Monday, March 31, 2014

#86 The Graceville "Spook Lights" (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

The Graceville Spook Lights
The mysterious Graceville Spook Lights are #86 on my list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.

Please click here to see the entire list as it is unveiled.

On the west side of Graceville, there is a spot where you can look up the old railroad bed and see two strange lights that appear at unpredictable intervals almost every night. Legend says the lights are the unhappy ghosts of a man and woman who were hanged from the railroad trestle over 100 years ago.

Graceville Spook Lights
To see them, head west on State Highway 2 across Holmes Creek into Holmes County and turn left onto St. Johns Road. Pull off the side of the road and walk back east on Highway 2 a short distance to the old rail bed. From that point, if you look up the old railroad into Graceville and have a little luck, you will see the lights. You have to look for them from the Holmes County side of the line, but the lights themselves are in Jackson county.

(One note, please respect private property rights and don't walk up the old railroad bed to try to see them better. Not only is it disrespectful, illegal and dangerous, the lights will just vanish. They can only be seen from the spot by Highway 2. Also, please do not stand in the roadway!  You might become a ghost yourself.)

Now on with the story...

Spook lights or ghost lights are popular parts of Southern culture and folklore. North Carolina has its Maco Light. Georgia has the Surrency Spooklight. Arkansas is known for the Gurdon and Dover Lights and Missouri is famed for the Seneca Light. Like the Graceville Spook Lights, such phenomena appear almost nightly under the right conditions.

The ghost story behind the Graceville lights revolves around the all but forgotten 1910 hangings of Hattie Bowman and Edward Christian. The two had been arrested on charges related to the murder of Deputy Sheriff Allen Burns, who had gone to Bowman's home while investigating the theft of a gold watch from a Graceville merchant.

Residents of northwestern Jackson County were infuriated by the murder of Deputy Burns. A large group of people forced their way into the jail on the night of September 2, 1910, and dragged away the prisoners:

Graceville, Fla., Sept. 3 - Dangling from a trestle just outside the town, this morning, were found the bodies of Ed. Christian...charged with shooting Deputy Sheriff Allen Burns, and Hattie Bowman...who had been arrested on the charge of being implicated in the crime. (Toledo Blade, September 8, 1910)

The mob had taken Christian and Bowman to the trestle over Holmes Creek, tied nooses around their necks, tied the other ends of the ropes to the trestle ties, and kicked the two off the bridge. No one was ever arrested for their murders.

Graceville Spook Lights
Two strange flickering lights have been seen ever since from the point where the railroad crosses the road just west of Graceville. The lights are best seen in the winter, when the leaves have fallen from the trees, and first appear as a bare flicker, then grow in brightness briefly before fading away. Legend holds they are the ghosts of Hattie Bowman and Edward Christian, still seeking justice 104 years after they died.

While the story itself is tragic, the mysterious lights are on the list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.

The story is included in my book, The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge: Ten Stories of Ghosts & Monsters from Jackson County, Florida. It is available at Chipola River Book & Tea in downtown Marianna or online from in both print and Kindle editions:

The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge [Paperback]

The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge [Kindle]

Saturday, March 29, 2014

#87 Legends of the Courthouse Cave (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Entrance to the Courthouse Cave
The legendary Courthouse Cave that runs beneath the City of Marianna is #87 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.

Please click here to see other items on the list as they are unveiled.

The story of the Courthouse Cave is very old and has been told in many different forms. Many if not most Jackson County residents, however, have at least heard the legend that an enormous cave runs from the Chipola River so far under the City of Marianna that even the Jackson County Courthouse stands atop it.

Inside the cave, looking into a natural "forest" of formations
Some speculate the courthouse could collapse into this gigantic cave almost any day. Others blame cracks that open in the courthouse building now and then on a settling of the structure due to its weight pressing down on the ceiling of the cave.

The Courthouse Cave legend originates from a story that has been told around Marianna since at least the late 1800s. According to that tale, a pair of teenage friends were exploring the cave when their torch went out and they found themselves trapped in total darkness. Unsure of which way to go, they wandered deeper and deeper into the cave.

Passage leading deep under Marianna
Search parties were organized and groups of local men launched a rescue effort that took them deeper into the cave than any of them had ever been. The missing teenagers were found and brought out alive, but the rescuers told a fascinating story. At one point far into the cave they said that they heard sounds echoing down its passages. Thinking these sounds might be coming from the lost teenagers, the rescuers searched for their source. According to the legend, the noises turned out to be the sounds of courtroom activity drifting down through the roof of the cave!

So is the story true?  Well, let's just say that it is one of hundreds of colorful Jackson County stories that result from a bit of exaggeration.

There is in fact a large cavern called the Courthouse Cave that runs deep under part of the City of Marianna, even though it doesn't quite reach all the way to the courthouse and worries of the building tumbling into it have no foundation.

I will be a little circumspect about its actual location, but the cave stretches for hundreds of yards beneath parts of Marianna. Experienced cavers have explored and mapped it, learning in the process that its myriad of passages connect to at least two other named caves.

Inside the Courthouse Cave
While the story of being able to hear courtroom activity deep inside the cave is not true, it does have a rich and important history. Prehistoric American Indian artifacts dating back thousands of years have been found inside the entrance, clear evidence that hunting parties used it as shelter when hunting along the hills on which Marianna was later founded.

On September 27, 1864, the day of the Battle of Marianna, the cave provided shelter and a hiding place for many of the city's women, children and elderly. The Union troops arrived on the west side of Marianna so quickly that many of the town's people did not have time to evacuate. As the men and boys gathered on Courthouse Square to organize for the fight, noncombatants headed for the Courthouse Cave.

View of a connecting passage in Courthouse Cave
The presence of the cave was never discovered by the Union soldiers and many Marianna residents remained safely hidden there with their valuables while the battle took place overhead. They emerged the next day after the Federal troops withdrew only to find that their homes had been ransacked and vandalized. This story is not a legend, but was told by many of those who survived the Battle of Marianna until the day they died.

Another story that may or may not be legend holds that members of the Republican Party hid arms, ammunition and assassins in the cave during the Reconstruction era violence that swept through Jackson County in 1865-1876. Documentation proving the origin of this legend has yet to be found, but its proximity to the scenes of some of the most severe Carpetbagger-led violence adds credibility to the tale.

During the Prohibition era (1920-1933), the cave was used as a place to store secret stocks of bootleg liquor. While claims that a "speakeasy" or illegal bar operated in it do not appear to be true, folklore of private parties and midnight card games might well have a bit of fact behind it.

The cave today is well-preserved and its stories make it one of the 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

#88 The Willis House (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Willis House in Greenwood, Florida
The 9-bedroom Willis House in Greenwood is #88 on my list of "100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida."

Please click here to see the full list as it is unveiled.

Surrounded by beautiful live oaks, this much beloved home faces Fort Road in Greenwood. While many mistake it for an antebellum home, the house was completed by Dr. and Mrs. R.A. Willis in 1917 and will be 100 years old in three years.

Mrs. R.A. "Ma Lizzy Willis and her home
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
One of the largest homes built in Jackson County during the early 20th century, the Willis House has nine bedrooms. Each has its own lavatory and fireplace. Tradition holds that Mrs. Willis insisted that the house be so large because she wanted her children and grandchildren to always live under her roof.

The house was surrounded by numerous other structures, including a smokehouse, chicken coop, barns, servants' quarters and more. One unique feature was its ice house, where blocks of ice were stored. Although Dr. John Gorrie had invented artificial refrigeration more than 70 years before the Willis House was built, it took time for it to become commonplace in Florida. The earliest "refrigerators" were iceboxes in which perishables were preserved using cool air from actual blocks of ice. The ice house provided a cool place where the blocks could be stored to provide a steady source of ice for the house's icebox.

The Willis House in Greenwood
A prominent physician, businessman and politician, Dr. Willis was serving in the state senate when the house was completed. The following year, like other doctors in the area, he did his best to save patients during the terrible Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918. The outbreak claimed more than 400,000 lives in the United States and millions worldwide. It is said that the house often doubled as a hospital for seriously ill patients.

In 1923, while serving as health inspector for Florida's prisons, he spoke up about the treatment of sick and injured inmates:

Dr. R.A. Willis of Greenwood, Fla., who is elected by the board of commissioners of state institutions to visit convict camps and inspect them as to sanitary arrangement and the physical condition of the men has told me repeatedly that he had visited camps and ordered men to be sent here [i.e. Raiford] for hospital treatment and on his next visit, about thirty days later, would find these same men still at the road camp. - J.S. Blitch, Superintendent of State Prison Farm at Raiford, May 3, 1923.

The willingness of men like Dr. Willis to speak up gradually led to improvement in conditions for those held in state institutions across Florida.

The Willis House today is framed by majestic oaks and giant azaleas. As of this writing, it is for sale.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

#89 The Marianna UFO of 1955 (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Graham Air Base operations building and control tower
Now the Marianna Municpal Airport
The UFO that streaked over the county in 1955 is #89 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida!  Please click here to see other items on the list as they are released.

UFO (unidentified flying object) stories are now part of American culture, albeit a hotly debated part. In 1955, however, they were breaking news and the military often kept them top secret. Such was the case with an incident that year in the skies over Jackson County that ranks as one of the nation's first government-verified UFO sightings.

Today's Marianna Municipal Airport was the home of Graham Air Base in 1955. Opened in 1953, Graham Air Base was a U.S. Air Force Contract Primary Flying Training Base where many of America's top Cold War and Vietnam era pilots were trained. Home to the 3300th Pilot Training Group, it provided pilot training on AT-6, PA-18, T-28 and T-34 propeller aircraft until 1957 when T-37 jet trainers were added to compliment.

Operations building and control tower in 1955
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
On December 6, 1955, a civilian radar operator was working his normal shift at Graham Air Base when he detected something unusual on his scope. An unidentified object suddenly streaked into radar range, entering Jackson County from the south at a high rate of speed.

As the operator watched by radar, the UFO flew over Jackson County at a speed faster than any known U.S. Air Force plane. It first appeared to be following the Apalachicola River but angled to the northwest as it passed over Jackson County, a route that carried it close to both Marianna and the air base.

USAF Record Card of Marianna UFO
When first observed, the object was flying at an altitude of about 15,000 feet, but as it streaked north over Alabama it climbed to an altitude of 30,000 feet.  It was lost from radar as it passed over Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.

Alarmed by the approach of the object, the Flight Service Center commander at Maxwell notified the Air Defense Command at Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the Air Force Chief of Staff in Washington, DC:

...One unidentified flying object sighted over Marianna FLA at 0100E Aircraft radar. Object at 15000 feet over Marianna FLA. Object proceeded to Montgomery ALA climbing to 30,000 FT elapsed time of object from Marianna FLA to Montgomery ALA five minutes. Object presently over Maxwell AFB. - Project Blue Book Record, U.S. Air Force, December 6, 1955.

Graham Air Base Historical Marker
Whatever it was, the UFO traveled the distance from Marianna to Montgomery (around 140 miles) in just five minutes. That equals around 28 miles per minute or 1,680 miles per hour.

Kept top secret at the time, the sighting was investigated by the U.S. Air Force as part of its "Project Blue Book." Between 1952 and 1970, Air Force investigators examined 12,618 alleged UFO incidents. Of that number, only 701 remain listed as "unidentified." The 1955 Marianna incident is one of those 701 cases.

Graham Air Base from the air in the 1950s.
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
According to the Project Blue Book record card for the incident, investigators were unable classify the UFO sighting due to "insufficient data for evaluation."

At least one person reported seeing an object in the sky over northern Jackson County at about the time of the incident. The eyewitness later recalled that he was on a trip from Alabama to Florida with his parents along US 231 when they suddenly saw an unidentified object fly over the highway near the Florida-Alabama line. He described it as a saucer shaped object with red lights around its bottom. It made no sound. Whether it was the UFO picked up by radar operators is not known.

To this day, the Marianna UFO of 1955 has never been explained. It is #89 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

#90 Shangri-La Spring (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Shangri-La Spring
On the north shore of Merritt's Mill Pond just downstream from Blue Springs is one of the most beautiful places in all of Florida. Shangri-La Spring is #90 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida. Please click here to see other listings as they appear online.

Currently accessible only by boat, Shangri-La Spring flows from a vent or crack in the limestone about 800 feet down the mill pond from Blue Springs. The maximum depth is 10.5 feet and the water flows up from the ground at a year-round temperature of 68.97 degrees.

The spring is much smaller than its upstream neighbor (Jackson Blue Springs is the only First Magnitude Spring in the Chipola River basin), but it makes up for its size with spectacular natural beauty.

A scout enjoys the view of Shangri-La during a guided tour.
A 20-foot bluff rises above the Mill Pond at Shangri-La, once used by Graham Air Base as a picnic area and recreational complex, and the huge boulders and natural plants that surround the spring are stunning. The water is crystal clear.

Shangri-La is embedded in the history of Jackson County. The first Spanish explorers to enter the area passed by in 1674 while following the real Old Spanish Trail. Often confused with U.S. 90 or the current county road of that name, the original Old Spanish Trail angled northwest from present-day Sneads to Blue Springs via what is now Providence Church and Reddoch Roads.

Shangri-La in Jackson County, Florida
Fray Rodrigo de la Barreda, a Catholic priest who accompanied that expedition, later described the area around Blue Springs and Shangri-La in glowing terms:

...[A]round it are numerous huge rocks and habitable caves frequented by the Indians on their hunting trips for bear, deer and buffalo, of which there is an abundance. The soil for three or four leagues round is rich and suitable for all kinds of cultivation. There are very excellent wild grapes on the many vines, and many luscious chestnuts. Here we spent the night, thanking God for such a pleasant and delightful spot uninhabited save for the wild animals who enjoy it. - Fray Rodrigo de la Barreda, 1693.

Spectacular view of Shangri-La and Merritt's Mill Pond
The Old Spanish Trail led west to the Natural Bridge of the Chipola River at today's Florida Caverns State Park after passing Shangri-La.

Soldiers under Major General Andrew Jackson explored the caves and rocks around Shangri-La when the U.S. Army camped at Blue Springs on the night of March 10, 1818. The First Seminole War was then underway and Jackson had invaded Spanish Florida on the orders of President James Monroe. He was on his way to attack Pensacola.

Crystal clear water of Shangri-La Spring
Less than one year after Jackson and his men passed through, the first American settler laid claim to the rich lands surrounding Blue Springs and Shangri-La. The adventurous frontiersman William Pyles settled on the site of what is now Blue Springs Recreational Area, which encompasses both Blue Springs and Shangri-La. Florida was still part of Spain when he arrived, but he spent at least one year there clearing fields, building a cabin and raising a crop.

Pyles' claim soon passed to Major William Robinson, who built a comfortable home on the hill overlooking Blue Springs. Robinson's plantation covered 3,100 acres encompassing both Blue and Shangri-La Springs. Some idea of the appearance of the area at the time was left by Rt. Rev. Michael Portier, the Catholic Bishop of Florida, who visited the major at his home in 1827:

" high as the trees themselves"
...Rocks were to be met as high as the trees themselves, and bordered around with wild flowers, while sweet-scented shrubbery decked the sides and summits of these pygmy mountains. Natural wells, underground caves, oak trees blasted by lightning or cast by the tempest across our narrow pathway like an artificial bridge - everything was present to enhance the spectacle. - Rt. Rev. Michael Portier, 1827.

Robinson lived at Blue Springs (then called Robinson's Big Spring) and Shangri-La until his death. His lands eventually passed to his relative, Governor John Milton.

View down into the cave at Shangri-La Spring
Arriving in Jackson County during the late 1840s, Milton folded Major Robinson's former lands - including Shangri-La - into his Sylvania Plantation. Accounts from the time note that Milton often enjoyed fishing and walking along the banks of the springs and stream to escape the pressures of Tallahassee during his tenure as Florida's Confederate governor.

Confederate soldiers also enjoyed the crystal clear water and scenery while stationed at Camp Governor Milton, which incorporated Major Robinson's old home at Blue Springs. Some of these men carved their names into the rocks of Shangri-La Bluff and they rode past the spring on their way to the Battle of Marianna in 1864.

Shangri-La Spring today is owned by the state and protected by Jackson County Parks & Recycling. Future work will open the grounds to the public, but for now the scenic spot can be accessed by boat via the mill pond or by canoe or kayak when Blue Springs is open to the public during the summer season.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

#91 Governor John Milton (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Gov. John Milton
(D) Florida
Governor John Milton is #91 on my list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida. Please click here to see the full list as it is posted.

Born in Louisville, Georgia, on April 20, 1807, Governor Milton was a descendant and namesake of the famed English poet John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost. The governor's grandfather was a soldier of the American Revolution and his father, General Homer V. Milton, served with distinction during the War of 1812 and Creek War of 1813-1814.

As a boy, the "Governor" - as he is generally known around Jackson County - studied at an academy in his hometown of Louisville and excelled in subjects that included Greek, Latin, English and mathematics. He was undoubtedly a bright and talented individual who was admitted to the bar in Georgia before he was 20 years old.

Leaving his hometown, Milton went on to practice law in Columbus, Georgia, where he was also elected to the rank of colonel in the Georgia militia (forerunner of today's Georgia National Guard). He ran for U.S. Congress in 1832 as a supporter of John C. Calhoun's theory of nullification.

Columbus, Georgia
The Nullifcation theory held that a state, by virtue of its sovereign status, could overrule or nullify actions of the Federal government that were not beneficial to the state. Milton lost that race, but remained an adamant supporter of states' rights and opponent of the growing power of the Federal government.

On August 11, 1834, Milton was arrested and charged with murder after he shot a man with whom he had been engaged in a personal and political dispute:

This day has terminated the controversy between Col. John Milton and Maj. J.T. Camp, by the death of the later. Col. Milton understanding that his life had been threatened by Maj. Camp, procured a double barreled Gun, and walked over to Nicholas Howards Store, and discharged the contents of one of his barrels into his back, and while falling discharged the other into his left breast. -

New Orleans, Milton's one-time home.
Photo courtesy of Brian Mabelitini
Milton turned himself in to local authorities, but was acquitted in a trial that began less than two weeks later. The jury determined that he had acted in self defense as Camp had threatened to kill him.

By 1835, Milton had relocated to Mobile, Alabama, where he continued his practice of law. He raised a company of cavalry during the Creek War of 1836 and took part in the movements that sent many of the Creek Indians west on the Trail of Tears.

Following the death of his first wife, Susan Amanda Milton, the future governor remarried Caroline Howze with whom he eventually had ten additional children. He and Susan had parented five children, but only one - William Henry Milton - survived the diseases of that day to become an adult.

Seeking more fertile ground for his law practice, the future governor moved to New Orleans and lived in Louisiana until 1845. It is believed that he was the same John Milton who was listed as having been badly injured during a steamboat explosion that took place on the Mississippi River at New Orleans on July 1, 1845. Among the "gentleman" passengers on the boat was a "John Milton" who was reported to have been badly scalded by steam.

Sylvania Plantation Marker at Blue Springs
Not long after this accident, Milton began his move from Louisiana to Jackson County. Through family connections he acquired the plantation of the late William Robinson at Blue Springs, which he expanded tremendously during the late 1840s and 1850s. Eventually his "Sylvania" plantation grew to include more than 6,000 acres of prime Jackson County land.

Always active in military and political affairs, John Milton was elected Major General of the 1st Division of the Florida Militia in 1849 and to a seat in the Florida Legislature one year later. Even though Jackson County was then a "Gibraltar" of the now-defunct Whig Party, Milton was a dedicated Democrat. His popularity is evidenced by the fact that he was elected to the legislature from a county controlled by party other than his own.

Old State Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida
In 1860, Milton was elected Governor of Florida by a commanding margin in the same November election that saw Abraham Lincoln elected President of the United States. In Florida, Milton received 6,994 votes in that election, compared to 5,248 for his opponent. Abraham Lincoln did not receive a single vote in Florida.

Although in those days the Governor-elect did not take office for nearly one year after being elected, Governor Madison S.Perry worked closely with his successor. It was Governor-elect Milton who announced Florida's secession from the portico of the Old Capitol on January 10, 1861.

Old Capitol as it appeared when Milton was Governor
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
Governor Milton assumed his office in October 1861. By that time Florida was part of the Confederate States of America. The governor would lead his state through nearly four years of war against the United States, even though he had been elected to his post while Florida was still part of the U.S.

His tenure as governor was remarkable as he was tasked with protecting the citizens of a state all but abandoned by the Confederate military. On their own and with little help from the Confederate capital in Richmond, Governor Milton and the Florida Legislature raised and equipped troops both for the Confederate armies and the defense of Florida.

Old Capitol Building in Tallahassee
The governor also stood up for the poor people of his state in the face of acts that reflected the growing desperation of the Confederate government. When Confederate commissary officers began seizing the last cows from the widows and children of Southern soldiers, Milton pleaded their case to Richmond. When the wives and children of a group of Unionists from Taylor County were seized by the Confederate army and placed in a concentration camp near Tallahassee, Milton secured their freedom and had them passed through the lines to their husbands and fathers.

Battle of Marianna Monument
Milton played a critical role in maintaining Florida's transportation systems during the war and in providing for the families of soldiers. His efforts helped secure the Confederate victory at Olustee on February 20, 1864, and when Marianna was attacked on September 27 of that year, he rushed forward to Chattahoochee determined to oppose the Federal advance in person if the enemy continued to advance.

On March 6, 1865, Confederate troops that included the Governor's sons - Major William H. Milton of the 5th Florida Cavalry and Cadet John Milton of the West Florida Seminary (today's Florida State University) - defeated a Union attempt to take Tallahassee and nearby Thomasville, Georgia. Dr. Charles Hentz, a Confederate surgeon who knew the governor well, remembered that things did not seem right with him in the wake of the dramatic victory:

Gov. Milton's grave at St. Luke's Episcopal Church
Governor Milton made an address to the soldiers in the Capitol. I had observed him when we were going down, walking up & down the Depot platform with an air of the most profound abstraction and dejection. I think he must have been suffering from some disease of the brain.

Less than one month later, Governor John Milton was dead. His life came to an end from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Sylvania plantation on April 1, 1865. While many of blamed Milton's death on suicide, recent research has produced a copy of a special Extra issue of the West Florida News from the week of his death that indicates the fatal gunshot wound was fired by accident. Milton was preparing for a bird-hunting expedition with his son when his shotgun accidentally discharged.

The Governor is buried at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Marianna, alongside his father and many other members of his family. The Milton family remains heavily involved in business, legal and community improvement efforts in Jackson County to this day.

To learn more about Governor Milton's life and administration, please consider my book: The History of Jackson County, Florida: The War Between the States. It is also available at a discounted price for Kindle readers.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

#92 The Two Egg Stump Jumper (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Giant footprint (just left of my shoe)
The Two Egg Stump Jumper, a mysterious cryptid that roams the woods and swamps between Two Egg and Lake Seminole is #92 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida!

Usually seen at night as it runs across dirt road through the headlights of oncoming cars, the Two Egg Stump Jumper is said to be an upright creature that is covered with a long growth of white or gray hair. Not as big as a traditional Bigfoot or Sasquatch, it favors the swamps and bayous around the Parramore area of the county.

Giant footprint (my shoe used to show scale)
In fact, the Stump Jumper has made a new appearance!

A check of an area near Circle Hill Baptist Church where sightings often take place turned up an array of fresh tracks, broken tree trunks and other signs that a large creature had been active in the area. A trail of fresh tracks was found passing through a boggy slough, while others were found in a recently cleared area nearby.

So far as is known, no one has ever photographed the Two Egg Stump Jumper. Sightings usually take place so fast and the eyewitnesses are so stunned that they do not have time to react and reach for a camera or camera phone.

Here are a couple more photos from its latest appearance. Read about other sightings at

Broken tree trunk in area where tracks were found
Trail of giant tracks through swampy area.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

#93 Irwin's Mill Creek (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Irwin's Mill Creek in Jackson County, Florida
Irwin's Mill Creek, a beautiful clear-water stream, is #93 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.  Please click here to see previous installments on the list.

Once called the Ekanachattehatchee or "Red Ground Creek," Irwin's Mill Creek is fed by small springs just north of the Alabama state line. It flows to the southeast through Alabama's Chattahoochee State Park and across the line into the northeast corner of Jackson County. It flows into the Chattahoochee River just north of the State Highway 2 bridge into Georgia. The nearest landing is at Neal's Landing Park.

Irwin's Mill Creek
The creek is an ecological treasure. Very few spring-fed streams flow into the Chattahoochee River and Lake Seminole, but Irwin's Mill Creek looks more like one of the beautiful spring runs that feed the Chipola River than it does one of the sloughs and backwaters of Lake Seminole. It winds through a stunning floodplain swamp and at most times of the year is so clear that the bottom is clearly visible.

Historically, it flows through one of the most significant spots in Jackson County. The famed Money Pond, which supposedly holds the treasure of the pirate and adventurer William Augustus Bowles ("Billy Bowlegs"), is near and the creek forms the northern limits of the 18th century Creek Indian town of Ekanachatte ("Red Ground"). Please click here for more on the Money Pond.

Irwin's Mill Creek
Even before the late 1700s and the time of Bowles and Ekanachatte, the creek was a major landmark.The Spanish first pushed west from Mission San Luis (present-day Tallahassee) during the 1600 to bring the Christian faith to the Chacato (or Chatot) Indians. This tribe lived between the Chipola River and Holmes Creek in western Jackson County, northeastern Washington County and southwestern Houston County, Alabama. They were closely allied with a neighboring tribe that the Spanish called the Chisca but which many researchers believe were the ancestors of the modern Yuchi.

Irwin's Mill Creek
The Yuchi today are considered by the U.S. Government to be part of the Creek or Muscogee Nation, but historically they were an independent people. They have their own language, customs, ceremonial practices and traditions. They helped incite the Chacato people to rebel against and drive out the Franciscan missionaries, an act that brought the wrath of the Spanish military down on both groups.

When the Spanish first arrived, it appears that the Chisca or Yuchi lived in a village along the banks of Irwin's Mill Creek. The fled west into Walton and Okaloosa Counties after the Chacato rebellion, but for nearly one century afterward the site of their village on Irwin's Mill Creek was known as the Chiscatalofa Old Fields. The word "Chiscatalofa" literally means Chisca Town.  A village by that name remained associated with the Lower Creeks until their removal on the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, but the original Chiscatalofa was in the northeast corner of Jackson County.

Irwin's Mill Creek
When the Red Ground Creeks arrived to establish Ekanachatte in the 1760s, they settled on the Chiscatalofa Old Fields since they were easier to clear for farming than the surrounding old grown forests.

After Ekanachatte was destroyed in 1818 and while Florida was still a Spanish colony, American settlers began to drift into the vicinity and settle on the abandoned fields of the village. Among those who established farms along what they called the "Conchatty Hatchy" were Joseph Brown, William Brown, Joseph Brooks, William Chamblis, James Irwin, Adam Kimbrough, William McDonald, William H. Pyke, George Sharp and Allis Wood.

James Irwin, one of these settlers who arrived in 1819-1820, built a dam and watermill on the creek where it crosses from Alabama into Florida. The dam and ruins of the mill still survive and represent the oldest American structural remains in Jackson County.

From that time until today, the stream has been known as Irwin's Mill Creek and it is one of the 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.

Monday, March 10, 2014

#94 The Wild Man of Ocheesee Pond (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Who or what was the Wild Man?
The mysterious Ocheesee Pond Wild Man is #94 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida. Click here to see previous items on the list.

If you aren't familiar with the story, the "Wild Man" was a mysterious creature captured at Ocheesee Pond south of Sneads and Grand Ridge in 1884. Some believe the incident may be one of the best documented cases ever of the capture of a Bigfoot or Sasquatch (often called the Skunk Ape in Florida).

The story of a strange hair-covered creature being captured in the swamps of Ocheesee Pond has long been part of the folklore of southeastern Jackson County, but while researching a different topic a few years ago I was surprised to find that the incident was documented at the time it took place.

Ocheesee Pond in Jackson County, Florida
The Wild Man had been causing trouble around Ocheesee Pond by making off with chickens, garden vegetables and other items from the farms that lined the borders of the vast swamp. Reconstruction had ended only eight years before and times were still hard for families in the area, so the men gathered together and decided to go after the creature. They cornered and captured him in the swamp.

Stories of the Wild Man's capture appeared in newspapers including The New York Times:
Steamboat Amos Hays at Chattahoochee in 1884.

News brought by the steamer Amos Hays from Lower River is to the effect that the wild man captured in Ocheecee Swamp, near Chattahoochee, and carried to Tallahassee, did not belong to a Florida asylum, and that all inquiry proved unavailing to identify him. He had been swimming in Ocheecee Lake, from island to island, and when taken was entirely destitute of clothing, emaciated, and covered with a phenomenal growth of hair. - The New York Times, August 1884.

The Amos Hays was a paddlewheel steamboat that carried passengers and commerce up and down the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers. It was at the Chattahoochee wharf when the Wild Man was brought up by the men who had captured him.

Administration Building at Florida State Hospital
Today's Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee was then the State Asylum and it was thought by his captors that the raving creature was an escaped patient. He was not. In fact, he had not escaped from any mental institution in the country!

All that could ever be determined about him was that he was covered with hair, could not speak in any known language and had survived by "living on berries, &c."

The Wild Man was taken to Tallahassee where efforts to identify him continued through telegrams sent to state capitals throughout the nation. No information on his background could be found.  Baffled, state officials sent him back to the State Asylum in Chattahoochee.

Swamps of Ocheesee Pond
There, for now at least, he disappears from the record. The big question remains as to whether he was a man or something else. Perhaps somewhere deep in the records of the Florida State Hospital will be found the answer to that mystery. Was he just an unfortunate man suffering from a severe mental illness who had lived so long in the woods in a state of nakedness that he grew his "phenomenal growth of hair"? Was he an escaped ape, something that most of the people in Florida would have never seen at that time? Or was he a Bigfoot?

And then of course, there is the question of what finally happened to him?  If he was a man, did he recover enough to eventually go to his home? Or does the Wild Man rest in a grave in one of the State Hospital cemeteries in Chattahoochee? And if so, does that grave contain evidence that would answer the mystery of Bigfoot once and for all?

It is a true mystery and a fascinating part of Jackson County history and folklore.  To read more about the Ocheesee Pond Wild Man, please visit

Saturday, March 8, 2014

#95 Lost Treasure of the Money Pond (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

The Money Pond in Jackson County, Florida
The lost treasure of the Money Pond is #95 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida. Click here to see previous items on the list.

In the northeast corner of Jackson County, legend holds that a pirate treasure waits to be found deep beneath the mud and muck of a swampy body of water. Locals call the place the "Money Pond" and many believe there is enough gold and silver at its bottom to make the person who finds it an instant millionaire.

Spanish treasure on display
Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee
That is likely even more true today thanks to the astronomical price of gold, which at the close of the markets today was selling for $1,339.50 per ounce.  Silver closed at $20.89 per once. Legend holds that the pond contains 7 horse loads of gold and silver, each said to weigh over 100 pounds.

If true, that means there is somewhere around 11,200 ounces of gold and silver at the bottom of the Money Pond. If half of it is in gold, then the value for the weight of the metal alone would be nearly $8 million!

More Spanish Treasure at the Museum of Florida History
And that's just the beginning of the story. The actual value of the treasure could be much, much higher because each of the coins would be worth far more to collectors than the value of its weight alone. A much smaller hoard of three cans containing gold coins from the 19th century was recently found in California and is already thought to be worth more than $10 million.

So is the story true?  Is an unbelievable treasure waiting to be found at the bottom of a swampy Florida pond?

The answer to those questions may be... yes.

William Augustus Bowles
Self Portrait of the Pirate "Billy Bowlegs"
The story has its roots in the real life of the famed pirate and adventurer, William Augustus Bowles. He is celebrated in Fort Walton Beach today as the Pirate Billy Bowlegs, which often causes him to be confused with the later Seminole Indian chiefs of the same name.

Born in Maryland in around 1763, Bowles joined the British military service in 1776 when he was thirteen years old. That was the year, of course, that the United States declared its independence from Great Britain. Bowles was from a family of Tories, however, and his loyalty was to King George III.

According to an early History of the Bowles Family, he fought at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, before traveling with his regiment from New York to Jamaica and from there to Pensacola. Spain had lost Florida to Great Britain at the end of the French & Indian War and it is a little known fact that East and West Florida remained loyal British colonies during the American Revolution.

According to family historian Thomas M. Farquhar, Bowles was driven from the British service following a dispute with one of his commanding officers. The exact details remain murky and there are several different versions of what happened.

Lower Creek village in Jackson County, Florida
Only 15 years old at the time, he decided to walk home to Maryland and set off on his own through the vast wilderness of the Florida Panhandle. He quickly became completely lost, but was discovered by a party of Lower Creek Indians from the Perryman towns. These villages, located in today's Jackson County, Florida and neighboring Seminole County, Georgia, were headed by Thomas and William Perryman. The son and grandson of English trader Theophilus Perryman and his Creek wife, the two Perryman chiefs were wealthy mestizos (a term meaning they were of mixed Creek and European ancestry).

Since the Creeks were on good terms with the English, the warriors carried Bowles to their towns and he quickly ingratiated himself with the Perryman family. He later married Thomas Perryman's oldest daughter and led the Perryman warriors during the Battle of Pensacola in 1780.

Flag flown by William Augustus Bowles
In 1791, at the age of 22, he traveled to London where he negotiated docking rights at British ports in the West Indies for ships flying the flag of what he called the "Creek and Cherokee Nation." These rights in hand, he traveled to New Providence in the Bahamas where he purchased a small sloop and began trading voyages back and forth to the Lower Creek towns on the Chattahoochee River.

On a more ominous note, however, he armed his vessel with cannon and soon entered the life of a pirate, capturing merchant ships on the Gulf of Mexico. He was very good at being a pirate and his one ship soon turned into a flotilla of pirate vessels.

To give these ships at least a semblance of legitimacy, he declared the independence of what he called the "State of Muskogee" and declared war on Spain. Florida had returned to Spanish control at the end of the American Revolution, but the British trading firm of Panton, Leslie and Company had remained behind. Turning his flotilla of pirate ships into the "Muskogee Navy," Bowles became a major thorn in their side.

He and his pirate crews, which included white, black and Creek Indian men, raided merchant vessels traveling in the Gulf. On one occasion they defeated Spanish coast guard vessels in a fierce battle on Apalachicola Bay. Among the vessels of his fleet were the warships Mackisuky and Tostonoke.

Ekanachatte in 1778
From the Purcell-Stuart Map
In one of his letters, Bowles mentioned plans to bring a ship loaded with cargo up the Apalachicola River to either the trading post of James Burges (Burgess) at what is now Bainbridge, Georgia, or a place he called "The Bully's" on the Chattahoochee River.

The Bully, so named for his prowess as a trader, was the chief of the Lower Creek town of Ekanachatte ("Red Ground") which lay on the west bank of the river at what is now Neal's Landing Park in Jackson County. He was a supporter and business associate of Bowles and was fabulously wealthy for his time.

Bowles became such a threat to Spanish and merchant shipping that a reward of $6,000 (in 1790s currency) and 1,500 kegs of rum were offered for his capture. He eventually was captured and died while on a hunger strike at the fort of El Morro in Cuba.

Chattahoochee River at Neal's Landing (Ekanachatte)
According to legend, however, his treasure remained behind at Ekanachatte (Neal's Landing). It stayed safe there until 1818 when, during the First Seminole War, the Creek troops of Brigadier General William McIntosh drove south into Florida as part of Andrew Jackson's invasion. Fearful that the treasure would be captured, the chief and warriors of the town sank it into the Money Pond.

McIntosh defeated the Ekanachatte warriors at the Battle of the Upper Chipola near Bellamy Bridge in March 1818 and the treasure was forever lost. See Battle of the Upper Chipola.

The Money Pond
The story, however, does not end there. During the early 1900s, two major expeditions were launched by treasure hunters to find the lost gold and silver of William Augustus Bowles. The largest of these arrived in northeastern Jackson County in 1927, dug a ditch and drained the Money Pond.  Once the mud had dried somewhat, they started digging... and found Spanish silver coins in the muck at the bottom of the pond!

Before they could recover the main treasure, however, it began to rain. 1927 is remembered today as the year of the Great Flood. From Louisiana east and the Ohio River south, flood waters rose to unheard of levels. In Jackson County, the Chattahoochee surged from its banks and flowed as far inland as Malone. The treasure dig came to an end as raging flood waters flowed through the swamps and forced the men to flee for their lives.  They never came back.

The treasure, it is said, is still there today.

To read more of the story of William Augustus Bowles and the Money Pond, please consider my book, The History of Jackson County, Florida: The Early Years.  It is available at Chipola River Book & Tea in downtown Marianna or online from by clicking here: (Kindle)The History Of Jackson County, Florida: The Early Years.

The Kindle version is available for instant download by clicking here: The History of Jackson County, Florida: The Early Years.

Ekanachatte, near the legendary Money Pond, is one of the stops on the new Jackson County Spanish Heritage Trail. The 150 mile driving tour passes 11 key Spanish colonial sites in Jackson County. The new guide booklet is available at the historic Russ House and Visitor Center in Marianna. Learn more online at