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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Beach Music Through Time

March 14, 2018

WATERCOLOR, FL— Sitting here in the early morning dark of a rental house’s front porch— while my son and his three friends sleep the guilt-free, deep sleep of 16-year old boys who have yet to worry about things like jobs and family responsibilities during Spring Break—  it occurs to me that I have a long and storied history with this little postage stamp of the world they call the “Redneck Riviera.”

Until I was 30-years old, my understanding of the Florida Panhandle was almost always experienced through someone else’s family. My single-mom schoolteacher rarely had the disposable income for a beach trip. We had a small fish camp on the Pascagoula River near Vancleave that offered experiences for a young boy and his older brother that I wouldn’t trade for the best beach story, today. But as a kid, Destin was where “it” was happening. I had several friends who went often, and I was lucky enough to tag along.

Sitting and reminiscing on this cold, dark morning (46-degrees isn’t ideal Spring Break weather), it occurs to me that I witnessed the growth of this area first hand. I even lived here on two occasions during that growth sprawl.

My first visits in the mid-60s were to Dauphin Island— the east-end, red-headed stepchild of the Redneck Riviera. It must have been July of 1967, because The Doors’ “Light My Fire” was all over the car radio and the tinny-sounding transistor I used at the beach. As a five-year old, I don’t remember much about the beach and Gulf of Mexico, just that song. It’s a shame, because my father would have still been alive then. I think he liked Dauphin Island, Alabama because it was closer to our home in Hattiesburg, and he liked the fishing.

A year later we returned to Dauphin Island, which must have been quite an experience for my mother. Months earlier her husband had passed away quickly, just weeks after a brain-tumor diagnosis. Those were rough times in my family, and rough times in the world. Martin Luther King was assassinated two weeks after my father died, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated two months after that, and my mother was trying to keep the world “normal” for a six-year old boy and his 10-year old brother in Dauphin Island during the Chicago riots at the democratic convention.

The only thing I remember about that second beach trip was that my mom’s brother and my cousin were there, and The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was in heavy rotation on the radio station out of Mobile (WABB, I assume).

Widowed in her early 30s, with two young boys, and surviving on an art teacher’s salary, she made one of the wisest mom moves in the history of mom moves. She knew she wasn’t going to be able to play football in the backyard, she had little faith that she’d learn how to hunt, but she figured she could learn how to fish. In those days, on the outskirts of Vancleave, Mississippi, there was an area of the John’s Bayou Marina— and the lots leading away from the marina up to the main road— where a group of old Hattiesburg families had built fish camps in the 1930s. My mom bought a mobile home and stuck it on a lot in between two of those families. It was genius, and exactly what we needed— nothing so fancy that we’d stay inside all day, but clean and safe. We virtually lived in a boat on the water during the following 10 summers, swimming, fishing, skiing, crabbing, and jumping off of the rope swing at Pine Island. I wouldn’t trade those life experiences for anything.

Though while we were setting out trot lines on the Pascagoula River, eating at the Tiki Room at the Mary Walker Marina, and enjoying oysters on the occasional Baricev’s-run into Biloxi, the Florida Pandhandle was undergoing their second phase of growth which started with the creation of the condominium concept. Until the late 1960s and early 1970s, beach properties consisted of small hotels, motor courts with cottages, and A-frame beach houses on the shore— the Golden Age of the Florida Panhandle.

My family would travel with the Culpepper family— also from Hattiesburg, also with a fish camp on John’s Bayou— to Ft. Walton to stay at the Coronado Hotel on the beach. Dr. Culpepper had been one of my father’s best friends. His children were some of my best friends. The beach in those days was free of condos. No one had yet to figure out that one could build high-rise apartments on the water’s edge and sell them, turning land that, theretofore, was used to host a little more than four beach houses into a concrete structure that could house a few thousand people. The money must have been good because they started popping up everywhere along the beach. Small houses on the shoreline were out, Jetty East, Shoreline Towers, and the like were the new thing.

When I was invited on vacation with my friend Forrest’s family, they stayed at the Silver Beach Cottages on the beach in Destin. This place is probably my all-time favorite Panhandle property. It was patterned after the old motor courts with a main building— that served an excellent breakfast— overlooking the beach, a pool behind the main building, and small cottages with kitchenettes lined in a semicircle surrounding the pool. That is what I remember about “classic” Florida. I would love to own and operate a place like that today. I wouldn’t change a thing. The Silver Beach was the first place I heard Frank Zappa and David Bowie.

My high school years were spent visiting various condos with friend’s families. The condos proliferated, and the “The World’s Loveliest Fishing Village” and all its charm began to morph into a major vacation destination filled with high-rise condominiums. Pink Floyd, The Cars, Van Halen, and Boston were on the eight-track tape players in our cars, and TK-101 out of Pensacola was the radio station of choice while on the beach.

Between college stints, I moved down here and worked for a Hattiesburg man who had opened up a bbq shop and pizza joint that delivered. It was in the spring of 1983, and MTV was at its peak. Michael Jackson had just begun to break through the stratosphere with his “Thriller” album, but I was more into Prince and his album, “1999.” It’s also around the time I stopped drinking and started getting serious about the restaurant business.

During the early 1980s, the chef at Joey’s Restaurant in Baton Rouge— a classical French joint with a classically trained French chef who had cooked in New York at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center— was hired to man the stoves at Beachside Café, just behind Shoreline Towers in Destin. He brought along with him, several teenage boys, mostly my age, who were formally dishwashers in Baton Rouge, but hopped at the opportunity to live on the beach and become line cooks in Destin. Most of Destin’s food culture can be tracked from those young men at that restaurant. Many of those chefs still have restaurants that are up and running today, and the Panhandle is still benefitting, three chef-generations later.

During my 1983 stint, I used to drive east to a secluded, almost vacant area of the beach where a small planned community had just formed. Seaside held promise in my eyes. It seemed to harken back to the days of the beach cottage. The landscaping seemed natural, and the plants were indigenous, which gave the small cottages a sense of place.

A few years later, Watercolor was developed, and the idea that property “near” the beach (if it’s a nice house in a controlled setting), can be just as valuable as property on the beach if you develop walking trails and a bike culture.

I’m afraid this is as close as this area will ever get to the beach cottage concept of yesteryear. There are still A-frames that line the beach in certain stretches, and it seems the county on this end of the beach has stopped most high-rise development. Grayton Beach seems to have done the best job of preserving the original culture. Well done.

After Seaside, but before Watercolor I lived here for the last time before moving back to Hattiesburg and opening my first restaurant. The year was 1987, U2’s album “The Joshua Tree” ruled the radio, and I lived in a fully furnished two-bedroom cottage on the beach at Sandpiper Cove in Destin for $500.00 per month. I waited tables at Harbor Docks and has the stress level of a paper clip.

Even though the condos were fully built and crammed in as close as allowed, the Silver Beach still stood, and Junes Dune’s (a tiny surf shack on the beach) still served the best breakfast around.

My kids will never know that Destin. They stay in these houses off of the beach and hang out with the mobs of teenagers roaming through Seaside (to be honest 16-year old Robert would have been in heaven in that environment). The houses are fancy, which tempts them to stay inside too much. They listen to hip-hop music, which to me has no “beach feel” at all. I find myself being the old man that fills them with “back-in-my-day” stories about the beach, the music, the food, and the good old days. They roll their eyes— and mostly endulge me—  after hearing for the 467th story about when daddy used to come down here. “At least he’s not telling us about the fish camp this time,” they probably think to themselves.

The Silver Beach is long gone. A high-density concrete condominium sits where it used to stand. June’s Dunes was mothballed a few decades ago. That’s the way it is though. We create memories and we own them. Things are probably way better in our memories than they were in real life. My kids are creating new memories that they will bore their children with one day. These are their “good old days.” I’m just glad to be a part of it.

The playlist on this trip has been Beck, Bob Schneider, and Bill Evans. My son enjoys Beck, tolerates Schneider, and has no interest in Evans. I’m just grateful that he likes the Rolling Stones and the Doors. That will do, for now.

Note: Harvey Jackson III has written an excellent book on the history of this area “The Rise and Decline of The Redneck Riviera: An Insider’s History of the Florida-Alabama Coast” (University of Georgia Press) I have just started it, and it is very informative and entertaining so far.


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