Local History


Esto native E.W. Carswell wrote a respected history of Holmes County.

Dear Mrs. Tison,

I was sorry to read in your column in the April 12 Advertiser that you’re without a copy of Holmesteading, my pal and fellow Esto native E.W. Carswell’s history of Holmes County we published in 1986. So I’m sending you one of my two copies of the second printing in 2003. I hear a third printing may be in the works, and I hope it happens.

Judge would be pleased his book is still being read and discussed — especially by one of his kinfolks in Noma, Bill Tom Gavin, who cited it to you. The book was the culmination of his lifetime of listening and learning about the county’s history from people who were there when it happened. As we said on the dust jacket of the first edition: “It captures both the facts and the feeling of life in Holmes County. Few places as small and rural as Holmes County are fortunate enough to have a native son like E.W. Carswell to bring their history alive and record it for present and future generations.”

We typeset and pasted-up that first edition after hours in the backshop of the Advertiser. Judge’s wife Catherine — who taught me to type — was our ace proofreader and indexer. The Advertiser helped us spread the word about the book, which got rave reviews and soon sold out.

Even after Judge died in 2001, his book was still in demand. When the county library got down to a single copy — “People would check them out, but they wouldn’t bring them back,” library director Susan Harris said — a second printing was arranged. Esto’s own Joe Bob Clark raised the money and made it happen as head of the library board. (Joe Bob always laughed that nobody in Bonifay thought people from Esto could read and write well enough to publish a book, much less set up a library — and then he spearheaded the project to create a library annex and got it named for another of Esto’s finest, A.J. Dixon, the county’s first rural mail carrier.)

Holmesteading was our last project before I moved temporarily to California 30 years ago. I keep my autographed copy near a picture of Judge at his Royal typewriter. He wrote a beautiful inscription recalling our “publication adventures” that concludes: “And it has been fun. My best wishes go with you always.”

And they have. He still smiles down on me every day. I hope the library is able to arrange a third printing of his book.

VIMEO | E.W. Carswell talks about Holmesteading, his history of Holmes County, in an interview with Florida Public Radio.


E.W. Carswell at work in his home office, with a copy of Holmesteading nearby.

EVEN AFTER HIS DEATH, E.W. Carswell is still helping make Holmes County a better place.

Carswell, a writer and historian born in 1916 on the southern fringes of Esto near Sand Hammock, died in 2001. For much of his working life he was a reporter for the Pensacola News-Journal responsible for covering the heart of the Florida Panhandle, including his native Holmes County.

In retirement, he wrote books, including This is the Place, the story of Esto, and Holmesteading, the history of Holmes County. Holmesteading was published in 1986 to wide acclaim as a scholarly work that captured both the facts and the flavor of the county’s past.

It was so successful that it sold out soon after publication. The only place many people could get copies was in the Holmes County Public Library.

And that became a problem.

“People would check them out, but they wouldn’t bring them back,” said library director Susan Harris. “Finally we were down to a single copy,” which was kept on reserve.

Requests for the book kept coming, so Harris raised the idea of reprinting the book. The project was spearheaded by Joe Clark, head of the library board and another native of Esto.  In 2003 Holmesteading was republished and again made available — not only for checkout, but also for purchase.

Proceeds were earmarked to support the library, and more than $6,000 has been raised.

Some of the money was used to help relocate the portable library from the old Poplar Springs School, which is now being renovated as an annex to house the library’s children’s programs.

As fate would have it, the annex is named for another Esto native, A.J. Dixon, whose family’s donation is funding the renovation of the building.

“When people started inquiring about Mr. Dixon, the first thing I did was go to Holmesteading,” said assistant library director Betty Treadwell.

She found the answer on page 109 of Carswell’s book, where he wrote:

“It was from the Esto post office in 1906 that Holmes County’s first RFD (rural free delivery) mail route was established. Andrew J. Dixon was the postman for the route, traveling by horseback at first and later by bicycle, motorcycle, buggy, and ultimately by automobile. The route was later transferred to Bonifay, from where Dixon continued to serve until he retired in 1936.”

“That book is full of wonderful information,” said librarian Treadwell. “People love to see the names of their ancestors in print.”

That his book is being used to support the library would no doubt please Carswell. He notes in his foreword that when the county was created in 1848 — in a political deal made soon after Florida became a state to keep the balance between counties in east and west Florida — it contained fewer than 250 families.

“Most of them were frontier farmers,” Carswell wrote. “About one-third were illiterate. A vast majority were poor, even by the standards of that era.”

He added: “Despite the absence of great material wealth, the county’s history has been richly romantic and colorful. To better understand the appealing qualities of the place we call home, newcomers and oldtimers alike must know more of its history to better relate to its past.”

Copies of Holmesteading are available once again to be checked out at the library. If you want one to keep, or to give as a gift, the book may be purchased for $30 at the library or at the Bank of Bonifay, which helped underwrite the cost of republication.

E. W. Carswell: He writes about home — his home and mine.

E. W. Carswell: He writes about home — his home and mine.

THE ADVERTISER arrived in today’s mail.

Twenty-five years out of Esto and 3,000 miles away in California, I’m still always happy to get the weekly newspaper from home.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Aging breeds nostalgia. And now I better understand the complaints from people who had moved away that I used to hear when I worked at the Holmes County Advertiser as a teenager. “I never know anybody you write about anymore.” “I have to figure out who their mamas are to place them – or their grandmamas.” “The only names I know are in the obituaries.”

Then on the editorial page of this week’s issue I get to E. W. Carswell’s column. This week it’s titled “The Smells of Summer.”

It takes me immediately back home. And it reminds me it’s the little things I miss the most.

He writes: “The smell of summer is a reminder of the good things summer has made possible ­– mellowing pears, magnolia blossoms, fresh turpentine, overripe muscadines, fresh-sliced tomatoes, new-crop Southern peas or speckled butterbeans being cooked with slices of ham.”

“Summer is the smell of the old chinaberry tree after its waxy fruit had started dropping to the ground. It is the smell of fresh-sliced watermelon or cantaloupe.

“Unforgettable is the smell of peanut hay, curing in the sunshine. And freshly dug peanuts being boiled outdoors in a wood-fueled pot.”

I had read this column before. In fact, Judge and I included it in Commotion in the Magnolia Tree, the first collection of his columns we published in 1981. Maybe I even read it when it was first published in his regular column on the editorial page of The Pensacola Journal back in the ’70s. I might have read it again since the Advertiser started reprinting some of his columns a few years ago.

But it didn’t matter.

Like the smells of summer he was describing, Judge Carswell’s writing has a timeless quality about it. It has the feeling of home – his home, and my home too.

This week I recognize something familiar in the Advertiser. I recognize the smells of home.

From the Associated Press:

ESTO, Fla. — This Florida Panhandle hamlet is reviving the legend of Two-Toed Tom, a notorious bull alligator who some folks say fell in love with a sawmill whistle after being chased from Alabama, the Associated Press reports.

Esto’s 210 residents are planning to hold what they hope will become an annual celebration of food, entertainment and story swapping about the giant swamp lizard, said Marrielle Blount, a town council member who is chairman of the Two-Toed Tom Festival.

“He’s a colorful character,” said E. W. “Judge” Carswell, a retired newspaper reporter and former chairman of the Florida Folklife Council. “I think he’s a lot more colorful than the Loch Ness monster.”

Interest in “Old Two-Toe” or “Old Tom,” as he also is known, was stirred up by Carswell’s publication of a book on Holmes County history titled Holmesteading.

The author, who grew up in Esto but now lives in nearby Chipley, where he once served as mayor and municipal judge, devoted a chapter to the Two-Toed Tom legend. In it he declared that for some 60 years nothing had been heard from the Alabama refugee who used to bellow in response to the steam-powered mill whistle.

“People called me and said, ‘You done away with old Two-Toe. He’s not gone. He’s still around,'” Carswell laughed.

That point may be open to debate, but there’s no question the legend lives.

“I’ve been hearing about this story ever since I was 10 years old,” said Ralph Dupree, a town councilman born in 1912. “He was a bad fella. He killed sheep and goats in Alabama. He like to have done away with a woman’s baby in a cotton patch.”

Dupree claims he saw Two-Toe many times after the gator took up residence in Sand Hammock Lake between Esto and its sister town, Noma, both just south of the Alabama line. He insisted he could tell it was Two-Toe because he saw the partly amputated paw.

The gator, who supposedly lost three toes from his left front paw to a steep trap, had been a legend in Alabama long before he crossed the state line. The story, at least up to that point, received a measure of immortality in Carl Carmer’s book Stars Fell on Alabama.

According to Carmer’s account, the huge red-eyed gator — the worst kind — terrorized South Alabama before being chased into Florida by a posse of lynch-mad men.

Floridians take a kinder view of Two Toe, some insisting he wasn’t actually from Alabama but simply had defected.

The gator first attracted attention south of the border with his bellowing response to the Alabama-Florida Lumber Co’s whistle at its Noma mill. The bellowing was most frequent in the spring when gators’ thoughts are said to turn to romance, Carswell said.

“I figure he was mad at that whistle or in love with it, I don’t know which,” he said.

In his book, Carswell wrote that some shots at Two-Toe “shattered off the gator’s thick hide much as dried peas would after being tossed onto a tin roof.” Dupree recalled he used to watch the big gator chase and eat snakes, frogs and turtles.

“Sand Hammock swamp was in my grandfather’s pasture,” former Esto resident Charley Wamble wrote to a town official. “I have seen Two-Toed Tom’s tracks and seen other alligators in that swamp. Granddad was always missing hogs and young cows.”

Carswell acknowledges the legend probably is a composite, with Two-Toe being blamed for the misdeeds of any and all gators in the area.

“This is the legend of Two-Toed Tom they are celebrating, you know,” said Carswell, putting the emphasis on “legend.”

“So we can take a little license with the truth.”

Ralph Dupree (left) was a porter on the L&N Railroad and a member of the Esto Town Council.

RONALD REAGAN’S 1986 visit to nearby Dothan, Alabama, has been relegated to the footnotes of presidential history, but Ralph Dupree’s Esto neighbors are still asking how he managed to get seated at the table with the President. Some of them seem astounded that Dupree mustered enough influence to get inside the Civic Center, where the dinner was held, and even more astonished that he got such a choice seat — after it had become well known that all admission tickets to the event had been sold.

“It wasn’t influence,” Dupree explained. Then 75 and Esto’s first black town councilman, Dupree said he simply put into practice something he learned in the eighth grade at nearby Noma more than 60 years ago. He said he got his inspiration from a story about “The Boy Who Recommended Himself.”

Dupree said he wanted to meet the President after learning that he was coming to a civic dinner in Dothan, some 30 miles from Esto. “So I went to Dothan and presented my $25 and asked for a ticket to the dinner. But I was informed — not once, but twice — that there was no room at the inn, that all the tickets had been sold.”

Dupree, a longtime acquaintance of Dothan Mayor Larry Register, asked to see the mayor. Dupree said he told Register about wanting to meet the President. It was then, Dupree said, that he told Register that in coming to him he was following the example of “The Boy Who Recommended Himself.”

Dupree said the mayor smiled and directed a member of his staff to “find Ralph a ticket” and to provide him with seating arrangements. Dupree said he didn’t know he was to be seated directly across from the President until Reagan himself arrived.

“President Reagan bragged on Dothan and the people of the Wiregrass area,” Dupree recalled. “Dothan is mentioned in the Bible,” Dupree said the President observed, noting the verse in Genesis where it says, “Let us go to Dothan.”

Dupree said the President seemed relieved after a woman seated nearby advised him to eat his fried chicken by using his fingers, instead of a knife and fork. He said the President then grabbed a drumstick and went to work as if he had done it before.

Dupree said he had intended to keep his napkin as a souvenir, but that “someone borrowed it when I stood up at the end of the President’s speech.”


The Pensacola News-Journal

ESTO — There’s little here, recreationwise or otherwise, to challenge the young people of this and the surrounding communities.

There wasn’t, at least, until the young people took matters into their own hands. It now appears that some of the community’s adult leaders will have to hustle or make way for the youthful approach.

The young people decided they needed a “voice,” a vehicle for promoting their ideas and projects. A newspaper seemed the answer. So The Esto Herald was forthwith founded.

Used for its production were a few reams of paper and a mimeograph borrowed from the Esto Baptist Church. Volume 1, Number 1, was a three-column, eight-pager. The maiden issue heralds Esto in its masthead as “The Gateway to Northwest Florida.”

The newspaper has a positive, progressive tone throughout.

But one published in Esto would have. Everybody hereabouts knows that Esto has no radical malcontents. It has a few “old soreheads.” Everybody knows that. But no modern-era radical malcontents.

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A plaque on the Esto Town Hall commemorates the town's rebirth in 1963.

A plaque on the Esto Town Hall commemorates the town’s rebirth in 1963.

AFTER DECADES of little civic activity in Esto, the town experienced a rebirth in the 1960s. The Town of Esto was reincorporated by legislative enactment in 1963, subject to approval of the voters in a referendum. That was finally achieved on July 17, 1963, with 70 for and 17 against.

The new charter called for the president of the Town Council to serve as mayor. Walter Dixon, son of one of Esto’s original incorporators in 1902, got the job.

Esto’s new charter contained no law enforcement or ad valorem taxing authority, features that to some had made the town’s earlier charter obnoxious. The community had already obtained Florida’s first water system funded by the U.S. Farmers Home Administration; Esto Water Works was organized on April 3, 1963. A town hall and a fruit and vegetable marketing facility was built, along with a development of low-cost housing. Most of the streets were paved and lighted. The town’s corporate area was much larger than it was originally, extending from the Alabama-Florida state line south to Highway 2.

A community recreation center was constructed several years later and dedicated on October 15, 1977. A few years later, on October 25, 1986, the recreation center and the park surrounding it were named the John W. Clark Memorial Park after the prominent Esto resident who was instrumental in the town’s revival.