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 area history.
Robert Busnell of Massachusetts purchased the parcel in his mother’s name, Mary, prior to World War II. 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 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.
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 beach mouse and gopher tortoise.
Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance offers group tours of Coffeen Nature Preseve as part of their Discover Roads Less Traveled eco adventures. The program offers visitors extraordinary opportunities to explore, discover, and learn about the pristine natural resources that make Walton County unique. Descriptions of the tours being offered are available online at www.basinalliance.org by clicking the Eco Tours information box. Registration is available by phone at 850-200-4160.
Caretakers Susan and Bruce Paladini administer the Preserve and the Four-Mile Village rental program. To contact Coffeen Nature Preserve, call (850) 622-3700.