Florida Seafood Festival Celebrates Golden Anniversary in Apalachicola

Most of the seafood we enjoy in South Walton comes from the Apalachicola Bay area - one of the world's richest marine estuaries. For true seafood lovers, there's no better place or time to celebrate delicious seafood and the rich heritage of the seafood industry than the annual Florida Seafood Festival on the banks of the Apalachicola river.

This year the festival turns up the heat, marking its 50th anniversary with a two-day celebration of fresh seafood, music, and art. The annual festival draws thousands of visitors to the historic town of Apalachicola on Florida's Forgotten Coast. The event will be held at the mouth of the Apalachicola River under the shady oaks of Apalachicola's Battery Park on November 1-2, 2013. Some of the notable events include oyster eating and oyster shucking contests, blue crab races, cooking contests, a downtown parade, 5k Redfish Run and the Blessing of the Fleet.

This year’s headline entertainment features Kellie Pickler, an American country music artist and television personality. Kellie takes the stage on Saturday night at 8 p.m. on the main stage in the park, followed with a fireworks display to end the festival.

Learn more about the history of the festival, event schedule, festival gear and more at www.FloridaSeafoodFestival.com.

To celebrate the festival’s golden year, the Florida Seafood Festival and SoWal.com are offering an awesome Apalachicola vacation package giveaway to one lucky winner. ENTER for your chance to win accommodations, festival tickets, dining gift certificates and more for the festival weekend!

Florida Seafood Festival story by Caron Spikes Myers

THE FLORIDA SEAFOOD FESTIVAL CELEBRATES A GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY

In the briny waters off Apalachicola, where the river waters meet the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida oysters thrive and survive despite hundreds of hurricanes that have passed by this coastal community in the centuries that folks have been here to harvest them.

Oysters. In this panhandle panacea, oysters are synonymous with gold. That’s why so many men, and now women, have risked life and limb delving beneath the water’s surface to find these delicacies. While oysters may be hard and craggy on the outside, inside they are soft and sensuous. Not to mention, delicious.

Which is why each year for the past 50 consecutive years, the oyster is celebrated with a festival here in this charming north Florida town that boasts a population of only 2,340 residents.

THE EARLY DAYS OF THE FLORIDA SEAFOOD FESTIVAL

In 1963, a group of eight men, all members of the local chapter of the Jaycees and Directors of the Apalachicola Chamber of Commerce, gathered together to contemplate what it would take to bring visitors to the town since the new interstate 10 was diverting traffic off the once-well-traveled highway 98 which passed right through the heart of Apalachicola. This wasn’t the first time the town had to find alternatives to boost its economy after another major transportation route was diverted away from the town. It happened in the 1800s when the railroad bypassed Apalachicola for Port St. Joe, 23 miles to the west. Both times, as transportation detoured from the town, so did the people and the dollars they might have spent.  

As fate would have it, Billy Spikes, a young marketing manager with Florida Power Corporation, led the charge to create a Florida Seafood Festival. The idea of a festival honoring the local catch had been tried before back in 1915, when residents celebrated Apalachicola’s bounty with “Harbor Days”. Years later, an Apalachicola Mardi Gras would draw visitors. However, in time, both festivals fizzled.

Spikes and his group of volunteers, along with members of the Apalachicola Chamber of Commerce led by Judy Hoffmann, would promote the first Florida Seafood Festival from Tallahassee to Pensacola and all points in between.

“Volunteers with dedication to the community made each festival a success! The first several festival meals were served “free”, just come and see us.  Helpers like Buck Siprell, CT Ponder, Papa Joe Toranto, George Wefing, Dr. Raymond Mabry, and so many others gave their all to make each festival a success. I am so proud of today’s volunteers and volunteers of all past festivals,” says Billy Spikes, now retired from the power corporation.

In 1964, the first Florida Seafood Festival was held on the first weekend of November. It was a success, to be sure, as thousands of new visitors trickled in from all over the region, gathering in Battery Park to taste the catch of the day – oysters, shrimp and fresh fish. From dignitaries, like state senators and cabinet members, to regular common everyday people, each enjoyed the fun, the food and all the festivities surrounding the event like the old-fashioned downtown parade and a “Blessing of the Fleet”. There were also pony rides, blue crab races and an oyster shucking contest all amid folk music and dancing.

THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY

As it has been on the first weekend of November for the past 50 years, folks from near and far will gather again in Apalachicola’s Battery Park as festival flags wave up and down US 98. The crispness of autumn will envelope visitors like an old friend.

“I asked myself what was the most special memory of the Seafood Festival,” says festival chairman John Solomon. “My answer was no surprise. It’s that the Seafood Festival brings together everything that’s great in this community in one weekend.”

And that sentiment is held by most who come to the Florida’s oldest maritime event.

At the Florida Seafood Festival you’ll see grandparents who attended the first festival now bringing their own grandchildren to the 50th. And friends who might not have seen each other in decades will reunite to rekindle relationships of old.

The Florida Seafood Festival will officially open Friday, November 1st at 10 a.m. Celebrants can enjoy more than 90 local artisans sharing their hand-made goods and delight in some 30 food concessions operated by area non-profits that cook and sell the local seafood,  most of which is caught the day before the festival. The menu will consist of plenty of fresh Apalachicola oysters on the half shell, fried oysters, oyster stew, fresh fried shrimp, boiled shrimp, shrimp gumbo,shrimp corn chowder, smoked mullet, smoked mullet dip and fried scallops.

On Friday, there will be the historic “Blessing of the Fleet” where fishing vessels and personal water craft will parade underneath the bridge and past the festival to be blessed by local clergymen.

“The idea is for the vessels and people working them to have a bountiful catch for the season and to bring all fishermen home safely from their journeys,” explains Solomon who has been the festival chairman for the past six years.

And speaking of parades, the Seafood Festival parade will follow the same route it has for the past 50 years. Leading the parade this year as the grand marshal will be Billy Spikes, now 78, his daughter Caron, who was in the first festival parades and her husband Danny “Chocolate” Myers of NASCAR fame.

As it has been for the past five decades, there will be an Oyster Shucking Contest. Apalachicola’s grand champion Mike Martin has won for the past three years and has gone on to win the national Oyster shucking Championship held in Maryland , even progressing on to compete in the World Oyster Shucking competition in Ireland. There’s also an Oyster Eating Contest. Last year’s winner ate 22 1/2 dozen oysters in 10 minutes.

Of course, the children will enjoy the carnival atmosphere and the Blue Crabs Races held for children 12 years of age and younger, where the blue crabs race back into the Apalachicola Bay down a race track. All participants take home a prize.

There will also be a 5k Redfish Run will begin on the steps of the Gibson Inn and traverse through the Historic District of the town. Apalachicola is one of the oldest, if not THE oldest town in Florida. All of these events are free to anyone who wants to enter.

On Friday night, there’s the King Retsyo Ball (Retsyo is OYSTER spelled backwards) where the fine Southern ladies and gentlemen adorn their finest threads to celebrate the king and queen of the festival.

Throughout the day on Friday and Saturday of the event, festival goers will enjoy the entertainment of  a variety of musical artists, culminating with Saturday night’s headliner, Miss Kellie Pickler, at the main Florida Seafood Festival Stage.

Saturday night ends with a large fireworks display over the waterfront. It’s an idyllic time in a magical place that many say looks more like Cape Cod than the Deep South.  

Morgan Martin, Miss Florida Seafood Festival 2013

“For 50 years, the Florida Seafood Festival has survived hurricanes, recessions and other things, but has fought through with volunteers like myself giving up time away from their families to make sure the dream of the first ever festival chairman, Billy Spikes, stays alive,” says Solomon who grew up only blocks away from event.

Last year, some 30 thousand people enjoyed the Florida Seafood Festival. With the 50th anniversary and so much more to offer festival goers this year, Solomon says he expects the crowds to be even larger.

“The vision has always been for the festival to draw people to the town of Apalachicola and Franklin County to enjoy our wonderful seafood industry,” says Solomon, adding, “I am happy to say that where other festivals and celebrations have come and gone over the past 50 years, we remain the oldest annual maritime event in the state of Florida and there’s no end in sight.”

Notes from John Solomon, Festival President 2013

The Florida Seafood Festival has survived for 50 years. When most festivals fizzle after years for any number of reasons, you might ask why Florida’s oldest Maritime Event has kept going strong for all this time. It’s simple… a supportive community. It’s the memories of our history and our heritage. It’s making new memories each year with more stories to tell. Another reason is the volunteers on the Board of Directors.

They plan the festival from January to November, giving up time from their families and friends. They do this for one reason - for the love of this community and The Florida Seafood Festival. Ted Mosteller has served on that board for over 40 years. If that’s not love, nothing is. So as you see the flags going up along Highway 98 and the fence going around Battery Park, remember those people behind the scenes that do it not for recognition nor for praise, but because they love this community and the history of the Florida Seafood Festival.

I want to take this opportunity to thank them and also encourage you to thank them. So to Tress Dameron, Jennifer Brown, Andrea Register, Ted Mosteller, Michael Shuler, Carl Whaley, Danny Gay,Kevin Ward, Pam Brownell, R.J. Shelley and Danielle Layne Thank you for all your hard work and dedication, none of these memories would be possible without you. 

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