.By Sam Burnham
We got to see so many places on our 30A road trip. Many towns along the way, in south Alabama and inland on the Florida panhandle, were the same kind of towns we have discussed in our small town revitalization brainstorming. But I want to draw a spotlight on one place in particular.
On my very first venture into town I was a bit surprised at what I found. It was a piece of old Florida, fresh from a history book. The small cottages, the scrub oaks, and the short spiky palms had me wanting to search for some local resident frying up fish and cooking cheese grits. The small homes are placed along the roads between 30A and the white sands of the beach.
Hotz Avenue has just enough business to make Grayton more than just a housing development but not quite enough to qualify the street as "downtown". Hotz runs roughly 2 1/2 blocks from the south end of Defuniak St at the Wash-A-Way Hotel until dead ends into the boat ramp on the lake at the eastern end of town. This stretch of nominal pavement is home to a few places where a local or a tourist might locate a cold beverage and a bite to eat. There was some foot traffic in the area the evening we rode though. There was activity but no one acting stupid. It was a right pleasant environment.
I mentioned the Wash-A-Way Hotel. This is not the Peachtree Plaza nor is it the Hyatt Regency Savannah. This hotel was built in the 1890s. It may or may not have earned its name when the 1926 hurricane washed it off its foundation. It may or may not have earned that name from any one of numerous other possible explanations. My sources suggest that the locals were, neither then nor now, concerned with exactitude or the accuracy of small details. Truth and folklore tend to blend somewhere in the middle and at some point disentangling the two is just more work than it is worth. Just pick one you like and go with it. I'm going with the 1926 hurricane. The building was there long ago, is there now, and is called the Wash-A-Way. There are photos of it on stilts and on the ground. It's on stilts now - this I can confirm. You can see the water from the building and it would make for a great retreat to get some reading and writing done...so long as you don't spend too long listening to jazzy tunes and sipping drinks at the Red Bar.
The Red Bar is the site of the old Butler General Store. The old place was run by Van Ness Butler, a high school principal from up the street about 30 miles who ran the school when it was in and, along with his school teacher wife, ran the store in the summer. The store served as the local jook joint in the evenings. Music, drinking and dancing were the regular activities, one of the only places such things were available in this remote area. It doesn't seem to have been a particularly rowdy place then, nor does it seem so now.
Mostly, I look at this area and see a lot of what I'd like to see in the small towns I have talked about in written dreams of revitalization. It is a town where the locals have managed to keep developers active building small homes that fit into their surroundings while keeping condo developers out altogether. Nothing is huge or overgrown there. The development seems to be in harmony with nature. It is a very bike friendly village that connects to the fantastic bike trail along 30A. I biked to Grayton Beach almost every morning just for the scenery and the laid back atmosphere.
Each 4th of July folks from Grayton team up to challenge folks from Seagrove (easily my second pick for a true Southern beach experience on 30A) in the Rags to Riches Regatta, where crews race 16' Hobie Cats from Grayton to Seagrove and back (or Seagrove to Grayton and back for the Riches to Rags in alternating years). It's getting hard to discern which town is riches and which is rags. as both places have reasonable architecture, some unpaved roads, laid back atmospheres, and seem to be less bourgeois than Seaside, WaterColor, or Alys. They also seem to be more content sitting on the porch watching the breeze than trying to keep up with the "fancier" locales.
Any way you look at it, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Grayton. It gave me some hope to know that such places are still out there. I would like to see more places with viable populations without being overrun with modern development and commercialization. If you are looking to spend some of your summer in such a place, I'd recommend Grayton Beach.
I'd like to thank Dr. Harvey Jackson for much of the information in this article. His book The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera (2012 University of Georgia Press) was my main source for historical information. Dr. Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and one of my former history professors there.
By Sam Burnham
Still sitting on the beach. It's summertime after all, so what else should we do?
Its hard to beat a good book while you're relaxing, sitting in your chair, and sipping on a cold beverage while the waves crash over and the slip up onto the sand in front of you. If such an outing is in your future and you are planning on spending that time somewhere on the Gulf Coast between Ft. Morgan, Alabama and Panama City Beach, Florida, I have just the beach read for you.
I just finished Dr. Harvey Jackson's The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera. You may have heard me mention Dr. Jackson before here on the blog. He was one of my history professors in college. He happens to have some first hand experience on "The Riviera" after many vacations and even several years as a resident. Add to that experience several years of scholarly research, interviews, several thousand encounters with genuine and imitation rednecks, as well as an undisclosed number of trips to the Green Knight and the Flora-Bama, and you have a well-informed volume, a detailed history of the Redneck Riviera.
He calls it a rise and decline because the story is a journey. It's an odyssey of sorts. A tale of how a few remote and hard to reach communities, in which sand fleas and beach mice outnumbered people, even on the 4th of July became what you see there today, some scattered small towns and several major cities filled with high rises and and folks doing what they couldn't do at home. It rose after World War II to become a playground for the working class. It was like the South of France, but Southern, blue collar, and probably a little tacky. Basically, it was nothing like the South of France. The decline may seem more like a success story to modern eyes but much of the area got a lot fancier, maybe a bit stuck up. It ceased to be what it was and became something else entirely. It became fancy, shiny, commercialized. To a plumber in Georgia or Alabama, that might just be decline.
My biggest regret with the book is that I read it after returning from our 30A trip instead of before. His narrative of the towns and the people who shaped them would have added a further level of interest to my experience there. The story really is intriguing and reads much like his lectures, informative but with no shortage of laughs. For those who aren't faint of heart, look up some of the songs he mentions, the sound of the Riviera or "trailer park rock." I dare you to give them a listen and see how quickly one gets stuck in your head. I've had the name "Old Milwaukee" run through my mind more this past week than in my previous 42 years.
At several points in the book I could hear him giving his Southern History and Culture disclaimer. He warned us each semester that there would be times in his lecture that we would think he was beating up on the South, perhaps even hated it. But then he assured us that he loved it dearly, and presented it honestly. I really got that feeling from this book. It's a fair and honest telling of the story of The Riviera, warts and all, told by someone who loves it. As I mentioned in my previous post, I grew up visiting Atlantic beaches and my gulf experiences have been both positive and negative. But I can tell you that reading this book, I can't help but love the place. I'm sure if you give it a read, you'll feel the same.
By Sam Burnham
Summer is here and for so many throughout the South that means fun in the sun and surf along the Gulf Coast. Growing up in Georgia, when people said they were headed to the beach they meant Panama City. Occasionally you'd encounter someone who was headed to Destin or maybe Ft. Walton Beach. My family had enough of a peninsular Florida influence that this infatuation with Panama City was bizarre. My childhood beach experiences included Daytona, Ormond, Jacksonville, and St. Augustine. In fact, I visited South Beach on Martha's Vineyard and a secluded beach on Salt Cay, Bahamas before I ever stepped foot in Bay County Florida.
These days, Panama City, and Daytona for that matter, is a picture of an urban center with a strip of white sand. There's just not much there for a small town guy looking for some relaxation that only comes from some peace and quiet. But all the cool kids are doing it. Even Gulf Shores/Orange Beach (our go-to since 2001) and Ft. Walton (our other choice) have really picked up in traffic, crowds and noise.
I can get all that in Atlanta and spend a lot less money.
Enter Summer 2017, stage right.
I think I have found an ABG approved option to the summer beach vacation. It's options plural, really, as is usually the case. I often say that big problems tend to require many small solutions and the beach is no exception. Let's talk about The Beaches of South Walton along scenic Highway 30A. The highway is part of what makes the area great. It's a two lane blacktop that veers off US 98 in Walton County and connects a string of small communities that each have their own feel, personality, if you will. Some of the places are old. Some are recent developments. This is by no means an exhaustive critique of the 30A beaches but I would like to offer a few of my insights on the places I was able to observe.
Blue Mountain Beach
Blue Mountain was our base of operation on this trip. Far removed from the high-rise condo structures in Panama City and Gulf Shores, this neighborhood is peppered with houses with very few businesses of any sort. The colorful structures rise up from the thickets of scrub oaks and spiky palms. But there is nary a mountain in sight. There is an ice cream shop, the Creamery, that I never made it to because the line was stretched out into the street all three times I dropped by. I'm guessing it is good. I can vouch for the ice cream at Buddy's Bike Rentals. The wait was much shorter and the treats good.
Developed by the St. Joe Paper company and designed by the same folks who produced the Disney town of Celebration, WaterColor is a lovely splash of color as well as brick streets. The community has an architecture that mashes well with the landscape. Speaking of landscape, the use of trees and other plants is excellent. The neighborhood has a very homey feel to it. It's very classy without being too posh. When I passed through on bicycle, there were people walking and biking around. There were a few places with tents set up offering kids activities and such. It's still a relatively quiet destination that is just a short walk or bike ride to Seaside, which we'll discuss next.
Seaside is a planned (er...mostly) community that you may have seen in the Jim Carey movie The Truman Show. There is talk that it earned that role because it came across as fake, almost too good to be true. If it is too good to be true, it still convinced me that it was, in fact, true. Along 30A, Seaside is the happening place. That is the one stretch of the road that had moderate traffic. It slowed but it was not the parking lot you experience in other places. It is easily navigated by bike or on foot. Much of the architecture is based on the old Florida designs and that tugged on the heart strings a bit. The community's center is a park that includes a stage area for open air music and drama, restaurants and shops, food trucks made from old Airstream campers, and a quaint little post office that I dare you to try to not photograph. I had to grab a few pictures, I just couldn't help it The interfaith chapel is a breathtaking wedding venue.
Seaside was a little crowded for my taste. A good place to drop in, have a little fun, and then slip back down to a place more my speed. A touch busy but beautiful just the same.
Let's talk about Alys Beach. When you pass through Alys, it will absolutely grab your attention. The stark white structures and statuary put a modern twist on the beaches along this highway. The cars and amenities indicate that there is money in Alys Beach. I'm honestly not a fan of the architecture. I don't think it blends well with the landscape. I don't think that I could get comfortable there. Between the harsh angles and bleached appearance, I'd be scared to sit down anywhere. It seems sterile, perhaps even starched. Don't get me wrong, it's a sight to see. I'd suggest a ride through. If you're into the modernist thing, I'd say stay there. But I'd feel much more at home in Grayton.
Grayton was my favorite of all the communities along 30A. It appears to be the oldest with the first homesteader showing up in the 1880s. The homes have a vernacular feel to them. Even the larger buildings fit neatly into the design scheme of the village. There are a few places for food and drinks. The beach offers an access for boat launching for the gulf while another ramp gives boat access to the lake on the east end of town. There is a lot of shade along the streets. The whole feel of the place is relaxed. Grayton seems to look at you from the porches and call out for you to slow down, take a load off. I'm not saying it is the 12 Southerners with a sand dune but it is about as close as I expect to get to that. I thought so much of this place that I visited it just about every day on bicycle. I'd recommend a stop there for anyone.
I plan to dive deeper into the finer points of 30A this summer. There is more to discuss but this is an overview of the area.
See you soon.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire