Teaching Life Lessons

Teaching Life LessonsKathy Marler Blue Has a Passion for the Past  By Zandra Wolfgram

She was a curious 17-year-old girl when her grandmother, Katie Nicholson Marler, died in 1968.

Spreading a large piece of craft paper on the floor of her grandmother’s home on Calhoun Drive, she began methodically fitting the pieces of a fascinating puzzle together. Her inheritance: small notebooks filled with handwritten clues. She carefully mined these treasures for telling facts and figures. Though tedious and time-consuming, the process ignited a passion in the teenager for unlocking the past.

This was before the age of computers and certainly years before the young historian would subscribe to Ancestry.com. Over the years, Blue interviewed relatives at the Marler–Destin–Brooks family reunion — which became Founder’s Day, a public annual event held each May. Slowly history revealed itself in the form of interwoven family tapestries. Eventually, the trials and triumphs of these lives would be preserved in thick, black three-ring binders identified by labels now the color of tea. The first binder was dedicated to the author’s great grandparents: William Elisha Marler (1823-1884), and his bride, Sarah Rotencia Lancaster (1845-1932).

“I love genealogy. It’s like an Agatha Christy novel. When you learn something new it’s like, woo hoo,” Kathy Marler Blue shouts as she does a little dance in her office at the Destin History & Fishing Museum.

Blue is a fourth generation Marler. Though known for their fishing prowess today, the early Marlers were “dirt farmers” who ventured from Webster County in Georgia, which was ravaged by the Civil War, to more fertile land in Boggy Bayou sometime in the 1870s, where it is thought they operated a grist or grain mill.

Sometime after William Elisha Marler died in 1884, his wife moved their eight children into the East Pass area, now known as Destin, to farm watermelon and peanuts in the flatlands behind Wild Cat Hill, now known as Mountain Drive. The oldest child, William T. Marler (known as Uncle Billy), was a boy of 13. Once in Destin, he met and formed a deep bond with Leonard Destin, with whom he would go into the fishing business, and eventually, name the town for some 30 years later.

Opening one of her many dog-eared notebooks, Blue carefully unfolded its pages to reveal the lives of Destin’s founders. “When you talk about Marlers and how they’ve given to the community … some differently than others. Whose name is more worthy?” Blue asks.

As she comes to various names on the page, she honors them with their place in the town’s history. The Marlers and the Melvins were fisherman, she says; the Taylors were involved in the schools; the Maltezos were boat builders …

“It’s just all inter-linked,” Blue says.

William T. Marler, Blue’s great uncle, built the post office and the first school, which doubled as a church on Sundays. He built a fleet of skiffs, operated a grocery store, tended to the lighthouse and, when no one else would, served as the undertaker. “Uncle Billy was the problem solver of his age,” Blue says matter-of-factly.

Blue’s father, Ross Clinton Marler, has a black binder, too. Old photos and clippings boast of his career in the Navy, his stint as the first president of the Destin Rotary and his longtime commitment to the Destin Chamber of Commerce, which he often addressed. One chamber event program read: “Ross Clinton Marler will talk to us on a subject that is interesting and entertaining and that is any subject he chooses.” He also served as the postmaster until he retired in 1974; the same service his uncle William T. Marler began by boat in 1896.

Among her many civic posts, Blue was the first elected councilwoman in Destin. She is sure her sense of community service and penchant for genealogy was instilled in her from her father. “My dad was about moving forward, but he would say: ‘Don’t forget who you are or where you came from; protect the past and your heritage,’” she says thoughtfully.

Surrounded by vintage photos, maps, historical displays and her many family albums tucked neatly under her desk, Blue is clearly at home. “This is so up my alley,” she says with smiling blue eyes.

After 31 years of teaching at her alma mater, Destin Elementary School, Blue sees the job of associate director of the Destin History & Fishing Museum as a natural fit. “I miss teaching, but everyone who walks through that door is a learner,” she says with conviction.

And being a Marler, she is well-prepared to teach a life lesson or two.

This is the second story on the founding families along the Emerald Coast. Are you a local? Please share your family history and photos at editorial@rowlandpublishing.com.