History of Ft. Walton Beach
If Gulf Waves Could Talk, What a Story They Would TellThe fabric of Fort Walton Beach’s history is richly woven with stories of native peoples, soldiers, pirates and pioneers. Meet the famous (and infamous) characters who found their way to this Emerald Coast gem, as well as the local folks with colorful personalities who have called Fort Walton Beach home.By Wendy O. Dixon
Where now there is a Blockbuster Video store, there once was the Magnolia Club; where Cash’s Liquors is now, Leon’s Cocktail Lounge was then. Today’s First National Bank and Trust once was the Spanish Villa. All once were popular nightclubs with floor shows, dancing and live entertainment.
Fort Walton Beach has a rich heritage filled with legends and lore – the innovative American Indians, the Spanish explorers, the notorious pirates, the brave war heroes and the famous Hollywood celebrities who found their way to the area to contribute to the colorful and remarkable history of the Emerald Coast.
SAND AND CHEESECAKE A fetching young lady frolics on the dunes of Fort Walton Beach in this 1956 glamour photo by Karl E. Holland. Photo Courtesy Florida Archives
The First Locals
Try to imagine what Fort Walton Beach was like thousands of years ago, as far back as 12,000 B.C. That is when the earliest humans lived along what is now the Emerald Coast. Of course, things were a lot different back then. Sea levels were 20 to 30 feet lower than they are today, making Florida approximately twice the size it is now.
The climate was more arid and had more plains before the Ice Age glaciers melted and covered a lot of the coastline, bringing the state to the shape it is today. The first humans came to the area in search of big game, such as mastodon, mammoth and other large animals.
Laura Morse, director of Fort Walton Beach’s Indian Temple Mound Museum and Park, makes it her mission to connect people with this incredible human history.
“The people who loved this area for thousands of years lived, worked and raised families here for the same reasons we do today,” she said.
The museum displays 14,000-year-old lithics – stone tools – left behind by the area’s primitive hunters, the Paleo-Indians.
“These Paleo points, or arrowheads, are fascinating because they are made of stone that often comes from very far away – either brought in by nomadic people or traded for with others,” Morse said. “Florida does not have rock or stone that would make quality points for hunting or tools, so it had to get here otherwise.”
Over the millennia, the native peoples became more tribal and developed villages, settling in areas according to their advancing technology in hunting small game, fishing and agriculture. They engaged in commerce with other tribes outside Florida, trading their abundant supply of freshwater pearls, conch shells and fish bones for copper, iron and maize.
They learned to make pottery and develop weapons from shark teeth, stingray barbs and billfish bills. As their abilities progressed, so did their emphasis on religion, medicine, government and society.
The most politically advanced group of all the Florida tribes was the Fort Walton Culture, which flourished from approximately A.D. 1100 to 1550 and lived across the region that covers modern Northwest Florida.
“The Fort Walton Temple Mound, a National Historic Landmark, was built by these people, who were part of the advanced Mississippian/Southeastern Ceremonial complex,” Morse said. “They built the mound probably between A.D. 700 and A.D. 1500, most likely in three phases.”
The temple mound, which has been carefully preserved, served as a village center, the home of the tribal chief and the military lookout point, and had a plaza surrounding it.
“Chiefs wielded great power, and controlled ideology and healing,” Morse said. “The pervasive warrior culture was mighty and considered quite grand.”
Besides the abundant supply of fish, agriculture was also advanced, with the land producing squash, beans and corn.
“Ornate artifacts found from this period attest to this highly complex and ceremonial social system,” Morse said. “The six-pointed plates featured in the Indian Temple Mound Museum are a hallmark of the society’s uniquely symbolic handmade pottery.”
Morse said early Spanish exploration in the 16th century no doubt ravaged many Florida tribes with the introduction of new diseases and harsh treatment, but there is no one certain answer for the extinction of whole groups of people. Most likely, a combination of European diseases, drought or crop failure, war or other mass illness devastated the populations beyond repair. By the time the Spanish were exploring the area that is now Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach, there were American Indians there, but they were thought to be of the Creek tribes that migrated into Florida from Alabama and Georgia after 1500. They lived near or around the mound but regarded it as a pre-existing structure built by others and not used for the purposes of its former inhabitants.
Pirates from the mid-1950s continue to recreate the legendary exploits of Billy Bowlegs annually in the Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival. Photo Courtesy Florida ArchivesBilly Bowlegs
Some historians say there is no evidence of pirates in Fort Walton, but others tell of the legendary pirate and Indian leader Capt. Billy Bowlegs, whose real name was William Augustus Bowles. According to the tale, Bowlegs plundered ships belonging to the Spanish, English and French during the late 1700s and early 1800s, confiscating a fortune in gold and silver. He buried it along the shores of the Gulf and its inland lagoons and bayous.
Today, Fort Walton Beach residents celebrate the invasion of Bowlegs in the annual Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival, the highlight being a staged duel with the mayor on the Fort Walton Beach landing.
During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers from the 1st Florida Regiment set up a small encampment under the orders of Gen. Braxton Bragg; the encampment was named Camp Walton. One soldier who served and then became the first permanent settler in the area was John Thomas Brooks.
In his book, “A Miracle Strip – Through the Lens of Arturo and the Hearts of Many,” fourth-generation Fort Walton resident, photographer and author Antonio Mennillo wrote that Brooks’ background prepared him for his role as the first permanent resident of the area.
“When he was 12 years of age his widowed mother packed her family and family belongings into a covered wagon and left their native North Carolina to take up a land grant in the vicinity of Geneva, Ala.,” Mennillo wrote. “Tom was 18 when the Civil War broke out and he was one of the first volunteers from Alabama. Going to war with this parting injunction from his mother, ‘Sonny, don’t be shot in the back. My prayers will follow you.’”
Upon returning to his mother’s house after the war, Brooks discovered that it had been burned by organized war deserters. His mother had remarried, so it was time for Brooks to find a new home. Seeking employment, Brooks became a sawyer at Reddick’s Sawmill in Walton County. He and his new family soon settled on 111 acres of waterfront land, a tract that now is part of Fort Walton Beach.
Camp Walton was eventually renamed Brooks Landing after the settler.
Others Discover Fort Walton
The 1930s brought on a pivotal period in the growth of Fort Walton.
Another early citizen of Fort Walton, Dr. J.H. Beal, a retired pharmacist, college professor, businessman, farmer and developer, joined Thomas E. Brooks, grandson of John Thomas Brooks, to build a casino and cottage on the Gulf shores. The two also built the Brooks Beal Center Woman’s Club and Garden Club and Beal Memorial Cemetery.
The more recent history of Fort Walton Beach is preserved at Magnolia Grill on Brooks Street. Tom and Peg Rice have preserved the house built by Dr. G.G. French in 1910. The house was shipped in pieces as a “catalog house” from New York. The handwritten mailing address is still visible on some of the boards, which are on display at Magnolia Grill. The Rices have an impressive collection of items from the early 20th century – a pair of Art Deco chandeliers from the home of Peg’s great-grandfather, Dr. J.H. Beal; bowling pins from the Fort Walton Bowling Alley; and numerous antique typewriters used by local reporters, including columnist Emma Goggin and Maj. Gen. John Carley.
Capt. Reddin “Salty” Brunson, at 95 years old, is the oldest living Destin native. He was one of the originators of the charter boat association, but got his first job at the age of 11 as a caddy in Fort Walton for notorious gangster Al Capone.
“Me and four other kids were coming from school and this big automobile drove up to us,” Brunson said. “A big man said, ‘You boys want to caddy?’ I said, ‘Sure do,’ and jumped on the running board right by the driver, and caddied for a round a golf. After the game, the men said, ‘You boys come on in and we’ll buy you a Budweiser.’ That was the most god-awful stuff I ever tasted.”
Capone and his henchmen frequently engaged in target practice at night, safe in their seclusion. One evening, Brunson almost got in the way.
“One night in Boggy Bayou, we heard a bunch of rapid fire and went to see what was happening,” he said. “We saw a bench with a moving target – the gangsters were practicing their firing and ladies were watching. We got caught, and they called me up there. I’ve never been so scared in my life. This big guy ran up with his gun and stuck it in my face and said, ‘You better get outta here, boy.’ And I ran faster than lightning.”
James E. Plew, a banker, developer and airplane enthusiast who moved to Fort Walton from Chicago, started the Valparaiso Realty Company in 1922 with a vision of building retirement homes and businesses, as well as developing golf courses. He saw an opportunity for the military to use the land as an aerial bombing and gunnery range, and for a boost in the economy of the remote part of Florida. In 1934, Plew donated 1,460 acres to the U.S. government; the plot was named the Valparaiso Bombing and Gunnery Base. On Aug. 4, 1937, the base was renamed Eglin Field in memory of Lt. Col. Frederick I. Eglin, a U.S. Air Corps pilot killed on New Year’s Day 1937. This land became the center of what is now known as the most expansive military base in the nation, covering more than 724 square miles of land and 98,000 square miles of air space over the Gulf.
Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle used Eglin Field to train his B-25 Doolittle Raiders for their secret air raid against Tokyo during World War II. The Doolittle Raiders were a group of 80 volunteer airmen from the U.S. Army Air Forces who on April 18, 1942, flew 16 Mitchell medium B-25 airplanes from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet on a daring mission to bomb Japan. The raid was a huge morale booster for the American people, coming just four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Retired MSgt Edwin Horton Jr., one of the few living Doolittle Raiders, resides in Fort Walton Beach. Horton was a engineer/gunner on Crew 10 of the 16 bombers during the raid on Tokyo.
In an interview with 1st Lt. Martha L. Petersante-Gioia, of the 66th Air Base Wing at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., Horton recalled how even after doing what many said couldn’t be done, Doolittle’s men stayed focused on a mission for which they had trained under top-secret conditions.
“Much of the training and modifications to the aircraft were done at Eglin Field,” Horton said.
During the raid, they didn’t anticipate that the carrier would be detected early, forcing the group to launch immediately, he said.
Due to the group’s early takeoff, there was not enough fuel to get back to a prearranged rendezvous point in China.
“We had to bail out over China’s coastal mountain range,” Horton said.
Faced with a controlled-crash landing on China’s coast or bailing out over the mountain range, Lt. Richard Joyce, Horton’s pilot and crew commander, chose to have the crew bail out.
Horton was able to land on a ridge. The next morning, he walked to a small town where friendly residents assisted him.
“I didn’t (immediately) know the impact of this mission,” he said. “But as it turned out, it was a huge morale boast for our forces.”
Another Fort Walton Beach resident, retired MSgt Ronald D. Peters, worked as a reporter and later rode in the B-29s bombers and witnessed the effects of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Peters also served in Vietnam, and after 28 and a half years of active-duty service, he and his wife – two Ohio Buckeyes, as he describes them – were looking for a nice place to retire.
“We wanted someplace warm,” he said. “And I looked on a map and found a circle of military bases that surrounded this little area called Forth Walton beach, and that’s where we decided to stay.”
Though Brooks and Beal built a casino and cottages in an attempt to create a thriving summer resort that would attract tourists, it wasn’t until the 1940s that the humble town of Fort Walton became the gambling mecca of Northwest Florida, bringing tourists with full wallets and earning the nickname “Little Las Vegas of Florida.”
The Magnolia Club, where gambling, dancing and nightly floor shows were the main attractions, was a local hot spot. Initially attracting seasonal tourists who could no longer gamble in Miami because it had been outlawed, the Magnolia Club eventually was open year-round to accommodate the influx of carpenters and other building workers who persuaded manager Bill Williams to stay past the tourist season.
Another popular gambling spot was the Shalimar Club, run by Roger Clary. Nancy M. Kenaston, author of the book, “The Rich Heritage of Fort Walton Beach Florida,” described the transformation of the Shalimar Club from day to evening.
“It resembled a movie producer’s idea of an expensive bordello,” she wrote. “Its windows were hung with red velvet and gold tassels; luxurious paneling and overstuffed red velvet furniture added to the exciting décor. The Eglin (Air Force Base) Officers’ Wives Club met frequently for luncheons in the clubs, giving them the air of great respectability, but at night they came to life to tempt those with gambling fever.”
By the 1950s, gambling had tainted the town’s reputation. Law enforcement agencies put an end to it, and in 1953 Fort Walton was renamed Fort Walton Beach in an effort to boost tourism for a different kind of crowd – the beach-loving family who wanted some fun in the sun.
The Celebrities and Dignitaries
Fort Walton Beach cast a spell on the rich and famous of Hollywood during the 1940s and ’50s.
The famous orchestra conductor Guy Lombardo and his band frequently performed at the ritzy Shalimar Club. Andy Griffith and the Glen Miller Band played there, and President Harry Truman and Gen. Doolittle, as well as dignitaries from around the world, enjoyed evenings at the nightclub. Gregory Peck was seen enjoying a drink and a cigarette there.
Internationally acclaimed German artist Emil Holzhauer, who became famous in the 1920s and ’30s as an avant garde painter, met a Niceville native and moved to the area. He, along with other charter members, initiated the Arts and Design Society of Fort Walton Beach to promote and expose the Emerald Coast to the arts. After his death, Holzhauer’s estate donated more than 400 paintings and documents to what was then Okaloosa-Walton Community College. His multimillion-dollar collection still is on display throughout the campus.
Between 1940 and 1970, the population of Fort Walton grew by 700 percent and was recognized nationally as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Today, the city still celebrates the past, preserving its fascinating history – and leaving a legacy of a rich heritage for future generations.