Does "Old Florida" still exist? Some say it doesn't, that its face has grown dim and may soon be gone altogether. That thought is crushing. Instead, I would say, "But the soul, the soul, is never gone." It's a daily meditation for me to dial it all in and see, hear, smell, feel, and enjoy the essence of Old Florida. I love it so deeply that I refuse to trade it for something I don't recognize as home. Although "Old Florida" will never be narrowed down to an agreed-upon meaning, "Old Florida" is a live version of the state's borderless past.
What do we crave when we reminisce on the idea of Old Florida?
We could get lost in pre-Columbian times when over 350,000 American Indians inhabited Florida and flourished across the state. Or a Florida in the 1500s during explorer Ponce de Leon's heyday. St. Augustine was founded, and Spain (explorers Narvaez and Hernando de Soto...) widely reigned over Florida until Britain came along and then back again to Spain. Later Florida became a territory and part of the United States in 1845. Yellow fever ravished the state throughout. I think of headstones in the historic Chestnut Cemetery here in Apalachicola -- some marked with death dates as early as 1831. Many intersections of a very old Florida are just beyond our routine. Paddleboats, schooners, colossal cypress trees, lush unruly vegetation, trophy fish and turtling, panther hunts, wild natural weather conditions, heat, insects, and fires – a frontier land in its own right.
My grandfather, whom I knew as my "Papa," was born in 1915, only seventy years after Florida was ceded to the United States and just seven years after Ford made the Model T. Hard to wrap my brain around the time in Florida in which he was born, his stories of life then were so rich. There's a story about the first manatee they ever saw and about him staying at The Gibson Inn. The Raffield family lived and fished at Crooked Island - now just west of Mexico Beach and encompassed in Tyndall Air Force Base. It's easy to spot the big oak trees and lone palms that made up their homestead from a nearly bumper-to-bumper Hwy 98. Salt mullet and wide porches.
Or is it a vision of the 1920s when developers and vacationers found Florida first. The great Florida Land Boom, as it's called. Everyone wanted to be in Florida, even if only for a moment; they were drawn to the water and the shoreline, and their energy doubled with the serenity and sunshine they found. Families traveled for miles to visit. Real estate moguls found their match. We soon had juke joints, piers, cane pole fishing, party boats, and even traditional shuffleboard in parts of the state.
In the 1930s, Florida fell victim to The Great Depression, and many say that World War II kept the state functioning with heavy military operative training going on in the state. 30 minutes from my house in Apalachicola is Camp Gordon Johnston, where infantry divisions were trained on amphibious warfare in preparation for D-Day in Normandy.
In the 1940s, Florida kitsch got moving -- Art Deco design grew in South Beach, roadside fruit stands became the unofficial welcome centers, and Florida's fruit industry grew leaps and bounds.
The 1950s takes me to stories of my Papa's fish house on the Gulf County Canal and their family trips to The Florida Keys during the winter to continue fishing -- celebrating Christmas on the boat with country ham and biscuits. The famous Weeki Wachee mermaid show began. Bridget Bardot donned the bikini, which fast took over Florida, and the phrase "Florida Idealism" and the "Florida Lifestyle" was coined.
I long to have experienced the Florida of the 60s and 70s. Iconic Palm Beach scenes were captured by photographer Slim Aarons then. The Beatles were on a national tour. Our stretch of the Panhandle was vastly unpopulated -- Cape San Blas was undeveloped land, less our State Park that opened in 1967. My mom moved to the beach from Louisville, Kentucky, in the 70s, and photos of her Coppertone tan, blonde hair, and short shorts seemed to embrace the decade. Jimmy Buffett took off in the Florida Keys. Endless stories of lost but vivid Mexico Beach scenes seem enchanting. A moment in time that my parents tell me about. My mom met my Papa and Nanny as a waitress at The Fish House restaurant well before my Dad came across her radar.
I recall the Old Florida of my childhood – the 1980s and 90s. The one where we could see a starry galaxy looking up from the driveway every night. Where we set up our lemonade stand at the boat ramp every day until we got too hot. My next-door neighbor and second-grandmother, Ease, helped look after me and all the other neighbor kids. Papa hosted fish frys at the Gulf Sands Restaurant in St. Joe Beach, and he insisted on paying for everyone – even if it was a table of thirty; as a high-liner commercial fisherman, it worked to his advantage that he brought in the fish. Yellowedge grouper, red snapper, fried crab claws, cheese grits, salad bar, and more. When we checked out, he let me get a roll of strawberry Mentos at the register.
I remember those times as sun-drenched and slow; things felt more accessible then. We anchored a little row boat behind our house with a net box filled with Dad's mullet nets. Everything had dried seaweed on it: the boat, the beach bag, our masks and snorkels, my floaties, etc. Every moment we had was maximized. My mom was incredibly talented at teaching us to have a great deal of fun with just a little – stopping at Pic's Food Store for Cheetos and then heading to the Cape for a beach drive. Playing in the water hose for hours and swimming with our hot pink floats in the channel behind our house -- sometimes paddling to Elvis Island in St. Joe Bay. We never had to wait for a mile of cars to go by at the end of the driveway - we were some of the only people trying to get out onto 30A then. We rode our bikes on that road and went to pick blueberries each night at The Christie's house. Then we lived in the boonies of "Simmons Bayou" and were late to church because of it. That was my Old Florida.
I reminisce about digging for pottery on the weekends - we'd go down to 10-Mile on the old 30A road between Cape San Blas and Apalachicola with shovels and shaker pans in tow and find a handful if we barely tried. My brother usually got to bring J.W., his best friend, who I lovingly called "J Dubba" because I was 8 years their junior and still learning to talk. Pieces of clay bowls with decorative markings made by the sharp end of pine straw, pre-historic (my Dad loves that word) conch shells with holes knocked in them to retrieve dinner. The following week, these treasures went to "show and tell" at school. What's illegal now wasn't then — I'll bet there are still a couple jars full of pottery under the sand.
Today living in Apalachicola, I often engage with the elements of Old Florida – the rustic nature of a place off the beaten path. I catch myself pondering which version of Old Florida I want to keep alive. What fits, what's comfortable to me, and what don't I want to miss out on. The "new" Old Florida rests on the laurels of a time gone by but on a spirit still very much alive.
I look at the rising and dimming sun daily; I crack open an old Philaco cookbook and make something. I drive to Port St. Joe to breathe in the bay's salt air and know I'm back home; we watch pelicans fish the beach and sit awestruck by their precision. The kingfishers dance a ballet. Even a warm, familiar face in town ignites the charm of Old Florida. Our BECASA shops here work to lend a taste of those relics, too. We revere beauty, practicality, truth, and richness above all.
It's easy to become distracted by everything that has changed about Old Florida, but appreciating what hasn't changed is the secret. Everlasting, Old Florida soul is right under the surface.