For those who live far from Florida, hurricanes are short-lived. For those left to pick up the pieces and rebuild, a hurricane is less a weather phenomenon than it is an unwelcome new reality.
Such is the case at Panhandle Pioneer Settlement, a living history museum in Blountstown, Florida. Founded in 1989 by Willard and Linda Smith, the settlement operates through a land-grant lease in Calhoun County’s Sam B. Atkins Park.
There, nearly 20 historical buildings salvaged from sites throughout the area have been restored, furnished, and preserved as a living history museum. The settlement includes cabins (the oldest dates to 1820), a schoolhouse, doctor’s office, one-cell jail, church, post office, and general store, as well as an axe museum, blacksmith shop, cobbler shop, firehouse, gristmill, syrup house, and a former school gymnasium.
On Oct. 10, 2018, the 5-acre settlement took a direct hit from Hurricane Michael. The Category 4 monster uprooted more than 100 mature pine trees. “You would not believe the trees,” Willard Smith says. “It took a week just to cut our way in.”
Beefed up during restoration, several structures appeared to weather the storm without significant damage — until trees hit them. “Then they just blew up,” he says.
Nothing at the settlement escaped damage. “We did not expect this kind of damage,” Willard says. “But this storm was on the ground such a long time. It caused so much devastation [across Florida]. There are millions of tons of debris.”
The settlement is normally a busy place. Visitors swarm over exhibits. Classes for adults and children offer hands-on experiences. Events and festivals deliver family-friendly opportunities year-round.
This year — the settlement’s 30th anniversary year — most events have been put on hold. Reconstruction is slow and costly. Skilled labor is all but unavailable and material costs have gone through the roof. “The biggest challenge is scraping together the money to buy materials,” Willard admits. “I don’t know of any museum that has an abundance of money.”
But he has not thrown in the towel. “We go along day by day and it doesn’t look like we’ve accomplished much, but by the end of the week, you can see a little improvement. We built it from nothing before,” he allows. “Now we have something to build to.” — Leslie C. McManus
For more information:
17869 Pioneer Settlement Rd., P.O. Box 215, Blountstown, FL 32424
Phone, (850) 674-2777