History

Explore Freeport’s history at Heritage Center

The Freeport Heritage Center is located in the old post office. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

The Heritage Center houses a museum on Freeport’s history and a visitor center.

“Freeport’s historian, Beckie Buxton, has been compiling stories and photos of Freeport for decades,” said curator Tim Ard. “Countless hours of volunteerism has created wonderful exhibits of Freeport’s families and businesses,” he continued.

The collection includes furniture from the McCaskill home, an icemaker from Casey Ice House, photographs, and additional items on loan from Freeport residents. The museum will be manned by a staff of volunteers, and open from 12 Noon – 5 p.m. Thurs. – Sat.

Freeport Heritage Center is located directly across from the Food Depot at 41 State Highway 20 East, Freeport. For more information, call Tim Ard at (850) 585-3304.

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Explore area history at the Heritage Museum in DeFuniak Springs

 Turpentining artifacts on display at the Walton History Museum. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Old turpetining tools and pottery sherds are just a few of the many artifacts at the Walton History Museum. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Interested in learning about Walton County’s history? Head over to the Heritage Museum in DeFuniak Springs and take a journey into the past.

Run by volunteers with the Walton County Heritage Association, the museum offers a peek into area history from 1885 – 1945. A variety of historical artifacts including arrowheads, old turpentine pottery shards, military information and more are on hand at the museum.

Rubye Walden's rug on display at the Walton County History museum. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Rubye Burton’s rug on display at the Walton County History museum. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

One of the highlights is a handmade 12 ft. x 17 ft. wool hook rug made by former first lady of Walton, Rubye Burton.

Known as the Lady of the Lake for her landscaping efforts along Lake DeFuniak, Burton was also the first female Gulf Oil distributor in the United States. Born in 1900, she lived to be 101.

Pick up a brochure and take a self-guided tour of the historic homes around Lake DeFuniak on Circle Drive. Interesting facts and historic information are in your hands as you take the scenic tour. You can also download a brochure by clicking here.

Located in the old L&N Railroad depot on Circle Drive, the museum is open Tues. – Sat. from 1 – 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, go to: http://www.waltoncountyheritage.org

1140 Circle Drive, DeFuniak Springs, FL 32435
Tel: (850) 951-2127

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Former WWII missile test launch facility home to diverse sand pine trails at Coffeen Nature Preserve

A great blue heron scans Lake Fuller. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Former WWII missile test launch facility home to diverse sand pine trails

As many people buzz up and down U.S. Highway 98 in Santa Rosa Beach, few ever notice the small entrance signs to the Coffeen Nature Preserve and Four Mile Village. Nestled just east of Tops’l Beach and Racquet Resort and just west of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, however, is a 210-acre protected land trust chock full of local history.

Robert Busnell of Massachusetts purchased the parcel in his mother’s name, Mary prior to World War 2. Although the land had already been timbered, he recognized the natural beauty of the rolling dunes and panoramic views of the Gulf of Mexico.

However, shortly after purchasing the land the Army/Air Corp took over and had leased the land for a $1 a year for a top-secret military operation.

Chosen for its elevated sand dune ridge, Coffeen became the testing site of the JB-2 missile, the America-built version of the famous German V-1 “buzz bomb” that destroyed thousands of lives in Great Britain during WWII.

Roads were built, along with four missile launches, four bunkers, an observation tower and housing for the personnel. Approximately 600 unarmed missiles were catapulted out over the Gulf of Mexico, blasting over the water as far as 150 miles.

In 1947 the property was returned to the owners. Shortly thereafter, Robert and Mary Bushnell and John and Dorothy Coffeen formed a partnership which was ultimately incorporated as Four Mile Village, Inc. By 1950 both of the Bushnells had passed away, leaving remaining officers of the corporation as sole owners.

A JB-2 missle prepared to launch over the Gulf of Mexico. Photo courtesy Coffeen Nature Preserve.

The Coffeens had their sights set on keeping the land as natural as possible and to ensure it was preserved from then on. They set up Four -Mile Village as a residential and vacation spot and and a few new owners hired Ed Walline to build houses. They soon set up a rental program, and sold lots only to those they found deserving nature lovers.

“A place of peace and quiet and a haven for all God’s creatures. It is a place where Nature can take precedence over the superficial, and where those who can appreciate Nature in her various moods and forms can find a haven; where all of God’s small creatures can live their livers without molestation, suffering neither man’s indifference nor pursuit.” – Dorothy Coffeen, 1968

Coffeen left the stewardship of the unsold land to be administered by the Sierra Club Foundation who managed it from 1976-2003. In 2004 the ownership of the preserve was transferred to the Coffeen Land Trust, a not-for-profit environmental organization where it remains protected today.

Touring the preserve:

The Coffeen Nature Preserve is open to the public by reservation. It includes four hiking trails along with a military history presentation for those interested in learning about the JB-2 launches and an opportunity to explore the bunkers. The launch tracks, bunkers and some of the military’s housing remain to this day.

You can explore more than 200 acres of sand pine trails along with a enjoying the beauty of a rare coastal dune lake. There are many plant varies including, live oak, myrtle oak, magnolia, gulf lupine, pitcher plants and jointweed. The diverse animal communities include white-tailed deer, raccoon, fox, opossum, bobcat, armadillos and alligator. The preserve is also home to the endangered Choctawhatchee dune mouse and gopher tortoise.

Caretakers Susan and Bruce Paladini administer the Preserve and the Four-Mile Village rental program.

To tour Coffeen Nature Preserve, call (850) 622-3700.


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 Fishing on Grayton Beach casts a vibrant history

 

Gene Wesley and his friend Peck Carlton with their pompano catch.

Gene Wesley and his friend Peck Cawthon with their pompano catch. Photo courtesy Gene Wesley

Old friends reminisce about the early days of Grayton Beach fishing

 

Editors note: This story was originally written in February 2009. With the recent passing of Gene Wesley on Jan. 13, 2011, we are sharing the story with our readers once again. Rest in peace Gene Wesley, you were a lover of the outdoors and a true original.

Locals in Walton County have enjoyed fishing from Grayton Beach for generations. With a panoramic view of the Gulf, gentle breezes, it doesn’t get any better.

Two long-time friends Van Ness Butler, Jr. and Gene Wesley remember the days when Grayton Beach had just a handful of residents.

Van Ness Butler, Jr. grew up in the area and has fond memories of the early days fishing on Grayton Beach.

Butler remembers locals, Herbert and Olin Miller as one of the first to launch a boat from Grayton Beach in the 1940s. A New England style dory, with a Model A engine, was rolled over logs across the sand to get to the Gulf of Mexico.

“Western Lake rarely opened to the Gulf even back then. It was hard work getting that dory in and out of the water,” Butler recalls.

With no waterway access to the Gulf for several miles, rolling the dory across the sand was the only option.

At the young age of 12, Butler worked for the Miller’s catching mullet that was salt barreled and traded up in Vernon for syrup and corn meal. They would also catch a lot of snapper in the Gulf back then as well, and Butler’s was paid his wages in fish.

Butler’s first boat was a 16 ft. juniper, with a 4 HP outboard motor. The boat was rolled out to the water, and along with his father Van Ness, Sr., and sister Janice, they would often come back with the bottom of the boat filled with grouper.

Local Paul Thompson in fron of Gene Wesley's Army surplus Jeep.

Local Paul Thompson in front of Gene Wesley’s Army surplus Jeep. Photo courtesy Gene Wesley

Shortly after WW11, locals started buying Army surplus four-wheel drive Jeeps. Getting your boat into the Gulf suddenly became much easier, and soon there were bigger and better boats launching from the beach.

Butler remembers his good friend Gene Wesley as one of the first to acquire one of the Jeeps, and soon the two were out trolling for Spanish mackerel, snapper and bluefish on Wesley’s 15 ft. runabout christened ‘The Good Ship Lollipop.’

Butler remembers one day in particular, the two were out fishing one of their favorite spots. Something dark appeared in the water, and they quickly ascertained it was a shark circling the tiny boat. They heard a grinding noise and realized the shark had grabbed hold of the propeller.

“I think we need to fish somewhere else,” Butler exclaimed.

Butler’s long-time friend, Gene Wesley has fond memories of the early days in Grayton Beach as well, and remembers having the beaches all to themselves.

Gene Wesley and guest aboard Wesley’s charter The Rebel.

Gene Wesley and guest aboard Wesley’s charter The Rebel. Photo courtesy Gene Wesley

Back in the 1950s Wesley worked as a deck hand for Preston “Speck” Jones, a Point Washington fishing guide, and in 1959, he became one of the original members of the Destin Charter Boat Association. His 36 ft. juniper boat “The Rebel,” was one of the first charters in Destin.

Wesley remembers fishing in what they called the snapper banks. “Back then we would find our fishing spots by triangulating with the houses and trees on shore,” Wesley recalled. “It was what we called our 20/20 Fathometer,” he quipped.

Wesley mentioned that the anglers had unique names for locations along the coastline in South Walton; Seagrove was Russ Hammock; Blue Mountain, Yellow Bluff; and the Coffeen area the Old Woman’s Hill.

Wesley recalled one day he and Butler wished they had chosen a different place to anchor off.

It was in the mid 1950s and a day before an Air Force ammunition demonstration at Eglin. The jets were doing what Wesley called toss bombing practice in the Gulf right over their heads.

“The planes were circling and one went straight up with red and green smoke coming out the back of it. The plane dropped one bomb and it exploded in mid air. Then the second bomb dropped was so close we could hear the shock ring,” Wesley explained.

The two found out later that the Air Force Base didn’t want the pilots to return with the live ammunition on board their aircraft. Wesley was confident the pilots must not of seen the two of them in the water.

The Wesley home on Grayton Beach nicknamed ‘The Rowdy Junction.’ Photo courtesy Gene Wesley

The Wesley home on Grayton Beach nicknamed ‘The Rowdy Junction.’ Photo courtesy Gene Wesley

Gene Wesley, 80, still maintains a crabbing business in South Walton. His two sons, Sam and Jody, carry on the family tradition of fishing from Grayton Beach today. His eldest son David is a Brigadier General in the United States Air Force.

Van Ness Butler, Jr. continues to surf fish on Grayton Beach catching pompano, whiting and redfish in abundance.

“The surf fishing is still great,” Butler said with a smile.
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A look back at Freeport’s former Bay Grove Motel and its owner Charlie Stiller

The Bay Grove Motel in its former glory. Photo courtesy Patrick Pilcher.

The Bay Grove Motel in its former glory. Photo courtesy Patrick Pilcher.

By Beckie Buxton, Freeport historian

Have you ever wondered about the Bay Grove Motel, restaurant and service station? Remnants of the buildings still remain at the northwest base of the Clyde B. Wells (Hwy. 331) bridge.

Freeport natives tell us that, until after World War II, and the building of the “331 Bridge,” a very large palmetto patch covered the parcel of land on the northwestern shore of the Choctawhatchee Bay.

The tourist industry was very small during the 1920s and 1930s. Poor roads and few bridges made it hard for visitors to access the area except by water.

Back of the postcard mentions 90 lb. tarpon caught off the Choctawhatchee Bay bridge. Photo courtesy Patrick Pilcher

Back of the postcard mentions 90 lb. tarpon caught off the Choctawhatchee Bay bridge. Photo courtesy Patrick Pilcher

A man named Charlie David Stiller realized that the new Choctawhatchee Bay Bridge, and the end of rationing of fuel and tires, had greatly increased the number of travelers between Alabama and the Gulf beaches.

He bought that palmetto-covered property and developed it as a service station, café, and cottages to attract the trade of the travelers from Alabama.

A heron wades and white pelicans fly over a jetty area where the former marina once existed in the Bay fill area. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

A heron wades and white pelicans fly over a jetty area where the former marina once existed in the Bay fill area. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

The café served very good seafood and was popular with locals as well. Teenagers enjoyed the hamburgers and made it a hang out.

In the 1950s, if a person liked to water ski, or enjoyed watching others water ski, the “bridge fill” adjoining Bay Grover was the place to park and visit on a Sunday afternoon. Soil for the causeway needed as an approach to the long bridge was dredged from the bottom of the bay. Hence the name of the area called “bridge fill,” although those who do not know its history sometimes call it the bridge “field” area.

There was land purchased with a plan to build a drive-in theater in the Bay Grover area at on time. It was advertised in the local newspapers.

Walton resident Patrick Pilcher remembers a boat marina with a bulk head area that accommodated large boats.

“The water was much deeper back then,” Pilcher recalled.

Although they continued to be viable until the 1970s, the once busy businesses of Bay Grove were sold and finally fell into disrepair.

Memories of it, however, will always include the dream of its developer, Charlie Stiller.

We know that Stiller was born in June of 1910 in Bruce, Walton County to Thomas E. Stiller and Lorna Stiller. His was Annie, was born about 19111 in North Carolina. Charlie’s siblings were Emma, Buford, L.V., Littie, and Daniel.

Prior to undertaking the Bay Grove complex, Charlie Stiller was already an industrious man. He had developed a lucrative pulpwood business, and had many employees in the area. At the time, the United States Deparment of Commerce assured that millions of tons of wood puplp would be needed in the years during and following World War II. As the need for pulpwood escalated, Stiller would sometines purchase a parcel of property, cut the timber from it, and then sell that property. He soon bought and sold enough land that he became active in Real Estate.

Charlie Stiller paid his employees with tokens they could use to purchase products in his stores. Photo courtesy Thomas M. McNeill

Charlie Stiller paid his employees with tokens they could use to purchase products in his stores. Photo courtesy Thomas M. McNeill

His employees would haul the stumps to Pensacola for extraction of tar and resins. In that way, he was also in the naval stores business.

Did you know:

– Resin is the sap that comes from a pine tree.

– A stiller was the person who made the pine resin into spirits of turpentine.

Charlie Stiller began paying his pulpwood employees with tokens and opened a grocery store and dance hall east of Freeport where his employees could pay for their groceries with the tokens.

For a good while lumbering (pulp wooding) and turpentine industries were successful, but declined as the source of trees became less. However, Charlie Stiller continued to be well known as a businessman in the area for years.

Charlie Stiller lived to the age of 78, and at the time of his death lived in DeFuniak Springs.

Learn more about Freeport’s history at the Heritage Center located on SR20.

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Area along the Choctawhatchee River boasts long history of outdoor recreation, logging

Lost Lake at Tilley Landing offers fishing, hunting and primitive camping. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Lost Lake at Tilley Landing offers fishing, hunting and primitive camping. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Former Walton County resident DeWayne Ray has fond memories of fishing and hunting around the Red Bay area of Walton County.

According to Ray, his ancestors the Chamberlains, Tiners and McDonalds spent time fishing and hunting at Lost Lake (now named Lost Lake at Tilley Landing) as far back as the 1830s. The family owned property where the old road began to the lake from Red Bay.

“My grandfather use to maintain the old logging road which crossed much of their property and lead to the Lost Lake. My ancestors fished, trapped and hunted this area since the 1830s,” said Ray.

“The landing area still appears has it did more than 50 years ago. My family and other local native Red Bay families fished the lakes on a regular basis, especially my grandmother and great aunt.”

Ray generously shared with Walton Outdoors photos taken in 1961 and 1962. The photos depict his family enjoying fishing and hunting along Lost Lake near the Choctawhatchee River.

“The small boys are me and my brother with my mother (Joan Stiller Ray), father (Walter Ray) and my grandparents (Nellie Chamberlain Stiller and Wayland Stiller).

Ever see an old cypress tree with a cutout? Chances are the cuts were made back in the logging days. Photo courtesy Fred Provost.

Ever see an old cypress tree with a cutout? Chances are the cuts were made back in the logging days. Photo courtesy Fred Provost.

Walton Outdoors asked Ray about the old cypress trees in the area touting square cutouts. Ray contacted his father and this is his historical response:

“I spoke to my Dad, Walter Ray. The cuts in the cypress are likely either loggers were starting to ‘deaden the tree’ and immediately notice the trees were hollow and stopped the process. Only solid cypress were deadened, then harvested. Since “green” solid cypress would not float, the loggers would first “deaden” the tree by cutting a notch around the bottom of the tree, which would kill it over time, making the tree able to be floated out of the swamp to the main river for transport.

There is another reason cuts were made in the cypress, so loggers could insert boards to stand on while they cross-cut the tree down. Likely they noticed during this process the tree was hollow and stopped and moved on to solid cypress.

My Grandfather Stiller was born in a logging company train box car in 1906 and logged the Walton County area all of his life. When he was a very young man they still used oxen and cross-cut saws – way before tractors and power saws. As a result, his wrists were massive. You can tell where cross-cut saws were used by stumps being 2 or 3 feet above the grounds surface. There are a couple of these stumps on our property. There is one, now very decayed, in the Northwest Florida Water Water Manage swamp, near our property, that’s approximately 10-12 feet across! My Grandfather said they cut down this massive native pine and could not get it up the “bluff” with the oxen because the longs were just too heavy (circa 1920s). How I have wished that tree would have remained uncut,” Ray responded.

These days, Lost Lake at Tilley Landing is part of the Choctawhatchee River Wildlife Management Area, and is managed in cooperation with Northwest Florida Water Management District and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It is open to fishing, hunting, boating, and primitive camping. It has picnic tables, pavilion, and a portable restroom facility. For information on hunting in the Wildlife Management Area, click here. For more information about Lost Lake, click here.

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