VERNON- Few people are aware of the conservation treasure that lies within the borders of Washington County, Florida. Located north of Vernon on State Road 79, is 272 acres donated to the Florida Audubon Society by Beulah Laidlaw, officially known as the Beulah A. Laidlaw Preserve.
The locals refer to it as "Beulah Land." The Charles (Charlie) Burton Waller family from Henry County, Alabama originally homesteaded this acreage and the surrounding land. According to Vernon Historical Society Officer Lynda Waller, under the Homestead Act approved by Congress in 1862, several members of the Waller clan filed for homesteads beginning in 1900 with Charlie's filing and the last being in 1905, by his son, Jesse J. Waller.
“Applicants under the Homestead Act were required to live on and improve the land for five years and to build a dwelling at least twelve by fourteen feet,” she said. “At the end of five years, the homesteader could file for a deed that would entitle him to ownership rights to the land.”
It was widely believed, according to the community, that Waller came to Florida in 1900, but research indicated that he might have been in Washington County as early as 1895.
Nancy Ann Jarvis Collins, Charles’s wife accompanied him to Florida, working alongside him to build a home and raise a large family of six boys and contributing to the well-being of the family by gardening, harvesting and preserving fruits, weaving, sewing clothes, and quilting. Waller said the fields grew various crops, but mainly corn to provide feed for livestock and meal for the family's larder. A sawmill was built by Jesse, the oldest son; but for the most part the land was used for farming, and hunting.
“Good pastureland and fields for crops required removing the timber,” she said. “Some of the timber went to the construction of the Union Hill School located on Union Hill Road across the road from the Waller homestead; some sold to others nearby. The family used discretion in the use of the land and protected their water source as they had witnessed what happened in Alabama when the timber was gone and the land overused to the point it could barely sustain families.”
By the 1950s, one or two of Charlie's sons as well as others owned most of the original family-owned land.
Beulah Laidlaw, along with her sisters, Bonnie Smith and Frankee Albright, worked for many years as fishing guides in the Florida Keys and Tampa. She built her home on the original Waller land and quietly enjoyed her life there until she passed away. She was a believer in protecting the land and knew enhancing the land would ensure the continuation of both the flora and fauna for Washington County. In 1982, she made the decision to accomplish this by donating the 272-acre tract to the Florida Audubon Society. Unfortunately, there is no access available to the public; only Audubon Society members and volunteers can cross over a private owner's land to Beulah Land.
Today, under the management of The Bay County Audubon Society, the entire topography of Beulah Land provides a habitat that encourages birds, gopher tortoises, alligators, wild turkeys, and many other species to exist in perpetuity undisturbed by development.