VIDEO: Welcome to Freeport Where Commerce and Culture Are Thriving Again - 30A

VIDEO: Welcome to Freeport Where Commerce and Culture Are Thriving Again

What’s in a name?

Freeport was once a thriving, economic powerhouse in Florida’s Northwest, until a new technology steamed into town, taking passengers, pay, and power with it. But are the economic tides now flowing back into this historic port community? Freeport’s civic history dates way back to about 1830 when early settlers were drawn to this naturally protected harbor, known as LaGrange Bayou. The entrance to LaGrange Bayou is located on the Northeastern side of Choctawhatchee Bay, just west of the Highway 331 bridge. In the years and decades to come, pioneering families would settle here and forever leave their mark. The McCormicks, the Blunts, the Buxtons, the Days, the Marse, the Barleys. A descendant of those early settlers, Freeport Mayor, Russ Barley, grew up here.

“The city of Freeport was incorporated in 1963. The first mayor was Mr. Oscar T. Morris. He went by the name of Buster. He was in there for a couple of years, and then my dad was the second mayor, he was in there for a short time. Nevertheless, he was mayor, and he had served as Council President prior to. And then we have gone on up, and I’m the 11th mayor that is in the city,” said Russ Barley, Mayor of Freeport.

Barley pushed to help create the local museum where volumes of Freeport myths, facts, legends, and lies were carefully curated by former historian Rebecca Buxton and archived in an unused, old post office building. Freeport was originally known as Genoa, and later, as Four Mile Landing, being positioned where Four Mile Creek and Lafayette Creek meet, before flowing out into the bayou, into Choctawhatchee Bay, and ultimately, out into the Gulf of Mexico.

“From the original settlement to now, it’s changed so much, because the business district in Freeport was down there next to the creek, and there was supposedly a boardwalk and several businesses that went up beside that street. In fact, my great-grandfather was a merchant here, he had a store. At some point in time, it caught fire, and of course, it all being built out of hard pine, it all burned,” said William Schissler, an old-time local.

During the Civil War, Four Mile Landing began being referred to as Freeport, most likely, because there was, well, there was no charge to dock here.

That said, there’s a competing legend that claims a large shipment of wine was once discovered here, sitting on the docks without an owner, and well, since no one ever turned up to claim it, thirsty locals eventually broke into the abandoned barrels and invited everyone in town to come enjoy a little free port. While my practical self would bet on the no docking fees backstory, the romantic side of me wants to take a swig of that free port, if it’s still making the local rounds. According to the census of 1850, most of Freeport’s residents were listed as farmers or boatmen. To survive, the farmers traded their produce and livestock for items they couldn’t grow or make themselves. They farmed their land, and when they were done farming, in their downtime, they fished. So for certain, at least a few things haven’t changed all that much over the last 175 years.


“My friends and brothers and I, we laugh now, and talk about our summers in this little town were lived like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. We had fishing poles, and in the winter, we had shotguns, and then we played little league baseball and that kind of stuff. But it was a neat place to grow up,” said Schissler.

“And we would walk the roads, we’d go down to this little place called Tucker Town, and we’d go down there and go swimming, jump off the old wooden bridge and things of that nature. And for a while, I’ll never forget the fact that we were, for some reason, we took Ivory soap with us, and we would just take a bath while we were there. We had the Tastee-Freez, which was located up on what is now business 331. We would usually get like a cheeseburger and fries, but back then, it was less than a dollar or something like that? That’s when gas was like 19 cents a gallon, too,” added Barley.

“The rule was we had to be home before dark, and that’s pretty much the way we played the game,” said Schissler.

“My uncle and my dad started a rattlesnake rodeo in Freeport, back in the early 60s, and it was the first one in the Southeast. There was an abundance of rattlesnakes in our area, and it started out real small, I remember the first year, there was probably maybe 20 or 30 snakes. There were prizes given out for the most snakes caught, and also, for the biggest snakes caught. All the local celebrities, the radio station people, and the politicians came down for that. As it got bigger, Silver Springs, which was Ross Allen’s, and he would milk the snakes and then the rangers would be there. They would take the snakes and skin them and use them for meat. People from all over the county showed up, so it turned out to be a really big deal,” Barley told us.

“This was the biggest town in the county, because of the supply train coming by water. Walton County shifted when they put the railroad in. And there was several, I think, business people, and prominent families in Freeport moved up to DeFuniak, because there was more opportunities there. There wasn’t a lot of jobs to be had. Most of the people my age and my brother’s age left here, because they had to go somewhere to work, make a living,” Schissler said.

Freeport’s waterways suddenly lost much of their economic punch. As the railways flourished, Freeport’s shipping business began to dry up. Today, Freeport is still home to many of the original families who first settled this area. The port itself is home to Gulfstream Shipbuilding Company and Murphy USA, which are located at the juncture of Four Mile Creek and Lafayette Creek, right where it all began. And with Walton County’s beautiful beaches and Choctawhatchee Bay now attracting record numbers of visitors and full-timers alike, Freeport suddenly seems poised for another era of explosive growth. In fact, in 2021, Freeport was impressively honored as the state of Florida’s City of the Year.

“Freeport is growing so fast right now, it’s the fastest-growing city in the state of Florida, and we are getting about 1,000 new residents a year. I think they like the fact that it has a hometown atmosphere,” said Mayor Barley.

Freeport may not look like a city quite yet, but that’s honestly perfectly fine with most locals, who would prefer that any winds of change blow right on overhead. Like the tides, the decades come and go. Industries come and go, and well, most people come and go. But for the real locals, the McCormicks, the Blunts, the Buxtons, the Days, the Marse, the Barleys, and so many others, Freeport is home, forever and always, because these locals seem to grasp what so many of us have long since forgotten, that truly, the most precious things in life are free.

For more Beach Happy videos, follow 30A on YouTube.