Powelton had a history in Escambia (Fla.)
August 1, 2019
The history of the American Era of Escambia County in Florida is now almost two hundred years old. In the early years it is remembered that a few areas in the northern part of the county grew slowly as remote, self-sustaining woodland communities. Then, after the War Between the States, the population grew dramatically around sawmill communities along the route of two railways which lay on either side of the county, transforming railway stops into thriving boom towns. This period of almost seventy years may be called our great logging and railroad era. The names of some railroad stop communities of the era still linger while others are lost to time. One of those lost towns was Powelton, home to one of the most admired men in the county’s history.
Powelton lay near the county’s center. To the north, the community of Cantonment was growing near the juncture of the L&N Railroad and the Muscogee branch, a logging railway which ran from the sawmills at the community of Muscogee to the L&N rail lines. To the south, the community of Powelton was bordered near today’s Kingsfield Road. It lay along the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and intertwined the old community of Gonzalez. The site of the first legislative meeting of the Florida Territory, Gonzalez had essentially been wiped out during raids by the Union Army in 1864 and 65. Having several empty Confederate warehouses here during the war, most buildings of the old community were burned by the Yankees. Afterwards, only a few surrounding farms still claimed this old community name.
At the center of the Powelton, near today’s Gonzalez Methodist Church, was the large Roberts School which had been named after one of its founders, but for most of its existence was also known as the Powelton School. This area had two schools: Roberts which was known in records as school no. 5 and colored school no. 6 which was a little to the south at Scuffle Town.
Names are remembered of the earliest settlers of the Gonzalez and Powelton community, some are McVoy, Beck, Bafley, Bonifay, Waters, Sweat, Sheppard, Davison and Hinote, as well as Welch, Lathram, Jennings, Fleming, Burges, and Roberts. The name Powelton is first seen on L&N Railroad maps about 1878. The town was established around a sawmill here named Powelton, Ralph & Co. After several financial failures this mill later moved to Millview; however the now named community continued to grow around another steam sawmill which lay west of the L&N Railroad, the large Sheppard Mill.
The character of the town of Powelton may have been an exception to that of most rowdy mill towns of Escambia, because almost everyone mentioned in old news accounts of this town were ministers. Although the only early church mentioned in news accounts was Methodist, several congregations regularly met there and as early as 1880 representatives of the community are noted at several Alabama state religious conferences. Another religious suggestion here is the early fraternal lodges of both the Masons and Odd Fellows. The seemingly very religious nature of the area in its earliest years drew a man who would add greatly to the stature of the community, he was Reverend, Professor James Madison Tate.
Professor Tate came to Powelton about 1878 with an invitation to become principal of the large Roberts School. Tate was a Confederate veteran trained as an Alabama attorney, but in the Carpetbagger days after the Civil War, he had turned to education, heading his own school for the previous eight years. After visiting this community, he quickly agreed to take the post. He would later be joined by his brother, Professor Clarence Tate. J.M. Tate would gain a reputation as one of the county’s foremost religious leaders and greatest educators. In an era when nine grades were standard, he would graduate more than one hundred students at his twelve grade high school.
The town of Powelton grew. In 1882 Escambia County established voting district 6 at Powelton. By 1890 the son of Professor Tate, who was known as Jim, had received his ministry credentials to travel the Powelton Circuit, which included most of the northern part of this county. In 1896 a second railway was built which tracked down the west side of the community. Soon to be known as the Deep Water Route, the railway gave the town the unique position of having a depot on two railroads. By 1900 Powelton had grown in influence, and was host to the Democratic County Convention of that year. But, Powelton was now at its zenith; in 1899 the Sheppard Sawmill shut down.
In 1913 Professor J.M. Tate retired after 35 years at his school. After retirement, he wrote several articles for local newspapers called The Powelton Chronicles. Those will be discussed at a later date. By 1916, after calls to change the name of a Pensacola school to that of its 3-term professor, a wave of requests arose to have the school at Powelton renamed the Tate School. Demands soon succeeded with a school built on open farm land west of the community which would become J.M. Tate Agricultural High School.
Boundaries of the community of Powelton would become more blurred after the turn of the century as speculators attempted a large development on the site of the sawmill, announcing it a new town of Sheppard. By this time also, the Gonzalez Post Office was established, still fading the boundaries of the community. Today Powelton is forgotten, one of many ghosts of Escambia County.
The ASHS meets on the third Tuesday of each month, at six pm. At each meeting an invited speaker presents discussions of our history, and then pot luck dinner. Join us, you would enjoy it.