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What's new in Liberty County? Very little

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 3, 2001

BRISTOL -- With 7,021 residents, Liberty edged out Lafayette by just one person to claim the title of the state's least populated county.

BRISTOL -- With 7,021 residents, Liberty edged out Lafayette by just one person to claim the title of the state's least populated county.

But the census takers only tallied humans in the locale that lays claim to being the true Garden of Eden. If they'd included earthworms -- or roosters or goldfish or bees -- it'd be a different story.

Nestled between the Apalachicola and Ochlocknee rivers in the Florida Panhandle, Liberty County hasn't changed much since it was settled in 1855.

Residents young and old agree there's nothing to do in the scrub-filled community 45 miles west of Tallahassee -- and they like it that way.

"The biggest thing in Liberty County is a football game or a baseball game at the high school," says a member of one of the county's founding families.

John Shuler stands beside a large "Yard Sale" sign on a triple-sized lot -- littered with table after table of what looks less like an antiquer's paradise and more, well, like trash.

Bargain hunters poke through tables of books left out in the rain while chickens peck the ground behind the house Shuler's grandmother once lived in.

"About the best thing we got is the restaurant," Shuler says.

Typical of rural North Florida, the restaurant becomes the town's epicenter at noon.

Past and current county commissioners dine beside the town's only judge at the Apalachee Restaurant as workers from the lumber mill fill their plates with catfish, greens and grits at the buffet.

Johnny Eubanks, the director of the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce and publisher of the Calhoun-Liberty Journal, conducts business over iced tea in the heart of Bristol, the county's only incorporated city.

Since the last census a decade ago, the county's growth rate -- 26.1 percent -- outpaced the state's, at 23.5 percent, in spite of the devastating closure of the Port St. Joe paper mill in 1998.

"I'm just hanging on," says county commissioner and logger Kenneth Green.

Green, 63, says his fleet of eight trucks has been cut in half, along with his salary.

"That's how things have declined since the mill shut down," Green said.

Although the unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the state at 3 percent, compared to the statewide average of about 3.6 percent, Eubanks says that's because more than half the residents make the hourlong trip to Tallahassee or to nearby Blountstown for work.

"We're trying to change that, to let people have a chance to work locally," Eubanks said.

The town has had some success attracting industry. The North Florida Lumber Co. opened about three years ago and employs about 250 people, most of them Liberty or nearby Calhoun County residents.

On the outskirts of town, Tom Thompson holds court inside the country store his wife's parents built in 1948, greeting customers.

Thompson said that in spite of the county's growth, little has really changed since the turn of the century.

"You know your neighbors, they're just wonderful down to earth type people," Thompson, 68, said.

Loggers gritty from the nearby mill wander in to buy single cans of beer and earthworm harvesters wearing rubber boots sit beside Thompson, who retired from the timber industry.

Earthworm harvesters collect worms and sell them to local bait shops and convenience stores.

"My roots started here ...," said Marty Arnold, 30. "As long as I can sell earthworms, I'm going to stay here."

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