Visitors to Blue Springs Recreational Area – also called Jackson Blue Springs – often notice the historical marker that tells the story of Sylvania, the home of Governor John Milton.
Nothing remains today of his home today, but it was once a center of political intrigue in Florida. It was here that Milton planned the campaign that saw him claim the governor’s chair in the Election of 1860. He served from 1861 until his death by accidental gunshot in 1865.
The Milton family continued to live at Sylvania after the Governor’s passing, remaining there until the house burned to the ground in an accidental fire on June 28, 1872:
The old Gov. Milton Homestead in Jackson county, a few miles east of Marianna, was totally destroyed by fire on the 28th ult. The main building caught from the kitchen near by and the flames spread so rapidly that but a very small portion of the household effects could be saved. Extensive and costly improvements had recently been added to the premises and the loss of the property falls with great severity upon the family at this time. The Courier says the destruction of “Sylvania” will also be seriously felt by the young folks who have enjoyed its fine hospitality and spent many a delightful evening in its grand old halls. [I]
Like most homes of that day, Sylvania had a detached kitchen that was connected to the main house by a breezeway. Builders used this design because kitchens often did catch fire and in many cases residents were able to save their homes before it could spread to the main house. The Milton family, however, was not so fortunate.
Much of what we know about the home and life there comes from the book Life in the South by Sarah L. Jones. Miss Jones – actually a pseudonym of Catherine Hopley – was an English visitor who found herself trapped in the South by the Union blockade. She accepted a position as tutor for Governor Milton’s children at Sylvania, arriving there after a two day carriage ride from Tallahassee:
It was just light enough to distinguish a long, low dwelling, surrounded by a deep piazza reached by steps extending along the whole front. A very pretty style of building, quite Southern, and in the midst of a wood. Excepting the drive to the house, and a cleared space in front, it was literally in a wood, and was therefore appropriately called “Sylvania.” [II]
The house, like many of its day, had a wide central hallway that was closed by doors at each end. It also had floor-to-ceiling windows that could be opened like doors to allow a breeze to flow through the home during hot days. In fact, as Jones found, the doors and windows were often kept open winter, spring, summer and fall:
…A girl of about fourteen, a pretty lady-like looking child, approached, and led me up the steps, through a French window, into a sitting-room, thence into a bed-room beyond, where she left me to doff my bonnet and cloak. Presently she returned with a candle, and gave me to understand that her mamma was not at home, but that she was expected soon…A fire was soon blazing in the sitting-room, called the parlour, the evenings being chilly, but the doors remained open. [III]
The house was not a stereotypical two-story Southern mansion with white columns in front. Instead, it was of a Creole design and had much in common with homes in New Orleans and other communities in Louisiana. The low design and wide, deep veranda helped to keep the home cool during the hot months of summer.
It was the center of activity on the plantation, which eventually exceeded 6,000 acres and was worked by 52 enslaved African-Americans. Blue Springs was part of the Governor’s holdings, which stretched from there all the way to today’s Little Dothan community on the Chattahoochee River arm of Lake Seminole. The primary cash crop was cotton, but the farm also produced corn, fruit and other foods.
Adjacent to the house in the woods that surrounded it were a small one-room school and a small Episcopal church. Miss Jones taught six of the Milton children as well as children from some of the neighboring homes in the school. The church was served on occasion by the rector from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Marianna. The Miltons also allowed Methodists from their community to hold services in the sanctuary and always attended with them.
No trace remains of any of the structures today. It is not known if the school and chapel were consumed by the same fire that destroyed the house and kitchen. Also lost in the area is a small cemetery that was described by Miss Jones as being surrounded by climbing roses.
Sadly, no photographs of the home are known to exist. The historical marker for Sylvania was badly damaged in 2008 but has been repaired and relocated from its original site at the intersection of Blue Springs Road and Sylvania Plantation Road to the entrance of Blue Springs Recreational Area. Both sites were part of Sylvania and Governor Milton spent much time at the spring which was a place of peace and reflection for him during the difficult days of the War Between the States (or Civil War).
It should be noted that Sylvania Plantation Road did not exist during the years when the house still stood. It was built in later times by the county and takes its name from the fact that it crosses through the old plantation lands.
Learn more about Governor Milton and Sylvania in this video that tells the story of Blue Springs:
[I] Tallahassee Floridian, July 9, 1872.
[II] Sarah L. Jones, pseudonym of Catherine Hopley, Life in the South: From the Commencement of the War , Volume II, London, 1863: 240
[III] Ibid., pp. 240-241.