By Amy Minchin
Experience life as early settlers of the Florida Panhandle did at Panhandle Pioneer Settlement in Blountstown.
At Panhandle Pioneer Settlement, a living history museum in Blountstown, founder Willard Smith stands inside a small building that houses an old Florida store and post office. It is a hot Saturday afternoon in June and, as he is most days, Smith is there greeting visitors with a friendly, “Y’all come in.”
Known as Clarksville General Store, this building serves as the five-acre Settlement’s hub, a welcome center and gift shop where tours begin and many end with an ice cold Coca-Cola. It is one of 18 buildings – most dating from the early 1800s to the 1940s – in this simulated agricultural community that offers a peek into Northwest Florida’s past.
On this day, two friends step inside the store and ask for a tour. Another couple walks in and Smith asks, “How are you folks today?” They are hunting a geocache at the Settlement, they say, and have stopped to pick up a map.
Blountstown is a one-hour drive from Panama City, Port St. Joe and Tallahassee, making it an easy destination for those seeking a historical excursion or out-of-the-ordinary day trip. And for Smith, extending Southern hospitality to guests is second nature.
“I’m the fifth generation [of my family] to reside in Calhoun County,” he said, explaining that farming and timber brought early settlers to Blountstown, bordered to the east by the Apalachicola River.
Preserving these pioneers’ way of life and sharing it with future generations was the Smiths’ vision for Panhandle Pioneer Settlement when they founded it in 1989. Using a land-grant lease from the county, they began collecting the buildings and artifacts on display today, many of which were donated from local families.
There is Shiloh Schoolhouse, a two-room structure built around 1886. It is appointed with old books, an abacus and a United States flag with 48 stars. On each wooden desk is a slate that students of the era would have used, with chalk, as a writing tablet.
In the F.B. Sexton Cabin from 1872, clothes hang on the wall because, as Settlement caretaker and tour guide Sam Carmen explained, “Houses from this period were not built with closets because they would have been taxed as additional rooms.”
In another home, Carmen shows guests a rope bed, resembling a hammock netting attached to a bed frame underneath a thin mattress. This type of bed is the origin of the saying “sleep tight,” he said.
Wood-burning stoves, wash boards and wash tubs can be seen inside the homes.
At a general store, shelves are lined with cigar boxes and snuff, a form of smokeless tobacco popular at the turn of the century.
At the Red Oak Methodist Church, Carmen shows guests a storage room behind the pulpit, a concept he says began during the Civil War. “Sherman wouldn’t burn churches,” he explained, “so people in the South would bring their valuables and hide them in the walls of the churches.”
Carmen, an Ohio native, said “I learn something new here every day.”
The authentic glimpse of Florida history that Panhandle Pioneer Settlement provides has attracted visitors from as far away as Canada and Arizona. School groups and Scout troops often visit, too. Two buildings available for group rentals, the Frink Gymnasium (1940) and a Clubhouse built by the Works Progress Administration, are often used for weddings, receptions and class reunions.
Throughout the year, volunteers who share the Smiths’ passion for historical preservation teach sugar cane syrup-making, quilting and basket-weaving classes at the Settlement. Blacksmith classes are the most popular offering, according to Carmen. A full calendar of events is available at panhandlepioneer.org. The Settlement is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. CT on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, or by appointment.
Visitors to Blountstown can find several options for Southern cooking, too. Near the Pioneer Settlement entrance off of Hwy. 20 is Lindy’s Chicken. Fried catfish is the specialty at Parramore’s Too, a discreet building marked only by its roadside sign and a crowd of cars in the parking lot. Bringing cash or checks is advised; some restaurants do not accept credit cards.
As Willard Smith says, “Stop by if you’re in the area.”
If you go…
Panhandle Pioneer Settlement
17869 NW Pioneer Settlement Rd.
Blountstown FL 32424
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