Curator's Pick: Grayton Beach
.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.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire