Off the Beaten Path from Seaside: Freeport, Fla.
By Gary McKechnie
The town of Freeport is small – only about 10 square miles, and with a population of roughly 2,000. But with the protected forests of Eglin Air Force Base to the north and west and the broad waters of Choctawhatchee Bay to the south and east, it’s definitely in the right place. Even better, with natural attractions in and around the town, it’s most certainly the right time for a visit. Here are a few sights worth seeing.
1. That’s Life
The seemingly simple woods and waters around Freeport are actually quite complex – and threatened. With that that in mind, philanthropist M.C. Davis constructed the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center on his 54,000-acre conservation land, Nokuse Plantation. The center is named after Dr. Edward O. Wilson, whose passion for global conservation influenced Davis, who amassed the largest block of privately owned conservation land in the Southeast. During summer months, the public is invited to the facility where they’ll see bobcats, bald eagles, snakes, turtles, ducks, and birds of prey. But during the school year an average of 100 students a day will attend free, multi-day programs comprised of more than twenty environmental science lessons. The result? Kids learn long-lasting lessons on the importance of biodiversity, sustainability, conservation, preservation, and the restoration of ecosystems. (NOTE: “Biophilia” literally means "the love of all living things".)
2. Coast on Over
Less than 10 miles south of Freeport is Grayton Beach State Park, a place where little has occurred to change what nature created. As a result, this remains one of the most idyllic settings in Florida. In addition to several miles of beaches that have never seen a billboard, tiki bar, or t-shirt shop there are nearly 2,000 acres of largely untouched Florida woodlands. This is a world of sand dunes and sea oats, scrub oak and piney woods, marshes and a dune lake large enough for kayaking, fishing, and sailing. One of the most perfect state parks in Florida.
3. Flower Power
Cross the bridge over Choctawhatchee Bay and just a short drive from Freeport is 161-acre Eden Gardens State Park. With the word “garden” in its name, you can rest assured that flowers of every form and fragrance are on display. There are camellias and azaleas and roses in a rainbow of colors, with a butterfly garden, hidden garden, and lily-filled koi pond enhancing the park’s beauty. Poised on the edge of Tucker Bayou, the park also offers a launch area for canoes and kayaks. The focal point of the park is Wesley Mansion, an antebellum image of the Old South with grand columns and old-fashioned wraparound porch. On a guided tour of the home, note the Louis XVI furniture. It’s the second-largest collection in America.
4. Animal Magnetism
One of the most altruistic works of all is an animal refuge. Caring for something that can only repay your kindness with kindness is something not everyone can do. But staff members do this every day at the Alaqua Animal Refuge. Animals that have been abandoned, abused, or neglected come here for a second chance – and a permanent home. On this 10-acre farm are approximately 350 animals – cats, dogs, pigs, horses, emus, cows, donkeys, goats, sheep, rabbits – that hope to share the same good fortune as the 16,000 animals already adopted into good homes. Alaqua is not a petting zoo, but it’s a wonderful place to find people doing good deeds – and the perfect place to find your next pet.
5. History Happens
Despite the town’s modest growth, Freeport has been around since the 1830s. Founded as Genoa, townspeople changed the name to Four Mile Landing, which stuck for a while until travelers realized there was no charge to dock at the confluence of Four Mile and LaFayette creeks. So Freeport it was. With a history that spans nearly 200 years, this story and more are contained within Freeport’s Heritage Center where displays, memorabilia, and archival images tell of lumber mills, the development of Eglin Air Force Base, and the fishing boats, cargo vessels, and steamboats that worked these waters. For a small town, there’s some big history behind it.
For more information, visit freeportflorida.gov.
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