Voices from Calhoun County:
Alvin Byler was born in 1927 in Middlefield, Ohio. In 1948, he moved to Sarasota, Florida, seeking a warmer climate. Through the Mennonite Church, he met Martha Yoder, whose father had first come to Florida from Ohio in 1928. The Bylers married in 1953 and the following year moved to Calhoun County where Martha’s brother and parents had helped start a Mennonite settlement. People came to Calhoun County from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Delaware. Land was cheap and abundant in this part of Florida. According to Alvin Byler, a member of their congregation bought land for $50 an acre and west of Clarksville in 1948 land was even cheaper: you could buy an acre for as little as $1 and a whole section (640 acres) for $17.
Martha Byler’s brother had a herd of Holstein dairy cattle and raised chickens for their eggs. Alvin Byler helped Martha’s father who raised breeder hens. A sizable Mennonite community developed in Calhoun County. Families were dispersed but came together through three Mennonite churches, Bethel Mennonite, Red Oak Mennonite, and Oak Terrace Mennonite. The largest of these was Bethel Mennonite, now known as Riverside Community Church, between Blountstown and Altha on U.S. 71. According to Martha Byler, the Mennonites were the first people to plant soybeans in Calhoun County, and Alvin Byler thinks they may have been responsible for the introduction of wheat as well.
Click here to bring up an interactive planning map with property parcels centered on the Bethel Mennonite Church.
In 1957, the Bylers moved back to Ohio until 1961 when they returned to Calhoun County to be with Mrs. Byler’s mother after her father died. They bought a garden center on North Pear Street in Blountstown, which they operated for 25 years. The previous owner had stocked the shelves with patent medicine which he’d sold along with the garden supplies. Among the products were Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, “a positive cure for all those painful complaints and weaknesses so common to our best female population,” and iron tablets. Gradually, Martha Byler replaced the patent medicines with Bibles and recordings and in 1971 began a separate bookstore when she moved the books next door to a dry cleaner that had gone out of business.
The Bylers recall the early days of the garden center when it seemed that everyone had a vegetable garden. The Bylers introduced English peas to the area and also sweet corn. They carried 28 kinds of peas whereas in the past all people only planted field peas. They recall that gradually they got some people to try sweet corn, although may people continued to prefer field corn, especially for roasting. The garden center sold fertilizer, cow feed, chicken feed, hog feed, and insecticides of all kinds as well as seed.
The Bylers raised seven children in Calhoun County, five boys and two girls. It was a different time. People didn’t have televisions. As Mr. Byler recalls, “We went to bed with the chickens and got up with them. You didn’t see people late at night sitting around—they sat on the porch till it was dark and they went to bed.” The Marianna and Blountstown Railroad ran right across their front yard on 71 south of Altha, and provided a source of recreation for their boys.
Marianna and Blountstown engine 444 is on display at the M & B Train Park in Blountstown. Built in 1911, this steam locomotive operated as late as 1947 as a stand-by for M & B’s diesel locomotives. The railroad operated from 1909-1972 between Marianna and Blountstown. Passenger service was provided until 1929, after which the railroad shipped agricultural products and lumber. During its operation the 29-mile-long M & B was Florida’s shortest railroad.
The Bylers sold both the garden center and the bookstore in 1986. The new owners of the garden store only stocked a tiny shelf with seed because, according to Mrs. Byler, the people “bought it as a garden center but they sold hardly any seed because people didn’t garden anymore.” The garden center is now Helping Hands and the bookstore, which had moved to Main Street in 1981, is now a gift store.
Mr. Byler still supplies several stores in Sarasota with Tupelo Honey that he gets from a bee man in Hosford, and he used to provide the mushroom farm north of Hosford on 65 with wheat straw.