Early Church Building Leans Closer to Obscurity

Harmony Free Will Baptist Church | Union County, FL | c. 1913

The quiet rural crossroads in North Florida where this church is has seen a lot of history in it’s years. The place where it stands was initially inhabited by Native American tribes, first by the Timucua Indian Tribe and by 1750s, the Seminole Indians. When the United States took possession of Florida in the 1820s, there were many stories of encounters between white settlers and natives that frightened the Federal Government and threatened their settlement plans for the new territory. By 1835 another Seminole Indian War was in full swing.

As a result, Fort Call was erected near this area in 1838 on the Santa Fe River to protect U.S. interest in the area and encourage new settlers to come. Settlement was further encouraged by the Federal Government through initiatives like the Armed Occupation Act of the 1840s that guaranteed land for farming families who were willing to hold the property from native incursion for at least five years.

Artist rendition of battle during the Second Seminole Indian War at a Florida fort on the river

Early Settlers To This Area

As a result, settlers from Georgia and the Carolinas began to migrate to the area in the 1840s and 50s. 

One of the earliest of these settlers was Jonathan Dukes. As the legend goes, he packed up everything he had in Quitman Georgia into a covered wagon and made his way south. Back in those days, travelers would have had to clear their own path as few (if any) roads had been cut through this part of north Florida yet.

According to the story, he arrived on his new property on the evening of Christmas 1854, and as his first order of business, put up a pole where he could store the fresh dinner he had just caught, a deer and two wild turkeys. He carved his name into the pole and the area was called Dukes after that. 

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Back then, this area, originally part of Alachua County, would’ve been within the newly redrawn bounds of Columbia County. Some of the earlier people to arrive were the Dukes, Hickmans, Jones, Lightsey, Ritch, Hiers, McLeod, Dubose, Pinksont, Mizelle, and Miller Families.

It Takes A Village

And how important it was to have the support of other families because it wasn’t easy to erect a house or any other structure back then on your own. In those days, houses they built were of huge logs, with base timbers of heavy beams to help them withstand storms. Homes were typically double-pen log houses, with logs fastened with wooden pegs. In order to clear the ground and construct these shelters, many hands would have been needed so neighbors here came together to help one another.

Although I haven’t confirmed it yet, a local told me that this might have been one of the early stores in the community and later a house for tenant farmers.

Adjacent Community Emerges

Dukes would go on to become a successful farmer and also operated a store nearby and he wasn’t alone out here on the Florida frontier. As other families arrived from Georgia, more farms were established and in 1870, an adjacent community called Blair pops up on the map next to Dukes. By this time, Columbia County had been further divided and now Blair and Dukes would stand in Bradford County. 

The two communities would be intertwined from then on, building a better life for the community together. By the 1890s, multiple farms, stores, commissaries, a school, and a Methodist Church stood at Blair. In 1900, the Atlantic Coastal Railroad brought lines through the area with a station at Dukes.

This of course provided farmers with better access to markets to sell their goods and in turn, brought more prosperity to the two small, but vibrant communities of Blair and Dukes. 

Map of Atlantic Coast Lines showing the communities of Miller and Dukes

New Arrivals, New Name

Around this time, Mr. and Mrs. John Staton (J.S.) Howard relocated to the area and bought some of the land previously owned by the Dukes family. In 1907, Reverend R.H. Miller and his wife also relocated to the area from Lake Butler where he intended to retire from his pastorate work.  From that time on, the community of Blair became known as Miller in his honor.

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Reverend Miller would have worshipped at the nearby Ellzey Methodist Chapel but descendants of settlers from South Georgia wanted to worship in the Free Will Baptist Faith of their ancestors.

Led by J.S. Howard and his wife, a new church was conceived in 1912 and initially met inside Dukes commissary building and then at the Miller School. In February of 1913, Harmony Freewill Baptist Church was officially organized with 18 charter members. All of the men were added to the building committee and by November of that same year, a church had been paid for and erected.

Back then, the site where it stood had a baptismal pool where one member recalled that many brothers and sisters were baptized. He said that when he was baptized in the 1950s, the baptismal pool was under repairs so his group was baptized that year in the nearby Santa Fe River instead.

He also shared memories with me of the various and beloved events that Harmony Free Will would host for the community back then. From Christmas shows to holiday potlucks, revivals, and his favorite memory from childhood- the yearly Easter Egg hunt.

But as the years went on, the world around it shifted and the congregation did too. World War I would break out less than a year after this church was built. In the 1920s, cotton crops that were once lucrative for area farmers were decimated by the boll weevil. The 1930s brought the Great Depression, and in the following decade, another devastating war.

But somehow, this church congregation persisted and continued to meet through the 1950s and 60s when one local recalled the 1956 revival where he was saved as a young man.

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No Longer in Service

In the 1960s, it became apparent that the old church building needed to be updated and in 1969, a brick structure was erected just north of where this church had stood since 1913. Sometime in the early 1970s, Mr. Canova Howard moved the old church building to his farm about a mile and a half down the road. I found one comment that mentioned he had hoped to restore it but as is often the case, it was permanently relegated to storage.

Local Memories of the Church

 While researching this church online, I came across multiple accounts from locals about their memories of this place. One woman commented: “ My grandparents were married here.”

Another shared: “My grandparents were charter members of the church and granddaddy was a deacon for many years. After that, my brother served as a deacon here and my husband also served as well. My oldest son even attended his first service here at only 12 days old. It was a beautiful church in its day.”

Today

While it’s sad that the original church building is in such poor condition today, I’m happy to report that a small but very active congregation still needs in the brick building from 1969. They even celebrated their centennial in 2012. And on the church roster today, you will still find many of the founding family’s names worshiping in the tradition of their ancestors.

I’ve been traveling out to photograph this church for almost a decade now and each time, I worry it will be my last.  But somehow, this church keeps persevering despite so many years of heavy Florida rains and a hurricane track that came directly through this area in 2021.


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3 thoughts on “Early Church Building Leans Closer to Obscurity”

  1. Thank you so much for your stories of long gone families and friends particularly in Florida. I read them all with undying interest. Due to my health I am limited but look forward to your travels and stories.

  2. Thanks for another interesting bit of history. Jonathan Dukes was my great-great grandfather. Many of the Dukes family still live in Union County.

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