A Bit of SoWal History

Discussion in 'All About SoWal' started by SoWal Buff, Sep 4, 2011.

  1. SoWal Buff

    SoWal Buff Beach Comber

    Sep 4, 2011
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    Chick Huettel is a long-time Walton County resident, writer and artist. He is a member of a number of local organizations including the Emerald Coast Archeological Society.


    The area we live in around Santa Rosa Beach will be celebrated with a knock-out birthday party on Sept. 11 and 12 at Gulf Place located at County Road 393 and 30A.

    Santa Rosa Beach was wild in 1910. It was probably the hardest place to live in the Florida Panhandle because it was almost like the old Wild West silver boom towns. Within two years, steamboats from Mobile and Pensacola unloaded wagons, furniture, trunks, animals, whole families, and a steady stream of European settlers with dreams of paradise.

    Dr. Charles Cessna and his newly formed company out of Chicago used the press all over the north to entice the rush of immigrants to America’s shores. Here was where a new life of prosperity awaited, not to mention the perfect climate.

    Settlers established grape vineyards, egg farms, pig and cattle farms (not ranches), sugar cane fields, timber cutting and turpentine stills, a bountiful fishing and oyster bay, plus groves of Satsuma orange trees.

    One enterprising fellow raised terrapin turtles for tortoise-shell decorations! One major hotel along with another guesthouse plus two stores were the anchor of the town. Three church denominations served the pilgrims and various social societies sprung up.

    It all looked good for about seven years.

    Then the cracks came… bad cracks.

    Florida crackers (established residents) had trouble with people who could not speak English. The promise in newspaper ads of fertile ground seemed broken. Men spent more time digging out mule wagons from the sand than in the fields. Timber was cut out. Debts were unable to be paid.

    The steamboats, many realized, were the money-makers, bringing in supplies and exporting what the farmers could raise.

    The struggle with mosquito sickness, impassable roads, and hardly any electricity tried the best of families.

    And of course there were the hurricanes, which this fledgling community had never experienced.

    While it was a devastating storm that all but wiped out the hope of farming, it was a shotgun murder that broke the final straw with villagers.

    All these stories await you when you walk onto the centennial grounds.

    Historians will tell the good and the bad as they showcase never-before seen photos that will make you wonder how Santa Rosa Beach and its surrounding communities survived. You’ll see a 1910 vintage vehicle that the rich were able to drive. The menu will feature food with all the fix’ns.

    Saturday is the birthday party and will feature various entertainers and concessions that mostly reflect master old time craftsman. Sunday is Heritage Day, and the old time bands crank up on stage.

    Even the Walton County Sheriff’s Office will have a display showing photos of lawmen who were gunned down in Walton County. As I said earlier ... it was like the Wild West.

    So pack up the family on your mule wagon, ladies put on your favorite bonnet and come show off your new dress from your store-bought catalog. Don’t trust the snake oil salesman, they never cure anyone. Heck, we may even have a dentist there for pull’n teeth. Many of us from various historical societies will greet you when you arrive.
  2. SoWal Buff

    SoWal Buff Beach Comber

    Sep 4, 2011
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    by Jennie Hobbs


    The remote island of Santa Rosa Beach with sandy soil and vicious mosquitoes made life difficult for early settlers, but some pioneers flourished living off the land, said Vernon Bishop.

    “My dad went up north for the first few years after moving here until he started his citrus nursery,” Bishop said. “He’d ship them away for a few quarter or dimes; it didn’t take much to live back then with hardly any taxes.”

    The environment might have been trying, but there was plenty to eat.

    “You farmed the land, ate what you grew and we’d go to the bay and get oysters and fish,” Bishop said. “It was a dead place, but there was plenty to eat and if you didn’t have enough you were just plain lazy.”

    The schools in the area have changed too.

    “We would walk to school and all eight grades were in the same classroom,” Bishop said.

    The first time any industry came into the area his family took in road workers during the building of Hwy. 98. One of the boarders sparked one of Bishop’s fondest memories as a kid.

    “It has been 73 years, and I still remember his name like it was yesterday, Oley Tedwell, he had a Harley Davidson and he would take me for rides when I was 12 years old,” Bishop said. “Oh my goodness, I loved to ride on that thing.”

    Vernon Bishop is the oldest living man born in Santa Rosa Beach, and his cousin is the oldest living woman born here, he said.

    Gilbert Ray, Chat Holley’s grandson on his mother’s side, has a lot of admiration for how “the old timers lived.”

    “Other than driving a school bus in his later years, my granddad fished, hunted and tracked; he pretty much lived off the land his whole life,” Ray said. “He and daddy always went into the woods together.

    One time, during Holley’s moon-shining days, “someone found the still and left a note telling him he better clear out,” Ray said. Unperturbed, Holley “hid behind a tree and jumped out when he came back there and told them ‘he could be in them woods if he wanted to’ and that was the end of that,” Ray said.

    Bishop told The Sun he was proud of how the town has grown and the work he did to make it happen.

    In addition to helping with the Lion’s Club and creating the Mosquito Control and Fire Station, he had a hand in many-a-barn building.

    “I helped build three churches too,” Bishop said. “And I mean work, work. Sometimes I would be the only soul out there.”
  3. SoWal Buff

    SoWal Buff Beach Comber

    Sep 4, 2011
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    by Jennie Hobbs 9/4/10

    The Santa Rosa Beach community will celebrate its 100- year founding near Ed Walline Park this week.

    For a look back and sneak peak into the Walline family lore, The Sun sat down with Walton County born-and-bred daughter of the park’s namesake, Adrienne Walline Campbell.

    “All we had back then was a volunteer fire department and no water pump, so as a kid I would jump into a truck and go watch it burn,” said Campbell, the only daughter of Santa Rosa Beach pioneers Ed and Jane Walline.

    Ed was the first constable appointed to the community by the governor. As a constable he carried a gun and was tasked with arresting criminals.

    “He walked in to the old post office and knocked a guy that was wanted over the head with a milk jug,” Campbell said. “He never liked carrying a gun and always tried to find a way not to use it.”

    Campbell described her father and founder of the Mosquito Control District as “very civic minded” and “issue oriented.”

    “We would yell ‘the one eyed monster is coming’ when the mosquito truck first started,’” Cambell said. “But there was no air conditioning and the mosquitoes, horse flies and dog flies were so big they would carry you off.”

    The “fog” trucks were not only used for controlling blood sucking pests.

    “In the 70s, my father was part of the movie Frogs; well he was asked to make the fog,” Campbell said of the cult classic, which was filmed at Eden State Gardens.

    Ed Walline was a “confirmed bachelor until he met my mother when he was 45; that was the end of it,” Campbell said.

    People “did not waste anything back then and they worked together,” Campbell said of her grandparents, who moved to the area in 1912 and were, among other things, sugar cane famers.

    “After they sent the crops to the mill, Chat Holly would buy the left over foam and go deep into the woods and make liquor for the weekend dances,” Campbell said of her father’s life-long family friend. These days Holly is better known for the road that runs parallel to Highway 98.

    Paved roads and bridges are luxuries that also escaped the early settlers, and Walline was always there to lend a hand to stranded travelers, according to Campbell.

    “People got stuck so often, my father would ride around with a shovel and boards in his truck to pull people out,” Campbell said. “When they pulled my grandmother’s casket up the hill to the cemetery in 1948 or ’49, it got stuck in the sand.”

    Old historic houses are not abundant in Santa Rosa Beach, a fact Campbell attributes to a hurricane in the 1930s.

    “After a big hurricane, a lot of people died and there was a mass exodus, so all the abandoned houses fell into disrepair,” Campbell said. “The old Washaway house was picked up and moved to where it sits on stilts today.”

    With no bridges, people had to be ferried back and forth.

    “The Charles E. Cessna was three-stories high; it was a wonder how it never got stuck in the shallow water or fall over,” Campbell said.

    Vernon Butler was another dear friend to Ed Walline until the very end.

    “Vernon was my dad’s best friend and when dad didn’t show up for a mosquito control meeting, he got concerned and stopped by the house, that's when he found him,” Campbell said.

    Born in 1909, Ed Walline died when he was 75 years old.
  4. SoWal Buff

    SoWal Buff Beach Comber

    Sep 4, 2011
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    By Deborah Wheeler 9/3/10


    Before the community now known as Grayton Beach existed, the Washaway house stood tall and proud on its beaches.

    The Washaway was built around 1890 as a hotel by McCaskill Land and Timber Company as a place for their crews to live, said long-time South Walton resident Van Ness Butler.

    “Through the years, it has been moved, angled and twisted about, but basically, it’s pretty much in the same spot,” said local historian Chick Huettel.

    As Santa Rosa Beach celebrates its centennial, the building is a true touchstone to the past. In those days, Washaway guests hung laundry from windows and the second-floor balcony to dry in the breezes coming in off the Gulf of Mexico.

    Butler’s grandfather bought the dilapidated hotel from McCaskill around 1920.

    “An old creek used to run almost under it,” remembers Butler. “And when my granddaddy bought it, it was about to fall down.”

    Butler’s grandfather hired a crew to jack it up and sold it to the Wickersham family of DeFuniak Springs in the early 1930s.

    “I had some good times there in years’ past,” chuckles Butler.

    While many older homes experience re-dos, the Washaway is a rarity in that it still stands pretty much the same with its original floor plan.

    “It keeps getting re-boarded, but for the most part, it looks the same now as when it was built,” said Huettel.

    Over the years, the structure has served a variety of purposes, even doing its part for the country during World War II, when it served as a Coast Guard station.

    Tankers from Texas on their way to England during the war passed through our Gulf waters. The Germans knew this, said Huettel, and U-boats were sent to this area to attack the tankers.

    The Coast Guard set up warrior stations along the coast to intercept any German spies dropped off by the U-boats, and to rescue sailors when our boats were hit by torpedoes. The Washaway was taken over by the military as one of those stations and used as a barracks.

    During that time, our beaches were patrolled by soldiers on horses and mules, which were kept at the Washaway.

    Adding to its checkered past, during the Prohibition era, Huettel believes the structure was a drop-off station for rum runners from the Caribbean.

    “They probably pushed barrels of rum off boats coming in from the Caribbean and they washed up on shore,” he speculates.

    Butler’s grandfather bought Grayton in 1922 and sold lots with the lure of “buy one, get one free.” His grandfather built Grayton’s second hotel on the beach in the 1920s, but it washed away in the hurricane of 1936. The Washaway, which earned its name from almost sharing the same fate, survived.

    The Washaway is currently owned by the Florence family and is rented through Rivard Realty as a double-decker vacation house on the beach.

    “I think it should be on the historic register,” said Huettel. “It has survived hurricanes for all these years, but I believe the Washaway’s days are numbered.”

    Huettel began visiting South Walton’s beaches when he was 14. He has made the area his home for 23 years, which is when he began investigating the area’s history. He is president of the Coastal Heritage Preservation Society.

    Other historic structures still standing include Point Washington United Methodist Church and the Wesley Mansion, circa 1893. However, both of those have been altered.
  5. SoWal Buff

    SoWal Buff Beach Comber

    Sep 4, 2011
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    By Wendy O. Dixon


    It’s Memorial Day, 2009, and local residents and tourists bask in the sun and bury their feet in the sugar-white sands of Grayton Beach. Children splash in Western Lake, trying to catch tiny fish by clasping their hands together. Sandcastles, rainbow-colored umbrellas and a few four-wheel-drive vehicles are sprawled along the shore.

    On this hot, sunny day, families are enjoying boating, fishing, swimming and sailing along the coast. Little do most of the people on the beach today realize it all could have been lost if not for a few dauntless and determined Grayton Beach residents who, more than 30 years ago, made it their quest to save Grayton Beach.

    The Friend – Betty Haynes
    Affectionately known as “Beachmama” to her daughters’ friends, “Beach” to others and “Bets” to the rest, Betty Haynes was the creator and coordinator of the Friends of Grayton Beach, an organization that was formed in 1974 to save the threatened Grayton Beach area from over-development and construction of a condominium complex. For nearly a decade, the group of about 140 members, who either lived in Grayton Beach or had seasonal homes there, fought to save its precious treasure.

    “(Bets) wanted to save the beach for generations to come,” Haynes’ son-in-law Billy Buzzett says. “She did something that would sustain over time.”

    Haynes’ ancestors pioneered Walton County in the early 1800s, and her family has been in love with the area ever since. She was born and raised in DeFuniak Springs. When she and husband Gap Haynes were married in 1954, Bets Haynes’ parents, L. Wells and Bessie Tervin Nelson, gave them a small piece of Grayton Beach land on which they moved a home from another location. They, along with their four daughters, spent every summer at Grayton Beach, which was how Haynes was given the nickname “Beachmama” by her daughters’ friends, who claimed her as their own.

    “She loved Grayton Beach, loved to swim (and skinny-dip) in the ‘Guff,’ and taught every one of her children and grandchildren to body-surf,” daughter Leslie Provow says. “In fact, it was at the beach where she made most of her memories ... her engagement, many weddings and family celebrations, too-numerous-to-count tea times at sunset, dancing and partying at the (Butler General) store, watching the pelicans’ graceful flight, and literally and almost singlehandedly saving Grayton Beach from the greed of developers, beginning in the 1970s and 1980s and continuing until she died.”

    While Haynes and her daughters were spending a day at the beach during the summer of 1974, they spotted an earthmover on the sand and suddenly realized their treasured beach was being threatened.

    “Until then, no one really thought about who owned that land,” says Haynes’ friend Bibba Jones, who was one of the Friends of Grayton Beach, says. “We were carefree, having a great time on the beach, and didn’t think that it could possibly end.”

    In that instant, the only thing they could think of to do to stop the earthmover was to get in the way –– literally.

    “We lay down in front of the earthmover to prevent the bulldozer from moving,” Jones says with a laugh. “They couldn’t do anything then.”

    Haynes and Jones, along with other supporters of the cause, came together to pledge their money, time and energy into saving the beach. And the Friends of Grayton Beach was born, with Haynes as the chairwoman of the group. She had no idea at the time that she would spend a decade in the struggle.

    She began by keeping a watchful eye on developers who were trying to illegally build on the beach.

    “Various (developers) brought in bulldozers, and every time she would complain that they were doing it without permits,” husband Gap Haynes says.

    Over the years, Bets Haynes wrote to every resident of Grayton Beach, asking for support in the form of money and letters to then-Gov. Bob Graham and the state Cabinet.

    Her aim was to convince the state to purchase the land.

    “All of Walton County will benefit from this action should it come to pass,” she wrote in one of her many letters. “By joining the Friends in requesting Grayton Beach be acquired (by the state), we hope to be able to save it so that future generations of Walton Countians, as well as those visitors from out-of-state, may enjoy it and have the privilege of always being able to see a Gulf beach in its natural state.”

    Haynes’ youngest daughter, Holly Barber, recalls her mother’s tireless efforts.

    “I remember Mom calling people, which I don’t even know how she had the nerve to do, asking for $5 or $10,” Barber says. “Every little win was a victory.”

    Haynes had no formal office — only her telephone, typewriter and a big roll of stamps.

    “What was so amazing was that she did this during a time when there were no computers, cell phones or fax machines,” daughter Kelly Buzzett says. “She put carbon paper behind every sheet in her typewriter to have a copy of what she sent.”

    There was a time when the Friends of Grayton Beach account had only $15 in it. But as money trickled in, Haynes carefully recorded every dollar.

    By 1982, Haynes and the Friends of Grayton Beach pledged $25,000 to help the state pay for the beach property. Although it was a meager amount when compared to what the state would need to purchase the land, the Friends considered it an act of good faith and commitment toward their cause.

    At times, Kelly Buzzett recalls, it seemed like all hope was lost. With every small victory came another challenge.

    “It was frustrating for my mom because the Department of Natural Resources approved all these developments,” she says. “It was like taking one step forward and two steps back.”

    But Haynes never gave up, according to her husband. And her persistence paid off for all of Grayton Beach.

    “What you see on the beach now wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her,” Gap Haynes points out. “She was not the only one (who wrote letters and made numerous visits to Tallahassee), but she was the main figure. She was the backbone of the whole thing. The Department of Environmental Regulation even called her and asked, ‘Just how much of the beach do you want us to buy?’”

    Haynes’ grandchildren enjoy Grayton Beach today — the way it was when she was a child. She died Jan. 30, 2005, with the satisfaction that she helped saved her beloved Grayton.

    “Her motivation was pure and simple — Grayton Beach was worth fighting for,” son-in-law Buzzett explains. “Her fight was personal. She wanted Grayton to be available to the people of Walton County for generations, including my children and ultimately my grandchildren.”

    The Attorney – Jerry W. Gerde
    As the leader of the Friends of Grayton Beach, Haynes needed an attorney. She hired someone who, at first glance, seemed an unlikely candidate for the job of representing them — Jerry W. Gerde of Panama City. Haynes was a lifelong Democrat and was never shy in voicing her political opinions. Gerde was chairman of the Bay County Republicans. Although they had different political views, they both shared a love for the environment.

    “The Friends were an odd lot,” he says. “They included bluebloods ... and then there were the youngsters, some who did not get haircuts, who believed in today’s values of preserving natural resources. It was an interesting collection of people with wildly different social and economic statuses.”

    Gerde was the third attorney Haynes and Jones interviewed for the job. They wanted someone who knew the challenges that lay ahead and would be ready to go to war.
    “It was David vs. Goliath all the way,” Gerde says. “I knew it would be a tough fight, and I knew it could last 10 years. A disagreement like that can, indeed, last that long.”

    Gerde’s firm charged the Friends a meager $55 an hour and sometimes went months without receiving payment.

    “We didn’t have any guarantee of any funds,” Jones says. “But he would have worked for free anyway. He was dedicated to trying to preserve that land. He knew our cause was just.”

    The case was never about money. It was about standing up for the average citizen who wanted to enjoy the natural resources of Florida.

    “The new constitution, which had been adopted in 1968, said all Floridians had the right to enjoy the resources in their natural state,” Gerde says. “But we also knew we had those crusty old judges who thought I was a revolutionary. They were tough times for the average citizen.”

    Haynes knew she had hired the right man for the job when she saw the vigor with which he represented the Friends.

    “He has been incredibly tireless in his efforts to help us, particularly when one considers our delayed payment of his bill,” Haynes wrote in a newsletter to the Friends. “... Jerry has had to spend a number of days in Tallahassee and in DeFuniak representing us and doing research in our behalf.”

    “Jerry said that he would send (the Friends) a bill but not to worry,” Kelly Buzzett says. “It was just to help with their fundraising efforts. He was committed to the cause and was doing it for free.”

    But Gerde gives credit, he says, to the dedicated Friends of Grayton Beach, who worked as a united front against developers hungry for money.

    “If it hadn’t been for ladies who are not alive anymore, who put on their Sunday dresses and loaded up in cars that were not air-conditioned and beat the dusty trail to meet with the agriculture commissioner, the commissioner of education or controller of the currency, none of this would have happened,” Gerde says. “It was a pretty thin arsenal to take to Tallahassee, but the golden cufflinks would hit the chestnut tables as (members of the Cabinet) leaned forward in their chairs in disbelief.”

    The Native – Van Ness Butler Jr.
    One of the few Grayton Beach natives, Van Ness Butler Jr., whose family has owned property at Grayton Beach since the 1920s, also played a major role in the quest to preserve the area. But initially, Butler was not a supporter of the Friends of Grayton Beach.

    “We didn’t see eye to eye on everything,” he says.

    Weary from the cold South Dakota winters, Butler’s grandfather, W.H. Butler, moved his family to DeFuniak Springs in 1907. Butler’s father then settled in Grayton Beach in the 1920s when the area was a vast plain of desolate beach. He built the first homestead in the area, as well as a general store and dance hall called the White Elephant.

    Everyone in Grayton Beach today knows it as Red Bar. The sign “Butler General” still hangs outside the building.

    “That was the place everyone would come to dance,” Butler says. “We had a lot of good times there.”

    When architectural firm Blondheim Williams and Chancey made a proposal to buy part of the homestead land from Van Ness Butler Sr., it intended to build homes and create artificial dunes and lakes across what is now a public portion of Grayton Beach.

    “(The firm) offered my dad a lot of money,” Van Ness Butler Jr. says. “And he thought he should sell it.”

    When word got out, the fight between the Butlers and the Friends of Grayton Beach ensued.

    “(The Friends) claimed it was their beach and didn’t want us to sell it,” Butler says. “But we bought it in the 1920s. They said it belonged to the people at Grayton. Well, it didn’t.”

    However, Butler admits that in the end, he and his father decided that their property at Grayton Beach should be preserved in its natural state.

    “I have to credit Hanes and her group for keeping us from making a bad mistake,” Butler says. “That wouldn’t have been good for Grayton or for us.”

    From then on, Butler says, he and Haynes worked together to rally the state to purchase the land and ensure that it be preserved for public use.

    “I kept going to committee meetings and (the Friends) really got behind it, and we worked together on it,” Butler says. “It all worked out in the long run.”

    When Grayton Dunes was formally dedicated, both Butler and his father were among those seated with the officials.

    “At the time of the dedication, Gov. Graham called me the father of the project, which I was,” Butler says. “Bets was instrumental in getting the local people behind it, but she didn’t do the groundwork behind it. For years, I went to committee meetings and talked to the bureaucrats over and over again. Bets attended the Cabinet meetings but I attended the committee meetings, which was where all the action took place.”

    The Governor – Bob Graham
    Bob Graham spent much of his childhood in Grayton Beach, where his uncle and aunt owned a beach house.

    “When I was a boy, we used to love to get up on top of the dunes and roll down as fast as we could,” the former governor and U.S. senator says of the now-protected dunes. “I grew up loving the beauty of that part of the state.”

    But it was not only Graham’s personal connection to the area that prompted him to get involved in rescuing the beach. When he became governor in 1979, he saw that Haynes and Butler needed his help.

    “I was concerned about what (development) would mean about the quality of the area,” he says.

    Gap Haynes says Graham was a passionate advocate and instrumental in helping from a state level.

    “Fortunately, our governor was very concerned with the state properties and parks,” he says. “He was very good about supporting us.”

    The state’s Conservation and Recreation Lands program, which was created by the Legislature in 1979 to save some of Florida’s landscape from development, annually recommends to the governor and the state’s elected Cabinet where government funds should be spent on private property to preserve land and maintain public access. The Grayton Dunes proposal was among 100 other proposals on the first list for discussion. When the list was narrowed down to just 40, Grayton Dunes was still among them.

    Along with the Friends of Grayton Beach and Butler, Graham encouraged the state to use money from the Save Our Coast program and the Conservation and Recreation Lands program to have the Grayton Dunes project placed high on the acquisition list, hoping to preserve the area in its natural state.

    “They were the leaders of the citizen group that was advocating for this,” Graham says. “There was a lot of competition for the Save Our Coast money, and they both advocated that this be given a high priority. They did a great job of advocating for the community.”

    A number of private agencies wanted to buy the land, and Graham knew the state could not compete with private money.

    The sale was being orchestrated by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation because the property was owned by a New Orleans bank that had failed.

    “We knew if it were put up to open

    bids we would have a hard time being competitive,” Graham says. “The (FDIC) finally agreed to let us make an individual offer.”

    Graham credits Haynes and Butler with getting the FDIC to make what he considers the single most important decision — to let the state put in the single bid.

    “He and Bets Haynes were a team,” Graham says. “She was good at getting the community involved and putting pressure on the advisory group for the Cabinet.”

    Ultimately, Grayton Beach residents and supporters prevailed. In a Sept. 11, 1984, letter Haynes credited Graham and the Cabinet with bringing their efforts to fruition and coming to their aid.

    “Thank you so much for standing up for the average citizen of Florida who loves its beautiful white beaches and emerald waters ... your mother would be proud!” she wrote to Graham.

    Haynes foretold the future of Walton when she said to a reporter in 1983, “Whether we like it or not, Walton County will experience a tremendous growth in the next 20 years. It is the responsibility of every citizen of Walton County to encourage and help our local county officials to seek out ways to manage this growth so that the reason for this growth … our wonderful natural resources of beach, bayou and bay … will not be overbuilt and overdeveloped in a hasty and hodge-podge manner, as has occurred in some of the neighboring counties.”

    On March 25, 1985, the dreams of those few who fought for a decade to preserve the land for future generations came true. Graham and Dempsey Barron, who represented the area in the state Senate, officially dedicated the nearly 900 acres that were to be incorporated in the Grayton Dunes State Recreation Area. The state paid $18.5 million for the property.
  6. SoWal Buff

    SoWal Buff Beach Comber

    Sep 4, 2011
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    By DeLene Sholes


    On my way to the beach each morning in the fall, I enjoy seeing what's going on in the neighborhood. Most of the visitors have left, and sometimes I'm the only one out walking. The little stream that empties into Grayton Lake was dry all summer, but now a trickle of water runs through it. Someone's building a house down on Hotz Avenue, and another one is going up on DeFuniak Street. When Little Louie's Restaurant is serving breakfast, I can see customers sitting on the deck upstairs, eating, laughing and talking.

    Grayton Beach has seen many changes in a short time. It seems that almost no time has passed since there were only fourteen families who lived here all year. It was so unusual for a car to come down our road, that when we heard one we would run to the windows and look to see who it was. Traffic signs and stop signs were nonexistent here. Until the late seventies, there were no houses west of DeFuniak Street, and no businesses or restaurants. All the roads were dirt, and we didn't lock our doors. The quaint beach cottages were in various stages of repair. Some were well kept, but others suffered neglect from owners who lived in other states and seldom saw their property. Many cottages were dilapidated, in need of paint and repairs. Most had one thing in common; screened porches that beckoned people to come and spend a lazy afternoon reading or sleeping.

    The only mailbox at Grayton Beach was the one in front of Helen and Van Butler's house. The Butlers and all of the summer visitors received their mail in that large box. The Butlers' well supplied water for the community. The library's bookmobile began parking at the old store once or twice a week sometime during the seventies, and people could visit it and check out books. We could buy bread, milk, bait, and ice at The Grayton Store, where the Red Bar is now. The store, sleepy during the day, came to life every night during the summer, when people of all ages, children and adults, gathered to dance, watch others dance, or catch up on gossip. Brightly colored graffiti covered the walls of the store inside and out, because children painted their names all over the building each year when they came to spend the summer.

    We knew almost everyone who came to Grayton Beach, and most of their business. Friends gathered at the beach during the day and watched their children play in Western Lake while they chatted. At night everyone got together at The Store. That was when children were everyone's responsibility. Mothers looked after their own children, and didn't hesitate to correct or counsel those that belonged to someone else as the situation dictated.

    Things are different now. We've lost much of the quaintness that drew us to this place. Most of our streets are paved, and restaurants and stores abound. Traffic lights and signs direct the strangers who fill our streets with cars, bikes, motorcycles, and delivery trucks. Everyone has a mailbox now, and our water comes from a public utility company. Palm trees have claimed their place beside native scrub oaks and palmettos. We have many more houses now, some of them multistoried, and some with the somewhat sterile look of well-kept, prized real estate.

    Less obvious than physical changes are the changes in the way that we go about our daily lives. Sometimes I walk through the neighborhood without seeing anyone that I know. The people that I see on the beach will probably be gone in a few days. The old store still comes to life at night, but now it's a popular restaurant and bar frequented by many people I have never seen before. Our quirky little village still somehow has the feel of a neighborhood in spite of the changes. That's one thing that I hope will never change.
  7. SoWal Buff

    SoWal Buff Beach Comber

    Sep 4, 2011
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    If you walk down one of Grayton Beach's oyster-shell roads, you may have the feeling things don't change very fast here. Pine and oak trees surround many of the old wooden homes, letting a visitor know the homes have been in place longer than the trees have been. This south Walton County village, which celebrated its 110th anniversary July 4th, 2000, stakes a claim as one of the area's oldest communities.

    Grayton Beach had its beginnings when an Army major, Charles T. Gray, built a homestead here about 1885, according to the telling of the village's history by the Coastal Heritage Preservation Foundation. At the time, the federal government owned much of the land and a few people had reason to settle here. The soil was too sandy to farm and there were better timberlands inland. The closest settlement was about five miles to the north, at Point Washington on Choctawhatchee Bay. Gray got some neighbors in 1890 when Army General William Miller and William Wilson moved their families here and mapped out where the village's streets and blocks would be built. The named their new community after Gray. The only building still standing in Grayton Beach that is thought to date back to about 1890 is a two-story home, known today as the Wash-A-Way, at the end of County Road 283.

    Around the turn of the century, Grayton Beach was trying to be a popular vacation retreat for families from the inland towns of Northwest Florida and Alabama. Reaching Grayton Beach from the north was not easy. There were no bridges over the southern parts of the Choctawhatchee River, and what roads existed were merely sand trails crossing miles of low-lying forests. Among those to make the day long trip from DeFuniak Springs to Grayton Beach in 1913 were W. H. Butler and his son, Van R. Butler. The Butler family was to become the village's leading promoter. The Butler family didn't intend at first to make Grayton Beach their home, Van R. Butler said in an interview before passing in 2000.

    Here's a picture from the early 1920's with Van R. Butler, Sr. on the far left along
    with some of his friends from the University of Florida, (l to r) Butler, Walter Dannelly,
    Rodney Gardner, Romulus Thompson, Hampton Burkett, and Bert McCall.

    The family had moved from the Midwest to DeFuniak Springs and there Butler's father worked with a real estate agent. W. H. Butler started a resort project near the Bay County line at Phillips Inlet. But when he visited Grayton Beach he found he could have the village's land at half the price of Phillips Inlet, and he bought most of what is now Grayton Beach.

    "People had pretty much abandoned the place, " Van R. Butler said of the Grayton Beach his father bought. There were just four or five houses."

    Building a family home and starting a vacation resort from nothing wasn't easy for the Butlers.

    "I didn't like it at all, " Butler recalled. "I had to cut out the woods, survey trails and stake it out."

    While the Butlers were trying to make Grayton Beach a resort, their neighbors to the east on Western Lake, the Millers , were grazing upwards of 10,000 head of cattle and any number of hogs on the open land. And the hogs didn't always understand where pasture ended and a home's front yard began.

    "The hogs were all over the place, " Butler said. "They would get under the house and have a big time."

    In the early '20's, Butler left Grayton Beach to study at the University of Florida, where he earned an education degree. He returned to Grayton Beach in 1926 to start his own homestead and teach, first in Santa Rosa Beach and later at the Point Washington school. Butler got back to Grayton Beach just in time to survive the hurricane of 1926, the same storm that is credited with creating Destin's East Pass and turning Choctawhatchee Bay into a saltwater body. The hurricane also swept out the foundation of Grayton Beach's largest home, giving it the name the Wash-A-Way. The storm blew away a good portion of the dunes, leaving the beach flat and hard enough, Butler said, that he and a friend drove a Model T along the shoreline to see what was left of Destin.

    The '30's saw Grayton Beach and SoWal County become much easier for the rest of the world to reach. Highway 98 was completed, the Highway 331 bridge was built and the Intracoastal Waterway was cut through Walton. As the '40's arrived, electricity was brought to the village by the Choctawhatchee Electric Cooperative.

    Encroaching civilization brought an end to the Millers' cattle ranch. When the state started requiring cattle herds to be fenced in, south Walton's days as a cattle country were over. The Millers moved their herd north of Choctawhatchee Bay to Freeport. In those days, Grayton Beach was almost exclusively a summer resort. During the winter even Butler and his wife, Helen, a Schoolteacher, would move their household to Point Washington where he was school principal. When the summer tourist season arrived, the Butlers would move back to Grayton Beach were they rented cottages, sold an occasional lot and operated the village's only store and Saturday night dance hall (site of the present-day “Red Bar”).

    "We'd have 100 people here on a Saturday night." Butler recalled. "People would come from as far as Destin to dance. There were cars parked all out there." Butler said a soft-drink salesman once told him: "The year before the war we sold more Coca-Cola than any store in Fort Walton Beach."

    World War II was something of a boon to Grayton Beach. In 1942, the U. S. Coast Guard established a 40-man station here, with the federal government renting many of the homes for barracks and offices. The Coast Guard didn't leave many permanent marks on Grayton Beach. In the Wash-A-Way you can find the name of one guardsman written in ink on the wall of a closet he used as a darkroom.

    Another wartime marking was the phrase "Grayton Beach" and an arrow pointing north, painted in yellow across CR 283. From the air, pilots used the marking to determine where they were, said Art Jones, a retired air Force colonel and member of the Coastal Heritage Foundation.

    Butler retired as principal of the Point Washington School in 1960, but he kept the honorary title of "mayor of Grayton Beach". Many of Grayton Beach's residents live in homes built by Butler or on lots sold to their families year ago by the Butlers.

    Political and natural barriers have kept Grayton Beach a village. What few efforts there have been to build large condominium projects here have met with furious opposition from most of the community's residents. Natural barriers to large-scale development in the quarter-mile-square community are lakes to its east and west and the Gulf of Mexico to the south.

    The state has done its part to keep Grayton Beach small by virtually surrounding the village with park land. In 1967, the state used its land east of the town to create the Grayton Beach State Recreation Area. In 1985, after years of lobbying by residents, Florida bought the village's beach front and the dunes and forest land to the west and north.

    When the state tried to trade away parts of the 1985 purchase for land at Topsail Hill, many Grayton Beach residents and neighbors howled in protest. The land swap fell through when the state and Topsail's owners could not come to terms.

    The most recent hurricane to bring the Gulf of Mexico over dunes and into Grayton Beach was Opal in 1995. Western Lake overflowed, leaving water knee deep in many houses, and had residents washing loads of sand and mud out of their homes. There was little damage that couldn't be repaired. Although dunes shifted, the 40-year-old-plus homes stayed put. Like those homes, people aren't easily moved from Grayton Beach. Once people spend a summer vacation here, they often find a way to come back.

    Butler's children---Van Ness, Janice and Gretchen-- have homes in Grayton Beach. Tracts have been set aside for the grandchildren.

    "We didn't have a lot of the so-called advantages, but we did right well by them." Butler said of his children. And Grayton Beach has done right well, too.
  8. SoWal Buff

    SoWal Buff Beach Comber

    Sep 4, 2011
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    Grayton Beach, The Most Beautiful Beach in America
    by Doug Pinkston


    Along the center stretch of Florida's panhandle, right on the coast, cuddled up beside a dark and warm lake, is a tiny beach town that has existed, in one form or another, since the turn of the century. I have known this stretch of the earth for 41 years, since almost the day I came yawning into the world. And while I've lived in many cities, towns and neighborhoods, this little stretch of pine, sand and lazy memories is the closest thing I've ever known to Home.

    I've always been just another onlooker along this beautiful beach, no flashy character, clever Romeo, or crafty artist who could paint well enough so that it seemed, when you caught the painting at first glance, or from the corner of your eye, that you could see in the painting the deep aquamarine colors of the Gulf of Mexico, or the foamy sea-spray crashing onto brilliant white sand. No, I added very little to the beauty and history of this place. The tracks I made through the back dunes were always quickly filled in with Gulf-blown sand, and the few fish I managed to catch there were easily replaced by larger and smarter specimens. I left along these shores only a few parts of my fragile and impressionable heart, a possession less substantial than a footstep. But I took with me from those dunes and streams such a deep feeling for the flow of the earth and sea that occasionally, when I'm half-dreaming, or distracted suddenly by a warm breeze whispering through some half-opened window, I can still smell the sour odor of mullet under my fingernails and salt water drying in my hair.

    A few hearty settlers first cut out a yard in these thick forests just before the turn of the century. Major Charles T. Gray built the first structure in Grayton Beach that amounted to anything (the Washaway Hotel, so named because it was nearly washed away during a hurricane) and provided the community with a name. Billy Bowlegs, the Pirate, was supposed to have visited the area and the older locals, those who could tell you the truth about when to eat oysters safely, board up for a storm, or where to drop a trap for blue crabs; well they'd tell you, if you could pry it out of them on a warm cricket-filled night, all about the secrets of Billy Bowlegs and the buried treasure; but they were taciturn folk and suspicious, and prying a secret from their lips was more difficult than prying open a fresh Western Lake oyster with a thumbnail.

    Recently Grayton Beach, Florida has been touted by some Professor at Maryland (who's supposed to know about such things) as the most beautiful beach in America. I haven't kicked a single broken shell on any of the other beaches on his list, nor watched the moon rise like a mirror over their distant fog-shrouded tarns, and so I can't tell you what the Professor really knows about such things. I can only try to tell you how it was for me to be in this stretch of the sand and sun, growing up, learning about love, adventure and beauty from one of nature's finest teachers.

    Part of the beauty of any beach town is the people who inhabit it and when you are young and impressionable all members of the female gender walk with sand-chiseled grace and symmetry; they are the most beautiful of all the beach-side creatures. I met a hundred ladies along these shores, and admired a thousand more, but the beach herself, in all her danger and glory, remained the only girl I could always count on. I remember at least four sisters - blond as sea oats and almost as thin - that grew up with me every summer in Grayton Beach. I knew them the way I knew every other face, as a passing memory which you might not see at all during the next summer, or perhaps only for a few days.

    I watched the girls bathe in the warm reaches of Western Lake where it pushed out through a narrow sandy pass to within spitting distance of the Gulf (the lake was not yet full enough to open up, any fool could see it'd be at least another week and a half) and on many a warm summer night I admired their sleek forms as they chased their old collie across the wooden floor of our beach-side hangout. Half-rusted ceiling fans would blow a light breeze through their straight, sun-streaked hair and the girls would shriek as they raced on, no destination in mind. And then I watched from afar as these thin, impressionable girls became women and, one by one, wives. I found out, when I was much older, that one of them thought I was cute; but I hardly ever spoke to any of them. I was way too shy, they were far too adorable, and my ambitions to catch the last wave of the day, search out the highest dunes, lead the latest expedition around to Miller's Cove - or perhaps catch a card game at Holman's Hangout - in any case there were a 100 reasons I could give for admiring their beauty from a safe distance.

    Such was typical of my forays down the shadowy trails of romance at Grayton Beach. There were many families like mine that spent great stretches of time there. We came to know their sunburned faces well, and even those folks that you never really met always seemed like old friends. They'd always smile at you when you passed them on the way to the beach, or when you met them at the community mailbox. We'd nod at each other and wink, as though we shared some delightful secret. And, of course, we did.

    My grandfather was in the construction business and along with his sons and daughters he built the house I often call my own back in 1956. It was - and is - a sturdy two-story structure made of rough, gray concrete block, rising up through the midst of a tangle of twisting, scrub oak. It never was a beautiful building, too plain and squared off to catch a painter's eye, but it was big, solid and quiet.

    Throughout my youth more times than not there'd be three or four families staying there, with dozens of kids racing through the hallways and up and down the stairs, yet you could always find a room to close yourself up in when you needed a little idle reading from the cheap paperback novel you'd come across in the musty chest of drawers where you'd unpacked your undershorts. Almost all of the original beach homes in Grayton Beach were constructed of wood, with wide porches spread out toward the ocean, the lake, or the front door.

    Dark and quiet dwellings, backed off from the four dirt roads that define Grayton Beach as if they held their own quiet secrets, the cottages seemed too unwieldy to withstand the many violent storms which the Gulf can deliver. Yet every one of these little homes still exist. I know them all, many of them inside and out, and I could paint you a picture right now of every one of them. Except, of course, I'm no painter.

    For most of this century Grayton Beach has remained a quiet, undiscovered place. Change and progress made their way slowly into the area though most of my childhood. Years might pass without the addition of a new home or a paved road.

    But Grayton Beach is no longer undiscovered. People with Real Money are building second and third homes everywhere. It used to be you'd have to drive five miles to buy fresh milk. The closest restaurant of any kind was Chapman's, a fried seafood house across Choctawhatchee Bay that sat about eighty people on a good night. Now there's at least four nice restaurants within walking distance of our house, including a Creole-style concept with white tablecloths, tile floors, fine wines and five-star recommendations (Criollas).

    A new subdivision is growing rapidly through the dunes to the west and five minutes away in any direction you'll find fresh seafood, imported beer and lottery tickets. Our place is still on Western Lake and the lake is still scenic, but you don't see the mullet jump like you used to - four, five, six times in a row, silver scales reflecting in the noonday sun - and all the catfish have long since died off. I've seen eight-millimeter films of myself as a two-year old, playing with my cousin in the dark, shallow waters. I literally grew up in that lake. If I were to pull a seine net along any shore right now I could probably count out every species of life that no longer would be found flipping wildly in the net. This is the price, I suppose, of progress.

    Just up the road in the past few years they've developed a place called Seaside, which the developer says models its homey architecture on the breezy old homes of Grayton. Seaside is a striking and beautiful beach-side community, with pink brick streets and pastel-colored homes. Inventively angled and stair-cased, the cottages have numerous porches and balconies, perfect for enjoying the Gulf view and a Margarita.

    At the end of each block are a couple of trees, a roundabout and a cul de sac. There's several wonderful restaurants and a small, artsy mall where jazz musicians may be heard playing on any Saturday night during the tourist season. It's a popular place to stay if you have money and you're trendy. We drive by there all the time these days and watch the Yuppies, the Nouveau-Riche and the Wannabies, and we admire their sleek forms and shake our heads. No one in our family will probably ever be that trendy or rich, but we'd never be envious. We grew up in Seaside, when it was just woods and wild hogs.


    There are so many stories from The Beach, as my family always called it, that one doesn't know where to start. But perhaps a few quick tales will help to fill in some of the undeveloped corners of the picture. At The Beach we had a place called The Store. I guess it was built and first opened in 1939, but for many of us the place had been there forever.

    For those us fortunate enough to grow up there The Store was as much a part of Grayton Beach as was the sand and the Gulf. When The Store was in its prime - I'd say almost the entire decade of the sixties, and a good half of the seventies - it presented a slice of Americana that is slowly and surely fading into extinction.

    The Store went through several evolutions during its era, but I think we all remember most those times when one half of the old, high-raftered place sold overpriced and undersized staples, fishing tackle, ice cream sandwiches and, of course, cold beer, while the second half of the leaky-roofed structure housed a spacious wooden floor, supporting numerous high-backed wooden booths, pinball machines and pool tables. (Now houses The Red Bar).

    From each booth you could sit back and sip on your beverage of choice and keep a careful eye on every visitor that might wander through the flapping screen door, or perhaps turn your eye outside, through a half-torn screen window, where you could hear the ocean rolling in quietly, and watch the sea oats wave in the breeze, and spy on the occasional pair of lovers that walked hand-in-hand toward the Gulf. Two or three pinball machines lined one wall and a jukebox kept the room rocking from the corner.

    Someone, sometime, began a ritual at The Store of carving or spray painting one's name, initials, hometown, university or valentine on any wall, ceiling, floor, or other exposed surface that seemed handy. If the original owners of The Store had ever objected to these practices they must have resigned from the battle quickly, for every wood surface of the place was covered twice over with these tattoos. Every scrap of wood at every booth was carved up. The Store must have been made of some stubborn timber, for I can't remember any of those booths ever falling apart. There were several cousins in my family who had the same initials as myself and probably all of us left our mark there somewhere, but I could never remember which one was mine.

    The Store was The Beach, because that's where the action took place. That's where things got most adventurous. It was a small beach town with just a few dozen families, but the locals from the nearby towns always came down to visit on the weekends, with their hot rods and attitudes, and on a warm Florida evening, when the Gulf is crashing at high tide in your left ear and the Rolling Stones are screaming "I can't get no . . . . satisfaction!" in you right, and that girl that you kicked sand dollars with on the beach earlier during the day has just walked in with two friends even lovelier than her, popping their gum and straightening their cutoffs, well, there is only one place on this earth to be. At The Store.

    I played pinball at The Store when I was a kid. I was obsessed with the ring of the bells and the knock of the Free Game. You could get three games for a quarter in those days and if you were good and knew when to shake it and when to flip it and when to tag the Eight-Ball flag when the Double -Special was lit up, you could really 'beat the machine', unlike today's games which are filled with a thousand lights and sounds, but require a zillion points for a free game. Many times we filled up the replay counter and 'turned it over'. "Ssschnoooock!" Hah! A match. Sometimes they'd run us out of there when The Store closed and we'd have to wait on the doorstep the next morning so we could play off the games still registered on the machine.

    The Store anchored the dreams of every young person lucky enough to spend much time there. The summer after my freshman year in college I spent two weeks in Grayton Beach with two of my best friends.

    It turned out, the second week we were there, three young debutantes from Alabama showed up. Almost every night we saw them at The Store, ready to dance to ZZ Top or David Bowie, if only they could find a partner. The Store was certainly past its prime - the age of the big discos had erupted along the Florida coastline, as it had across the rest of America - but for me, The Store was still the best game in town. We wore tight jeans and T-shirts and we knew all the tunes, but only one of us was cool enough to make the grade. His last name was Hamlett and he was a pensive and poetic soul who smoked Marlboros and combed his dark hair straight back.

    She was blonde, and slim, and a great dancer, but Hamlett was much too shy. When she asked him for a light he missed his chance. We talked to them, flirted with every new breeze, and tried our best to dance, barefooted and tipsy. But we never kissed. I can still see them leaning over the jukebox to pick out a song, their bare feet rubbing across the sandy wood floor. They knew we'd never see each other again and they knew for sure that we were interested in only one thing. Not to be. I suppose.

    That is but one person's tale of The Store. Everyone has their collection. There is something about a beach town that fills the air with innocence, youth and romance. Perhaps it has something to do with so many visitors miles away from their ordinary duties. Perhaps it is the warm air and the undersized beachwear. Perhaps it is the incessant cry of the ocean carried on the ocean breeze, filling the air with the infinite dreams and possibilities of the planet.


    Times have changed. Grayton Beach, Florida, like hundreds of beach towns along America's coasts, used to sit in the middle of an undeveloped wilderness. There are fresh water springs all along this stretch of the Panhandle, which meet with the tides of the Gulf of Mexico to form brackish water bays, estuaries and lakes. When the rich minerals of the sea mix with the fresh, earthy springs of the inland it tends to harbor a harsh and hearty collection of flora and fauna. There were large alligators at one time roaming these lakes.

    The 14-foot hide which used to hang from a tree across from the Miller's old home lay ready evidence to this fact. Even in my day, however, you could find yourself face-to-face with more than one of these shy reptiles. On one ill-advised expedition my cousin and I decided to paddle on a surfboard across the lake into a narrow channel in the marsh. Just as we rounded a turn we found ourselves looking across a scant fifteen yards at two large eyes and a snout protruding from the shallow, black water. We backed out of there quietly, under the reptiles' watchful eye.

    Nobody was looking for trouble on that lazy afternoon. Another time I was treading water just off the end of our dock, trying to cool off from the mid-afternoon sun (even though the lake water was often was warm as a bath) when suddenly my buddy jumped up from the bench hollering, pointing to an alligator. I leapt from the water onto the dock in what seemed at the time a single movement. But it was a harmless 'gator, only about five feet long, the one my grandfather had named Jack Daniels. Ol' Jack backed away from us cautiously, eyeing us both with an amused grin.

    I've known kids who were bitten by water moccasins in that lake, and seen a few moccasins myself. My cousins delighted in killing rattlesnakes whenever they came across one. They'd drag it, headless, down to the dock, for a proper skinning. I've heard the sounds of wild boar running across our back yard in the middle of the night, tripping the bell-rope that our Grandfather had set up. Of course he'd grab up his old shotgun and, in his boxer shorts and robe, wander to the edge of the woods looking for the rascal.

    Thin, barky pines grew out of the sandy soil, surrounded by palmetto bushes with fronds as sharp as saws. Needle-grass ringed much of the lake, with needle-like points at the end of each reed, on guard to turn you into a sieve if you accidentally fell into them while fishing, prospecting, or water-skiing. You could catch your foot on any number of snares: small cactuses which grew everywhere from the beach back through the woods; spurge nettles, the plant we called the 'itchy-*****y' (a small white flower with raspy leaves and poisons that could infect an unsuspecting wanderer with a two-hour itch); or perhaps you'd step into a collection of dried out sand spurs and spend the next twenty minutes extricating your feet.

    Western Lake, which establishes the eastern boundary of Grayton Beach, is a dark lake, the color of tea, and the bottom is made up mostly of black, gushy mud, hiding blue crabs, shrimp, barnacles, old motors, and oysters with edges sharper than razors. Almost everybody I knew could display one or more proud scars from a careless encounter with a Western Lake oyster or a barnacle, or a half-rusted tin can. Because the lake opened up to the Gulf every month of so, the dangers of the sea would often drift in with the tide.

    I've witnessed small sharks swimming into the pass from the Gulf, and once I made the mistake of gigging a leathery stingray along the lake shore at full moon. The catfish that used to inhabit the lake were a nasty strain as well. One time I stepped on a dead cat lying upright on the dock. It took half a minute to sling it off my foot, and I remember yelping in pain as I hopped up the hill toward the house where my mother awaited (in the front yard probably, hanging out laundry) ready to heal all wounds.

    The most bothersome of all the creatures were probably the tiniest. The humid climate of the subtropics provides a lush breeding ground for insects. I remember the images of dragonflies performing their mating dance above every still pond or puddle; horseflies, yellow-flies and mosquitoes swarming brazenly at early nightfall (well-tutored in the clever art of gliding in on every unguarded centimeter of flesh); and brown bats diving for supper up and down the dirt roads and alleys. The woods were rich with life. At night the songs of crickets, toads, cicadas and owls would rise up and harmonize with the rolling melodies of the Gulf, bringing to full gestation every wild dream in a young boy's head, until the weariness of the day's activities would inevitably pull him down toward other dreams.

    As for the thunderstorms! Well, you have to have witnessed the power of a sudden Florida thunderstorm to fully appreciate the excitement and fury that a small storm, rolling up the coastline unannounced, can produce. You have to have known the experience of being half-asleep at daybreak, rolled up against the screen of the sleeping-porch, trying to catch the last few cooling breezes of the night, when the sound and brilliance of a lightning bolt suddenly strikes, sizzling and crackling it is so close, and then just a moment behind it comes the inevitable BOOM!, a sound not unlike a cannon going off inside your hallway.

    The air is so full of electricity you can feel it in you hair, and you pull yourself under whatever covers you can find and peek out just a little, listening, listening, hoping the next bolt won't strike so close, but of course it does strike close - too close - and the thunder explodes into a series of ghostly reverberations, as though it were the voice of some long forgotten deity. The rain and wind will soon roll in behind the lightning and the storm will disappear as quickly as it appeared. The air will be suddenly cool, your bed more warm and inviting, and within minutes the lawn will be dry once more. There's no place to hide, of course. You can only take a deep breath of the fresh air, roll over into your soggy pillow and say a prayer.

    Looking back, it would be hard to invent a more dangerous environment for an energetic and curious boy to grow up in. Yet, for all the perils, parents thought little of allowing their children to run un-chaperoned throughout the wildest reaches of Grayton, as long as they made it to someone's house for supper, and headed for home when The Store closed. I guess we all looked after each other back then.

    Today, while mostly its the same kind of folk who wander the beach, it's a different world. There's hardly a chance you'll run into a red-tailed fox sniffing at your campfire, or even that a stray skunk will chase all the neighbors indoors. And out beyond our house, where there used to be woods so thick you couldn't travel through them, you see mostly backyards now, and beach homes. They are clearing land for new subdivisions every day. But civilization presents other dangers. We are more cautious these days, and suspicious. Times have changed.


    Of all that is unique and special about Grayton Beach, most first time visitors will remark about only two things: the sand and the water. The sand is most often described as sugary. It is an appropriate description for the sand is perfectly white and crystalline. The remains of quartz rock, pulverized to small grains by years of tumbling waves and blowing wind, the sand is deep and soft, so soft that bare feet will sink into it up to the ankle.

    Along the sides of the dunes the wind-blown sand is unpacked. As youngsters we delighted in jumping from the tops of eighty-foot dunes into the silky and sheltering cushion. Most of those dunes are gone now, bulldozed to make room for subdivisions, or washed away by hurricanes.

    About every couple of weeks, when the mood was right, the stars were aligned, and the driftwood had washed up providently, we'd pitch a bonfire out on the dunes. We'd usually place it in the bowl of four high dunes, or sometimes, if the wind was calm, out on the clear stretches of sand. Wherever the fire finally got lit, it would always attract everyone that had an eye for adventure or romance.

    A few adults would usually show up to keep things in order, organize the roasting of wieners and marshmallows and tell old stories, while the youngsters would race up and down the dunes, chasing every shadow and sound, leaving the teenagers to wander lustfully throughout the sea oats and shadows. Romance and wanderlust circled the bonfire like lightning bugs in a mating dance.

    No pollution or township light diluted the night sky. At midnight it was easy to lay your head back on the soft pillow of a nearby dune and marvel at the brilliant clarity of the Milky Way, so filled with starlight that indeed it looked milky, abandonding your wishes and cares to rise up with the spark and sparkle of the bonfire into the farthest reaches of the universe. There was nothing more invigorating than the whispering rumors of a bonfire at Grayton Beach, nothing more encapsulating of the spirit that was The Beach.

    The sands along all beaches are restless; they are shaped by the wind and rain, growing vicariously with each seedling or stray log of driftwood. But along this stretch of Florida's coast the sand is about as soft and white as it comes. Photographs of these beaches may resemble any number of landscapes, depending on the time of day and how the light hits the sand. Often the beach looks like a rolling field covered with deep snow, or occasionally - most often near sunset, when the light is full of reds and browns - the dunes could easily be imagined to exist on some distant, uninhabited planet. On this planet, however, there is probably no beach anywhere that has sand as pleasant and comfortable for the sightseer, the explorer, or the sunbather. It is mostly the sand people talk about when they use superlatives to describe Grayton Beach. Only the beautiful greens and blues of the Gulf of Mexico can balance such splendor.

    Like the welcoming sand, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico seem perfectly designed for any visitor in search of natural beauty and relaxation. The sea-bottom is made up of the same soft sand and it slopes out gently, so that on many days, if you hunt down the right sand bar, you can walk out a hundred yards or more. The waves are almost always mild, a drawback if you're a surfer, but a wonderful benefit if you have children to keep track of.

    The Gulf waters pose few hazards to children or adults alike. Worst you can point out are the little fish that insist on nibbling at your toes in the shallow waters. Though sometimes seaweed will drift in with the Gulf stream (usually its a green, rather slimy variety, or perhaps sargassum seaweed) mostly the water is crystal clear. At midday the Gulf water is a brilliant emerald color which fades into a deep blue as the water deepens. The light surf rolls in quietly, providing a modest background roar, just audible at every reach of Grayton Beach, a reminder to everyone to slow things down, and whatever project you were thinking about, it can wait a little while.

    This is a little of what I remember about the most beautiful beach in America. There are a hundred stories for every tale that is told, but they'll have to wait for now. For me, the memories are timeless. In my life I'll always hear the light whistling of the Gulf as it splashes in the distance from where I lay curled up on a flimsy bed near a flapping screen. And I'll always hear the sound of footsteps racing across the sandy wood floor of The Store. And late at night, fresh out of a dream, I'll suddenly remember my childhood, and I'll hear the sounds of crickets and toads in the woods, singing to me of romance, beauty, and the vanishing wilderness.
  9. SoWal Buff

    SoWal Buff Beach Comber

    Sep 4, 2011
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    Walton County was founded in 1824 and originally was comprised of more than 2,900 square miles including parts of Okaloosa, Washington, and Holmes counties. The first census in 1830 showed the county having a population of 1,207.

    Euchee and Creek Indians originally inhabited the area. In 1808, the first non-Native American settlers came to the area from Scotland.

    In 1890, the sawmill town of Point Washington was founded marking the first economic engine in the area - timber. The same year, Grayton Beach was also platted, marking the next great economic engine that would eventually define the county - tourism.

    In the 1700's and 1800's the Muscogee / Creek / Euchee Indians lived in and around the DeFuniak Springs area. Lake DeFuniak area was known as Big Pond. Some of these Native American families are still in the area today. Members of the Muscogee Nation of Florida live in and around DeFuniak Springs.

    In the 1880's, a surveying party comprised of Colonel W.D. Chipley, Major W.J. VanKirk and W.T. Wright came to a tired halt near a round lake in the heart of a virgin forest. They explored and rested at the site of what is now Lake DeFuniak. Colonel W.D. Chipley, so overwhelmed by the beauty set forth before him, exclaimed, "here a town shall be built!" This was when they first envisioned DeFuniak Springs known as Lake DeFuniak, in honor of Fred R. DeFuniak, who had held many high offices in the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, including that of General Manager. Later, the park around the lake was named Chipley Park, in honor of William Dudley Chipley. Today, Lake DeFuniak is said to be one of two perfectly round lakes in the world.

    Under an order from Colonel W.D. Chipley, the area known as Lake DeFuniak was preserved and a station was built there. With the establishment of the station at Lake DeFuniak, people moved up from Euchee Anna and Alaqua and built homes near the lake.

    At the same time that the Chautauqua organization received its charter in 1855, the Legislature created the Lake DeFuniak Land Company with Chipley in charge and the real estate boom was on. Today a permanent carousel of homes can be found around the lake which would envision a walk into Victorian times when labor and materials were plentiful and elaborate architectural details were incorporated.
    De Funiak Springs Library

    The Walton-DeFuniak Library was established in 1886. It is the second oldest in Florida, with only the library in St. Augustine considered as being older. However, some facts have come to light recently which prove that our library is the oldest in the state that was built as a library and still continues to be used as such.

    On March 4, 1881, the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad was incorporated by an act of the Florida Legislature. The purpose of the act was to construct a 70-mile road from the northwest corner of Florida, near Flomaton, Alabama, where it would join the trackage of what started as the Pensacola and Selma Railroad. This was later in the control and ownership of the Louisville & Nashville, to a connection with the existing Seaboard. Colonel Chipley, in an address delivered in 1896, noted that he had been a member of the 1881 surveying party and that they had camped on the shore of a large pond in Walton County. Being enamored of the spot, Chipley ordered that the area be preserved and that a station be built there.
    Chautaqua Building

    The City of DeFuniak Springs is the current owner of The Depot Station located on 1140 Circle Drive. The Walton County Heritage Association has transformed it into a Museum with Historical items from Walton County to include DeFuniak Springs. Also The Walton County Heritage Association handles the Caboose and Information Center on Circle Drive. For their hours of operation or other information please contact them at 850-951-2127.

    The Historic Chautauqua Building is also owned by the City of DeFuniak Springs and is located at 96 Circle Drive. The Chautauqua Building (A.K.A. Hall of Brotherhood) was established in 1909 and served as an enclosed amphitheater. The building was fully equipped with foot lights and dissolving color effects for the presentation of many plays and grand concerts. This large portion of the auditorium was severely damaged during a hurricane in 1975 and was subsequently removed. Remaining portions of the building have been restored and continue to serve as a focal point of the community, being used for a wide variety of activities.
  10. SoWal Buff

    SoWal Buff Beach Comber

    Sep 4, 2011
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    history-1 (5).jpg
    Seagrove Market pictured in the 80s - built 1949

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    View of Western Lake from Grayton Hotel

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    Grayton Hotel

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    Butler Store at Grayton Beach, currently the Red Bar
  11. florida girl

    florida girl Beach Fanatic

    Feb 3, 2006
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    Santa Rosa Beach
    Ed died in 1975, he was 65.
  12. Jim Tucker

    Jim Tucker Beach Fanatic

    Jul 12, 2005
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    Got any stories?
  13. MRBS

    MRBS Beach Lover

    Jun 5, 2008
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    Thanks so much for posting this. Wonderful information to share. Love the history! Thank you.
  14. florida girl

    florida girl Beach Fanatic

    Feb 3, 2006
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    Santa Rosa Beach
  15. RiverOtter

    RiverOtter got any pics?

    Nov 15, 2004
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    Chattanooga, Tennessee, United States
    :scratch: Wonder if it was hot in that hotel......
  16. florida girl

    florida girl Beach Fanatic

    Feb 3, 2006
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    Santa Rosa Beach
    Not really. Cool breezes and lots of open windows, high ceilings, elevated foundation.
  17. SoWal Buff

    SoWal Buff Beach Comber

    Sep 4, 2011
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    Is there a thread about the Seagrove Villas?
  18. Kurt Lischka

    Kurt Lischka Admin Staff Member

    Oct 15, 2004
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  19. Kaydence

    Kaydence Beach Fanatic

    Jan 19, 2017
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    I hope someone has taken the time to mail these stories to beachissues@co.walton.fl.us If not say the word and I'll inundate them. :)
  20. Dawn

    Dawn Beach Fanatic

    Oct 16, 2008
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    Only if they share here.

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