This article originally appeared in the Dec. 29 issue of Creative Loafing Tampa.
Lying on a Panhandle beach, I turn to Barry and ask, “Why don’t we live here?”
“You’d be too cold,” he answers, and he’s not wrong. My friends joke (but not really) that I get Seasonal Affective Disorder when the sun’s behind a cloud for more than 15 minutes, and that whenever the mercury drops below 80º I run for my sweatshirt. Right now, it’s in the low 80s and I’m writing with a blanket over me.
Nevertheless, the Florida panhandle beckons. Specifically, the Forgotten Coast of Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla counties. Sand dunes line the coast, buffeted by pine forests from the small towns selling hyper-local seafood and low-key tourist dreams. Few roads trace the edge of the land here — US 98 through Port St. Joe and, to its west, 30A. I am hopelessly, totally, irrevocably charmed by seaside forests and small-town splendor.
I’m not the first. Years — centuries — before Tampa Bay became a place to live, Florida’s panhandle attracted people. After Ponce de Leon’s 1513 discovery of Florida, pioneers opened the West — West Florida, that is, which totally became a thing as our much-maligned state bounced between five flags until becoming part of the US in 1821. Of course, statehood wasn’t an easy road — the U.S. couldn’t let just anyone in, right? So, in 1838, Floridians got together and convened a constitutional convention at St. Joseph, Florida’s largest town with a whopping 6,000-ish people.
By the time Florida became a state in 1845, that town was gone.
In July 1841, a ship from the Greater Antilles docked there. NBD: St. Joseph was a significant port (’member, anything south of the Panhandle was a swampy morass of death, what with the skeeters and gators and lack of air conditioning) so ships came and went like it was today’s Miami. Except this ship had a passel of passengers lousy with yellow fever, which sucked for the passengers who died — but not before they infected most of the town. Of the 6,000 living there, all but 1,500 died. Of those, another 1,000 fled because they weren’t fond of death. So when a hurricane hit a couple months later, the 500 remaining residents found themselves homeless, because the storm trashed pretty much every building. Resolute pioneers that they were, they soldiered on… only to have fires rip through town a while later.
That should have been enough, right?