Florida is one of 8 states with “panhandles,” referring to the counties west of Apalachicola river. Synonymous with the term “panhandle” is the commonly referenced, Northwest Florida.
For generations, settlers and prospectors lived easily with the Muscogee, Creek and Euchee tribes in what is today Walton County, sharing fertile valleys and tapping the areas natural resources. In neighboring Bay County, long before modern settlement began in the 1800s in the St. Andrew Bay area, the abundant fish in the Gulf of Mexico provided fresh seafood to those original locals.
The early development of Walton and Bay County can be attributed to its largest industry at the time, farming. As time passed, logging and the harvesting of pine gum and turpentine played a vital role in the continued growth of the area. But today, tourism contributes greatly to the counties’ success.
In the late 1800s, towns were beginning to form south of the Choctawhatchee Bay and by the early 1900s, Hogtown Bayou in Santa Rosa Beach was a thriving commercial center. Visitors arrived from Mobile and Pensacola by steamboat and the district population grew rapidly to nearly 1,200 people. A busy sawmill in nearby Point Washington was the center of activity, shipping lumber around the world. Today, the historic Wesley Mansion, located in Eden State Gardens, is one of the few historic treasures that still exist in South Walton from that period.
On the coast there was also activity. At the time, the federal government owned much of the land and few people had reason to settle there. The soil was too poor to farm and better timber grew inland. In 1913, W. H. Butler and his son, Van R. Butler, made the day-long trip from DeFuniak Springs to Grayton Beach and ended up staying. Butler decided to start a resort project and bought most of what is now Grayton Beach. The Butler family built and rented cottages and ran a general store and a dance hall where the Red Bar currently stands.
In 1935, Panama City Beach developer Gideon Thomas saw great potential in the area for tourism development despite what many then deemed as “the ugly white sand”.
Thomas told his critics, “I’m not attempting to grow vegetables here; I’m going to grow people” and his ideas caught on. Panama City beach quickly became a popular destination for fun-loving travelers. In the 30s and 40s the beach was known for a bar called “The Hangout.” The bar remained a rowdy hotspot for dancing and mingling until it was destroyed by Hurricane Eloise in 1975.
Tourism has blossomed ever since and the latter-day story of South Walton’s development really starts in 1979 when Robert Davis bought 80 acres of land and developed the up-market town of Seaside as the center of the New Urbanism movement. New small towns and hamlets were developed along Scenic Highway 30-A’s 26 miles stretching along the pristine gulf shoreline. Homes emerged in Blue Mountain Beach, WaterColor, Alys Beach, WaterSound and Rosemary Beach – modern communities with an original and unique vibe of their own.
More recently, as the area’s largest private land owner, The St. Joe Company, refocused from timber and paper manufacturing to tourism and property development. Building on the founder’s vision to build “the model city of The South”, the company embarked on a program to build a number of luxurious communities – including WaterColor and Watersound® – along the Emerald Coast and invested in commercial and retail developments to strengthen the local economy.