Live Oak — Information submitted by Eric Musgrove, county historian
As mentioned in last week’s article, the community named “Wellborn” started in 1860. However, its roots lie decades prior to that with the establishment of the adjoining community of Little River around 1830. The completion of the Pensacola and Georgia Railroad through Suwannee County in 1860-1861 (besides indirectly giving the community its name) allowed Wellborn to expand as settlers availed themselves to the railroad access that ran through the middle of the village. On November 27, 1863, in the midst of the War Between the States, the Florida Legislature corrected the original boundary line between the counties of Columbia and Suwannee. The correction affected the entire town of Wellborn (spelled “Welburn” in the Legislative Act), stating that all of its citizens would be considered citizens of Suwannee County. The community’s location on the eastern border of Suwannee County, coupled with the old county line, had proven problematic for citizens who didn’t know if they lived in Columbia or Suwannee County!
By the end of the Civil War Wellborn was steadily growing, in part because of its easy railroad access. Meanwhile, the older community of Little River, only a mile or two south of Wellborn, struggled to continue its 30-plus year existence. The death knell of Little River sounded in 1866 when George E. McClellan passed away. McClellan was Little River’s founder, prominent business owner, and postmaster. With McClellan’s death, Little River’s fate was sealed. The older community remained on maps until at least 1874, but Wellborn had surpassed it long before.
Wellborn played a role in the selection of the permanent County seat, since at the time it was one of six polling places in the County. The selection of Suwannee County’s permanent seat, as well as the purchasing and construction of the courthouses in Live Oak, will take several future articles to discuss in detail. However, the short version of the county site selection is this: in January of 1869, the Florida Legislature had changed the laws to allow citizens to decide upon the location of their County seat. As a result, the Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners ordered an election held to allow the citizens to choose the location of the County seat. The first election was held on March 27, 1869; none of the sites gained a majority of the votes and there were problems with the voting (such as votes by deceased citizens and others voting twice). Individual polling site results are not shown in the minutes, but no doubt the majority of Wellborn citizens would have voted in favor of Houston due to its proximity. A new vote was demanded because of the voting irregularities; safeguards were put in place to make sure that dead people did not vote, nor could people vote more than once. This second vote on May 15 resulted in a comfortable majority of voters selecting the Parshley site in Live Oak over the old county seat of Houston. Wellborn’s results in the second election showed 21 in favor of the Parshley Lot in Live Oak and 25 in favor of the old Courthouse Lot in Houston. After certification of the vote, Nancy Parshley submitted a deed for recording in the Clerk’s Office for the lot upon which a Courthouse would be built (and now stands).
It appears that during the period of the late 1860s and early 1870s, Wellborn had a good number of citizens (including many children) who lived within easy traveling distance. The Suwannee County School Board (formally called the Suwannee County Board of Public Instruction) was organized on July 9, 1869 as a result of an Act of the 1869 Legislature. It was not until September, however, that a quorum could be held. In that first meeting, Wellborn was one of only two schools authorized at the time. From that point on, Suwannee County children were able to attend one of the increasing number of schools located in various communities around the County.
A statistical paper published in New York City in 1884 showed Suwannee County as having 18 post offices, with the major communities being Live Oak, Branford, and Wellborn. According to some sources, during this time between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, Wellborn boasted some 250 families within a ten-mile radius and was surrounded by a variety of orchards. One of the largest orange groves in Suwannee County was that of Wellborn-area citizen W. A. Tison, who also served in a number of government positions. Orange groves were widespread in North Florida until hard freezes in 1886, 1894-1895, and 1899 wiped out the area’s crops and forced orange farmers to relocate further south. Northerners frequented a popular hotel located in Wellborn during this time, who found the climate and nearby Wellborn Lake a wonderful place to spend winters. The town was also a major shipping point for poultry, eggs, cotton, grain, and vegetables. By the end of the 1800s, a railroad spur ran from Wellborn to White Springs, where it received products from the Camp family’s lumber manufacturing plant among other businesses.
During this heyday period of Wellborn, a number of businesses operated in the “downtown” area of the community. Some of these include grist mills, cotton gins, general merchandise stores, board houses, saloons, physicians and drug stores, blacksmiths, coopers, shoemakers, livery stables, sawmills, and a millinery. Numerous farms also dotted the landscape around Wellborn, selling their wares in local markets. In the early Twentieth Century, the population density of the major communities had not changed, as period papers still showed Live Oak, Branford, and Wellborn as the County’s major population centers. Wellborn was apparently the first community in Suwannee County with brick paving; a road three-quarters of a mile long and one block north of old Highway 90 (now CR 10A) was built sometime in the early 1900s (one source states 1916; another says 1917).
Because of its continuing growth, the town of Wellborn was incorporated in 1903 with its own mayor, town council, marshal, clerk, tax collector, tax assessor, and treasurer. In 1907, the charter was amended to take into account changes in the laws of Florida. However, within twenty years the reduction in the number of cotton gins, lumber mills, and turpentine stills, destruction of the area’s cotton crop by the boll weevil, and a population shift to South Florida meant that most people moved elsewhere. As a result, the town of Wellborn unincorporated in 1928 and has remained such ever since.
In 1910, the Wellborn Bank opened with E. B. McLeran, Sr. as president and $15,000 in capital. Like Wellborn’s town government, the bank was a victim of the shifting population centers, closing at the end of 1928. Live Oak native and former governor Cary A. Hardee, president of the Commercial Bank of Live Oak, purchased the Wellborn bank with the stipulation that the cashier, Merle Jernigan, would continue as a cashier. The money and records of the Wellborn Bank were moved on Christmas Day, 1928 in order to be open for business the next day.
At one time in its history, Suwannee County had more than one hundred schools in operation, mostly one-room buildings with one teacher and about a dozen pupils each. Over the years, the Suwannee County School Board consolidated these small schools into larger population centers as automobiles and better roads made travel much more convenient. By 1960, only seven schools remained, with Wellborn being among them. However, the Wellborn school closed at end of 1966-1967 school year and its remaining students were bused to Live Oak or Branford.
Today, Wellborn is a quiet residential community, but its annual Blueberry Festival attracts thousands of people from surrounding areas. Despite the loss of some older structures due to fire and demolition over the years, several historic buildings continue to grace the Wellborn area, including the McLeran House, the McLeran Store, the George Walters House, the Bailey House, and the “Old Brick Store”.