Forsyth and Simpson Era
The village of Bagdad developed as a lumber mill community between 1840 and 1939. Located in the Florida panhandle county of Santa Rosa, Bagdad grew at the confluence of Pond Creek and the Blackwater River. It became a major port - shipping more yellow pine lumber at the turn of the century than any other port in the world.
During the Territorial and Early Statehood Periods, industry rather than agriculture provided the economic base for Santa Rosa County. The bedrock of this industry was long leaf yellow pine trees which grew over a hundred feet tall and developed heavy canopies that allowed nothing but wiregrass to live under the overstory. Pioneers described the pines as cathedral-like in their stillness and Gothic beauty. An estimated 18 billion board feet of timber grew in West Florida at the time of first European contact. By 1909, 15 billion board feet of lumber had been stripped from the land. All of the prominent men in Santa Rosa made their fortunes directly or indirectly from the lumber industry.
The earliest sawmill in the county may well have been owned by Juan De la Rua on Pond Creek in 1817. Joseph Forsyth, a Connecticut native who migrated to the area from Pensacola, purchased the Pond Creek property in the late 1820s. Forming a partnership with Andrew and Ezekiel Simpson, Forsyth and the brothers built the Arcadia Mill Site. The partners purchased slaves to provide a workforce and constructed an earth and ironstone dam that extended a quarter mile across the valley. The large holding pond contained by the dam provided the name for the creek. Slave laborers dug log flumes extending as far as 18 miles from the holding pond. By the mid 1830s, the Arcadia sawmill ran two saws and shipped 5,000 board feet of lumber a week.
The success of the Arcadia sawmill prompted efforts at diversification. Forsyth, Ezekiel Simpson, and Timothy Twitchell planned a canal to connect Pond Creek with the Blackwater River near present-day Milton. Twitchell operated a bucket factory and a silk cocoonery at Arcadia. Forsyth also involved himself with plans for the ill-fated Alabama, Florida and Georgia Railroad. The Simpson brothers and Joseph Forsyth built the Escambia Manufacturing Company at Arcadia, which became the most successful cotton factory in antebellum Florida. Ruins of the two-story factory remain on the Arcadia Mill Site. The Panic of 1837 extinguished both the canal project and the Alabama, Florida and Georgia Railroad Company. But the partners did complete a mule-powered railroad that ran three miles from Arcadia to the Blackwater River to transport their lumber and cotton cloth. The Arcadia Railroad, which began running by 1840, was the third railroad built in Territorial Florida. Several hundred feet of the original roadbed remain, but no metal or wooden artifacts have been found. The Arcadia Railroad operated for only a few years because the heavy logs wore out the rails and mules were unsatisfactory as a power source.
E. E. Simpson Era
Forsyth and the Simpson brothers built new sawmill facilities in the early 1840s at the southern terminus of the Arcadia railroad where Pond Creek flowed into the Blackwater River. Benjamin Overman, amillwright from North Carolina, joined the partnership to oversee construction of the mill and the adjacent village, named Bagdad after the famous city of the Middle East. Forsyth recruited James Creary, an engineer from New York, and Richard M. Bushnell, a bookkeeper from Connecticut, to provide technical skills for the new mill. Benjamin W. Thompson was in charge of getting the logs to the mill - no small task for a company whose timber holdings would cover 200,000 acres by the turn of the century. All of these men became part owners of the company when it was reorganized after Forsyth's death in 1855 as E. E. Simpson and Company. Five gangs of saws, with one to ten saws per gang, ran at the mill turning out 20,000 board feet of lumber per day. While the Arcadia sawmill ran on water power, the Bagdad mill ran on steam. Workers burned sawdust refuse to power the giant steam engine. Since the water at Bagdad was brackish, engineers built a system of wooden pipes to carry fresh water from upstream to the mill's steam engines. Enormously successful, according to the 1860 census, the Bagdad mill annually produced over $250,000 of mill products and employed 150 workers.
Since water was the cheapest, as well as the only practical means of getting the lumber to market, shipping activity created a demand in Bagdad for marine ways, docks and shipyards. Prior to the Civil War, Henry Farley operated marine ways in Bagdad for repairing ships. William Ollinger and Martin Bruce opened a shipyard. Forsyth and Simpson also invested in a steampowered sash factory that employed 36 laborers.
The first years of the Civil War brought new prosperity to Bagdad. The Confederate Navy contracted with the Ollinger and Bruce shipyard to build a 110-foot gunboat and lumber prices remained high. Federal ships, however, soon blockaded Pensacola Bay, depriving the lumbermen access to their former markets. Worse hardships were on the horizon.
In March of 1862, Confederate troops were withdrawn from Pensacola. Bagdad industries were torched by the First Regular Florida Volunteers to prevent them from falling into Union hands. Everything that could aid the Union cause was destroyed. In addition to the mill facilities, the personal homes of Ezekiel Simpson, Richard Bushnell, and Benjamin Overman were inadvertently destroyed by fire. Workers at the Ollinger and Bruce Shipyard quickly sank the only floating dry dock in West Florida to prevent its destruction. However, the Confederates also burned the 110-foot twin-screw gunboat at the shipyard.
This was a senseless error as the gunboat was almost ready for delivery to the Confederate Navy and could easily have been towed up the Escambia River to safety.
Moving rapidly across Santa Rosa County, the soldiers burned every lumber mill, boat, machine shop, blacksmith shop, shipyard, marine way, and gristmill in the coastal area. The wanton destruction totalled almost a million dollars. Confederate, not Federal troops, ruined the industrial base of the county. Many people fled to safety in Alabama for the duration of the war.
Federal soldiers raided Santa Rosa County numerous times in the last years of the Civil War. The Maine Fifteenth Regiment terrorized the remaining inhabitants of Bagdad and seized all the cattle, hogs, food, and decent furniture left in the village....
Simpson & Company Era
With the end of the war in 1865, anarchy descended upon West Florida. Seizures of food, high taxes, and the absence of the able bodied men had created food shortages, inflation, and general hardships. Bands of former soldiers and deserters made life difficult for others. Industrial production was only 17 percent of its antebellum levels. State and local government remained weak and in 1866 Santa Rosa County was placed under martial law by the Federal government.
With gold prudently hidden in New York banks, safe from Yankee confiscation or Southern raids, Simpson and his partners returned to Bagdad and built a new mill. They installed a circular saw and an edger with a moveable table. Other local businessmen followed Simpson's example. The Ollinger and Bruce Shipyard reopened in 1867 and five years later the Bagdad Sash and Door Factory resumed production. By the early 1870s, the economy had improved enough for Simpson to build a new gang mill near the Blackwater and an island mill in the river.
The world-wide demand for yellow pine lumber sparked new prosperity for Bagdad. By 1900, Simpson & Company was shipping lumber to South America, Italy, England, and Scandinavia as well as New Orleans for domestic consumption.
Joseph R. and Linnie Howe House: 4530 Forsyth Street
Built by Joseph Howe in about 1905, this pleasant frame vernacular house displays the fine craftsmanship of Bagdad's artisans. In 1904, Bagdad Sash and Door Factory deeded this property to George and R. B. Morris, and also in 1904, Morris deeded it to Joseph and Linnie Howe. The Howe's heirs sold to Charles B. and Asado Thayer and in 1989, Jeffery L. Stone purchased the house.
Howe House: 6650 Bagdad Highway
In 1926, Justice deeded it to W. H. and Roxie L. Swinney. in 1939, Swinney deeded it to Victor and Lillian V. Howe, John and Virginia Howe, Ed and Joan Howe. The Ed Howe family includes Vicki Munoz, Darrin Martin and Tammy Godby; and grandchildren Samantha and Rey Munoz; Carrie Godby; and Daniel, Jessica, and Erin Martin. The John Howe family includes Phyllis Jensen and Jimmy Howe; and grandson, Troy Jensen.
Source: Elaine C. Willis, Peggy W. Toifel and Dr. Lea Wolfe, "We Remember Bagdad", Bagdad Village Preservation Association, Bagdad, Florida, 1992, pages 1-3, 36, 64