Casting a Wide Net

Photo courtesy of the Melvin Family Photo Album
Casting a Wide NetThe Melvin family has a rich legacy in DestinBy Jason DehartPhoto courtesy of the Melvin Family Photo AlbumPhoto courtesy of the Melvin Family Photo Album

It was a time before the condos, the upscale restaurants, the beach-goers and the tourists. It was a time when much of the Panhandle (and even the rest of the state) was still wilderness, dotted with small self-sustaining communities basically isolated from the outside world. It was still a frontier, even as late as the first decade of the 20th century.

This was the case with early Destin. In the early 1900s there wasn’t much here but a handful of fish camps and wooden net boats. There were no roads, no electricity and everybody worked for a living. The area hadn’t changed much since the 1830s, when New England fisherman Leonard Destin decided to call these emerald waters home.

Destin’s successful fishing ventures attracted many fishermen to this remote settlement. The first to arrive post-Civil war were the Marler family, then the Melvins and then the Jones, Woodward, Shirah, Maltezos and Brunson families joined them.

Jean Melvin, executive director of the Destin History & Fishing Museum, said the Melvins first arrived here starting in 1910. That’s when her uncles, John Wesley Melvin, Sr., and Odom Thomas Melvin, Sr., came to Destin to work for Leonard Destin, Jr. In time, the other Melvin siblings — Millard Raymond (her father-in-law), Kathleen and Jewel Melvin — would follow in their footsteps and settle in Destin.

Melvin said that in 1910, John Wesley and O.T. walked the arduous 35 miles from their home in Phillips Inlet (near Panama City) to the tiny fishing village, where they found only six or seven families living there. Among them were the Destins and Marlers.

“At this time Destin was a thriving community of 18 large fish camps located on the shore of Choctawhatchee Bay and along Destin Harbor. During the fishing season there were more people in Destin than in Camp Walton,” Melvin said.

Each fish camp consisted of a bunkhouse, a cookhouse and its own seine boat. The fishing captain and his wife had their own house. Many camps also had their own schooner to take the catches to Pensacola to be sold.

Captains John and O.T. lived in Capt. Destin’s camp and fished from his seine boat, Christina, a 38-foot boat with a 50-horsepower Gray Marine gasoline motor.

John Melvin became known as the “Mullet King” for his prowess with a mullet net. He shocked the Destin fishing community in 1926 when he built the seine boat “Primrose.” At 37 feet, it was much larger than any boat in the Destin fishing fleet, and some said that Capt. John could never handle a boat that size well enough to round up the fish.

“He proved them wrong,” Melvin said. “The boat continuously fished in Destin until 1982. Most all young aspiring fishermen in Destin worked on the Primrose, learning from a master.”

The Primrose has since been restored and is on display at the Destin History & Fishing Museum.

These seine boats were open-topped vessels that lacked refinements. They had no high-tech navigation gadgets or radio. Despite this lack of technology, these salty seamen ventured far from shore on a regular basis to bring home the day’s catch. Sometimes in hurricane season they wouldn’t be able to “beat” the storm ashore, so their only option was to tie up at the nearest buoy, hunker down and wait it out.

“They must have been hardy people to go out in the Gulf in a boat like that,” Melvin said.

Photo courtesy of the Melvin Family Photo AlbumPhoto courtesy of the Melvin Family Photo Album

Not only were they hardy, but independent-minded as well. The story is well known in Destin how O.T. Melvin created the new East Pass. In 1926, a spring storm caused the water in Choctawhatchee Bay to rise six feet higher than the Gulf. High water was coming up over the resident’s boat docks, and O.T took it upon himself to take action to prevent disaster.

“To relieve the high water in the Bay, O.T. and his fishing crew, Arn Strickland, Dolf Weekly and Dewey Destin, Sr., dug through a low place in the sand at the end of Santa Rosa Island to make a two-foot wide ditch for the water to empty through,” she said.  

His intention was good, but nobody realized the force of the water as it poured through the small man-made channel. It eventually changed forever the location of the pass into the Gulf of Mexico.

“In a few months the channel, which had been located at the end of the Destin Harbor, closed and the safe mooring we have today was created,” Melvin said.

Living and working on the edge of civilization meant that the families living there had to be self-sufficient. They had to be, because Destin was so remote and removed from everything. In the 1930s, Melvin said, they didn’t even know the rest of the country was going through a Great Depression. They never ran out of food, thanks to the sea and their own vegetable gardens, and when it was necessary they’d go to a neighboring town for supplies. In their spare time they held dances and social gatherings.

The small community began to change in 1936, when the first bridge was built which connected them to the outside world. Before then, nobody would venture down to see what was in Destin. Then, visitors came, primarily out of curiosity. Many wound up buying property in Destin, and they wanted to fish.

Soon, the local net boat captains were going out in the morning to catch their load for the day, only to go back out in the afternoon with fishing charters. It proved to be a lucrative side business.

“They soon realized they could make more money as charter boats,” Melvin said. The open seine boats were converted into charter boats by adding cabins to accommodate fishing parties.

“And that was basically the birth of the fleet, from those seine boats,” she said.