The Highest Town in Florida

PAXTON—I am driving through the north end of Walton County on the way to Birmingham. The sun is setting. The rural parts are covered in tall grass, old trees, and mobile homes.

I live in this county, just south of here. When I was a young man, I once got a part-time job helping an elderly man who was from Paxton. He needed help around his house. He paid twenty bucks for three hours of labor every weekend.

It was decent money until he asked me to clean his garage. His garage was a giant abyss of ancient junk. I told him that I would need some help before I would agree to clean it. So he told me to pray for some.

Paxton is the highest town in Florida. It sits 318 feet above sea level, right on the Alabama line. The highest point in Florida is a couple minutes away. The place is a perfect example of Northwestern Floridian culture. You have Baptists coming out your ears, and Methodists, and Tongue-Talkers. You see cardboard signs on highway shoulders advertising “free puppies.” A middle-aged man on his porch counting cars.

There are 797 residents in Paxton, unless Sister So-And-So has her baby tonight, then it will be 798.

And do you know what I like about Paxton best? The little country school. They just don’t make them like Paxton School anymore. The school has been here since 1939. In its entire 81-year history a little over 2,000 students have graduated from it. Total. That’s how small we’re talking.

It’s a thirteen-year school. Kids start in kindergarten and attend until they’re seniors. And they are unbeatable, too. The agricultural program churns out prize-winning hogs. The boys and girls basketball program doesn’t just win games, they win seasons, and have players who make it to the WNBA. And don’t even get Paxton started on its baseball.

God, these guys are great. Baseball must be in the drinking water here. I once counted all the baseball diamonds in town and I lost count. I think it was six or seven. Maybe fifty.

Baseball is important to rural hamlets in ways that non-rural people could never understand.

Down in the south end of the county, for example, affluent high-schoolers drive Land Rover Defenders to ball practice and use three-hundred-dollar mitts. In Paxton, you have freckled boys who can throw a four-seam fastball through a moving tire swing from sixty feet, who wear a glove that smells like axle grease. At least that’s what I’ve heard.

There are batting cages sitting next to the Paxton sheriff’s substation trailer. You pass these every time you drive through town. In the summer, you see boys swinging away inside the nets, and nearby deputies reminding them to follow through.

Baseball used to be everything in American culture, but times have changed. Today’s kids go to martial arts classes and learn how to break two-by-fours with their foreheads. Or they play soccer and learn how to cuss in Portuguese. I’m not against such things, it’s just a different world.

Baseball fits with the belief systems of my people. It’s gentle. It’s humble, with no time limit. In baseball, a game can last five hours. You don’t need protective facemasks or shoulder pads. And if a fella wants to scratch his personal regions during a game, so be it. If he gets to the majors one day, he is still free to scratch away on national television. These are the things I like about baseball.

Right now, I am driving through this sleepy village. The water tower stands high, looking down on its ball fields. The town hall is about the size of a Tom Thumb. The town itself is four miles wide. If that.

I once wrote a story about Paxton earlier in my career—if you can call it a career. I’ll never forget it. I was watching the news when the announcer said the Bobcats boys basketball team had played the 1A championship game in Lakeland, and they played like lions. It moved me. I was so dang proud that I stayed up late writing a few hundred words about it.

The funny thing is, I have no vested interest in this school. I don’t know any of the students or teachers. I just live in the same county, that’s all.

If you know me, you know I’m a guy who never attended high school, I dropped out when I was a kid. How exactly I became a writer is a long story. I tell you this simply to say: I’ve never had high-school spirit. In fact, I don’t even know what it feels like. But I enjoy rooting for Paxton.

The next day I got several emails from local people who read the story. I’d never met them, but they wrote sweet messages to me as though I were one of their own. One lady invited me to her grandfather’s birthday. Another invited me to her son’s game. Somebody sent me a Christmas card.

I suppose that’s what you get from a town like this. If I would have written the same story about a school in, say, Atlanta, I wonder if anyone would have cared. Probably not. But small-town people are woven together like fibers in a cotton rag. They support their own, they love hard. And if you’re not careful, they’ll try to get you to clean their garage.

Go Bobcats.

43 comments

  1. GaryD - March 11, 2020 9:24 am

    I love reading about small towns like this. Go Paxton!

    Reply
  2. Greyn - March 11, 2020 10:57 am

    Dear Sean,
    Please ‘splain to me how humble and gentle that Ty Cobb feller was.
    Cleat Dodger

    Reply
  3. AUTigrr - March 11, 2020 12:00 pm

    Love reading about stories about what makes this country great & baseball. Did you ever pray for help or even attempt ti clean the garage?

    Reply
  4. gclifton1@charter.net - March 11, 2020 12:09 pm

    Small towns are indeed a treasure with many stories woven into that rug. I love them, too. My Dad grew up in Fairhope when it was very small, and it had its share of good stories as does Sylacauga, Al. where I live. In my opinion, To Kill A Mockingbird’s success is due to all the little side-stories that made the book come alive to those of us who love small towns and amazement to those in big cities who don’t have a clue.

    Reply
  5. Mary Ann Woid - March 11, 2020 12:30 pm

    I’ve grew up here moved back a few years ago , the old are going to heaven I hope this generation loves this place as much as we did , a lot has changed but the people are the same and we are good people, thank you sir,

    Reply
  6. Melissa Windham - March 11, 2020 12:37 pm

    Thanks Sean! Those are some of my people! Small towns are the best! Go Paxton Bobcats and Lady Cats! Love reading your stories!

    Reply
  7. Jim Sturges - March 11, 2020 12:41 pm

    Is Two Egg still around?

    Reply
  8. Billie Goodson - March 11, 2020 12:43 pm

    When I read Paxton, my first thought was their baseball team. We played them from a small country school near Andalusia. They were very good. You capture the heart of little towns in the south!

    Reply
  9. Richard C. - March 11, 2020 1:09 pm

    The best thing about Paxton is that Florala is just next door across the State line in Alabama. They play some pretty good basketball here in this little hamlet too.

    Reply
  10. Keloth Anne - March 11, 2020 1:30 pm

    There’s something wonderful about small town USA♥️♥️
    Thanks

    Reply
  11. Gordon - March 11, 2020 1:46 pm

    I know of Paxton;of Florala-for I am from that area (actually Florala). There are great folks in both those wonderful little towns. Love my “growing up” years in Walton and Covington Counties!

    Reply
  12. Courtney Jones - March 11, 2020 2:08 pm

    I so enjoy reading your stories, but this one had me smiling more than any other because my nephew is a senior on Paxton’s baseball team. He’s a freckled redhead—you’d like him! His brother played there five years ahead of him, and their mother (my sister-in-law) teaches kindergarten there. It’s a special place for sure. You’re welcome to come and be an honorary Bobcat anytime!

    Reply
  13. Steve Winfield - March 11, 2020 2:22 pm

    Shannon, Alabama is beyond small. It had a small ore mine from 1890 – 1927 that was managed by John James Shannon. I guess we had a school from then until the early 1980s when the county closed it. The school building I attended had 4 class rooms & went to the 6th grade. My 1st & 2nd grade shared a room & a teacher. They added 2 trailers & it went to 9th grade for just a few years. I went there through the 7th grade. I also attended Mrs. White’s Kindergarten. She had an 8 student maximum because there were only 8 chairs at her dining room table.
    Shannon’s not even on a lot of maps.
    The Robert Trent Jones Golf people loved the woods I grew up in. So much that we now have 108 holes of golf. But still no school.
    We got our first traffic light just 3 or 4 years ago. My family has been here since 1920 & even have a street named after us.
    I’ve been here since 1960.

    Reply
  14. Patti Davidson - March 11, 2020 2:46 pm

    Sean, believe me, if you came to one of our basketball games in our gymnasium, you would find out quick what school spirit is. Our baseball and softball games as well. The whole community backs these kids. Wether they are going to Lakeland with them or praying for them in our living rooms, it is a community effort. Patti Davidson

    Reply
  15. Johnnie B - March 11, 2020 2:53 pm

    Today I’m praying for all the small-town Paxtons out there. May they live forever. Because we need them, especially in light of COVID 19 and what could happen to us all.

    Reply
  16. Vicki - March 11, 2020 3:12 pm

    My father was Valedictorian of the first graduating class at Paxton. Now 2 of my grandchildren attend there. I believe the morals and strong sense of community make Paxton the much sought after school it is. Go Cats!

    Reply
  17. Glenda Hinkle - March 11, 2020 3:22 pm

    Paxton could very well be Fayetteville, Al. Right next door to the big town of Sylacauga, Al!! Our boys do love baseball and, I must say, our town grows ’em up pretty doggone good, too!! LOVE ALL your columns, Sean!!

    Reply
  18. Kim Rhodes - March 11, 2020 3:46 pm

    Two Egg is still where it has always been — On Hwy 69 in Jackson County, FL

    Reply
  19. Kim Rhodes - March 11, 2020 3:53 pm

    Some of the best small towns are located in the Panhandle of Florida. I went to one of those ‘thirteen year’ schools, Malone Tigers. One red light in town and where everyone knows your name.

    Reply
  20. Mamie Rasberry - March 11, 2020 4:25 pm

    My hubby was the agricultural science instructor at Paxton.

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  21. Linda Moon - March 11, 2020 4:26 pm

    I’m so happy you’re on the way to a high town in Alabama — Birmingham. Baseball and K-12 schools are among my fondest memories from around this town. I was just talking to a former student yesterday about one of those schools, and her memories were as good as mine. Last night I finished reading Chapter 29 in “Circle”….it began with a whim and ended with a prescient writer of stories and books: You. Go You!

    Reply
  22. Kathy T Johnson - March 11, 2020 4:38 pm

    I grew up in Paxton on Adams St. behind the school. I loved going there! Your story brought back so many memories.

    Reply
  23. Mamie Rasberry - March 11, 2020 4:45 pm

    I didn’t grow up here but became inoculated when the pump for the vat in the hog barn blew the top and covered me from head to toe in pig waste one year around Christmas. My husband was out of town so I was gifted the chore of taking care of the hogs and cows. No big deal as I fed them and washed out their pens. I noticed the vat was getting full so I called him for instruction. He neglected to tell me that I had to hold on to the top screw. I got it going and then boom! Once that thing primed it went off like a volcano. Unfortunately, I also screamed. (Folks, keep your mouth shut when eruptions like that happen. Trust me on this!) He drove up to find me soaked from head to toe, freezing, covered in pig poop. Paxton almost lost their AG teacher that day! All I could do was glare at him. No way I was opening my mouth again with all of that on me! I gathered some empty feed bags to cover my car seat, gathered what was left of my dignity, and sulked to my car. I could hear his laughter all the way to that baseball field as I drove away. Rasberry’s wife had enough that day!

    Reply
  24. Debra Galladora - March 11, 2020 5:07 pm

    I love your words

    Reply
  25. Tony mckee - March 11, 2020 8:30 pm

    I lived in paxton for years , walked to school almost daily .. The teachers at paxton were super .. Mr. Cambell , mrs powell , mrs smith , coach goheagen. Etc .. They gave us all they had to teach .. David mathis and i were such great friends .. Those were the days one can never forget .. And the jones lottle store right out front of the school was the best .. They were the nicest people .. Anything to go back !!

    Reply
  26. Melodie - March 11, 2020 8:46 pm

    Great story, Sean! I grew up in a Central Florida town of about 200 people, with just the main road paved. We had one Baptist church, a one room school house, a tiny post office run by two sisters, and a corner country store. It really hasn’t grown all that much over the years. The roads are paved and have names, now. That’s kind of strange to me. I’m the last one living in my family, and I, too, will join them in the nicely kept country cemetery when the Good Lord tells me. I like visiting there. So peaceful. If you ever want to hear or learn more about this still, nice, little town, let me know! I would love to show you around. It’s only about a mile long and wide. Wouldn’t take long. Telling the stories will take longer. 🙂

    Reply
  27. Kim - March 11, 2020 8:57 pm

    Love that! Sounds horrifying — but thank you for sharing. 😄😄

    Reply
  28. Liz - March 12, 2020 7:10 am

    <3 LOVE this Paxton love letter. You evoked this old lady's memory of Paxton a la 1970s. Back in the 70s when disco, miniskirts, sky-high teased hair dos and "Do your own thing" were the order of the day, my friend and I taught a modeling class on Eglin Air Force for young girls. Well, Paxton's school has a big Career Day every year and someone invited us to attend so we could open up the wide world of high fashion and beauty secrets to the rural kids. Oh how I wish I had a photo of the look of horror and fear on their faces when we pulled up. The entire Paxton School watched the sporty MGB sportscar with the convertible top down whiz into the tiny parking lot. Inside that frivolous tiny car were two blazing painted ladies whose hair was higher than the top of the open-air windshield and skirts were shorter than… necessary. 😉 It was a brief Career Day for the two Wicked City Ladies. We stopped at the old Ice Cream shop on the way home and some local guy asked if we were 'professional ladies' … wonder what he meant? 😀 Good ol' Paxton.

    Reply
  29. David - March 12, 2020 10:04 am

    You choose one person from nearly 100 years ago??? What’s wrong with you??!! And you do it anonymously!

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  30. NCS - March 12, 2020 5:40 pm

    I graduated from Paxton in 1965. The atmosphere in the school was like a family. The teachers were wonderful and treated you with respect and kindness…your success was their priority. Students loved each other and enjoyed being together. Once in high school you could walk to Mr. Adams store adjacent to the campus. From his small meat department he would cut you a slice of bologna or cheese. There would always have a loaf of bread open for you to grab if you wanted to make a sandwich. You could sit on the flour or feed sacks near the back of the store or go outside and lean on the building, propane tank, or grab a spot on the bench. I have such fond memories of my days at PHS and will always be proud of the Bobcats!

    Reply
  31. Allen - March 13, 2020 4:50 am

    My parents went to Paxton. I went to Paxton. My daughter went to Paxton. My grandkids will go to Paxton. Just a quick note to tell you what kind of place it is. When my daughter was a senior basketball player, I had to be away for work and was going to miss her senior night. The good people of PHS decided that I should not miss that and held a special senior night just for us. I still get choked up thinking about it. I have the video and watch it from time to time. I love that place and always will. Bobcat pride runs deep!!

    Reply
  32. Wendy Franks - March 13, 2020 10:47 pm

    Wow, Sean! Just wow!

    Reply
  33. Linda - March 14, 2020 3:15 am

    The highest point is in a Walton County but it is not Paxton. It is Britton Hill.

    Reply
  34. Ronnie Thomas - March 16, 2020 2:46 am

    Paxton and Sweet Gum Head Florida are two of my favorite places in all of Florida

    Reply
  35. Stephanie Parrish - March 18, 2020 9:45 am

    Yes, Jim. It’s still around. The only thing is Hurricane Michael did quite a bit of damage to most of the town. The grocery store is closed now. Michael affected so much during it’s path of destruction. Two Egg has always been a lovely little place. Quite a shame really.

    Reply
  36. Georgia Sasser - March 20, 2020 1:52 pm

    I once sat through a tropical storm during a Brantley HS football game. Cheering at the top of my lungs, a woman turned around and asked me who I knew on the team. I said, I don’t know a soul, just rooting for our team. I love HS football.

    Reply
  37. Beth - March 26, 2020 8:32 pm

    It sure is! My husband’s family has lived in Two Egg well over 100 years now. We have called Two Egg home for almost 39 years!

    Reply
  38. Mary Hicks - April 15, 2020 2:07 am

    Me and my brothers and sisters used to go visit our Aunts and Uncles every summer in Pensacola. We only have one left with us now and she has moved to North Carolina with her daughter. I live in one of the best small towns in America. It is called, Montevallo, AL. Go Bulldogs!! Thanks again, Sean. God bless you and Jamie.

    Reply
  39. Rand Baldwin - May 18, 2020 7:13 pm

    I grew up in Paxton. My parents, John and Monetha Baldwin, moved there in 1951 when I was three years old. Two years later, I started school in Paxton, where my mother taught home economics until her retirement in 1984, and my dad taught vocational agriculture, until he was elected Walton County Superintendent of Schools in 1960, a position he held until his retirement in 1976. My dad began teaching at PHS in 1944, and gave the PHS basketball team their name, “Bobcats.” I graduated from Paxton High School in 1966, then began a long trek through college and graduate school, where I earned a graduate degree in astrophysics. I now live near Huntville, Alabama.

    Reply
  40. ReDona merri - May 20, 2020 11:34 pm

    The
    Assembly of God is not atongue talker. I enjoy your work but this statement greatly offended me and sure others. ReDona Merritt

    Reply
  41. Jolie - May 21, 2020 2:32 pm

    It is 345 feet at the highest point not 318

    Reply
  42. Scottie Ates - May 23, 2020 12:30 am

    I am from that same county and spent many days in that small town called Paxton. I went to Walton just down the road but many of my friends went there and still live there today. Loved your story. Great people up there.

    Scottie Ates

    Reply
  43. Lori - May 23, 2020 4:52 am

    I hope Sean and you get together. I would love to read more stories about small towns and the way it was. As a young child, I spent many a Saturday night visiting my grandparents and listening to our families’ oral history learning about their backwoods and rural life. I plan to return “home” to the South and live some good years before I too live among my relatives in a little country cemetery located up a clay dirt road.

    Reply

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