Florida's highest point tries to reach for the stars again

Published Nov. 20, 1991|Updated Oct. 14, 2005

This Panhandle hamlet, Florida's highest point, is the birthplace of two prominent Americans and has a proud history in the timber business. But that's not enough for Margaret Britton Richbourg. The daughter and niece of the founders of the town envisions greatness for Lakewood.

Tourists would be able to walk back into history at a museum complex that would include a barn, a cane-grinding mill, a blacksmith, harness, gunsmith and bicycle shops, and a studio for weaving, pottery and leather craft.

She talked longingly of her vision in an interview published in Monday editions of the Northwest Florida Daily News of Fort Walton Beach.

The Florida Legislature in 1984 appropriated a $17,000 grant to Walton County for a park and monument to recognize Lakewood's place atop Florida at 345 feet above sea level.

The monument, a nature trail and picnic ground were established on 17 acres of land donated by the Richbourg family, but the museum and the rest of the project are in limbo, Mrs. Richbourg said.

Lakewood also has other potentials, said her husband, William Denva Richbourg. Oil companies have been surveying the area and 600-foot deep artesian wells produce "99.98 percent pure water," he said.

But so far Lakewood, just a stone's throw from the Alabama line, has remained far off the beaten path for most tourists and businesses.

It was in danger of being wiped off the map altogether after fires, over-forestation and the Great Depression ended a timber boom. Lakewood had grown to 101 buildings, including a hotel, rail depot, mercantile store, commissary and housing for 400 mill workers.

Longleaf yellow pine from Lakewood was used in the floors of New York's Grand Central Station, Waldorf Astoria Hotel and Hudson Terminal, the courthouse in New Orleans and Bancroft Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

"And they're all still in existence," Mrs. Richbourg said.

But the town faded into the countryside by the early 1940s. It took the vision and sweat of Mrs. Richbourg's mother, Hazel Slaughter Britton, the town's postmaster, to revive Lakewood.

In 1956, a geodetic survey team determined Lakewood, not Lake Wales, Crestview or Laurel Hill as some had contended, was Florida's highest point.

"I think it was at (then-U.S. Rep.) Bob Sikes' instigation that the survey was performed," Mrs. Richbourg said. "Bob called it "Florida's Mountain,' but it would never catch on."

Armed with the news, Mrs. Richbourg's mother embarked on an economic development crusade to revive Lakewood to its past grandeur.

She led efforts to create a historical exhibit in the post office and convert a former church and schoolhouse into a museum. But the post office closed shortly after she died in 1976.

"So many little towns like that crumbled to the earth, and Mama just hated to see it die," Mrs. Richbourg said. "She wanted it to come alive."

Mrs. Richbourg tried to keep her mother's dream alive by organizing homecoming festivals in the late 1970s. They were attended by as many as 1,000 people. Former Lakewood residents from as far away as Arizona returned.

She even invited two famous Lakewood natives, then-baseball player Bill White, now president of the National League, and aviator and perfume company founder Jacqueline Cochran, but she received no responses.

After several years the homecomings stopped.

Mrs. Richbourg blamed a 1982 Associated Press story that made light of Lakewood's "Midget Mountain" and told of visitors who showed up with mountain climbing gear.