Editor’s note: This is the 22nd of a series of stories that will be featured in the Pensacola News Journal each week leading up to the 200th anniversary of Escambia County. Look for these stories each Monday in print.
In 1939, the year that World War II began, a local firm ended its business that began in the Second Spanish period. Water-powered industries are deeply embedded in the cultural heritage of West Florida, a region with a surprisingly lengthy history of water power. Water-powered mills were abundant across the West Florida landscape and were fundamental in the development of this area. These industries provided necessities such as food produced by gristmills, lumber for houses and products for export. Both British and Second Spanish mills dotted the landscape, consisting mainly of water-powered sawmills.
Save Arcadia Mill:Historic Milton site could disappear unless it finds funding
In 1817, four years before the United States gained Florida, Pensacolian Juan de la Rua was given a large land grant on Pond Creek, in what is now Santa Rosa County. That year marks the beginning of a four-year period at the end of the region’s Second Spanish occupation during which a significant number of land grants were established in West Florida specifically for sawmill development. This marked a new trend in this area with expansive changes in the economic focus and settlement, away from a coastally oriented and culturally Hispanic Pensacola focus and toward the interior highland forests and a growing Anglo American demographic.
The Rua land grant was an example of a mill seat or a prime geographic area for water-powered industry. The site boasted a suitable source of water, Pond Creek; a narrowed floodplain bounded on each side by upload topography; and an abundance of natural resources including virgin pine and ironstone. Rua owned the land for roughly 10 years, but it is unknown how much work he did other than quarrying the valuable ironstone from the property. Rua married into the Bonifay family, who operated a prosperous brickyard, and by the late 1820s the local brick boom was going strong. Enter Joseph Forsyth, a Connecticut native whose family was established in Pensacola in the early 1820s. Forsyth was a ship captain and operated a store in Pensacola, but he recognized that the long leaf pine of the West Florida region offered financial promise. In 1828, Forsyth purchased the Pond Creek site from Juan de la Rua for $400.
In November of 1830, Forsyth sold the northeast quarter of the Rua grant to businessman Timothy Twitchell for $121. Twitchell was also a New England transplant who was born in New Hampshire in 1783 and arrived in Pensacola with his family in 1821. Twitchell began developing his portion of the Arcadia parcel by constructing a sawmill that was operating by 1833 and later a shingle mill, the Arcadia Pail Factory, and an experimental silk cocoonery. Also, in 1830, Forsyth partnered with Andrew and Ezekiel Simpson whose father ran a water-powered sawmill near Pace prior to 1821. The Simpson family was from South Carolina and arrived in Florida around 1814. The Simpson brothers brought the expertise and capital that was needed to transform the site into Arcadia, which became the first and largest water-powered industrial complex in West Florida. Ezekiel Simpson emerged as a major influence at Arcadia and in local politics, and he later built an impressive homestead at Arcadia that is currently open to the public.
From 1830 to 1855, Arcadia developed into a large-scale endeavor that eventually included a sawmill, planning mill, grist mill, ironstone quarry, a textile mill and one of the first railroads chartered in territorial Florida. Arcadia’s location of three miles from the Blackwater River or major shipping channel caused continual transportation issues that were addressed several ways including a canal company, animal labor and by rail. The solution to Arcadia’s transportation woes came with the successful adaption of the steam engine to lumber milling. In 1840, Forsyth and Simpson relocated their lumber mills to nearby Bagdad that led to a 99-year long operation.
Industrial sites in this area were typically operated by enslaved labor and the community at Arcadia included men, women and children. The initial labor force at Arcadia was composed mainly of enslaved male laborers who worked in the pine forests and in the sawmills. The labor force at Arcadia changed in 1845 when the Arcadia Manufacturing Company revived the long-held plan to develop a cotton textile mill. An industrial movement, known as the cotton mill campaign, began in 1827 and encouraged the South to question its…