Alachua County history is filled with colorful characters who left their mark on everything from education to medicine.
Joanna Grey Talbot | Matheson History Museum
Native Americans and Early Settlers
The name Alachua comes from the area’s first settlers, the Timucuan Indians. Sinkholes, such as the Great Sink in the Alachua Savannah (now Paynes Prairie), were called “chua” and mapmakers eventually began naming the area “Allachua” or “Lachua.”
After Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s year of destruction and plunder in 1539, Catholic priests and Franciscan missionaries from St. Augustine traveled to the interior with the hopes of converting the Native Americans to Christianity. By 1655, missions included a large cattle ranch, Rancho de la Chua, on the northern edge of the Alachua Savannah.
The area changed hands among the Spanish, French and English over the next 281 years until Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1821. Alachua County, created in 1824, stretched from the Georgia border to the Gulf of Mexico as far south as Port Charlotte. Early settlers established towns such as Hogtown, Micanopy, Newnansville and Gainesville. The 1850s saw the arrival of families, including the Baileys, Hailes, Chesnuts, Thomases and Mathesons.
Chartered in 1853, David Yulee’s Florida Railway proposed to connect Fernandina with Cedar Key and Tampa – which eventually occurred. The proposed route bypassed the county seat, Newnansville, so the county commission moved the county seat to the newly named Gainesville.
The first railroad arrived in Gainesville in 1859, and Downtown Gainesville became a center of agriculture and industry. Railroads led to the founding of the towns of Waldo, Archer, Hawthorne, Melrose, Campville and Rochelle.
In addition to bringing trade and industry, the railroads brought tourists. The two biggest draws were Devil’s Millhopper and Alachua Sink at Paynes Prairie. In the 1880s, tourists came to Alachua Sink to enjoy paddle boats that showed off natural scenes and wildlife. In 1891, the natural drain under the sink became unplugged and the lake disappeared.
Agriculture and Industry
Crops grown here have included corn, beans, tobacco, cotton, sugar, indigo and citrus. Vast orange groves were planted in the 1880s. By 1894, six million barrels of fruit were shipped to market. Big freezes decimated the industry and the groves moved farther south. The citrus industry was replaced by the phosphate mining industry. During the 1890s, Gainesville’s Dutton Phosphate Co. shipped over half the state’s phosphate. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the oil industry took off. During World War II, 90 percent of all the tung oil shipped in the U.S. came from Alachua and Bradford counties.
Prior to the Civil War, a large population of slaves lived and worked on the area plantations. After the Civil War, the African-American population nearly tripled and outnumbered the white population. African-American businesses and communities thrived, centered mainly around the Pleasant Street and Porter’s Quarters neighborhoods in Gainesville. Florida’s first black congressman, Josiah T. Walls, who lived in Alachua County, served from 1870-1876. The state’s election laws of 1889 almost completely disenfranchised black voters. In 1914, Chestnut Funeral Home, one of the county’s oldest businesses, was founded. Gainesville was on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a collection of venues featuring African-American performers. Gainesville stops included Sarah’s Restaurant and the Cotton Club, which is now being renovated.
After the Civil War, Alachua County welcomed its first Jewish citizens, including Moses Endel, who opened a dry goods store on the courthouse square in Gainesville. In 1872, a Jewish cemetery that still exists was established at the corner of University Avenue and Waldo Road.
The Gainesville Academy, a private school founded in 1858 by James Henry Roper, served both male and female students. After becoming a state senator, Roper offered the buildings and land to the state if the East Florida Seminary, founded in Ocala in 1852, would move to Gainesville.
In 1877, the East Florida Seminary moved. In 1866, the Freedmen’s Bureau established Union Academy in Gainesville to serve the African-American community. It eventually included a normal school to train teachers. Its last principal was A. Quinn Jones. After Union Academy closed in 1923, Jones became the principal of its replacement, Lincoln High School, which closed with desegregation in 1970.
After much lobbying by local leaders, the state legislature in 1905 chose the city as the location for the new consolidated men’s university to be known as the University of Florida.
Since the mid-1800s, Greater Gainesville’s warm climate and the area’s natural springs attracted people suffering with various ailments. Dr. Robert Robb and his wife, Dr. Sarah Robb, moved to Gainesville in 1882 to give Robert a chance to recover from tuberculosis. He helped establish the Odd Fellows Home & Sanitarium (which treated tuberculosis), and Sarah became the county’s first female doctor – known for making house calls in her horse and buggy.
In 1928, the county’s first major public hospital, Alachua General Hospital, was opened. It served patients until it merged with Shands HealthCare in 1996 and eventually closed in 2009.
The University of Florida’s medical school opened in 1956, and Shands Hospital opened in 1958. North Florida Regional Medical Center opened in 1973.
The Matheson History Museum offers original exhibitions and programs on a variety of topics in local and Florida history. The museum is free and open to the public (donations are encouraged), Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
513 E University Ave., Gainesville, FL 32601
(352) 378-2280 | mathesonmuseum.org