Flomaton, AL: A brief history

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All quiet On the southern front.

Town name

Of the world’s five remaining old-growth longleaf pine forests, one is within the city limits of Flomaton, Alabama. Although Flomaton is located on the Florida-Alabama border and is a real, live, existing town that appears on all the maps, its identity as a Border-Name Place eluded me for some time. The word is not an obvious combination of the state names. The name was one of those paste-up jobs done by a committee.

People first called the place Pensacola Junction, or just Junction, the place where the Alabama & Florida Railroad joined the Mobile & Montgomery in 1868. Railroaders contended for the right to assign a proper name. One candidate was Reuterville, for a contractor called Major Reuter, and another was Whiting, the surname of a railroad director. Junction, Reuterville, and Whiting coexisted for some months, until the U.S. Post Office Department insisted on the selection of one permanent name. A leading citizen, Dr. James A. Wilkerson, called a town meeting in 1869, which must have been an interesting experience for all concerned, and those in attendance came up with a compromise name—Floma, combining the first syllable Of Florida and the last syllable of Alabama. But arguments clearly continued, because the post office opened in 1872 as Whiting. Authorities evidently found Floma more acceptable with the addition of -ton, the contraction for town, because the Office finally changed officially to Flomaton on March 14, 1884, and the town incorporated under that name in 1908. Residents pronounce it with the first syllable long and stressed: FLOW-muh- tun.

Driving across Escambia County, Alabama today from Alaflora toward Flomaton, I cross the big Conecuh River, coiling beside the highway in a series of gooseneck bends, the color of chocolate milk, barely flowing between its Steep clay banks. The Conecuh suffers a major edge effect when it crosses into Florida—its name changes to the Escambia. No one seems entirely certain of the origin of either name.

Conecuh may be a Muskogee (Creek) word meaning “cane land.” Or something else. And Escambia could be a Choctaw word for the same thing, although it looks vaguely Spanish. Anyway, no one has chosen to rectify the dichotomy, and the river’s name changes at the state line like a highway number.

My first stop is at Brewton, the county seat, to search the libraries. The eponymous first settlers, brothers Benjamin and Joseph, who built a cabin here even before Jackson expelled the Creeks, probably spelled their surname Bruton, but such is the price Of fame. At the center Of Brewton, at the confluence of Murder Creek and Burnt Corn Creek, a tangle of intersecting streets, highways, railroads, and streams constricts heavy traffic through the narrow old red-brick downtown. The county courthouse is a monolithic concrete 1960s thing, built over a Cold- War fallout shelter. A few blocks away, though, on elegant Belleville Street, columned and porticoed nineteenth-century mansions shaded by liveoaks and Spanish moss testi$’ to Brewton’s better nature and to the wealth that yellow pine and railroads brought in the 1880s and ’90s.

Pit stop: Pollard

Having plundered the Brewton Public library and the Jefferson Davis Community College Library, the latter located opposite the college’s George C. Wallace administration building, I head out Of town past the Jefferson Smurfit mill and west On the four-lane highway toward Flomaton.

Five miles short of Flomaton, I make a side trip to the old railroad town of Pollard, Alabama, which during the Civil War was an important supply and communication center for the Confederacy. I think of the lines Of battle in that conflict as lying much farther north, across Virginia and Tennessee, but the Alabama-Florida border country was also a front line, and Pollard was at its center.

As the United States fell into war in 1861, the South rushed to complete vital internal rail connections. The Alabama & Florida Railroad began service between Montgomery and the important port of Pensacola three weeks after the first shots at Fort Sumter, and Pollard, named after the president Of the railroad, was the first station north Of the state line. In November the Mobile & Great Northern came in from Mobile to join the at Pollard, making it a military objective that was to be hotly contested throughout the war.

The war strategy Of the United States, the “Anaconda Plan,” formulated by General Winfield Scott and doggedly followed to ultimate success, sought to apply pressure on the Confederacy from all sides. As an important element of the plan, the U.S. Navy instituted a blockade of Southern ports to cut off cotton exports and imports of European manufactured goods. Citizens of the new Confederate States Of America saw this, with considerable justification, as an act of aggression, and authorities moved quickly to secure their ports.

Civil war notes

As overwhelming Federal naval and ground forces approached Pensacola, the port’s defenders removed all supplies, munitions, and every scrap of metal, stripping away even the pipes and roofs of houses. They shipped everything north to Pollard, and on night of May 9, 1862, set fire to all the public buildings of the once proud three-hundred- year-old city. Federals occupied what was left, perhaps a dozen sound buildings and a hundred civilians, and held it throughout the war. The retreating Confederates destroyed the forty-five miles of Alabama & Florida Railroad from Pensacola to Pollard and carried away the rails. The matériel removed from Pensacola became the basis for a major military depot at Pollard junction, named Camp Tattnall.

The sixty-mile rail line from Pollard to Tensas Station, the terminal for the port Of Mobile, remained in Confederate hands. The U.S. commander at Pensacola, Brigadier General Alexander S. Asboth, called the railroad through Pollard “the most valuable line of communication in the Confederacy.” C.S. troops from Camp Tattnall assigned to guard the railroad bridge at Big Escambia Creek may have been the first residents of the place that a few years later became Flomaton. Battles for the critical rail line raged through 1863 and ’64 and into ’65. Brigadier General James H. Clanton commanded Confederate forces in the area through most ofthe period. In the face of continuous threats from Federals out of Pensacola, Clanton struggled with inadequate supplies, transfer of his men to fronts farther north, and the loss Of hundreds Of deserters. By the end of 1863, the entire C.S. Military Department Of the Gulf had only a few thousand troops, many Of them local militia made up Of Old men and boys. Indeed, only two large Confederate armies remained anywhere in the field, the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Ire and the Army of Tennessee under General Joseph E Johnston.

Nevertheless, battles on the Florida-Alabama front continued. A Confederate raiding party, the 37th Mississippi Infantry under Colonel O. S. Holland, swept into northwest Florida in March 1864, rounding up deserters and capturing supplies before returning to Pollard. Another contingent from Pollard fought a hand-to-hand battle with Federals, sometimes called the Battle of Pensacola, near the Barrancas naval yard on April 2, 1864. An expedition under U.S. General Asboth marched on Pollard in July 1864, but C.S. Colonel Henry Maury arrived with reinforcements from Mobile and turned them back at Gonzales, Florida. A similar effort in August displaced the Confederates at Milton, Florida but failed to reach Pollard. In November, Federal cavalry commanded by Lieutenant Colonel A. B. Spurling reached as far as Pine Barren Creek, fifteen miles south Of the present Flomaton, where they burned a bridge, destroyed supplies, and took prisoners before being driven back to Barrancas.

A large U.S. force finally took Pollard on December 16, 1864. Overcoming the defenders, who included two hundred sixteen-year- old boys organized as The Tuscaloosa Cadets, the Federals burned the town and depot, destroyed supplies and munitions, disabled miles of railroad, and burned the bridge over Big Escambia Creek at Flomaton. The victors were Colonel Spurling’s 2nd Maine Cavalry and eight hundred members Of the 97th U.S. Colored Infantry commanded by Colonel George D. Robinson.

Few will be surprised to hear of Black U.S. troops in battle near the end of the Civil War. In 1989, the popular film Glory raised our awareness, as did some decades earlier Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead.” But the famous 54th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was by no means the first Black regiment—that was the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, formed in May 1862—and by the end of the war 179,000 African-American men served in 166 regiments, fully ten percent of the Union army.

The men who took Pollard, the 97th U.S. Colored Infantry, began in New Orleans as Louisiana Native Guards. They were among the first Black troops in a major battle, at Port Huron, Louisiana on May 27, 1863. Renamed the 3rd Regiment of Engineers, Corps d’Afrique, U.S. Colored Volunteers, they worked constructing bridges, roads, abatis, and rifle pits in Louisiana and Texas, then served in the Red River and Mobile campaigns after redesignation as the 97th Infantry Regiment. After leaving Pollard, the men Of the 97th fought a fierce running battle against Clanton’s C.S. troops on the march back to Barrancas, suffering two hundred casualties. The Confederates quickly rebuilt the vital railroad.

As 1865 began, the Southern side, although in desperate straits, still refused to give up. In William Faulkner’s memorable words, “They kilt us but they ain’t whupped us yit.” A contingent Of General John Bell Hood’s Confederates passed through Pollard in February on their way to pursue Union General William T. Sherman in South Carolina. A Federal force of twenty-five thousand men under Major General Frederick Steele moved on Pollard and its rail line in March. Pushing through mud, rain-swollen streams, and relentless Confederate harassment, Steele won a hard-fought engagement at Pringle’s Creek, four miles south Of Flomaton, in which Confederate commander James H. Clanton was severely wounded and captured. The Federal troops who took General Clanton were members of the 1st Louisiana Calvary, one of twenty-four White Louisiana regiments that fought on the Union side. Steele’s force crossed the state line at Flomaton, ripped up a thousand yards Of railroad, destroyed Pollard again, and marched away with brass bands playing.

Fort Blakeley, the last defense Of the city Of Mobile, finally fell On April 9, six hours after General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. It was the last major battle ofthe Civil War. Two days later, Union cavalry troops under Major General Benjamin H. Grierson, on the way to occupy Montgomery, were still encountering spirited resistance near Pollard. Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, son Of President Zachary Taylor, surrendered the last organi7.ed Confederate force in Alabama on May 4 at Cuba Station, about sixty miles west of Flomaton. On June 23, at Doaksville, Indian Territory, Brigadier General Stand Watie, a chief of the Cherokee Nation, became the last Confederate general officer to surrender his command, a battalion ofCreek, Seminole, Cherokee, and Osage troops. The Great Rebellion, the War of Northern Aggression was over.

Pollard today

On this bright and peaceful summer morning, I find Pollard, Alabama a compact and well-defined little town occupying several blocks on both sides of the still-active railroad track, now part of the CSX system. The highway has bypassed Pollard, and the two or three buildings that must have been its commercial center stand abandoned and in complete disrepair. Century-old white clapboard houses remain, though, and respectable Methodist and Baptist churches, and some slab-built brick houses, and many mobile homes, and a few old frame buildings in extremis. Accounts from 1862 describe Pollard’s military warehouses, infantry camp, and cavalry camp, well separated from the stockpens and abattoir, and a stockade for receiving prisoners, as well as a substantial civilian town. The barracks were log houses with dirt floors, fireplaces, and straw beds. Local springs supplied good water. The place today seems to have an agreeable sense of community, and the population has grown to about 120 from a low of 20 thirty years ago. I can find no evidence of the violent military past except the railroad itself.

The railroads

As the war wound down in 1865, this region like much Of the South was in chaos, plagued by lawless and destitute local people and deserters from both sides. Order gradually returned under military occupation; Alabama and Florida became part of the U.S. Third Military District under Brigadier General John Pope. A railroad, the Mobile & Montgomery, was soon up and running again through Pollard. The ravaged town rebuilt and even became the county seat when the State created Escambia County in 1868. Its biggest loss, though, was the failure to re-establish the junction and direct rail connection to Pensacola. The Alabama & Florida began the rebuilding but went bankrupt and sold its assets to the new Pensacola & Louisville Railroad. The P&L finished the job, but with one important change. TO avoid rebuilding a bridge across Big Escambia Creek, they shifted the new line west and connected with the Mobile & Montgomery five miles from Pollard. That connection point, right on the Florida- Alabama state line, became Pensacola Junction, Reuterville, Whiting, Floma, and Flomaton.

Flomaton quickly added another rail link—the Selma & Gulf, running north—and grew in importance to surpass Pollard. A log schoolhouse existed in 1870, a newspaper called the Standard Gauge in the 1880s, several sawmills, and a road bridge to replace a ferry at Big Escambia Creek in 1887. The town survived a yellow fever epidemic in 1897 and in 1900 had three hotels, the Flocambia, the Ard, and the Roberson. By 1880 the Louisville & Nashville had acquired all three railroads through Flomaton and built a depot right on the State line, half in each state. The depot burned and was rebuilt at least twice, in 1902 and 1911, and was said to be the prettiest station between New Orleans and Cincinnati. In the early 1900s the town had several mercantile stores, two drug stores, the short-lived Flomaton Bank, a hardware store, soda bottling plant, skating rink, gravel company, basket factory, and two schools.

The highway, U.S. 29 and 31, bridges its way over the Old Selma & Gulf line, now operated by a shortline company called the Alabama Railroad. It passes through an industrial-looking strip of metal buildings and crosses brush-choked Big Escambia Creek into Flomaton. Route 29 branches off south toward Pensacola, and I find my way into downtown Flomaton, to the main intersection at Palafox and Ringold Streets. The Escambia County Bank Offce looks fine, and Coleman Drugs, and a furniture store on Ringold, and an auto- parts dealer, florist, and drycleaner. But along the two blocks of the old downtown, on Palafox between Ringold and the railyard, two- and three-story brick storefronts stand mostly abandoned, just a junk- antique store or two, a tanning salon, and a storefront church. It is the usual story—retail businesses gone, fast food and car-related places Out on the bypass, big-box stores thriving in the next county.

Flomaton today

The residential neighborhood north of the center has none of Brewton’s mansions, but some large newer houses with comfortable- looking front porches, older frame places in various degrees of repair, and the inevitable mobile homes. Trees line streets and shade backyards— liveoaks, sycamores, magnolias, palmettos—and the town overall looks respectable. The Streets are clean, healthy flowers fill planters along the main streets, and attractive WELCOME TO FLOMATON signs grace entry points. Citizens seem to be doing what they can to keep things going and are having some gratifring success at it.

The railyard, the original reason for Flomaton’s existence, remains large, active—and dangerous. NO crossing gates or signal lights protect motorists and pedestrians on Palafox Street as they cross the parallel tracks, busy with rumbling locomotives and switching railcars. A phalanx ofCSX diesels shares space with Union Pacific and BNSF equipment and with utility engines in odd colors identified only with reporting marks—CEFX, HLCX, GCFX —which trace back to leasing companies. South Of the tracks, in what I judge to be Florida, things deteriorate into a broken-down trailer park, middens of trash, demolished buildings, and Fred’s Bar.

The main highway affords a safer crossing into Florida. Past the stands of several dealers in fireworks, a long viaduct carries U.S. 29 over the railyard and across the state line. WELCOME TO FLORIDA. ESCAMBIA COUNTY. CENTURY CITY LIMIT. This side lacks fireworks, but many signs offer tickets for the Florida Lottery, a possible edge-effect advantage. Another advantage is Florida’s law banning all smoking in restaurants, effective in June 2003. Either the lottery or the smoking ban—or possibly Sunday beer sales—must be adding value to the Florida side, because Century has far more commercial activity than Flomaton. Not all Of it is for the better. Clutter lines the four-lane highway, about as ugly as man can make—the inevitable gas, fast food, and convenience stores, building supplies, a big Piggly Wiggly supermarket, on and on for two or three miles.

The settlement on this side of the line seems to have been considered part of Flomaton at first, called South Flomaton. Around 1900 the population grew much larger around a big lumber mill, and it became the separate town Of Century, Florida. A small historic district still exists, Some blocks away from the highway strip malls and traffic, combustible looking woodframe houses, liveoaks and Spanish moss, and a museum that used to be the post office. Things thin out quickly along the old road back to Flomaton, which is officially named Old Flomaton Road, into scattered houses, overgrown fields, and •water- filled gravel pits, then the railyards and back to Palafox Street. In 1905, when a yellow fever epidemic was raging in Pensacola, I would have met a roadblock and quarantine guards at this point.

Crossing the border here takes the traveler from Escambia County, Florida into Escambia County, Alabama—perhaps a bit confusing, adjacent counties with the same name. This is a rare situation, although not a unique one. Nine Other pairs Of identically named counties share boundaries across the United States. Moving approximately east to west—and this was not an easy list to compile—we find Bristol Counties, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, connecting for about seven land miles between Providence and Fall River; Kent Counties, Delaware and Maryland, sharing just over three miles Of State line northwest Of Dover; Union County, Arkansas and Union Parish, Louisiana (and it is surprising how many Union Counties exist in the old Confederacy), with a thirty-eight-mile common border; paired Teton Counties and Park Counties, where northwestern Wyoming borders Idaho and Montana; and Big Horn Counties, sixteen miles ofcontiguous Wyoming and Montana, along the Crow Reservation. Two same-name pairs also exist across water boundaries. Pike Counties, Illinois and Missouri, share about twenty miles Of Mississippi River, where U.S. 54 crosses south of Hannibal; and Sabine County, Texas and Sabine Parish, Louisiana share a long stretch of the extremely sinuous Sabine river, now submerged under the Toledo Bend Reservoir. Finally, San Juan Counties, Utah and New Mexico share a zero-dimensional boundary at the famous Four Corners, a singularity also shared with Arizona and Colorado. Illinois and Indiana have an almost-match in Vermilion County and Vermillion County, respectively, which share eighteen miles near Danville. So, on from Escambia to Escambia.

Out on the north side of town, past Hardee’s and Pizza Hut, beyond an oil-field supply place and a ready-mix concrete plant, I find Flomaton High School, home Of the Hurricanes, a large modern Structure Of light-gray brick. Across the highway are more sand and gravel pits, but also a pleasant park beside Big Escambia Creek, with sports fields, tennis courts, and a paved walking trail. From what I have seen on my brief tour, Flomaton seems to me a comfortable little Southern town, perhaps struggling to stay alive, but somewhat succeeding. Its sixteen hundred inhabitants have reason to feel optimistic about their town’s continued existence.

Flomaton Natural Area (2006)

My final stop is at what may be the citizens’ proudest asset, sixty- five acres of old-growth longleaf pines, the Flomaton Natural Area. A rectangular tract on the northeastern edge of town, it is one of only five such places known never to have been logged. The Alger-Sullivan Lumber Company dedicated this stand of trees to preservation around 1900 and carried out regular controlled burns for many years. With the cessation Of fire, the longleaf pines ceased reproduction, and Other species invaded. In 1994 the current landowner, the Champion International Corporation, signed an agreement with a consortium of state and private organizations, including Auburn University, the U.S. Forest Service, and The Nature Conservancy, to restore and preserve the forest. After selectively removing loblolly and slash pines, midstory oaks, and a dense understory of vines and shrubs, foresters carefully reintroduced the essential element of fire, which prevented further hardwood sprouting and removed the thick layer of pine straw.

Before burning, the tract contained no longleaf pine seedlings and only one herbaceous plant species. In 1997, after two prescribed burns, a survey found 2,700 longleaf pine seedlings per acre and twenty-seven herbaceous species. Intact stands can contain as many as two hundred species per acre, and although this relatively small, disturbed site may never recover that level ofbiodiversity, the progress is impressive. Today the Flomaton Natural Area has the classic park-like appearance ofa longleaf pine forest. The largest trees here were seedlings a decade or two before George Washington was born. Bunchgrasses and low plants cover the forest floor, and one can walk in any direction without encountering underbrush. This is the forest that William Bartram described in the 1770s, the landscape where front-line armies in blue and butternut fought, where General Clanton faced the Corps d’Afrique.

Flomaton Natural Area

Flomaton Natural Area

Flomaton Natural Area (2008-forward)

Sad update: The Flomaton Natural Area, the last remaining virgin stand of longleaf pines in Alabama, was clear-cut in 2008. The FNA had trees over 200 years old, and was regularly cared for until 1950. Attempts at restoration were restarted in 1994, but as this acreage was privately owned, it was sold to a developer and turned into a barren bit of land for commercial sites.

“The FNA taught us a lot about reintroducing fire to a fire-suppressed stand. In late 2007 or early 2008, the Flomaton Natural Area met its demise at the
hand of man. It withstood nature’s test of time: hurricanes, droughts, lightning strikes, greater than 40 years of fire suppression and then its reintroduction, and much more, but it could not withstand the apathy of many.” — John Kush, Auburn University 2009.


From Wikipedia:

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