A field trip through Wewahitchka’s history
Ann Johnson wasn’t quite sure where to tell the gentleman on the phone to meet the group. She remembered that they had pulled off of Lakegrove Road about five miles back, but the road leading to James Rish’s wooded property was unmarked.
She decided to defer to Rish himself for directions.
“Jim, where are we?” she asked.
Rish smirked. “We’re in Iola.”
The group of eight or so Wewahitchkans had met up earlier that morning and set out on a mission to retrace the steps of their town’s founders.
Iola was founded and abandoned in the 19th century. It hit its boom as a turpentine town, shaping the railroads and the steamboat travel that connected the Florida panhandle with the rest of the country. Then, as quickly as it popped up, it hit a bust and died.
The town’s residents fled to other towns in the region. Some went to Blountstown, others to Tallahassee. But most of them followed the road about 10 miles south and founded a new town –Wewahitchka.
Many of Wewahitchka’s families have been there since the beginning, bringing up generations in the town and never leaving. Their property was divided up among successive generations, including many of the parcels that once made up Iola.
“They were scattered,” Rish said, explaining the history of the ghost town. “People had little farms just like where I’m standing right now, scattered about. But that was a little city right over here.”
The Rish’s property is scattered over the region, broken up by subdivisions and agricultural businesses, but it makes up the single largest family land ownership in the county. Lots were passed down for generations of beekeepers, spanning back to Wewahitchka’s creation and even to Iola itself.
Sometimes, Rish said, he would come out to these lots as boys looking for treasure.
“I was always looking around for the bank as a boy,” he laughed. “I never found it.”
Along the way, Rish built a mental map of Iola’s remains – ruins, old bricks, railroad ties and rusty nails.
Rish is a member of the Wewahitchka Historical Group, which came together in recent months with the idea of building out a fuller version of the town and its families’ histories. That Saturday’s field trip was one of many that the organization hopes to take, mapping out the old remains more physically and permanently.
“We saw a lot of places, sad that so much of it has been lost to the elements and time,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, we can work on a project to try to change some of this.”
Cliff Ake was late to find the posse, but he was eventually able to decipher their location from Johnson’s directions.
The Akes have been in the area almost as long as the Rishes, and Cliff has his own mental map of treasures, even some that Rish did not know about.
He took over as tour guide momentarily, leading the group to his most recent discovery – a pile of red clay bricks scattered throughout a small clearing near the swamp. Ake had found the bricks clearing the land for a new project just a few days beforehand.
“There’s oral tradition, and that’s how we know where many of these things are,” he told the group. “And then the things that archaeologists and Tom found out and things we just come across.”
Ake was not sure what structure the bricks had come from, but he recognized them as being in the same style as other discoveries from Iola.
Rish joked that maybe they had once been part of the bank that he had never been able to find in his youth.
As the group made their way to their next destination, they began to speak of the picture they had already developed of the old town, put together through oral histories, scattered remnants and scarce written documentation.
It was amazing, Johnson remarked, how these visions had come to be so varied from resident to resident over just the 140 years since Iola disappeared.
“Everyone has their own version of the town’s story,” she said. “And they’ll bicker about whether the bank was here or there, but I think we all just want to know more about it.”