FORGOTTEN FLORIDA IS UNFORGETTABLE

Photo by Bill Denney

Photo by Bill Denney

I wish I could say an end-of-winter vacation was responsible for our extended absence of late.  Instead, the day-to-day has escalated somewhat, and made our memories of a trip we took last year about this time more sweet.

202px-franklin_county_florida_incorporated_and_unincorporated_areas_apalachicola_highlightedsvgOur Florida vacation proved that I could work independently of a location, provided there was an internet connection and a phone.  More on that later.  We want to tell you about St. George Island and Apalachicola – in the midst of Forgotten Florida.

Photo by Pete Wuebker

Photo by Pete Wuebker

Forgotten Florida, or Old Florida, or however you want to designate the part of Florida that is down-home and definitely not glitzy, is the inside elbow bend the panhandle makes of the state map.  While there are barrier islands all along the Gulf coast, most have been invaded over the years by species such as developeris timesharum or condominium multistorius or retirus ad nauseam. Franklin County, although home to humans for over 10,000 years, has been, until now, overlooked by more flashy developers.

joe-tananto-seafood-companyWhat remains are the most charming and undiscovered treasures Florida has to offer.  Friendly people, sandy beaches, oystermen and crabcakes, and a picturesque little county seat across the causeway made St George Island a welcome respite from winter winds.

stgeorgehouseFloridians view the winter months as the off season up here, so we pretty much had the gated neighborhood of St. George Plantation to ourselves.  Similar to the one in the photo, our rented house, across the street from Hank Williams, Jr.’s place, had its own pool and a gourmet kitchen.  It was heavenly leaving the sliding door open and falling asleep to the rhythmic crashing of the surf.

Photo by Pete Wuebker

Photo by Pete Wuebker

The east end of St. George Island is a State Park containing nine miles of protected marshes, dunes, scrub forest and salt marshes.  Opportunities abound for birders.  Migratory and shore birds, as well as raptors, make their homes adjacent to those of humans all over the island.

Pete’s sisters were busy adjusting their award-winning chili recipe for another go at the annual crock pot Chili Cook-off on the day the entries were due, defending their previously-won title.  Word had it that the judges went for a sweeter, spicy chili with no beans.  While they didn’t place this time in their category, the free tasting dispensed with their supply and we went home happy.

“The name ‘Apalachicola’ comes from the Indians and apparently described a ridge of earth produced by sweeping the ground in preparation for a council or peace fire. Such an area might be translated as an area of peaceful people or people on the other side. ‘Land of the friendly people’ might be taken as a broad interpretation of the word.” – George L. Chapel, Apalachicola Historical Society

202px-apalachicolastreet1Heading into Apalachicola across the causeway, the GPS on our car appeared as though we were in the water – the bridge had been replaced some time ago.   No matter.  We could see the oyster boats on the prowl and the sea birds following in their wake.  I was at peace and winter’s icy blast was far, far away.

apalachicolagardens2The village of Apalachicola was designated one of a Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2008.  It’s the kind of pretty little town that makes you want to be a local with a shady front porch and a tray of cold drinks.  You can imagine Andy and Barney slowing past with a wave from their cruiser, especially since the next town over used to have its Police Department in a phone booth.  Apalachicola is sleepy, on purpose.

The town museum costs $1, and features the most famous Apalachicolan, Dr. Gorrie, who invented mechanical refrigeration, but died before he could profit from it.  Another landmark residence, the Orman House, is operated by the Florida State Parks for tours at $2.  All in all, over 900 historical sites are listed in Apalachicola proper.

These attractions leave plenty of room in your budget for a cold refreshment along with your crabcake sandwich on the waterfront at Caroline’s. Finer fare can be found at The Owl Cafe – a gem with a welcoming wine room.  The crabcakes were excellent here, and the white wine recommendation was outstanding – and reasonably priced.

Ambling down a side street, I spotted an old yellow dog napping in the doorway of a storefront.  Spare on the inside, the shop’s ancient brick walls  showcased large black and white photographs.  Stepping carefully past the drowsy canine so as not to disturb, I was quietly greeted by Richard Bickel, the artist proprietor.  “He doesn’t do much any more but sleep all day,” I was told.  It seemed like an okay thing to be doing to me.

richardbickelmarrakecheFrom the photographs on exhibit, it was clear Richard is a sophisticated citizen of the world.  Whatever was an internationally-renowned award winner doing in Apalachicola, when there were photos to shoot in Niger or Marrakech or Castro’s Cuba?  Well, he told me, he came here on assignment, and forgot to leave.

Tapped by Elam Stoltzfus to collaborate on a documentary, Apalachicola River: An American Treasure, Richard captured the faces of this river town and its backwaters through the same artistic lens he uses on other continents.  The result is familiar and riveting, a time capsule, preserving with stark authenticity the fading ways of life on the waterway.

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Well, this is really the end of Florida in terms of cultural identity.  Here people are relatively pure in terms of their culture.  They’re very resourceful people.  They can build a boat.  They can build a home.  You can throw them out here in the swamps and they can find a way back or else build a boat and get back.  bickellastgreatbaySo I think it’s quite important to record this as we continue to dilute cultures – not just here, but virtually everywhere in the world.  Already a book that I did – started on ten years ago, I go back and look at the photographs – some of the people are gone, some of the dock areas have changed dramatically.  As we do continue to change the face of this coastal area, we see it vanishing to a certain degree.  These few snapshots I have and those of other people will be all that tell us, in addition to some film footage, and future generations what we did have here. – Richard Bickel

Photo by Pete Wuebker

Photo by Pete Wuebker

Apalachicola Bay is one of the most productive, nutrient-rich and unspoiled estuarine systems, according to the city website, in the world.  Franklin County harvests yield fine oysters and seafood: white, brown and pink shrimp, blue crab, and commercial fish including pompano and flounder.

There are many spectacular places to film in Florida, but the Apalachicola River and its tributaries are elusive and not well understood. There is a quiet serenity on the river, but an untamed and mysterious side in the back-waters of the river. The abundance of textures and shapes, spectrums of light, change of seasons, levels of water, combined with the collection of species that are unique to this area creates a filmmakers delight. Having the opportunity to capture images of nature in the region I call home, and to share those images with others has put a smile on my face and satisfaction in my soul. – Elam Stoltzfus

Photo by Pete Wuebker

Photo by Pete Wuebker

A winter vacation gives the opportunity to remind oneself that there is sunlight to be soaked in.  There are waves to gently lap against a dock or chase you up the beach, and icy drinks and ceiling fans to temper the day’s heat.  But more than this, the soul needs a rest from battling the chill that emanates from a barren landscape which encases almost any trace of living things in silence.

Photo by Pete Wuebker

Photo by Pete Wuebker

The isolated quiet is different in this part of Florida.  It speaks to the timelessness and peace inherent in the rise and fall of the tides.  There’s an unassuming coexistence with beauty and natural rhythm.  It’s a place where the imprint of man has yet to overshadow that which came before, and it’s where environmentalists, conservationists and those who capture images – moving and still – are working to keep things that way.

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15 Responses to FORGOTTEN FLORIDA IS UNFORGETTABLE

  1. Elam Stoltzfus March 25, 2009 at 6:21 pm #

    Thanks for your kind comments and link to http://www.apalachicolaamericantreasure.com.

  2. Robin March 26, 2009 at 6:36 am #

    I really enyoyed reading this Betsy – thanks. From over here we would just think of the trashy Florida (loved your species names). Beautiful photos!

    Robin´s last blog post..What If? The Movie, A Review

  3. Betsy Wuebker March 26, 2009 at 6:57 am #

    Hi Elam – It’s our pleasure. We join you in revering this special part of the world. Thanks for coming by.

  4. Betsy Wuebker March 26, 2009 at 8:38 am #

    Hi Robin – Thanks! Yeah, those pesky species that ruin everything! Lucky they haven’t advanced to this part of the world.

  5. Sara March 26, 2009 at 1:41 pm #

    Betsy,

    You were in my back yard a year ago! The beach you visited is one I’ve been to many times. I now go mostly to Cape San Blas, which up the street from St. George. I’ve lived in Florida my whole life and my grandparents came to the state in the late 1800s and so I’ve seen lots of beaches, but the ones in North Florida on the gulf are the most beautiful. I even saw a beach deer one day…they are tiny little things and very hard to see! I felt lucky. Well, I could on and on….

    I loved your pictures and hope both of you will return soon:~)

    Sara´s last blog post..An Exercise to Practice Positive Thinking

  6. Betsy Wuebker March 26, 2009 at 7:21 pm #

    Hi Sara – We love your backyard! How fun to know where you live – I just fell in love with the entire area. How about that row of old trucks along the highway down from Tallahassee? It’s like Car-henge! Thanks so much, we hope to return really soon!

  7. Cath Lawson March 27, 2009 at 9:37 am #

    Hi Betsy – It sounds like you had an awesome time. I would love to see more of Florida – I’ve been a few times but I’m ashamed to admit that most of my trips have been to the Disney parks.

  8. Barb Hartsook @ Over Coffee March 27, 2009 at 1:20 pm #

    This tugged such a gentle memory of our family vacations when I was a little girl. I grew up in southern Ohio — cold and slushy in the winter — and at Christmas time we packed up and left the last day of school before Christmas vacation. We went further south than St. George Island, but we stayed in off-the-beaten-path places, still on the Gulf beach, but not in the more touristy spots. Our favorite spot has long been torn down and built over, but my memories are fresh as the warm salty air we cherished. (Yes! The salt-air smelled fresh to our shivering souls. :) )

    I visited the gallery on PBase from your link and have thoroughly delighted in this little treasure-chest memory. Thank you.

  9. Jay March 27, 2009 at 9:57 pm #

    You made us want to pack up and be there tomorrow! John is working in Alabama and I’m sure he will want to visit Forgotten Florida–he’s been to the Disney things. By the way, I’m sure your mother would be very pleased to see how well you write, Betsy. Jay

  10. Debbie March 28, 2009 at 8:17 am #

    Wow what a great article, pictures and trips. I have family living in Florida, and we still don’t visit there very often. Shame on us. I know it will probably sounds nuts, but I loved visiting the Florida Keys, especially Key West. I love the architecture, the temps and weather (except for hurricanes of course), the food, walking everywhere.

    Debbie´s last blog post..I am Simon Jester, are you?

  11. Betsy Wuebker March 28, 2009 at 11:07 am #

    Hi Cath – It’s a shame we can’t spend extended stays in places to get to know them other than the more well-known attractions, isn’t it? I know I kind of cringe when people say, “Oh, Minnesota! I know all about it – I’ve been to the Mall of America! Loved it!” And I’m sure I’ve made remarks that have clued locals in on how much I don’t know about where they live. Hoping to change that! :) Thanks.

    Hi Barb – Welcome! The little out of the way places seem to have the most charm, don’t they? I’m glad you enjoyed this piece, and that it evoked a similar memory for you! Thank you.

    Hi Auntie Jay – I wouldn’t be much of a writer without Mom having taught me to read long before kindergarten. Readers make writers, I think. I hope John gets to go all along the coast while he’s close. And, after a long winter, doesn’t even the least bit of that sound heavenly? Thanks.

    Hi Debbie – I love Key West, too, although it’s an entirely different vibe. My parents wintered in Florida for years, but it’s only after they’ve been gone that I really got to know what it must’ve been like earlier than our time. We’re lucky we can still ferret out these quirky places. Thanks!

  12. Jannie Funster March 29, 2009 at 6:19 pm #

    Pete, as always has captured some amazing shots. I think the fishing boats are my favorite, reminding me of my home and native land where all the salty characters ramble and roam the high seas.

    It is special isn’t it to get off the really beaten tourist trails.

    I have been to East and West Florida but not the Panhandle.

    Jannie Funster´s last blog post..Ukulele Video

  13. Julianne April 6, 2011 at 5:16 pm #

    I love hearing old stories from my family about going to the beach growing up. It was a whole different world. No public bathrooms, one or two places to eat, not the commercialized experience you find at most places today. That’s why I love small coastal towns today.

    • Betsy Wuebker April 7, 2011 at 8:08 am #

      Hi Julianne – Welcome to PassingThru! We agree with you on the small, almost forgotten coastal town experience. We’ve not been back to Appalachicola since this post was written, and it’s high time we did go. Thank you for your comment.

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