MILTON — The Arcadia Mill is full of rich history dating back to long before the Civil War.
It was the first and largest early American industrial complex in Florida. And while it was only in operation for 38 years, it played a major part in Northwest Florida’s political and economic development, according to the University of West Florida Historic Trust.
“It was the granddaddy of all the mills in the antebellum period,” said Adrianne Walker, site manager and research associate for the Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site.
But there’s a forgotten part of the mill’s history. That’s the story of the slaves that lived in Milton and worked for the mill owners, Joseph Forsyth and Ezekiel Simpson.
After decades of research and excavations, there still are only scraps of information about the slaves who lived and worked around the mill.
“It’s incredibly likely that they (mill owners) used slave labor,” Walker said. “But we don’t have any historical documents to show they worked there.”
A prospering industry
Joseph Forsyth was a Pensacola merchant and shipper who purchased the mill’s property 1828 for $400. He started construction of the dam and saw mill, and when his money was running short he enlisted the financial backing from brothers Andrew and Ezekiel Simpson. Laborors built a 1,400-foot-long and 15- foot-high dam, which held back a 160-acre saw mill pond.
They built a water-powered, wood framed, two-story sawmill on the dam and constructed a second water-powered sawmill about 350 feet downstream from the dam. A 700-foot-long mill race was excavated along the dam, which carried water from the mill pond to that second lumber mill, according to the UWF website. The Arcadia industrial complex manufactured everything from lumber to flour.
In 1845, the Arcadia Manufacturing Co. was formed, which consisted of a two-story brick textile mill. The mill was operated by 25 to 40 young female slaves who produced as much as 1,300 yards of cotton cloth a day. The textile mill was short-lived and not very successful. Months after Forsyth died in 1855, the textile mill was burned in a fire. The lumber mill had already been moved three miles away to Bagdad around 1840.
With the exeption of a small skirmish between Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War, the Arcadia Mill was mostly abandoned for the next century.
A new beginning
In 1964, a local historian rediscovered the mill site. In the early 1990s, archeaological research uncovered much of the architectural remains. During those digs a little more was learned about the slaves who lived there.
“In an 1850 U.S. slave schedule, it shows there were 95 laborers, although that doesn’t account for children, so the community could be much larger,” Walker said.
There’s proof that Forsyth and Simpson had slaves, but not necessarily that they worked in the lumber mills.
Today, the Arcadia Mill is a historic park for the public. Historians have done their best to keep African Americans part of the narrative. It’s a perfect mix of America’s best and worst qualities. Right along the nature trails is where an slave residence sat.
“It was most likely inhabited during the 1830s-1840s by mainly male slaves and was later occupied by a possible family unit or grouping of elderly slaves,” Walker said.
Close to the site of the Simpson homestead is a probable slave cabin. Walker said the architecture and proximity to the plantation suggests that it could have been housing for a domestic slave or house servant.
In Forsyth’s last living will and testament, it shows he left 24 slaves to his widow to be auctioned off. He lists them off by first name, “Jimmy and his 4 children, William, Charles, James, Sarah Ann.”
“A good majority were auctioned off,” Walker said. “There could be descendents still in the area.”
Walker said it’s unusual to find names of slaves on any document. Things like the slave schedule will only show information such as gender, race and age.
About three months after the Emancipation Proclamation, at least one slave was still living at the plantation house.
“A Union soldier came to attack at the plantation home, which was used as an outpost for Confederate soliders, where an African American person was found making breakfast,” Walker said. “The person may not have found out about the Emanicipation Proclaimation.”
Archaeological digs at the site of the slave cabins show they did have some finer goods, including ceramics. During an excavation, students found naval buttons, no bigger than two-and-a-half centimeters. According to the National Archives, Forsyth had purchased war surplus for slaves.
Some documents point out that each slave had a Sunday suit to attend a church of their own, Walker said.
In Bagdad, The New Providence Missionary Baptist Church was built sometime after 1874 and was also used as a schoolhouse for African American children. The church was relocated to Church Street in 1989 and is now home to the Bagdad Village Museum. It’s likely that former slaves worshipped there.
The hush arbors
On Friday the Arcadia Mill will remember those forgotten people during a memorial program called Admiring the Hush Arbor. According to the book, “Slave Missions and the Black Church in the Antebellum South” by Janet Duitsman Cornelius, hush arbors were secret meeting places created by slaves outside plantation quarters.
“The term hush harbor is an obvious parallel to terms like brush arbor or brush harbor, names that whites gave to the camp meetings, revivals and places of worship,” Cornelius wrote. “However, as the name implies, the site and occurance of these slave meetings were often secret.”
Those sacred spots were often in forrest, dugouts and hollows or by river banks.
“They would sing and yell into pots, let out their frustrations,” Walker said.
But the meetings don’t have to be secret anymore. While the Hush Arbor event is sold out, people can still visit the mill throughout February to learn more and hang a ribbon at the site.
Walker said it was just a coincidence that the event falls during Black History Month. It’s history to remember throughout the year. And historians are still looking for more information about enslaved people of Arcadia and Bagdad Mills.
“It’s important,” Walker said. “We have to shed light on the disenfranchised and give them the voice they didn’t have.”
“We want to try and seek more information on these people so we can know how their story ends.”
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