Florida’s Franklin County’s secret coast, Alligator Point and Apalachicola (part one)
ABOVE PHOTO: Ormon House
By Renée S. Gordon
Franklin County, located in Florida’s Eastern Panhandle, includes four barrier islands and a series of small coastal communities strung out like pearls along the Gulf of Mexico. The county offers active and soft adventure, a unique history, sparsely populated white-sand beaches, an impressive selection of affordable accommodations and dining options and outstanding views of the azure waters of the Gulf of Mexico. www.visitflorida.com
The entire coastline is listed on Florida’s Coastal Trail and a portion is also on Florida’s National Scenic Trail. These trails give visitors an opportunity to view and explore pristine seagrass beds, meandering waterways, working fishing villages, lighthouses and picturesque waterfronts as well as sightings of the abundant diversity of birds and wildlife. www.floridabigbendscenicbyway.com
Paleo-Indian groups settled a region around 12,000-years ago that looked much different than today. Primarily there was a great deal more land with the Gulf of Mexico being about 100-miles into what is currently the Gulf. Few archeological remains have been uncovered because many of these Pre-Columbian communities are now underwater, however artifacts do occasionally wash ashore.
Pánfilo de Narváez led the first documented mission across the region. In 1527 he received permission from Charles V to set out with five ships and a company of approximately 600 men. The Spanish expedition came ashore one year later with only half of his men left. Ultimately the expedition was a complete failure with only four men, Narváez not being one of them, Alonso Maldonado, Cabeza de Vaca, Andres Dorantes and Estevanico, surviving. Estevanico was born in Azamor, Morocco and was sold to Dorantes at the age of ten.
He accompanied Dorantes on the expedition. Estevanico, a gifted linguist, learned the languages of the natives they met and served as the group’s interpreter, a healer and guide. They were the first Europeans to journey into this part of the southwest. The four men were enslaved by natives but made their way to Mexico City in 1536. Later Friar Marcos de Niza led an expedition to find the “Seven Cities of Gold,” Estevanico agreed to lead them and they set out in 1539. Although the Zuni Indians killed Estevanico in New Mexico he is considered the first black explorer and the first black man in North America.
Located in the county’s easternmost area is Alligator Point, home to Alligator Harbor Aquatic Reserve (AHAR) and Bald State Park. The AHAR is a 14,366-acre site that is both a wildlife reserve and feeding ground for the world’s most rare and most endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. This neutral estuary has a four-mile harbor and was awarded its designation in 1969. Indian mounds are also located within this reserve.
The 4,800-acre Bald Point State Park is situated where the Apalachee and Ochlockonee Bays meet. It is on the annual route of migrating birds and butterflies and offers spectacular sightings of rare species. A kiosk at the entrance to the park interprets its wide-ranging history including early settlements, turpentine camps and its use as a location of training missions for bombing and storming the beaches of Normandy during WWII. The park is completely ADA accessible and special wheelchairs are available for use on the sand. A full range of activities, both land and water based are offered. www.floridastateparks.org/baldpoint
The National Trust named Apalachicola one of “America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations” for Historic Preservation in 2008 based on its history, architecture, ambience and the unique appeal of its shopping venues, dining scene and lodging choices. Themed, narrated waterfront cruises leave from the dock adjacent to the Apalachicola Maritime Museum. These tours are a must in order to gain real insight into the people, wildlife and culture of the region. The Apalachicola Maritime Museum interprets the history of Apalachicola through displays, artifacts and dioramas and of particular note are the vintage photographs of the cotton era. www.cityofapalachicola.com
Franciscan friars were the earliest settlers. They established trade with the natives in the early 18th-century. The city, first known as Cottonton, was incorporated in 1827 as West Point but was renamed Apalachicola in 1831. The Indian word means, “friendly people on the other side.” It was laid out in 1833 to replicate Philadelphia including five squares and street names. Once the 3rd largest port in the country, 53, identical, brick warehouses lined the port and Apalachicola was a metropolitan city. A self-guided history trail has more than 200 historic buildings. Visitors should begin with a trip down Bayshore Avenue to see the Steamboat Gothic homes of the ship’s captains.
The Greek Revival Trinity Episcopal Church has more than its share of stories to tell. The historic structure has managed to survive natural disasters, war and the ravages of time. The congregation dates from 1835 but it was not until 1839 that construction on the $7,500 structure began. The white pine church was prefabricated using a pattern. It was cut and built in NY, assembled, disassembled and the pieces were shipped south by boat. It was completed in 1840. The church membership included blacks, both free and enslaved. www.trinityapalachicola.org
The award-winning, Victorian, Coombs House Inn is a B&B that has been featured in numerous publications including “Travel and Leisure” and the 2012 swimsuit issue of “Sports Illustrated.” The inn features three properties that offer luxury accommodations and breakfast. It is consistently voted the “Best Inn in Florida.” James Coombs, a Maine lumberjack, who started three sawmills and established the First National Bank of Apalachicola, built the mansion in 1905. The house caught fire in 1911 and was so badly damaged that the Coombs took up residence in the Franklin Hotel. Mrs. Coombs died 10 days after the fire, some say of a broken heart, and James followed 21-days later. In the 1960s the house was abandoned and languished in a state of disrepair until it was purchased and restored in 1994 by Lady Lynn Wilson and Sir William Spohrer. Tours of the mansion are available and it has been certified as a haunted house. www.coombshouseinn.com
Mr. and Mrs. Coombs are buried side by side in the Old City Cemetery, now the Chestnut Street Cemetery. The earliest marked grave dates from 1831 and the city’s founding fathers are interred here. This is one of the only cemeteries in the nation where Union and Confederate soldiers lie together.
The Orman House Historic State Park is easily one of the most significant sites in the region. Thomas Orman was born in New York in 1799 but moved to New Orleans for a year to work on a sugar plantation, then in the salt industry and later moved to Webville where he owned a sugar plantation. In 1838 he moved his entire household to Apalachicola and became a mercantile owner and cotton merchant. At this time cotton would be brought to the wharf where the seller waited for a boat to sell the cotton. Orman opened warehouses where he would purchase the cotton, store it and sell it for a good price when the conditions were right.
PHOTO: Original slave cabin
Thomas and Sarah Orman built the house in 1838 as a single story structure with four rooms. The mansion, then on the river, is Federal with Greek revival elements. Of special note are the magnolia-embellished doorways, the heart-pine floors, the original wardrobe in the foyer and tall doorways because of Orman’s 6’7” height. Over time building additions were made and by 1861 the Ormans owned 26 slaves, there were 4 slave cabins and outbuildings.
William Orman served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. His enslaved half-brother Milton accompanied him as a body servant. The exterior displays include a slave cabin and interpretive plaques. One plaque includes an excerpt from a letter William sent home, “ Tell all the blacks that Milton is well and rolling in fat. Remember me to them.”
During the Civil War Apalachicola was occupied by both Union and Confederate forces. Local lore relates that Orman House was used to signal Confederates that federal troops were in town. Sarah would place a keg of nails on the roof simulate repairing shingles, to warn confederates to stay away. The house could be seen for four-miles. It is believed that Sarah is one of the ghosts that is said to haunt the house.
Ironically, Apalachicola became a Civil War destination for the Underground Railroad. It was blockaded by Union troops on June 11, 1861 and with the arrival of federal troops came an onrush of freedom seekers. Sarah’s keg on the roof would also have served as a signal of safety to them. www.floridastateparks.org/ormanhouse
Veterans Memorial Plaza and Three Soldiers Monument are featured in the park near the entrance. It is dedicated to the southern soldiers who served in Vietnam. The sculpture, cast in 2008, was cast from Frederick Hart’s original located adjacent to the Vietnam Wall in D.C. Of the 58,193 deaths, 17,831 were southerners. www.threeservicemenstatuesouth.org
The third feature of Orman House State Park is the Chapman Botanical Garden. The garden honors the achievements of Dr. Alvin Chapman the South’s premier botanist. He moved to Apalachicola in 1847. Chapman was such a devout Unionist that his wife, a southern sympathizer, left him during the war years while he stayed to assist Northerners in escaping the area. The garden boardwalk winds through native Florida plants. You can also visit the downtown Chapman House Museum.
John Gorrie Museum State Park is situated on 1.25-acres of land and is dedicated to the inventor of mechanical refrigeration or, as it is known today, air conditioning. Dr. Gorrie treated patients during a yellow fever outbreak. He developed the ice machine to lower the temperature of their rooms and patented the idea in 1851. The museum showcases an original machine as well as dioramas of early models. www.floridastateparks.org/johngorriemuseum
A tour of the iconic Dixie Theater is a real treat. It opened in 1913 and in 1929 premiered its first motion picture. The doors were closed in 1967 and for the next 27-years it remained closed. The theater reopened in 2004 and has been bringing quality entertainment to the area ever since. The seasonal programming includes music, dance and theater. The Dixie Theater Foundation is a nonprofit organization and is supported by two other enterprises, Petunia, a shop for pets and their people and the Rexford Suite accommodations. www.dixietheater.com
The Gibson Inn was constructed in 1907 in Florida “Cracker” architectural-style. It was built of pine and black cypress and includes such elements as a central hallway, metal roof and wrap around veranda. The inn underwent a $2-million restoration in 1985 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It offers 30 luxurious rooms with antique furnishings and all amenities. Ira’s Restaurant, presided over by Chef Ira Mittleman, features fresh, local ingredients. Chef Ira has worked his culinary magic for such notables as Robert Redford, Danny Glover and Ted Turner. www.gibsoninn.com
Boss Oyster has been designated one of the “10 Best Oyster Bars in the United States” by Coastal Living magazine and one of the “Top 5 Waterfront Dining Spots in Florida” by Visit Florida. This is an experience you do not want to miss. Boss Oyster has its own oyster boats and the oysters are fresh daily. The view and the food are wonderful. www.apalachicolariverinn.com
A great way to finish a day in Apalachicola is to sit on the waterfront, watch the shrimp and oyster boats come in and watch the sunset. It just doesn’t get better than this. www.saltyflorida.com
I wish you smooth travels!
*Please note that historical dates and spellings tend to vary.
Gettysburg’s 150th Anniversary National Civil War Battle Reenactment will be held July 4-7. More than 12,000 re-enactors from more than 15 countries will participate. A complete schedule of events is planned and filmmaker Rob Child will be filming a documentary to be released in November during the reenactment. This is the event of a lifetime. Information is available at (717) 338 1525 or www.gettysburgreenactment.com
“Coastal Living” magazine’s June 2013 issue names Beaufort, South Carolina “America’s Happiest Seaside Town.” You can view the entire list at www.coastalliving.com/happytowns2013. Information is available at www.DiscoverSouthCarolina.com
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