Washington County History

Washington County was founded in Northwest Florida by the Florida Territorial Council on December 29,1825 as the 12th county in the State of Florida and was created from a portion of Jackson and Walton Counties. It was named after the great first president George Washington. In 1913 Washington County was reduced in size when the southern portion of the county was annexed to create Bay County.

     The town of Vernon was the county's first seat of government and the town kept the County Seat from around 1850 until 1927 when the city of Chipley, after several attempts to get the County Seat moved there, won the distinction in an election over Vernon.  The first Courthouse at Vernon, a wooden structure, burned around 1885, which destroyed all of the early county records except the school board minutes.  A local hotel served as the Courthouse until 1897 when a new brick Courthouse was built.  A County Jail was built in 1892. In 1902 the roof of the Courthouse was blown off and a part from the roof of the jail was also blown off when a severe thunderstorm came thru the Vernon area.  After the County Seat was moved to Chipley, the old Courthouse was mainly used by the Vernon High School, however there were some businesses that were opened up in the ground floor of the old building.

     The town of Chipley, which was founded in 1882, was first named Orange, after the nearby Washington County community of Orange Hill, which was a popular summer retreat in the area at the time.  The community, however, was soon renamed from Orange to Chipley after Col. William Dudley Chipley, a railroad executive, when he brought the railroad thru Northwest Florida and made the small community a stop on the railroad for watering the steam locomotives and restocking the wood supplies on them.  When the County Seat moved to Chipley in 1927, a new Courthouse and County Jail were built and they were both completed in 1932.  The Courthouse is still in use today.  A new County Jail Building was built in 1999 to replace the old County Jail Building which at the time was one of the oldest jail buildings still in use in the State of Florida.  The town of Chipley has continued to grow since becoming the County Seat.  There has been a recent surge of economic stimulants in the form of new businesses and developments coming into the area.  Right now Chipley is the fastest growing area in Washington County.  

     Washington County has been a rural county since it was created in 1825.  The economy has been based on agriculture.  When cotton was the major crop, almost all of the row crops grown in Washington County were cotton.  When the bowl weevil infestation broke out and destroyed most of the cotton crops, farmers in the area started turning towards other means of income.  With better breeds of cattle being introduced to the area, cattle ranching became a major enterprise.  Even today it is said that Washington County has the most modern cattle market in the State of Florida.  In the early part of the 1900's, before a parasite outbreak started wiping out whole herds and the dramatic drop of wool prices, the county was home to a large and thriving sheep industry.  There were several meat packing plants built in the county around the Chipley area to meet the demand for beef and sheep meat packaging, however, all but one of the plants have since ceased operation due to falling economic prices, lack of demand and rising cost.

     Because of the large virgin pine forests that once virtually covered the entire county, the timber industry became a major economy when the railroad arrived in 1881.  Until the railroad came there had been no real economic way to ship the lumber out of the region, other than floating the logs down the river to a sawmill closer to the coast. When the rails arrived, lumber could be loaded onto the trains and shipped all around the country to be sold.  Small sawmill towns, which were usually owned by the timber company that was cutting the timber, began to appear around the county.  Probably the largest sawmill town that was developed in the county was Caryville, which is located beside both the railroad, and the Choctawhatchee River.  The town quickly became very prosperous.  At the sawmill's height it was employing over 400 people, and able to produce a million board feet of lumber in a 24-hour day.  In 1903, Caryville became the first community in Washington County, and maybe the first in interior West Florida, to receive electric lighting.  The timber industry remained strong until the late 1920's when by that time, almost all of the old growth pine forests had been cut, sawed into lumber and shipped out on the railroads.  As the timber industry began to decline and along with several devastating floods, the last of which was in 1994, the town's fortunes have declined.  Today, the Federal Government has bought most of the land that the town of Caryville used to be on after the 1994 flood, in an effort to move the people out of the flood zone of the Choctawhatchee River.  

     The county has a long history from the days of the early pioneers who came to hunt, farm and trade with the local Indians to the long years of the Civil War to the height of the navel stores and saw milling operations right up to the present day.  The county has attracted people because of the great natural beauty that abounds here in the many springs, spring feed creeks and the beautiful woodlands in the area.  Washington County has a long past with lots of history, legends of events and folklore.  But who knows what history the future holds for this county, the 12th county in the State of Florida.

To find out more about Washington County's history, and the history of the local area please visit the local Washington County Library.