf Lipsitz, J. L. McDaniel, A. C. Stephens, and W. B. Avriett. For more than a year, the group dallied and delayed the building of the hotel, until J. B. Shiver bought the lots and completed it himself. The Shivers operated the hotel until 1939, when they sold it.
Country schools being the norm, it wasn’t necessary for Jennings to have a school promptly. Nevertheless, in 1914, the Jennings High School was established, and most of the country schools were closed. The lovely two-story building had an auditorium upstairs where the student body had chapel on a daily basis. More rooms were added to the school in the following years. The school eventually fell into disrepair, and the building currently in use was completed on January 28, 1928.
The Georgia Southern Railroad allowed for shipping of cotton, lumber, and other merchandise from Jennings to outlying areas. In addition, passengers could ride the train to Valdosta, Georgia, for a day of shopping or to White Springs, for a day of relaxation at the spring house.
By 1920, the population of Jennings had grown to 1,200, supporting a small city. Located in the area were 36 businesses, which included cafes, banks, meat markets, grocery stores, a newspaper, a millinery, drug store, a department store, a hardware store, a fabric shop, post office, and gas station, as well as a general store and soda fountain. It was during this time that John Bradshaw, who owned the department store, grew the first crop of tobacco in the county. The wonder crop was quickly established and became one of the highest-ranking crops in the county.
Throughout the years, the population of Jennings has slowly dwindled. Businesses have closed their doors, leaving only a few locally owned businesses. The current population of the area is a mere 830 citizens.
Incorporation wasn’t a big issue for the citizens of White Springs. In 1885, on Christmas Day, they finally incorporated the town that had been in existence for nearly 50 years, since Byrant Sheffield first settled there in 1835. He bought 1,000 acres, developed the springs into a tourist feature, and sold lots to newcomers to build upon. Nearly two thirds of his property became the basis of White Springs. By the time of incorporation, the population of the town had reached nearly 350, supporting quite a business core: four stores, a steam saw, grist mill and cotton gin, two private schools, a few churches, a newspaper (The Echo), several hotels, a barber, a butcher, a blacksmith, a mechanic, a shoemaker, and a livery stable, as well as a vast amount of agriculture. Crops grown in the area included Sea Island cotton, trees for lumber, fruit and vegetables, and sugar cane.
The elected officers of the incorporation included R. W. Adams, William Robarts, John Powell, O. K. Paxton, Francis Adams, A. C. Bell, and Calvin Buckels. The mail had been delivered to the area for nearly 50 years as well, with a post office located in a general store for many of those years.
Dr. J. L. Skipworth established the Florida Normal College in 1883, for the education of teachers. Shortly after, the Camp family established a lumber mill in the area. In order for them to ship their products to the nearest seaport in Jacksonville, Florida, they first had to send it to Valdosta, Georgia, and then back to Jacksonville. Because this was an interstate commerce, it was considerably more expensive than intrastate commerce. Therefore, the Camps petitioned for and received permission to build a railway line called the Florida and Georgia Railroad. However, they only completed an eight-mile stretch from Wellborn, Florida, to White Springs, so that they could ship their lumber and produce from Wellborn straight to Jacksonville, eliminating the expense of interstate commerce. In the late 1900s, the lumber mill and associated basket factory caught fire and burned, and the Camps abandoned the venture.
Fire was a prevalent disaster in the early 1900s – one after another plagued the small town. Three fires struck the spring house hotel alone, and Sheffield replaced it each time. The Camps’ operation was destroyed. Then in 1911, on the last day of hunting season, a massive fire that spread for blocks destroyed 35 buildings, including the millinery, the Baptist parsonage, a bakery, fruit store, livery stables, Dr. D. N. Cone’s office, the High Hotel, The Oaks Hotel, a cotton warehouse, and several other residences and businesses.
The population of White Springs at the time of the fire had increased to 1,177 citizens. The double tragedy of the great fire and the closing of the Camps’ mill and factory put a tremendous hardship on citizens to find gainful employment. By 1920, the population had dropped to 984. After a few rises and falls in the numbers, the population remains fairly stable at about 800 citizens.
The history of Hamilton County has been filled with many ups and downs, tragedies and pitfalls, joys and happiness. A single book could never relay all of those that have left their imprint on the communities, nor all of those that have stayed for a moment before leaving the area. It is the hope of the author that this book will allow the memories of some to live on a while longer.