By Charles Nelson
On the far eastern edge of Hillsborough County, along SR 60, sits the historically significant community of Bealsville. Originally called Howell’s Creek, the settlement was established in December 1865 when a small group of newly freed slaves, facing an uncertain future, sought to make their way to post-Civil War Florida.
Following emancipation, 12 men and women gathered at the farm of Sarah Howell (a former slave owner) to plan their future. They sought to create a new community where they could support themselves and their families.
One of those men was Mills Holloman. He was the only one of the original 12 settlers who had been a free black man during the Civil War. That ‘free’ status came with many restrictions, however.
Laws required Holloman to have a white sponsor and guardian to conduct personal business affairs. His application for a homestead under the Armed Occupation Act (following the Second Seminole War) was refused in January 1843 “on account of his color.” He may not have been a slave, but he was certainly aware of the potential obstacles facing the newly freed men in post-Civil War Florida.
After the war, freed from those guardianship requirements, Holloman moved his family to the Seffner area. Here he was able to plant oranges on a homesteaded property, but he soon joined forces with the group of ex-slaves at Sarah Howell’s farm. Surely his experiences as a free black, a homesteader and a farmer assisted in the group’s planning. (Holloman also served two terms as a Hillsborough County Commissioner during the Reconstruction era, from 1868-1871.)
In December 1865, the 12 men and women successfully established their new settlement of Howell’s Creek on a site about seven miles south of today’s Plant City. They acquired land through the Southern Homestead Act of 1866. Plot sizes ranged from 40 to 160 acres. Yet, an application to homestead did not guarantee that the settlers would eventually become landowners.
Historically, less than one in seven applicants obtained title to the homesteaded property. To gain title, homesteaders had to clear rough land for farming, construct homes, procure farm implements and successfully raise crops to support their effort. The work was difficult.
Despite these overwhelming odds, the community of Howell’s Creek succeeded through the individual and combined efforts of the settlers. Peter Dexter had learned surveying skills while a slave and helped lay out the new community. Andrew Williams, son of Mary Reddick, created roads for the community with a grubbing hoe, a mule and a plow. Bryant Horton planted the first orange trees, which became a staple crop of the community.
Farming was very hard, unpredictable work, and many in the young farming community suffered from hard freezes and crop failures. Defaulted mortgages and delinquent tax payments were the results for many of the original settlers.
Alfred Beal (son of Mary Reddick) worked his mother’s farm until 1884 when he claimed a homestead of his own. His excellent farming and management skills enabled him to thrive just as difficult times forced many of his neighbors into foreclosure.
He leveraged that success to the benefit of his neighbors by purchasing those foreclosed lots. He held onto them until the original settlers, or their families, could buy those lands back on favorable terms. This remarkable act was the miracle that would save the community as its founders intended.
In 1923, the residents of Howell’s Creek (which was also briefly called Alafia, or in some sources, Antioch) officially renamed the community as Bealsville in honor of this remarkable man and his generosity. Bealsville, although a more diverse community today, still proudly honors its African-American roots and its rich cultural heritage.
You can visit Bealsville’s historic Glover School campus site, which is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The school, built with community resources in the 1930s, served Bealsville-area children until it was permanently closed in 1980. The site now houses a Community Center that serves as the focal point for area residents.