This post will be a little different. I’m going to talk about my current projects in history and genealogy of the Northwest Florida panhandle and then do some encouraging for readers to take on similar projects.
I posted on my Facebook page a few weeks ago on the recent appearance of the original Yellow River Baptist Church records from 1840 to 1890. These records had disappeared several decades ago and as with most breaks in institutional memory just passed from thought and was assumed lost. Then I found out last year that someone had brought them to Baker Block Museum and they had photocopied and returned the records to this person. That led to the book the Church, the Museum and I published last year on membership records. There were a number of problems with the copies available to me in the project. 1) Some were quite difficult to see when printed because the resolution was not high and they were saved as .jpg files; a format that loses resolution over time when saved. 2) The transcriptionist at the Museum apparently had access to image files that no longer were with the others, so there was no way to put a new set of eyes on the pages to improve the transcription of the minutes. 3) That led to me wondering if all of the pages had been copied or were some missed in the process. 4) The Museum indicated that the pages were badly scrambled so trying to put the pages in sequential order so the minutes made sense was a real challenge in some cases. 5) It was obvious to me that the membership lists had consisted of two pages for each list of names. The left page listed the names and the right-hand page listed dates such as when the person joined the church, was baptized or left the church. Very little notations included death dates and at no time did the church record birth dates. In fact, children were not included as members until they had their own experience of God, reported that and was accepted as members. When these pages were copied no effort was made to link the two pages because no effort was made to document the pages in the order they were in, or note what was on the back of a page, so the files were just a big pile of unsorted images.
I admit I added a request in my prayers that the person who had them would be called to bring them to the Church before they crumbled to dust. Now in my sixth decade I’ve noticed that we don’t always get what we pray for because it isn’t the right thing to happen; regardless of whether we understand why it isn’t. The other thing I’ve noticed about praying for something is it doesn’t always happen when I want it to. I also pray for patience so I find I get lots of opportunities to practice patience but I’ve not just had it given to me; unfortunately for those around me. And then in May of this year, Pastor Nixon called me and announced that a man had appeared at the church after Sunday service and handed over the records. Maybe not a miracle, but certainly a blessing. I hope to be able to address each of the problems listed above and conserve the records so they are with the Church at least to their 200th anniversary in 2040 and images survive for many years after that. Going through these records is just fascinating to me though the minutes are often routine and nothing eventful happened. However, there are tidbits there that give a glimpse of the Church and the community it served and I hope to extract those out as part of my next project.
Any of you who know me, or follow me on Facebook or have read all or most of my blogs, know I’m very interested in the community of Oak Grove in northern Okaloosa Co, FL. Oak Grove was one of the earliest panhandle communities in the territory of Florida settled by Americans. It was originally referred to as Barrow’s Ferry. On the upper Yellow River just south of the Alabama line, it was never incorporated as a town but was the seed for a lot of the settlement that extended south as Florida became a territory, then a state. If you don’t know where this Oak Grove is located, drive east on Highway 2 from Blackman and turn left on Yellow River Baptist Church Rd just before you get to the river. If coming from Crestview, cross the river and take a right on Yellow River Baptist Church Rd. If you are sensitive to your surroundings you may feel an instant sense of traveling back in time. When you get to the fork in the road, look to your right and you will see where the General Store, run by William F. King, was located. Stay to your right and keep driving until you get to the Church. This was the heart of Oak Grove, figuratively and literally. As late as the 1940s there would have been farms all around you. Now there are pines.
I’ve decided to turn my interest in all things good, and not so good, about Oak Grove into a One-Place Study with an eventual book and maybe a website that pulls all of the records available together, by links or transcriptions. I am currently trying to locate the school that burned in 1924. A wonderful example of not asking obvious questions of my grandparents, both of whom attended the school. I believe I have a pretty good idea but no clear documentation. If anyone out there knows where it was or has seen anything clearly locating it, please share with me. I’ve almost completed the extraction of census records for the community from 1830 to 1940, including the 1885 agricultural census for the area. From there I will be doing extractions of land records to put folks on a map to see relationships and connections. School records if available, military service throughout the period and of course the church records will provide additional information.
Which brings me to my final project – the earliest cemeteries in the area. I now know that Stewart Cemetery is the oldest cemetery in Okaloosa County based on known burials. Early families sometimes buried their kin on their property and of course early markers were wooden and lost over time but Stewart does have a known burial from July 1840. The next oldest is Magnolia Cemetery, just across the river with a burial from December 1843. Both of these men were Revolutionary War veterans. Stewart Cemetery was purchased by Yellow River Baptist Church in 1901 from I. [Isaac] H. And Rozilla Harrison. The Harrisons, a black couple who owned a fair amount of property in Oak Grove in the early 20th century, had acquired the cemetery property from Dugal Stewart when he sold it with some surrounding acreage to Rozilla in 1884. That he sold it to Rozilla and not the couple is an interesting point to pursue in time.
Within 15 years, the Church experienced a long period of drought with no ongoing pastor and membership fell off substantially until the late 1930s when efforts were made (by two of my ancestors) to find a pastor and revitalize the church. Unfortunately, like the problem with the disappearing church records above, institutional memory is easy to lose. I suspect the deed to the cemetery disappeared during this time. Of course, the county knew the church owned the property, as did some of the church members, but with the surrounding land being bought and sold and consolidated even more it become harder for this little church to exert its rights; even though the last purchase in the early 70s clearly noted on the deed that the purchase excluded the 4 acres known as Stewart Graveyard. When I stumbled over reference to the ownership of the cemetery and brought it to the church, they asked me to proceed to re-establish the link between the church and the cemetery. That has been done. A survey has been completed and documentation provided to the land owner with property around the cemetery. Next effort for the church is some work on the grounds and fencing.
My next effort is some mapping and documentation of burials in Oak Grove’s cemeteries. There are three cemeteries in the area immediately around the Church. Stewart Cemetery is about 1.5 miles northeast of the church. There is an old graveyard directly east of the church that is sometimes referenced as the “Old Black Cemetery” and sometimes as the “Old Yellow River Cemetery”. There aren’t many headstones left (about 19) there and it is on private property, as far as we know. It has been badly abused and needs some TLC. The earliest visible grave there is 1859 (Daniel R. Baggett). It is my guess there are earlier ones but the headstones have been lost. My Mom remembers numerous, wooden headstones at this cemetery when she was a kid. I believe this cemetery is near where the schoolhouse and the original church was located. It appears from some preliminary research that not all graves are black community members but several of them, both black and white, are recorded as church members in the remaining church records. This may be the earliest church cemetery but that needs a lot more research.
And finally there is the existing church cemetery with the earliest known grave from 1893. Ann Dixon was the wife of A. B. Dixon, one of the early postmasters in the area. They are both buried in the existing church cemetery along with William Coplin and Roseda King. These are the oldest known burials in the current church cemetery though there appears to be areas around these headstones that are graves without headstones and one grave badly damaged with no identifiers visible. The year 1893 for one of the first burials would fit with the purchase of this church property. Documenting all of these graves, the people’s connections to the community and each other, and preserving these resting places is very important to me. I have known ancestors in two of these cemeteries and enough “missing” ancestors from this area that I may have some in the third. It would be great to do a project that identifies grave locations without headstones using ground penetrating radar. It doesn’t hurt to dream! There are resources out there and companies who work with churches and communities to map cemeteries.
After completing all of the above, I hope to work on, and succeed in getting a historical marker for Oak Grove and the church. All of the above should make that easier.
So, you can see while these are different projects they all fit together nicely. I now want to make a suggestion. If you have one or more ancestors that helped settle a small community in the panhandle and are interested in looking at the bigger environment that contained and supported them, consider doing a project such as my One-Place Study on Oak Grove. The northwest panhandle of Florida, especially the northern part, constantly gets the short end of the stick when it comes to information and celebration. There is Pensacola, and the rest just doesn’t exist in written histories of Florida to any great extent. I don’t take it personally any more, I just have decided to try and do something about it. A whole lot of people in this area love history and genealogy. Let’s put it to work to help others. Let’s begin to get all of our wonderful research together to put our local and family histories out for others to appreciate and learn from in a way that connects the dots and the families.
This month I’m doing two talks on my book on the First Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers. On 13 July, I will be speaking at the Jay Historical Society meeting at 6:00 pm. Address is 5287 Commerce St, Jay, FL. On 23 July, I will be talking at 2:00 pm to the Santa Rosa Historical Society about the First Florida and the role of Milton and Bagdad in the Civil War at the Imogene Theater, 6866 Caroline St in Milton, FL. I will have both paperback and hard cover books for sale and will be glad to autograph. If you are a modern reader and have the Kindle app, my book is available from Amazon for their Kindle.
Tomorrow is a national celebration of our American history. Enjoy it. Be safe and responsible. Be with family. And think about the above and what you might be able to do to add to our local history.
Until next time!
- One-Place-Studies.org is a website that provides connection to others working on one place studies. While many of these studies are in the United Kingdom (they do appreciate genealogy a lot over there!), there are some here in the States and there needs to be many more.
- University of Florida, George A. Smathers Library Map and Imagery Collection (http://cms.uflib.ufl.edu/maps/collections.aspx).
- Florida Memory