Founding ParadiseIn the 1830s, a shipwrecked fisherman found sustenance and serenity on the shores of the Emerald Coast and left to it the legacy of the Destin family.By Tony Bridges
Photos by Scott Holstein and courtesy the Destin History & Fishing Museum, The Destin Family and Arturo Mennillo
After finding his way to the Emerald Coast from Connecticut, Leonard Destin (1813–1884) married Martha J. McCullom (1835–1896) in 1852 and had six children: George, Leonard Jr., Jane, Hattie, Andrew and Alfred.
He takes no offense at the question, coming innocently enough as it does from curious tourists visiting his popular seafood restaurant.
It’s just a reflection of how the town, a jewel of the Emerald Coast that bills itself as “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village,” has changed over the past several years.
Still, Dewey Destin can’t help but laugh a little at the irony when he introduces himself to out-of-towners and they inevitably say, “Oh, were you named after the city?”
See, it’s actually the other way around.
The Destins built a New England style cottage at Moreno Point in the 1850s, which later burned and was restored in 1866.
His great-great-grandfather was the eponymous founder of Destin, the small fishing camp that has grown over 150-plus years into a resort destination visited by millions annually. While it may be simply a quiet playground for the likes of John McCain and Britney Spears, to the Destin family, and a handful of other local clans, the city is the embodiment of ancestral history.
“It’s been a real source of pride to be part of the family,” Dewey Destin said. “We have roots in the community that most of the people in this country don’t have.”
Emma Marler Destin (1867–1955), wife of Leonard’s son George, with their first four children, circa 1895: Gaines, Ada, Ida (lap) and George Jr. Later would come John, Dewey and Leonard.
A Tragedy at Sea
If the fishing had been better off the coast of New London, Conn., in the early 19th century, Destin might have a different name and a different backstory.
Leonard Destin and the other men in his family made their livings from the sea. After a good season of fishing, they could lay up in port waiting for the schools to return. But when they had a bad season, the men had no choice but to strike out for other waters.
Often they would sail south to the coast of Florida and salvage wrecks during hurricane season. That’s what they were doing in the fall of 1833.
Leonard Destin, 20 at the time, was captain of one vessel, while his father, George, and his brother commanded another called the Hempstead. That September, they ran afoul of a heavy storm off the coast of what is now Cape Canaveral.
The Hempstead capsized. Leonard’s father and brother both perished.
Dewey ‘Buck’ Destin and his son, Dewey Jr., in 1953.
According to an old article Dewey Destin later found in a Connecticut newspaper, there was a sole survivor from the Hempstead — a cabin boy the Destin men had nailed into a stateroom in a last-ditch effort to protect him from the high seas sweeping the deck.
After the storm, that cabin boy managed to escape the ruins of the ship and make his way inland, where he was discovered by Indians. He lived with them for five or six years before finally setting off on foot to return to New London, according to Destin.
He made it home but later disappeared.
Meanwhile, Leonard Destin continued south along the coast and around into the Gulf of Mexico. In 1835, he arrived at what was then a small peninsula located toward the western end of the Florida Panhandle, according to Jean Melvin, executive director of the Destin History & Fishing Museum.
Dewey Destin does not believe the location was an accident.
The Destin kids at home on Calhoun Avenue. Randy Davis, Dewey Destin, Brenda Destin, Harold Destin, Kenny Davis, Nina Destin and Susan Destin.
“I feel certain that (he) had been here before fishing and liked the looks of the place,” he said.
Leonard Destin decided to stay.
“If you were a fishermen from New London, it was a hell of a lot better to be in Florida than freezing up there,” Dewey Destin said. “Also, times were getting hard up in New London.”
He said he thinks the remote setting also appealed to his great-great-grandfather.
“He was just a pioneer,” Destin said. “Florida in the 1830s was definitely the fringes … still very much a frontier.”
The Good Life
Capt. John Destin — one of Leonard’s grandsons — and other local fisherman use seine nets on the beach in the 1950s.
Leonard Destin built a small fish camp on the peninsula and, with his crew, began to fish the blue waters. The fishermen used seine nets to encircle schools of fish and haul them aboard, where they were kept in live pens since ice was difficult to come by.
The fishermen would then sail to Pensacola and sell their catch to the Warren Fish Co. There, the fish were packed in ice and shipped out across the country by rail, Dewey Destin said.
Despite its ever-increasing high profile among celebrities and dignitaries, Destin is still proud of its heritage as “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.”
Leonard Destin eventually met and married a woman from South Carolina named Martha and, in 1855, built a home on what is now Calhoun Street in the city of Destin. His fishing fleet continued to grow and prosper.
But the Civil War nearly proved to be the end of him.
Although the Confederacy controlled much of the Florida Panhandle, and the Union had the coast blockaded, some of the locals weren’t much interested in either side. And they weren’t averse to trading goods and information with the blockaders, according to Dewey Destin.
Fishermen bring in the day’s catch on a boat belonging to Dewey ‘Buck’ Destin and his wife, Muriel, in the 1970s.
So the Confederacy decided to clamp down. Militias ambushed Union troops when they came ashore for supplies and hunted down locals suspected of being friendly with the enemy.
Leonard Destin was arrested and taken to DeFuniak Springs to be put on trial with other alleged sympathizers.
The judge ordered one man captured in Apalachicola to be hanged, and it looked as though the same fate was in store for Destin. But Destin was a Freemason, and so was the Confederate judge — who could not bring himself to order the death of a fellow Mason. Instead, he had Destin held in DeFuniak Springs until the end of the war, Dewey Destin said.
Upon his release from Confederate custody, Leonard Destin went back to his lucrative fishing business, where he was soon joined by other men.
“The word had gotten out that Leonard Destin was fishing, and that he was making money,” said Jean Melvin, herself a member of one of the area’s oldest families. “And other men came in here to fish.”
Dewey ‘Buck’ Destin and his bride, Muriel, on their honeymoon in Tampa, 1951.
The first to arrive was the Marler family, followed a few years later by the Melvins and eventually by the Jones, Woodward, Shirah, Maltezos and Brunson families, according to Melvin.
“Those people made up the nucleus of the town for many, many years,” she said.
The Destin property ran from what is now Tyler Calhoun Park over to A.J.’s Seafood, and the other families settled in alongside. The families began to intermarry and came to form “one big clan,” Dewey Destin said.
“Every time someone would have a child, they’d carve off a hundred-foot lot and give it to the child,” he said.
Leonard died in the mid-1870s. Dewey said he thinks his great-great-grandfather was about 65 or 66.
And how did the town come to officially bear the name of the man who had started it?
The timing isn’t exactly clear, but at some point a man named William P. Marler — “Uncle Billy” to locals — became the town’s first postmaster. He had worked closely with Leonard Destin on the fishing boats and had a great deal of respect for him.
In order to have a post office, the government declared that the town would have to have a name. As postmaster, it was up to Marler to give it a designation.
“He said, name it after his good friend Leonard Destin,” Melvin said.
An Industry Changes
Of course, nothing ever stays the same. When Leonard Destin and the first seamen arrived, there was no bridge to Destin, and storms and shifting sands had yet to close the gap with the mainland. The only way to get there was by boat.
“That’s why everyone that lived over here was a fisherman,” Melvin said.
Dewey Destin Jr., Margie Destin, Johnny Destin and Muriel Destin today.
After the first bridge was built in 1936, the direction of fishing in Destin began to change. Fishermen would go out in the morning to catch their load for the day, then take tourists out charter fishing in the afternoons.
“Who better to take you fishing than a native son who knew all about it?” Melvin said.
Slowly, the number of fishermen seine-fishing out of the Destin docks began to drop, while the charter business grew — especially after billfish were discovered in the waters off DeSoto Canyon in the 1960s, according to Melvin.
The Destins stuck with it as long as they could, though.
Dewey Destin, 57, born and raised in the town, never left, except for college. That makes him somewhat of an anomaly in Florida, where most everyone seems to be from somewhere else, and those actually from “around here” often move on to other places.
He started on the boats with his father when he was 6 and had his own small boat when was 16. It was just a little 24-footer, “but I thought I was king of the world.”
Destin went off to college at Auburn University and earned a degree in political science, a decision that still gives him a self-deprecating chuckle all these years later.
“That was real handy in the fishing business,” he said. “I hung that diploma on the boat, and the fish would just give themselves up. I didn’t even have to catch them.”
A lot of descendants of the old families had left Destin to seek lives elsewhere. But after college, Dewey decided to come back.
“After growing up here, I’ve always had a real strong feeling for Destin,” he said. “I have been around to a lot of places in the world, and I haven’t found any that are prettier or nicer to live in than this.”
Destin, who married his college sweetheart and has four children, spent most of his adult life working the boats and managing the fish business started by his great-great-grandfather. But then, in 2000, the state of Florida made changes to seine-fishing rules that effectively shut down the family operation.
“We were sitting there no longer having a business,” Destin said.
The solution was a little seafood stand he had started almost by accident. While the fishing company was in the business of wholesaling and retailing seafood, Destin also had set out a few picnic tables near the dock where a few customers could eat some fresh-steamed catch. People seemed to like that, so he added grilled and fried seafood.
“It really just kind of mushroomed after that,” he said. “We were quite shocked. The good Lord takes care of fools and fishermen.”
He opened the first restaurant, Dewey Destin’s Seafood, in 2002 and has since added two others, including one in Crestview. His restaurants are popular with tourists — including the ones who ask whether he was named after the town.
Leonard Destin’s original house burned in the 1850s and was later rebuilt. It still stands, tucked away in the woods near Dewey Destin Seafood Restaurant & Market.
From Family Name to Commercial Brand
These days, Destin is an internationally recognized name.
It’s synonymous with clean white beaches, upscale Florida condominiums, fine dining and great golf. It’s where celebrities, politicians and high-profile business people go to relax for a few days in the sun, where they buy second homes to maybe retire to some day.
“So many people relate that name to a regional area,” said Shane Moody, president of the Destin Area Chamber of Commerce. “Destin is a really strong brand name for this area.”
Rudimentary fish camps have long since given way to a sprawling complex of master-planned communities and golf resorts that stretches for miles along the southern edge of Walton County, part of what The New York Times recently reported is a $4.5 billion property tax base.
There still are remnants of the original families. Among them are Dewey Destin and his mother, Muriel, along with a few assorted other Destins, Marlers, Melvins and the rest. Moody figures that’s a boon to the community.
“The families of the founders of most cities fade, but here, Dewey and his family still have a very strong presence,” he said. “It’s a unique thing, and I think it adds to the charm of the city.”
But, he acknowledged, not many people, aside from some locals, know that part of Destin.
Ironically, Dewey Destin played a part in the transformation of his small fishing village into a resort town, a transformation that pushed his family toward obscurity.
In 1984, the city of Destin became incorporated.
(Dewey explained the late start this way: “The people who came to the frontier didn’t come because they liked government. That old pioneer mindset stayed a long time.”)
He was elected to the City Council the next year.
“The original council had a healthy representation of the old families that had been here a long time,” Destin said. “That didn’t last long.”
As a member of the council over a combined total of eight years, he had a role in the decision-making that led to the city’s growth and eventual recognition as a vacation destination. Now, Destin says the changes that have come to his community have been a mixed blessing.
The development brought benefits that many people appreciated: property became much more valuable, business opportunities opened up, cultural and modern conveniences became available. It was exciting, especially at first.
“I remember when we got our first hamburger joint and our first stoplight, we thought we had arrived,” he said.
But with the good has also come the bad. The beaches are nowhere near as pristine as before, and the town has become “infinitely more crowded,” he said. And, of course, his family’s contributions have been pushed far into the past.
Having been part of the local government, he has had a chance to see why and how this has happened — and had a say in it, too — so he’s able to remain relatively sanguine about the direction the town has taken.
Still, resentment does occasionally bubble up.
“When I feel that coming on, I always tell myself, ‘We were the newcomers too,’” he said. “We were the ones who came here and shoved the Indians out of the way. They just came here a little later than we did, but they came here for the same reason.”
Editor’s Note: Though this story focuses on one of the founding families of Destin, we would like to publish more stories and photos on the history of the area, including some of the other founding families. Contact us at www.emeraldcoastmagazine.com if you have any suggestions you would like to share with Emerald Coast Magazine.