Exploring Northwest Florida
Exploring Northwest Florida
Taking a tour of the Orman House with Ranger Mike Kinnett is like stepping back in Florida history with a resident of the period. His informative and entertaining narrative gives you a glimpse into the Apalachicola of the early 19th Century, but it’s obvious that his feelings for the house and its former residents are what made him 2008 and 2011 District 1 Florida State Parks Interpreter of the Year.
Throughout the house, Ranger Mike weaves his tales of cotton kings, the river and the town that became Apalachicola. He says that at least one of the residents may never have left.
Born in New York in 1799, Thomas Orman came to Florida as a young man and settled near Marianna in Jackson County. As part of a group trying to make the settlement of Webbville the county seat, Orman decided to take his family south, down the Apalachicola River, when the plan fell through.
Within a few years, Orman was well on his way to establishing his fortune in the cotton trade. He would buy loads of cotton as they came down river on steamboats from the plantations and sell them to markets in the North and in Europe. By the 1830s, Apalachicola was the third busiest port on the gulf coast and one of its main cotton exporters. European consulates based in Apalachicola negotiated with the prominent families competing for European shipping contracts.
By 1836, Thomas Orman needed a home befitting his stature. Like his contemporary and neighbor David Raney who built a home nearby, Orman began construction of a four-room house on a bluff overlooking the Apalachicola River and the docks. The framework for the structure was of local cypress held together with large maritime hawsers and wooden pegs.
Wood for the walls and finishing, doors, trim, and windows were manufactured in Syracuse, New York and shipped by sailing vessels to Apalachicola and assembled on site.
When it was completed in 1838, the house was one of the finest in the region and today is an excellent example of a Greek Revival style antebellum Florida mansion. With Federal style accents, the structure features carved magnolias and was furnished in Empire style. The wooden mantelpieces, molded plaster cornices, and wide heart-pine floorboards are typical of construction practices of the time and the granite steps off the front porch came from a cotton warehouse in Apalachicola which Orman owned.
The completed house was both a home for Thomas and his wife Sarah and their son William, and a place of business and entertainment. Notable guests to the house included business and political leaders, European consulates, an army officer named Robert E. Lee, and local friends Dr. John Gorrie, inventor of mechanical refrigeration, and botanist Dr. Alvin Wentworth Chapman.
When war was declared in 1861, William Orman, now a Yale graduate and Apalachicola lawyer, immediately joined the Confederate army. He served as a gun boat commander on the steamer Bradford, patrolling the shoreline near the Union-held Fort Pickens at the mouth of Pensacola Bay. Later he saw action at Shiloh, Stones Creek, and Chickamauga.
During the war, both Union and Confederate forces briefly occupied the house. According to local lore, Thomas’s wife Sarah would place a large nail keg on the roof to warn Confederate soldiers of the presence of Union forces.
Thomas Orman died in 1880 and William and his wife Anne and daughter Sarah (Sadie) moved into the house and built an addition to the rear which today includes the kitchen. By then, William was a Florida congressman and was instrumental in attracting the railroad to Apalachicola. He died in 1888, leaving his mother, wife, and daughter to inhabit the house.
The house remained in the Orman family until 1994, when it was purchased by Anna and Douglas Gaidy, who restored the old mansion and used it briefly as a bed and breakfast called Magnolia Hall. In 1999, Orman House was purchased by the Florida State Parks division. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Orman House is now opened to the public as a museum.
You’d think the story would end there, but locals say that perhaps Thomas or one of his descendants never left the house. There are many tales of footsteps on the stairs, door knobs rattling, and apparitions appearing. Reportedly one spirit is a butler who worked in the house, but that’s one story Ranger Mike isn’t telling.
Each year the house is included in the Apalachicola Historic Tour of Homes in May and Historic Christmas in November. The house is also listed on the Apalachicola Historic Walking Tour. Pick up a self-guided map at the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, 122 Commerce Street.
Orman House Historic State Park
177 Fifth Street
Apalachicola, FL 32320
Hours of Operation:
The house is open from 9:00 a.m. to noon and 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Thursday through Monday, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. The house is closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
Orman House Historic State Park is located on 5th Street in Apalachicola, off U.S. 98 in the downtown historic district, adjacent to the Veterans Memorial Plaza and the Three Servicemen South Statue. From Panama City, take U.S. 98 East to Apalachicola. At the stop light in Apalachicola, turn left and follow the signs to the house.
$2.00 per person, children 5 and younger are free.
An hour long history presentation of the house since 1838 is part of the tour. Tours are given at 9:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time.
Friends of Franklin County State Parks
P.O. Box 144
Eastpoint, FL 32328