Alachua, Florida takes it’s name from the Indian word “alachua” meaning “sink.” It was how they depicted the layout of the land. Nestled beneath huge live oaks, magnolias, cedar and hickory trees the town of Alachua is steeped in Florida history dating back to the Spanish explorers who were looking for land for their cattle ranches. The DeSoto trail winds through the area and can be followed by those interested in Indian and Spanish culture.
You can`t talk about the history of Alachua without mentioning the history of another settlement nearby called Newnansville. The two are entwined in early history. In the early 1800`s Alachua County was a wild land inhabited and controlled by the Seminole Indians. Indian raids were common in the area. In 1818, a settlement was established in the area now known as Newnansville.
A treaty was signed in 1824 and the Seminoles were moved to a reservation further south. Early in 1826, a post office was established, roads were built, stores were set up and a settled land began to emerge. This area was then called “Dell`s Post Office” in one historical document and in another it is referred to as “Dell`s Court House”. It was named for the Dell brothers who came to the Alachua area during the “Patriot War” (1812-1814). They liked the area and decided to return after the war. A land grant office just east of the present site of the city was built and offered early settlers land, provided they promised to live on the land, farm and keep the Indians off of it. It was located about a mile northeast of present day Alachua.The name “Dell`s Post Office” or “Dell`s Court House” was changed by the Territorial Legislature to “Newnansville” in honor of a Patriot War hero, Daniel Newnan and officially made the Alachua County seat. Alachua was one of the largest counties in the state at this time. The county`s land area has decreased considerably over the years.
Newnansville was a crossroad point for several important trails through early Florida. During the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), hundreds of displaced settlers were sheltered there and at Ft. Gilleland. There were eight forts in Alachua County for the protection of whites against the Indians between 1835-1855, but bear in mind that Alachua County was much larger at the time.
When the war was over, Newnansville became a commercial center for an area that was beginning to grow as a large number of the refugee settlers stayed and others moved in. Newnansville and the surrounding area was the most thickly populated section of Alachua County for fifty years. More than one third of the voters lived in Newnansville in 1857.Newnansville was so much in the main stream it served as the Alachua County seat until 1854 when a railroad was constructed from Fernandina to Cedar Key. It bypassed the town to the east. To be nearer the railroad the U.S. Land Office located there, along with the Alachua County seat was moved to the new railroad town of Gainesville, located more in the center of present Alachua County.
The town of Newnansville was no longer a center for activity and declined for the next 30 years. In 1884 when the Savannah, Florida and Western Railroad bypassed it about a mile to the south, the settlers moved their businesses closer and a new town, Alachua, began as a shipping point. Newnansville slowly became a town of the past as it gave way to this new town.
Meanwhile in Alachua, Mr. F.E. Williams took advantage of the tracks running through his property. According to a March 1885 issue of the Alachua Advocate (the forerunner of the Gainesville Sun) “F.E. Williams is making an effort to get a post office established in his new town at the railroad depot. He has about 150 signatures to his petition for the same. This new town is laid off into large lots…
“Several fine houses are already completed and others are being erected. Mr. Williams will soon remove his stock of merchandise from Newnansville to his new town,” the Advocate reported.
Mr. Williams didn`t actually succeed in getting a post office until April 30, 1887. A hotel, livery stable, and several other stores opened. A few homes were already occupied. A grist mill and lumber mill were being erected. The Advocate reporter wrote: “Alachua will swallow up the trade of Newnansville.” The prediction came true, although one man continued to operate a store in Newnansville until his death in the 1930`s.
On April 12th, 1905 the City of Alachua was officially incorporated and had a population of 526. By 1912 it had three hotels: the Sheffield Hotel; Transient House; and a second Transient House. In 1914 Alachua had two banks, three hotels, a number of stores ranging from a fruit stand to a large, well-stocked department store, ice plant, electric light plant, waterworks, two cotton gins, two grist mills and bottling works. The electric light and waterworks plant began operating in 1913. Electricity cost $1 per month for the first 300 watts and $1.25 for 300-500 watts. The cost of water was $1 per month “for the first opening and 25 cents for each additional opening.”
By this time in 1915, the new township of Alachua had constructed two church buildings, Baptist and Methodist. The local Presbyterians held their own services in the Baptist church. The school building stood on the hill “to the northeast of town.” At first, there were seven teachers. The school`s first graduating class, two boys and a girl, were to graduate in May. The schools grew and in 1924, the Alachua High School Basketball team upset the sports world with a victory in the state tournament over Duval High of Jacksonville and in nearby Gainesville, people were becoming aware that the Florida Gators were being supported by a state-wide audience. By 1925, Alachua had a population of 1,100. It still had two banks and its own utilities but all three churches now had their own building. There was now a telephone connection to the outside world.
Main street originally was a dirt road lined with trees running through the middle of town. Saturday on main street in Alachua was the busiest time of the week. Local farmers from miles around would come to town with their families to buy groceries, plow lines, bridles, nails, buckets, cloth, shoes, and any other household needs.
Early in the morning the wagons would start lining up with the mules pulling into shady places where they were parked for the day. Most of them behind stores or out in the vacant lots behind Fisher`s Hotel (where the famous Ma Barker once spent the night with her boys). Everybody came dressed up in clean overalls and starched and ironed dresses, including the children. They`d spend some of the time standing around in front of the Post Office, Mr. Hasting`s or Mr. Fugate`s grocery store or Dale`s or Joiner`s Drug Store, where they`d buy liniment, Grover`s chill tonic, 666 tablets and ice cream cones.
Most of the families brought their own shelled corn to Mr. Petitt`s to be ground into meal and grits. He`d do the grinding for half the corn so there was no exchange of money. The store windows had prices painted on them with white watery chalk. Inside the stores, rice, beans and sugar were scooped up out of barrels into brown paper bags and tied with white string that came down through a hook in the ceiling and up through a hole in the counter. White bacon and cured meat along with beef and pork that was recently butchered, hung behind the counter, and Mr. Hastings would cut off a pound or two at a time with the same knife he used to cut the yellow wedges of cheese. Canned goods were stacked in rows and people would wait in line for a clerk to take their order. They would fill up their kerosene cans for their lamps and put a raw potato back in the spout. Many farmers would bring eggs to sell and each would be held over a light bulb to determine if it was good.
In the afternoon, visiting would begin again and the streets would be so crowded no one could move around too much. After a few hours of this, they would begin to load up and the children would begin to be packed in between sacks of flour and meal and other good things. One by one they would pull out and drive slowly home in time to feed the livestock before dark.
Some of the men who had been working in the stores all day would go to Mr. Stoke`s little barber shop down by Mr. Eddy`s hardware store or to Willie Cauthen`s bigger barber shop by Charlie Smith`s dry cleaners. They`d sit for hours on the benches covered with green oil cloth until it was their turn for a hair cut, shave and sometimes a bath in the large tub in the back of the shop. They`d come out in a puff of steam and always smell like Palmolive soap and show up at church the next day smelling like a combination of soap, Mennen`s shaving lotion and Three Roses talcum powder.
The next Saturday would be a repeat of the day. One of the popular sites on Sunday afternoon`s was Burnett`s Lake, which got it`s name from a Mayor of Gainesville, Samuel W. Burnett.
The wagons didnt stop suddenly, but rather dwindled down to a trickle and were gradually replaced by the Model T Ford. The farmers still came to town to buy supplies but now most of them now drove a Model T pick-up. Later the Model T was replaced by the Model A and in 1932 everyone went to Enneis Motor Company to see the brand new Ford with the new V8 engine, the rumored choice for bootleggers.
As the thirties came so did adversity. Banks began to fail and long lines formed, and when some banks weren`t able to produce the money people had in checking and savings accounts, they closed their doors, leaving people in financial disarray. However, some banks withstood the runs and The First National Bank of Alachua was one of them. People coming out of the bank were asked how much money remained, and their assurances that there was plenty left helped return the confidence of those who had withdrawn their funds and they returned to redeposit their money. Watermelons were being grown in increasing number and fresh corn, cucumbers, beans, and squash were being shipped to northern markets. Demonstrators from North Carolina showed people how to grow tobacco. Tobacco barns and packing sheds then began to replace cotton gins. In 1928, Copeland Sausage Company opened its doors. It was first built near The Alachua Recreation Center. However, they were not allowed to kill the hogs inside the city limits. Therefore, they would kill the hogs across the street (which was not in the city limits at the time). When they built the new plant, they built it outside the city limits.
Although the Depression hurt everyone, there always seemed to be enough to eat and the farmers brought produce into town and shared with those less fortunate. According to one article, you could always tell who had a good year in cucumbers or tobacco. In the fall of the year there were peanut boilings and cane grindings. Neighbors in this community still integrated their work and play. They came together to butcher hogs, make syrup, or raise a house or church. Births, deaths and marriages were told through word of mouth. Then came World War II and things were never the same in Alachua. Boys and girls left for the armed services, many never to return again. Families moved to find work in the shipyards or other war related jobs. Most of the old buildings in town survived though the old oaks that lined the street were cut down because of old age or to make room for “progress.”
The City of Alachua continued to grow. In 1950 the population was 1,116 and by 1960 it had grown to a population of 1,974. In 1970, the U.S. Census listed it at 2,252, by 1990 it was 4,529.
Although the packing sheds have disappeared from town, area farmers still plant crops of beans, corn, squash, peppers and cucumbers. In this small community, local folks still spread the news of births, marriages, and deaths by word of mouth. Families still watch out for each other`s children. Neighbors still come to each other`s aid in the time of need and farmers still come to town on Saturday. Now they stop at the local supermarket and you can find them sitting on a bench outside one of the local stores or restaurants for a neighborly chat and the post office is still a popular place to catch up on the local gossip.