On a recent Saturday I was battling 17–92 traffic for approximately the 953rd time since moving to the area 15 years ago. Out of the corner of my eye — right across the highway from the Home Depot — a mysterious small lot with a flagpole grabbed my attention.
As the light turned green, the little historian hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I only saw it for a split second, but instinctively I knew that this inconspicuous little parcel had a story to tell!
It turns out the green patch is a former churchyard that has witnessed several cycles of becoming overgrown and forgotten then cleaned up and remembered. Most recently Eagle Scout Marshall Polston was responsible for kickstarting its revitalization in 2012. Before that it had been the South Seminole Jaycess of 1965 who gussied it up by laying a blanket of sod.
Dating back over 180 years to the Second Seminole War, only four headstones still exist today (two original). However, the Concord Cemetery was once much larger. Some have estimated 60 to 80 bodies were entombed here. The vast majority of the headstones were callously stolen over the years, reportedly used for boat anchors or other purposes.
Most of the graves lie within its current boundaries, but others rest under the foundations of surrounding buildings and beneath the busy pavement of Highway 17–92. Some reports say the plot dates back even earlier, having supposedly been used as a Seminole Indian burial ground prior to white settlement.
Today it is within the city limits of Casselberry, but over the years it has variably been considered Longwood, Altamonte Springs, and Fern Park. Originally, however, the cemetery was part of the forgotten settlement of Concord, which pre-dates all of them.
During the Second Seminole War forts were built in strategic lines across Florida. They were designed to protect settlers and enforce the (continually shrinking) territory within which the United States government had constrained indigenous peoples to stay.
The larger fortresses of this period were often designed with multiple defensive two-story buildings on the corners. A stockade fence ran between them to enclose the area. Smaller outlying fortifications had a smaller stockade with only a single structure, known as a “blockhouse.”
The term blockhouse does not indicate the building material, but rather comes from “block” in the sense of to stop or obstruct. These buildings varied in dimensions, but always resembled a two-story log cabin with the second floor jutting out a few feet over the bottom floor.
Inside there was an opening where a ladder could be lowered or pulled up to control access to the second level. A series of holes lined the building’s sides and floor. These openings were just large enough for a rifle, which allowed those inside to fend off would-be invaders. In some instances there was a small third story look-out tower.
Fort Comfort’s blockhouse was constructed around 1835, near the start of the Second Seminole War. It was located on the northeast corner of Lake Concord, at the intersection of 17–92 and Plumosa Avenue.
It was strategically placed on relatively high ground, at the edge the lake, with a good view of anyone approaching from the east. Until after the Third Seminole War, natives still freely roamed the territory of eastern Orange and Seminole counties. They had several camps and crop fields on the south shore of Lake Jesup and the western side of Lake Harney.
Fort Comfort was one of the earliest such structures in Central Florida. It was built around the same time as Fort Mellon, Fort Gatlin, Fort Maitland, Fort Christmas and Fort Lane. However, unlike the others, it does not appear on any known maps, and it is unlikely that any troops were ever actively stationed there.
As a “settlers’ blockhouse” it was constructed by private citizens, rather than the federal government. It provided residents with a safe and defensible place to go should the Seminoles attack. It also served as a stopover for troops or travelers along the 28-mile dirt trail from Fort Mellon (Sanford) to Fort Maitland and then on to Fort Gatlin (south of Orlando).
Starting in 1854 the federal government began encouraging more settlement into Florida’s interior. The intent was to deflect the Seminoles further into the southern swamps. It worked. Orange County’s population more than tripled from 240 to 825 between 1850 and 1860. Later, after the Homestead Act of 1862, those numbers would soar to over 2,000 by 1870 and more than 6,000 by 1880.
Around this time the meager settlement gained an identity, calling their community Concord. Accordingly, the blockhouse was renamed from “Fort Comfort” to “Fort Concord.” No more than a spattering of families lived in the vicinity, all involved in the raising livestock and growing small fields of mainly vegetables. Citrus did not become a major factor until a couple decades later.
The Hooker brothers (Stephen John Levi Hooker and William Pearch Hooker) were among the first settlers of Concord around 1855. They were the nephews of wealthy “cattle king” William Brinton Hooker. The two brothers married local girls and owned all of the land around what is now Milwee Middle School. Remarkably, their beautifully updated 19th century homestead survives conspicuously in a gated Casselberry neighborhood. But that is an article for another day!
Though information is scant, based on its absence from Melonville-Orlando Road travelers’ accounts, Fort Concord had probably been destroyed (likely by fire) before 1871 and possibly as early as the Third Seminole War — which started in 1856.
Though it likely served double duty as a community gathering place, the blockhouse was, by that time, inconsequential for defense. Most of the remaining Seminoles were either relocated west or pushed down into the Everglades by 1858.
Though they held few if any slaves, nearly all area residents fought for the Confederacy (including the prominent Hooker family). For many their participation was not about strong political or philosophical beliefs. It was a sense of duty or social expectations for some. But for many others it was not a choice. All abled-bodied white men between 18–35 were required to serve if called upon, according to the Confederate Conscription Act of April 1862.
The Hooker brothers, having previously served in the Third Seminole War, reported for duty that May. Along with most soldiers from Orange/Seminole County, they were under the commanded of General Joseph Finnegan, who owned land along Lake Monroe.
Their younger brother James W. Hooker — who also married a local girl, Emily Jane Simmons, sister of William’s bride — was killed at the Battle of Fredricksburg in 1863. William was captured that same year at the Battle of Gettysburg. He was held as a prisoner of war at Delaware Prison, before being released after the South surrendered at Appomattox in 1865.
After the Civil War, and despite the challenging times of Reconstruction, settlers continued to pour into Orange County. Though most were settling around Sanford/Mellonville/Fort Reid and Orlando/Fort Gatlin/Jernigan, small pockets such as Concord began to formalize in between.
Concord Baptist Church was founded in 1875, beside the cemetery and ruins of the former blockhouse. The congregation held its first services in a small log cabin on the east side of the Mellonville-Orlando Road (Highway 17) on Lake Concord. Under Pastor John Henry Hayman’s leadership, this temporary worship house was soon replaced with a larger wooden church.
However, in 1883 the church was struck by fire. The building and all of its contents were a total loss. Pastor Hayman relocated to Manatee County by 1885. Stephen and Nancy (Hodges) Hooker remained in Concord with their children, but William and Sarah “Annie” (Simmons) Hooker moved their family to a 312-acre tract near Plant City.
In 1883, after the church burned, R.A. Jinkins paid $200 for 160 acres around Lake Ellen — this include the old church, cemetery, and fort property. For many years after the area was referred to as “Jinkins Place.”
Around the same time Orlando real estate developers John and Annie Griffin bought up acreage in Concord around Lake Griffin. Though John was murdered (by Concord homesteader Silas B. Carter) his wife Annie went on to plat its first planned neighborhoods.
While Concord sat on the main wagon trail between Sanford and Orlando, by the early 1880s the railroad was king. Unfortunately for the community, the South Florida Railroad bypassed it, instead running just a mile to its west with stops at Longwood and Snowville (Altamonte Springs). Without a train depot nor church nor a post office, Concord as a place quickly faded.
Development at Concord was slow for several decades thereafter. After World War I entrepreneurs such as Charles D. Haines, Gordon J. Barnett, and (of course) Hibbard Casselberry moved in and started their well-known ferneries. The area’s fern industry and real estate boomed with the rest of Florida in the twenties, before going bust in the 1930s — and then recovering after World War II.
By that time Concord was long forgotten, except in the oral histories of the few remaining pioneer families. Its identity was never even preserved on a map. Nursery owners would dub the area Fern Park, until the 1940s when Casselberry thought it better to put his own name on the water tower.
About the Author
Jason Byrne is a lifelong Floridian, originally from Sebring and now living in Winter Springs. He graduated of Florida Southern College in 2002 with a major in journalism and minor in history.
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