The Laurel Hill area attracted some of the earliest settlers once Florida became part of the United States in 1821. Two years later an Army captain surveying the route for a road across Florida mentioned the “Scotch Settlement” on the Yellow Water River. In 1827 John Lee Williams, in describing the Yellow Water River, stated, “There is a very good settlement of industrious farmers on this river, forty miles above the bay.”
This was on the old road from Pensacola to St. Augustine, which crossed the Yellow River approximately where the bridge on Highway 2 crosses the river today. The old trail then ran northeastwards through the current site of Laurel Hill and around the north side of Lake Jackson at Florala before turning southeast again.
The Yellow Water Post Office was established in 1827. The next year the name was changed to Almirante.
As early as 1827 a Presbyterian minister was visiting the Yellow Water community. The first church formally organized in the area was the Yellow River Baptist Church on the west bank of the river in 1840. Sometime prior to 1857 the Almirante Presbyterian Church was organized at the site of the current cemetery south of Laurel Hill. The Ebenezer Baptist Church was organized in 1859, with Magnolia Baptist Church being formed in the 1880s.
The origins of the town of Laurel Hill are directly tied to the railroad. In 1883 the railroad from Pensacola to the Apalachicola River was completed, giving easy access to the interior of West Florida for the first time. In 1887 a group of lumbermen, George W. Wright, his son W. B. Wright, and Rufus Milligan, incorporated the Yellow River Railroad to build a line north from Crestview to the Alabama state line. This railroad followed the ridge separating the Yellow River from the streams flowing into the Shoal River. By August 1888 the railroad was complete and in operation as far north as Campton, nine miles north of Crestview. It was used to transport logs to the sawmill at Milligan. As the timber was cut the railroad pushed further north, reaching Laurel Hill about 1892. Here the Yellow River Railroad established its headquarters, with the railroad shops, engine house and a commissary. The railroad was completed to Florala, Alabama in 1894 and opened for regular freight and passenger traffic in May of that year.
Once the timber was cut from the land the railroad had no further use for the property. Eric von Axelson was hired by the railroad as their land commissioner, in charge of selling off all of the cut-over land. An immigrant from Sweden, he had served in the U. S. and Mexican armies and held a number of jobs before being employed by the Yellow River Railroad. His arrival in March 1894 signaled the beginning of a boom period for Laurel Hill.
When Mr. von Axelson came to the area Laurel Hill was just a logging camp. The area was not even known as Laurel Hill yet. The nearest school, located east of town near the site of the old veneer mill, was known as Green Branch. Mr. von Axelson persuaded the railroad to sell the commissary. Several private businesses soon were in operation; in 1898 there were the stores of D. T. Finlayson, M. A. Merrill, and A. D. Morrison & Co. The town was platted in 1895 and named Laurel Hill. John H. Givens is generally credited with naming the town after a large laurel tree that stood in the center of town.
Mr. von Axelson was a great promoter of the area. He established the town’s first newspaper, The Laurel Hill Gazette. He widely advertised the land available for purchase, promoting it as “The Highlands of West Florida.” Svea was established as a community for Scandinavian immigrants. Another community, Bismarck, was envisioned south of Laurel Hill for German immigrants. There was a land office in Chicago to sell acreage around Laurel Hill.
The area grew rapidly. A post office was established in the town in 1896. In this same year the Baptist Church was organized. A Masonic lodge was chartered in 1897. In 1901 the Florida and Alabama Land Company was organized with Laurel Hill as it headquarters. This company built the sawmill town of Falco, Alabama, which was connected to the Yellow River Railroad by a spur which connected approximately 1½ miles south of Laurel Hill. The pilings that carried the Falco line across the Yellow River can still be seen just south of its confluence with Big Creek.
The growth of the town was not slowed by the October 24, 1903, fire which destroyed much of downtown Laurel Hill including the post office and railroad depot. In 1907 two banks were chartered, The Peoples Bank of Laurel Hill and the Bank of Laurel Hill. The Peoples Bank was in operation less than a year, but the Bank of Laurel Hill continued to serve the community until 1927.
In 1905 Laurel Hill was incorporated by the Florida legislature. A. E. Campbell was elected the first mayor. In 1915 Okaloosa County was created from parts of Walton and Santa Rosa Counties. Although Laurel Hill was the largest city in the newly created county, it lost out to the more centrally located town of Crestview in the election for the county seat. Laurel Hill continued to grow, however. In 1903 a new three-room schoolhouse was constructed on the west side of town south of Sunnyside Avenue and east of the railroad. By 1917 the school had outgrown this building and a two-story brick school was built.
The end of the First World War brought a drop in prices for farm products that hurt agricultural areas such as Laurel Hill. The popularity of the automobile and the improvement of roads during the twenties made it more convenient to visit the larger towns of Crestview and Florala, hurting local businesses. The collapse of the Florida land boom in 1926 led to the failure of the Bank of Laurel Hill, costing many people their life savings.
Laurel Hill survived, however. When the school burned in 1931 a new brick school building was built at the location of the current school with WPA labor. In 1945 four investors started the Jackson Veneer Mill in Laurel Hill. By the late 1950s the value of the mill was estimated at a quarter of a million dollars.
Over the years interest in city politics had died out. By the early fifties the city commission was virtually defunct. A group of businessmen organized and had the legislature reincorporate the city in 1954. By doing this the city qualified to keep some revenue, such as cigarette taxes, that would otherwise have gone into state coffers. One of the accomplishments of the rejuvenated city was to install a central water system to serve the town and surrounding area.
A volunteer fire department was organized in 1968, but it could not save the school from burning in 1972 after the building was hit by lightning. The school was quickly rebuilt and serves students from kindergarten to the twelfth grade today.
Today Laurel Hill is undergoing a renaissance. Commercial buildings that have stood vacant for years are being renovated and put back into use. New houses are going up in town and the surrounding countryside. The next hundred years should be as exciting as the last hundred.
Curenton, is a local historian and one of the organizers of the
Laurel Hill centennial celebration (June 4,
2005). The Curentons have been living in Laurel Hill for