Homage for a Humble Fish
Homage for a Humble FishBoggy Bayou Mullet Festival Fetes a Favored Fish in Celebration of Niceville’s past
By Christy Kearney
Some people might consider the mullet to be a lowly, bottom-feeding fish, but that line of thinking doesn’t hold up by local standards. Niceville natives will proudly explain how the obscure little fish served as an integral part of the city’s cultural and economic development, as well as the inspiration for the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival.
“Niceville’s whole history in younger days was built on two things: timber and mullet,” said James Campbell, an Okaloosa County commissioner and the public relations and recreation director for the city of Niceville. “Mullet played a big part in the economy of the city.”
The brainchild of Niceville native and businessman Francis Spence, the Mullet Festival started as a community festival exalting the underestimated fish that helped bring economic stability and profitability to Niceville.
Spence, the Niceville/Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce president at the time, was looking for an effective way to promote the area in the mid-1970s. His idea for a festival became a reality in 1976 when he, Niceville City Manager Lannie Corbin and local volunteers began planning the first-ever Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival. The festival, as Spence envisioned it, would put Niceville on the map, increase the local mullet market, generate a positive economic impact for the city and enhance its already strong sense of community.
Spence and Corbin, both still active festival committee members, organized a jam-packed lineup for the inaugural event. Activities included a canoe race, golf tournament, street dance, sailing regatta and fire department contests, leading up to the main event on Sept. 24, 1977.
The agenda was set, but would people actually show up? Nerves were put at ease as festival-goers arrived in droves – 35,000 in all – to eat fried mullet, listen to music, watch water-sport demonstrations and congregate with friends and neighbors.
The festival was a hit, and it has only gained support and recognition since its inception.
“The city takes a lot of pride in the event,” Campbell said. “Every year, they make it a little better.”
The festival, now a three-day event with crowds reaching more than 200,000, has grown in many respects to include a dedicated location in Niceville, national entertainment, and expanded food and vendor booths.
“The most positive thing we did was add the fence around the grounds,” a change the committee made in the early 1990s, Campbell said. The fence has helped officials manage the crowds more effectively.
The quality of entertainment also has become a festival draw. The early festivals featured local and regional entertainers. Beginning in 1990 with The Platters and The Drifters, the stage began showcasing national headliners such as Lonestar, Neal McCoy, the Dixie Chicks, Montgomery Gentry and Rascal Flatts.
One of the most popular additions to the festival was the Family Day six years ago. The planning committee responded to community concerns about the festival atmosphere by implementing a family-friendly showcase of entertainment and activities on the Sunday of each festival weekend.
“The thought behind it was that we’d had some opposition about selling beer, and it was a compromise which has been a great compromise,” said Lavon Mason, a longtime festival committee member. “It was a really good decision.”
With all the growth, some things remain the same – community spirit, the Boggy Boys (a group of local “boys” who fry mullet each year), the Miss Mullet pageant, food and fun for the whole family, and familiar faces. From Day One, the festival was about building a better, stronger community. The festival continues to be a prosperous venue for military, school and civic groups to raise funds and build community support.
Festival planners say the weekend festivities also serve as a backdrop for the coming together of family and friends.
“There are a lot of reunions, believe it or not, planned around the Mullet Festival,” Mason said. “It’s tradition.”
And this year will be no different. Entertainers slated for the Oct. 19-21 event include country great Kenny Rogers, Blake Shelton, Gary Allan and Keith Anderson, as well as visits from Dora the Explorer and Jimmy Neutron for the kids.
“The Mullet Festival has meant a lot to a lot of people over the years,” Campbell said. “It is something that is here to stay.”
For more information on the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival, visit cityofniceville.org or call (850) 729-4545.