In moving from its beginnings as a remote fishing village to its present-day status as a prime tourist destination, Destin has undergone any number of growing pains. Today, the challenge for city officials is to balance the interests of residents with the need to sustain the tourism industry that helps to fuel the city's economy.
DESTIN — If not for a Post Office bureaucrat's insistence, the thousands of people who stream into Destin's condominiums and hotel rooms for vacation each year, or who decide to move here permanently, would be playing and living in beautiful East Pass, Florida.
In March of 1896, William Marler, who would eventually become the local postmaster, filed an application with the Post Office Department for a post office at East Pass, the western edge of modern-day Destin. The application was rejected, asking for a single-word name instead. Marler, who by that time had been working for Leonard Destin, an early settler who had been fishing area waters for years, resubmitted the application with the name Destin.
DESTIN is perfect except for the traffic.
TIMELINE of Destin's growth.
Interestingly, though, it would be nearly 90 years before the name Destin would officially be attached to the nearly 8 square miles spreading eastward between Choctawhatchee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. And by the time it was incorporated in 1984, Destin had grown from a sleepy fishing village into a vacation and retirement mecca that very nearly bursts at the seams during the peak of tourist season.
Gary Jarvis, a long-time resident and charter fishing boat captain who was elected mayor of Destin earlier this year, was an eyewitness to the later stages of that transformation. He is unabashed about working to ensure that the city retains its fishing-oriented heritage even as it continues to evolve as a center for other vacation pursuits — shopping, dining, watersports and assorted other diversions for adults and children.
“The high (tourist) season is a challenge for our community. There's no doubt about it,” Jarvis said.
STARTED WITH SQUATTERS
The modern history of Destin began in 1842 when, as part of a coastal defense effort, the federal War Department set aside the Moreno Point Military Reservation, which included modern-day Destin, then known as Moreno Point. Possibly the first public description of the area came from surveyors at the time, who noted that "the whole township is densely covered with live oak scrub and sandy soil. Pure fresh water can be readily obtained by digging two or three feet in the sand."
The first settlers, the McCullom family, arrived at Moreno Point about 1845, and six years later, New London, Connecticut fisherman Leonard Destin arrived in the area. He had sailed to Key West some years earlier to extend his fishing season and would never return to the Northeast. Instead, he settled into fishing the waters of the Gulf of Mexico before eventually marrying Martha McCollum.
The Destin family's connections to the city that bears their name continue to run deep. In fact, it was just five years ago that the home built by Leonard Destin in 1866 was razed to make way for a restaurant on what is now Calhoun Avenue.
From the 1850s until the early 1920s, life in Destin was centered on fishing, according to Vivian Foster Mettee's book "... And The Roots Run Deep."
Left largely unspoken in histories of the community, but acknowledged otherwise, is that the earliest settlers in the edge of modern-day Destin were, for lack of a kinder term, squatters on government land.
By 1909, though, the War Department was moving toward divesting itself from the land, and offered the first leases on property in Destin. Eventually, the War Department sold the land at $50 an acre.
Interestingly, the first retirees to arrive in Destin came to the city in 1931. Tyler Calhoun, a civil engineer from Alabama, and his wife Ida had visited Florida regularly for vacation, and during their 1931 trip, stopped in DeFuniak Springs and saw a newspaper article about Destin. They took a boat across Choctawhatchee Bay from Valparaiso, and by the end of the year had purchased a home on 3.4 acres of land.
The Calhouns' retirement would be short-lived, though. In 1935, the War Department sold the inland property at Destin — most of the property covered by the city today — to J.R. Moody, owner of a Florida land and timber company. Moody bought the 5,783 acres for $38,226.22, less than $7 an acre.
Shortly after the purchase, Moody sold 500 acres of the tract to Calhoun — at $10 an acre — and Calhoun began subdividing the acreage, becoming Destin's first developer.
HIGHWAY TO CHANGE
A major issue for development at the time, though, was that there was no easy way to get to Destin. That began to change in the mid-1930s, with the construction of U.S. Highway 98 and the 1936 completion of the bridge across the East Pass.
"What really changed (Destin) was the road and the highway," said H.C. "Hank" Klein, author of a number of histories of the city.
"In the early 1900s, the way you got around was by boat," Klein said. With the highway, he said, "people could actually get there (to Destin)."
Census figures show the immediate effects of the road on Destin. From 1930 to 1940, the city's population nearly doubled, from 166 people to 318 people. By 2017, Destin was home to nearly 14,000 people — augmented by the tens of thousands of tourists that Highway 98 brings into the city each year.
Local businesses began capitalizing on tourism soon after the bridge was completed. In 1939, Destin's first "head boat" was built, signaling a move toward accommodating recreational fishing. Operated by Coleman Kelly, the "head boat" — and eventually, others like it — took large numbers of fishermen out into the Gulf of Mexico. Later, smaller charter boats would become available for vacationers.
It would, though, be many years before local residents would begin really noticing the impact of tourism on Destin and the surrounding area, according to Tony Mennillo, author of a handful of histories of Northwest Florida, and custodian of a large number of vintage photographs of the area.
While the development of modern-day Destin might well be traced to the early-1970s development of the Sandestin Beach Resort just east of the city, Mennillo said local residents didn't really begin noticing a change until the 1980s, as more condominiums and tourist-related businesses began to spring up.
"There was a push (in the 1980s) that kind of made us do a double take," Mennillo said. "We natives saw some development that shocked us."
Even as late as the 1970s, Mennillo said, "tourist season (which now stretches from collegiate spring break in March to the Labor Day holiday weekend) lasted three months." Outside of that time, beaches remained relatively empty, he said.
"You could walk for literally miles and not see anyone," Mennillo said.
More recently, Mennillo said, the 2003 opening of the Destin Commons shopping, dining and entertainment center marked another turning point in the city's development.
"That's when Emerald Coast Parkway really exploded," Mennillo said.
Today, Mennillo lives in Freeport, but he maintains a rental house in Destin.
"Do I wish it would have never developed?," he asked rhetorically. "Of course," he said, wistfully remembering when the only landmark marking the Destin harbor was a large magnolia tree that could be seen far out into the Gulf of Mexico, instead of soaring condominium towers.
Since its 1930s beginnings, Mennillo said, Destin's fishing heritage "has gotten mixed up with golf, shopping, et cetera. People relate to it differently."
Mennillo, whose family has been in the area for years, still remembers a trick his grandfather taught him for catching a glimpse of the old Destin.
"He said, 'If you can get to the water, and don't look behind you, it looks the same as it did 100 years ago.'"
A QUESTION OF BALANCE
For Jarvis, the challenge of remembering Destin's past and charting its future is a question of balancing the interests of residents, vacationers and business people. In particular today, Jarvis said, the city finds itself wrestling with a change in the vacation rental market, where condominiums that once had rented to families are now, due to economic pressures, being rented to people who will bring large number of vacationers into a single rental property.
“In the end ... we answer to the residents, because they’re the ones that vote," he said. "They’re the ones that live here. So a little bit of the scale has to be tipped toward them. Nobody on the city council, nor myself, nor the city officials, we’re not against entrepreneurship. ... But at the same time, what’s the saying? All things in moderation.”
“I wouldn’t say Destin is a victim of its own success,” Jarvis continued. “The experiences we’re having now — especially with traffic infrastructure needs ... it’s like Atlanta, or Dallas, or New York City. ... It’s because those are the places (like Destin) where people want to be.”