Randall-Leslie House | Marion County, FL | c. 1887
This impressive farmhouse is one of the only remaining structures to remind us of a time in Florida when new travelers would be greeted by wild landscapes and untamed rivers. When steamboats made inland Florida accessible to new people, new industry, and a new era for the state.
It was built by one of the first families to settle this community along the Ocklawaha River and has some unique and fascinating details that help us to understand how important the river was to this area. And while most traces of this town are now gone, I was able to find some interesting photos and stories about what life used to be like here.
Before the Civil War
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, new settlers were coming to Florida as a result of settlement acts and incentives that would provide them parcels of land if they would ‘hold the land from Native attack’ on behalf of the federal government. Back then, Florida had primitive (if any) wagon roads, and most of these newcomers from Georgia and the Carolinas had to make their own route through the wild landscape that was Florida back then.
While most settlements in Florida before this time had been on the coasts where markets were more accessible, this next wave of settlement, encouraged by the Armed Occupation Act from President Andrew Jackson, aimed more specifically at inland central Florida. In counties like Alachua County, Marion County, Sumter County, and Polk Counties especially, families from neighboring states moved into the area looking for more farmland than was available in the more crowded states.
The promise of warm weather, land to farm, and access to Florida’s natural water sources were enticing enough to bring droves of new settlers to the state after 1842.
Just before the outset of the Civil War, a few families moved to this part of inland Florida and settled a community that became called Grahamville, after an early settler named John Conner Graham who had come here from South Carolina. They had come to the area to raise cattle and back then, they lived on the land next to natives. According to one account I read, there were just 4 other settler families here at that time, but that would change after the war had ended.
After the Civil War
Standing just along the Ocklawaha River, the area began to bustle with new settlers from neighboring states. Traffic from steamboats along the river was critical in the time before railroads and wagon routes had reached this part of Florida. Proximity to the Ocklawaha River helped to establish numerous citrus farming towns, like Grahamville, Conner, Eureka, and Moss Bluff, which had their own landings for boat docking.
From each of these landings, steamboats would pick up and deliver goods, as well as tourists who began to frequent the line. This traffic helped the communities of Grahamville and Conner (only a few miles apart) to grow alongside one another as the citrus industry boomed.
In 1875, a post office was established here with twice a week service by steamboat and a regular stagecoach route established. By 1886, there were 65 residents here, 1 school, 2 churches, and multiple business operations like general stores, a sawmill, a grist mill, and a cotton mill.
There was also a hotel, built by the Randall Family, that catered to travelers who would stop to stroll through the citrus groves and rose gardens that surrounded the hotel.
Construction of the Randall House
John M. (J.M.) Randall was an early settler here who operated the hotel, orange groves, and a merchandise store. In 1886, his son Thomas W. (T.W.) Randall bought 10 acres of land at Grahamville.
As a gift to his son, John built this house on the 10 acres with the help of talented local craftsmen, who were also responsible for building the steamboats that traveled the Ocklawaha River.
As a result, this house has interesting details and features like Intricate interior paneling, a narrow entry hall, and a staircase that exhibit the expert craftsmanship of the shipbuilder-craftsmen who built it. This kind of detail isn’t uncommon in the coastal Eastern states but is a unique example in inland Florida.
The construction of the house was all stick-built on-site and only hand tools were used. The two-story, frame vernacular, I-House has Folk Victorian details and tongue-and-groove floors. The fireplace was constructed with two fireboxes to warm the parlor and dining room.
In 1891, T.W. Randall married Victoria Etta Long and they raised 2 children here. Their descendants lived here until 1945 when the house and acreage were purchased by Paul and Margaret Opal Leslie for $850. The Leslie Family would raise their 7 children here, maintaining the house in nearly original condition, except for an update to the kitchen and bathroom in 1955.Paul and Margaret Opal Leslie lived here until she passed away in 2004. It is currently owned by their son who lives next door.
At the time it was built, as well as today, it is regarded as one of the finest homes in this part of Marion County and one of the only structures left to tell the story of Grahamville. Due to its unique features and important history, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
What Happened to Grahamville?
Grahamville flourished through the 1880s and at its height, 100 families called the area home. There was a school, two churches, multiple stores, mills, and a post office. The first hit to Grahamville would come in the devastating citrus freezes of 1894 and 95 that caused a handful of families to leave. But many stayed and continued to make a living here through turpentine, cattle, other crops, and business from the river. Until the early 1900s when trains and improved roads opened up this part of Florida to more efficient travel for tourists and quicker shipment of crops and products. By 1920, the post office was already closed and that year, the Grahamville Ferry stopped services across the Ocklawaha River.
Today, the Randall-Leslie house is all that is left from the days when this place was called Grahamville.