Willard Smith grew up the sixth generation on a Calhoun County farm on the Florida Panhandle. Now retired, he and his wife, Linda, help people relive that life through a living museum.
“We were taught that regardless of how poor you are, someone needs your help,” Willard says. “When we thought of retirement, we were blessed and we thought how could we give back.”
The result was Panhandle Pioneer Settlement—a collection of historic buildings moved and assembled as a village at the Sam Atkins Recreational Park complex in Blountstown.
The living history museum is about an hour south of Interstate 10, west of Panama City and northwest of Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach.
It is a place where people can relive the feel and work ethic of a bygone era.
Willard remembers what is was like growing up on the farm. When he returned home from school each day, he quickly grabbed a biscuit, changed clothes, then relieved his father working in the fields.
With a mule pulling a plow, it would take them an entire month to plow 20 acres.
The farm provided almost everything the family needed except three essentials: sugar, coffee and flour. The family traveled to the general store in Marianna for those.
To pay for the store items and cover other expenditures, the Smiths grew sugar cane, using their mule to grind the cane for syrup, which they poured into gallon cans to sell.
Community hog butchering provided fresh pork, and they shared goats with neighbors.
The farm had no electricity until 1953.
“When the Depression hit, nobody knew it because it was depression all the time,” Willard says, noting that despite the hard times, there was a vibrant community spirit of neighbor helping neighbor.
People worked with their hands, learning trades and crafts for survival, Willard says.
“Once, our neighbor’s barn was struck by lightning and he lost his mule and corn,” Willard says. “My dad collected $50 from the community to rebuild it. That was a huge sum at the time.”
The museum features 18 historic buildings representative of the 1800s to early 20th century. The buildings range from pioneer log cabins to a 1942 gymnasium that was part of the Frink School in central Calhoun County. The buildings were donated by families in the region and moved to the site.
“They all have special ties to the community,” Willard says. “The interesting thing is the descendants are still in the area.”
The village started in 1989 with the Yon Farmhouse, circa 1897. It was donated by Emily Yon, who wanted to preserve her husband’s family homestead.. She and her sons, Jimmy and J.W., also donated the Dairy House—the family’s milk-processing structure—and the Shiloh School House. The Calhoun County two-room school served grades one through six on the west side of Lott’s Mill Creek near the Yons’ homestead.
The Friley Blount Sexton Cabin, built in 1872, was given by the original owner’s grandson, Cecil Sexton. The round pine log, saddle-join cabin sat by a spring near Shuman’s Ferry on the Chipola River.
The oldest building is the Lucy Byrd Chason Cabin, built in 1820 by Lucy’s grandfather, William Byrd, on 80 acres on the west side of the Chipola River in the north-central part of Calhoun County.
Massive hewn logs make up the walls with double-dovetail joinery. Limestone blocks were used for the fireplace.
William left one day and never returned, but his son, John Armstrong Byrd, raised a family here. His daughter Lucy married John D. Chason.
The Clarksville Post Office and General Store now doubles as the settlement’s gift shop and a convenient spot to start tours. The post office and store served the community from 1941 until 1986, when a new post office was built.
A link to the outside world, the post office is something most people take for granted in our technology-savvy world, Willard says.
“During World War II, we had no electricity in the county,” Willard says. “For us, the mail came to Marianna, delivered around 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. We would go to the post office once a week to get supplies and mail, and find out what was going on in the community.
When the mailman got there, everyone would pump him with questions. The last question they would ask is if (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur was OK. If MacArthur was alright, everything was alright.”
Many of the settlement buildings have furnishings from the original owners, including family photos.
Dr. J.B. Dowlings’ office, for instance, is a shotgun-style building built in the early 1900s. Dowlings examined patients and dispensed medicine in the front and lived in the room in the back. His medical instruments are on display inside.
“Dowlings delivered 4,664 babies,” Willard notes.
Other buildings include the Red Oak Methodist Church, a one-cell jailhouse that’s especially popular during tours with schoolchildren, a firehouse that contains a 1933 firetruck, a grist mill and a smokehouse.
Special events and festivals happen year-round, although regularly scheduled events may be curtailed due to COVID-19. Check the settlement’s website or Facebook page for updates.
Past festivals include the Panhandle Folk Life Days in April, an ice cream social in August, Pioneer Day in October and Breakfast With Santa in December.
Every November, sugar cane grown on-site is harvested, ground and cooked into cane syrup. Visitors may buy two types of syrup—dark and amber—along with homemade jams and fig preserves.
“We start the syrup making at 6 a.m. in the 1927 cane mill,” says Patti Stephens, a longtime volunteer. “Once we have 50 gallons of cane juice, we move it to the giant cauldron to cook. We bottle the syrup the same day. Each 100 gallons of juice makes 15 gallons of syrup.”
The settlement offers special tours for school groups, including a summer camp, and classes that Linda oversees.
It harkens back to Willard’s vision to teach today’s youth life skills and a strong work ethic.
“We teach the kids to use their hands, leave cellphones alone and to create something,” Willard says. “This opens them up to a brand new world. It’s so rewarding to see this take place.”
It Takes a Village to Support the Village
Panhandle Pioneer Settlement relies on donations, grants and membership fees to cover operating expenses. In 2018, Hurricane Michael caused extensive damage to the historic structures and stretched the nonprofit’s finances.
“We used our operational funds to restore the buildings after the hurricane, so we’re struggling now,” Willard says. “We’ve done everything we can to repair our buildings, but we’re out of money.”
Repairs ranged from new roofs to a $400,000 renovation for one building.
Volunteers from across the country and Canada helped both the settlement and the larger community, Willard says. AmeriCorps members stayed in the firehouse and McClellan House. The Mennonite Disaster Service sent volunteers two weeks at a time.
Willard housed and fed them from the massive kitchen in the school gymnasium.
“That stretched us, but it’s a necessary thing to help the community,” Willard says. “It’s good for the community, good for them because they love to help.”
COVID-19 was another blow, forcing the settlement to close when Florida issued stay-at-home orders in March.
“We’re scratching the bottom of the barrel,” Willard says. “If it hadn’t been for the generous donations of the public, we wouldn’t have made it.”
Willard hopes grants and government assistance will help the nonprofit survive. His focus remains on what needs to be done now, mirroring the mindset of those who experienced the Great Depression and World War II.
“You don’t dwell on the big picture,” Willard says. “You dwell on what you can do today.”
If You Want to Help
Memberships to the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement help keep the lights on and include a subscription to the settlement’s newsletter. Yearly memberships range from $20 for individuals to $2,500 for lifetime founders. The settlement also sells products handcrafted on-site and from local and regional artisans. Many are available in the general store or settlement office at 17869 NW Pioneer Settlement Road in Blountstown. The historic buildings are available for rent and photography shoots. For more information, visit www.panhandlepioneer.org.