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 colonial status and begin manufacturing rather than solely exporting raw materials. An editorialist for the Pensacola Gazette recognized the importance of the cotton mill campaign when he stated, “the time is fast coming when the slumbering south will be awakened to the unwelcome truth, that she must manufacture her own clothes and raise her own provisions, or her people must become the bond slaves of the north and west.”
In September of 1845, a two-story brick textile mill was constructed within the footprint of the former planning mill, with newly purchased textile machinery soon en route from the Northeast. One of the gentlemen involved in the manufacturing company, likely George Willis, traveled to Virginia and purchased 40 enslaved women to work as laborers in the textile mill. Although textile manufacturing was not uncommon in the South, the use of enslaved labor was not universally accepted by all southern industrialists and became a source of great controversy in the years leading to the Civil War. Many people feared that use of enslaved labor in a skilled setting would undermine the institution of slavery. For example, the editor of the Southern Journal of Tallahassee stated that in regard to slave employment, “Success would invalidate the belief that the Negro was incapable of such advanced training.”
The textile mill successfully operated though the Arcadia Manufacturing Company faced a number of difficulties including an annual deficit, minimal returns and the death of Forsyth in 1855. Soon thereafter, a fire destroyed the textile mill. The Arcadia tract was put up for public sale in March of 1856; however, the sale attracted no buyers and the land eventually passed to the Simpson family. Though Arcadia was no longer operating, it was still the scene of several small skirmishes and troop movements during the Civil War. Confederate soldiers used the Simpson house as an outpost in 1863, eventually leading to a planned Union attack that resulted in four prisoners and one casualty.
During the 1960s-1980s, a portion of the original Rua land grant was saved from residential development by a grassroots, historic preservation effort. Extensive archaeological and historical research has been conducted over the years and ongoing research focuses primarily on the multiethnic community associated with Arcadia. Much of what we know about the enslaved population comes from U.S. Census records, historical documents and archaeological investigations focused on community organization and what daily life was like for the enslaved.
Today, you can visit Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site as well as the Arcadia Homestead site, donated by Simpson descendants in more recent years. The mill site includes a visitor’s center and museum, an elevated ADA-accessible boardwalk, nature trails, Discovery Pavilion and picnic area and the homestead site has an interactive, historic house museum and outdoor interpretation of the antebellum community that once lived at Arcadia. The visitor’s center and museum and Arcadia Homestead site are ticketed venues that are open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Site grounds at the mill, including the boardwalk and nature trails, are open every day of the week from sunup to sundown, free of charge. The future preservation of this significant site rests largely on public support. Visit historicpensacola.org/arcadia to learn more.
Adrianne Walker is the site manager at Arcadia Mill and a staff archaeologist and interim archivist with the UWF Historic Trust. Brian Rucker is a professor of history at Pensacola State College.
Catch up on the rest of the series
How you can get involved
What: A web-based interactive mosaic of faces from our modern community honoring the 1821 community.
Why: To celebrate our rich and diverse heritage through a reflection of our modern community.
Who: Area residents, all ages, ethnicities and genders.
How: Fill out the form at 1821sampler.com. and upload your photo to represent a member of the 1821 Pensacola community (use an uncluttered background, clearly showing face and shoulders, no hats please, and names optional.
So far, researchers with the West Florida Genealogical Society have identified more than 2,000 individuals who were here when Florida passed from Spain to the United States. These were more than just names; every person had a rich life and history. By honoring a member of the 1821 community, you are participating in this celebration of our rich and diverse Florida heritage.