The History of Robledal
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The last ice age peaked about 18,000 years ago driving sea levels to new lows and allowing Paleoindians to cross a land bridge at the Bering Straits. These newcomers quickly dispersed throughout the New World. By the close of the Pleistocene 11,000 years ago these Paleoindians were in Florida.
In the shallow seas of the late Pleistocene, Florida was twice its present size. The shoreline lay as much as 85 miles out beyond the coastline we have today. It is not difficult to see why Florida Paleoindian coastal sites are yet to be discovered - they are submerged miles offshore under hundreds of feet of water. What little we know about these early people comes from studying their artifacts and the geological record. Bone and shell tools have dissolved away in Florida’s acid soils.
Clovis Point ca 8,000 to 6,000 BCE*
*Before Current Era
The North Florida highlands during this period were covered with pine forests interspersed with stands of oak and hickory and isolated prairies. Robledal was part of those ancient highlands. Then about 15,000 years ago, as the glaciers melted and the sea level rose, barrier islands began forming along the new coastline. Some 4000 to 5000 years ago the land area where Robledal now sits was cut off from the Gulf as Santa Rosa Island formed from quartzite sediment flowing down the Choctawhatchee River from the Appalachian Mountains. Our beautiful white beaches came not from the sea but from the quartz-laden inland mountains.
The earliest humans in Florida were probably nomads living on wild plants and shellfish and hunting small game. As their hunting prowess developed, they killed larger animals as well. Their prey included animals like the mastodons, mammoths, giant sloths, and saber-toothed cats whose fossilized bones are now scattered throughout Florida.
The ever-retreating ice sheets, however, brought about vast environmental changes in Florida's climate, geology and living creatures. By 10,000 years ago, these changes allowed living in more stationary settlements. And by about 7,000 years ago Florida and its ecosystems looked much as they do today. The area’s canopy trees were predominantly southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora; red bay, Persea borbonia; sand live oak or twin live oak, Quercus geminata; laural oak, Quercus hemisphearica; pignut hickory, Carya glabra and slash pine, Pinus elliottii. Just as now. It was then that the humans, whose artifacts we find today, began to move into what has become South Santa Rosa.
None of the late prehistoric sites on Eglin Air Force Base, Thompon's Creek in Santa Rosa County, Gulf Breeze, or the Live Oaks Preserve have much evidence of extensive agriculture. The Indians depended on coastal resources such as fish, oysters and scallops, small game, and wild plants. They seemed to live in small groups led by a single chieftain. Their middens of oyster shells and broken pottery line the embankments along Robledal’s shorelines. Any digging in the shoreline area almost immediately uncovers shells and broken pottery from these early Indian settlements.
It was one of these small bands that Captain Jordan de Reina met in 1686.
Folsom Point ca 600 to 800 CE*
The first written record we have of Robledal comes from Captain Jordan de Reina who visited the area in 1686. De Reina noted the heavy stands of oak and named the area Robledal (Spanish for oak grove). On that first visit de Reina’s crew surprised a group of Indians living along the shoreline. The Indians immediately ran off but de Reina left an offering of metal tools and a cross before exploring farther up the bay. Upon his return he discovered the Indians had reciprocated with an offering of buffalo robes and another crudely made cross of wood.
The Robledal area as shown in a 1 Aug 1780 map.
Note the now missing inlet SW of Tom King Bayou.
In the 1790s the USS Constitution "Old Ironsides" and the USS Constellation were built from wood cut in the Live Oaks Preserve. Perhaps from Robledal oaks as well.
The first non-aboriginal settler of Robledal was Frederick A. Axelson who settled here in 1856. Pioneering in the Panhandle by William James Wells says Frederick entered a lawsuit against Edward Remer for work done on the schooner Doris by Axelson Shipyard in Axelson Cove between 15 Mar and 15 Jun 1860. He eventually bought about 600 acres along the coastline and built a shipyard in the deep cove behind historic Axelson Point (some residents today mistakenly call this Diana’s Point. See http://nmviewogc.cr.usgs.gov/viewer.htm?CenterPoint=30.4518644,-86.9291288&Scale=CITY&Classes=OTHER%20IMAGERY|ROADS|COUNTY|NAMES
for topographic map showing Axelson Point.)
One of the earliest United States records of the Axelsons is the birth of their son in Louisiana in 1854. Here is that record:
Soon after Frederick Junior’s birth the Axelsons moved to Santa Rosa County and began buying land in the Robledal area. Here are records from the Bureau of Land Management on some of their purchases.
On this land Axelson started his own shipyard and built schooners that plied the Gulf to Central America hauling timber and other goods.
From Brian R. Rucker’s The Unionists of West Florida:
Some local Unionists fared rather well under the circumstances. Some were apparently employed along East Bay in Santa Rosa County to make shingles for the hospital being constructed at the navy yard. Frederick A. Axelson, who owned a shipyard on East Bay, became friends with Union officials in the area. They described Axelson as bearing the "character of a good, loyal citizen." Axelson received permission to run his sloop Hope between East Bay and Warrington (adjacent to the Navy Yard) for the purpose of "bringing down vegetables." Axelson traded regularly with the Federal officials. In one case, he took a barrel of flour and 25 pounds of bacon to his East Bay home for his own use. He returned a few days later with a cargo of shingles. Axelson was even allowed to take his vessel to Union-held New Orleans and bring back supplies for a store in Warrington. Footnote 54:
54 Official Records, Navy, I, 20: 656; and William James Wells, Pioneering in the Panhandle (Fort Walton Beach, Florida: Melvin Business Services, 1976), 18. Axelson was from Sweden. Floridians originally from the North or from Europe often espoused Union sympathies.
The Axelson family in the 1880 census of Santa Rosa County, Florida.
Captain Gustav Axelson facing starboard
on the fantail of his Schooner, Doris.
Could that be the ship’s cat sitting by the taffrail in the lower left?
Photo from Archival material in Pace Library’s Special Records Collection.
Sometime during the period of the Axelson Shipyard the town of Bilowry was formed in what is now Robledal. This map from 1890 clearly shows Bilowry to be in our area. It was connected to Santa Rosa Park by a road back then.
In fact, Bilowry even had a post office from 1886 to 1891. Like the Bilowry Baptist Church that still exists in south Santa Rosa, the town probably got its name from Bill Lowry who was listed right next to the Axelson Family in the 1880 census. The story of how the Bilowry Baptist Church got its name was that the handwriting on the paperwork was hard to read and the clerk wrote down Bilowry instead of Bill Lowry. Makes sense since there was a Bill Lowry living near the Axelsons. At least this gives us a rare chance to see on a map exactly where a family was located when the 1880 census was taken. It certainly appears that the Axelsons and Lowrys lived west of the present lake in Robledal.
Our next look at Robledal history begins with the voyage of the Peep O’ Day in the early part of the last century. In the book, Log of the Peep O’ Day: Summer Cruises in West Florida Waters, 1912-1915 by F.F. Bingham, Patagonia Press, Bagdad, FL, Bingham recounts a visit to the old Axelson homestead. This interesting book is still available for purchase on the Internet or may be checked out of the Pace Library at UWF.
Included in the log is a sketch made of Axelson Cove. That sketch is below – colorized for clarity.
The remains of the Axelson house are shown above the bluff. Today, of course the beach is overgrown with trees and the bluff is no longer visible. The Peep O’ Day is shown sitting in the cove with another boat. The point in the foreground is where the power lines cross the bay today. The next point in the distance is Axelson Point.
Bingham tells of finding the Axelson vineyards laid out in geometric perfection not far from the house; of the clear, cold spring behind the house; and of the old Axelson graveyard across from the spring and situated on a small knoll about 600 feet back from the shoreline. The house was in ruins and the property strewn with rusting sheaves and chains and rotting timbers from ships left unfinished. Today Margaret Axelson’s scuppernong vines continue to sprout up in the yards just above this bluff. And somewhere inland an unsuspecting family lives in a house sitting atop the old graveyard.
Robledal’s early 1900 history parallels Navarre’s. Development in this area began in 1925 Colonel Guy H. Wyman, who grew up in nearby DeFuniak Springs, retired from the Army as an engineer and returned to this area to survey and plot the first subdivision and parks. Colonel Wyman named the community after the Navarre province in northern Spain, supposedly one of his wife’s favorite places. Even today the Navarre area is replete with Spanish names on its streets.
Navarre, however, remained sparsely populated. In 1931 the first bridge across Pensacola Bay connected the peninsula to Pensacola and increased traffic along highway 98 between Pensacola and points east.
Here is a map of our area from 1940.
You’ll note that 399 extended from the east only to Tom King Bayou and had no jog north to border Robledal as it does today.
This next map is from around the 1950 timeframe and shows the only road in Robledal – the Old Axelson Road. Remains of this road are still visible where it enters Avenida de Galvez from the west side of the lake about 100 feet inland from the benches near the levee. The contours on this map clearly show the depression that became Robledal Lake when the levee was put in.
The Navarre Bridge, constructed in the 1960s, brought further change. Population nudged upward along with property values.