There is an old Destin family story that Leonard Destin’s house burned, possibly during the Civil War. In this month’s History Mystery we search to prove or disprove this old family story.
In August 1861, Captain Leonard Destin and his family were moved from their home at East Pass across Choctawhatchee Bay to Four Mile Landing (now Freeport) by the Confederate Walton Guards. He was “supposed” to have been trading with the enemy. Search as I might, I have never been able to substantiate a story of the Confederates burning the Leonard Destin house during the Civil War.
There is plenty of official documentation of the Confederates burning valuable assets in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. During the Civil War, both sides participated in what was called a Scorched Earth Policy, which is a military strategy that aims to destroy anything that might be useful to the enemy when retreating from a position. Beginning on March 11, 1862, the Confederates burned crops, factories, lumber mills, and vessels but never homes prior to leaving Northwest Florida to fight on the front line of the war in Tennessee. But nothing is documented as to any damage done in what eventually became Okaloosa County.
After additional research, I did find that Leonard Destin’s house was burned in a fire in 1925. But it was the Leonard Destin Jr. house. It was on Lot 13, not Lot 12 where the new Captain Leonard Destin Park is being built. The house fire occurred on June 12, 1925, after Leonard Destin Jr. had died. After Leonard Destin Jr.'s death, his daughter Ellen (Destin) Melvin inherited her parent’s home on Lot 13, Moreno Point. Her husband was Odom T. Melvin, who was a fisherman.
One of O. T. Melvin's crew members was Barney Shirah. Barney and his wife, Dee, were living in the home at the time of the fire. At 4:30 a.m. on June 12, 1925, Dee Shirah went to the kitchen to build a fire in the kitchen’s wood stove. Shortly after building the fire, the roof above the kitchen caught on fire and burned a portion of the house and much of their belongings.
On Jan. 20, 1925, a five-year Dwelling and Household Furniture Policy, number 603, had been written by the Engle Insurance Agency of New Valparaiso, Florida for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut. The policy insured the house for $2,000 and its contents for $300.
The insurance policy states that the home was known as the “Leonard Destin home.” The insurance adjuster, J. Wallace Lamar of Pensacola, stated in his report that although Leonard Destin Jr. had passed away in 1916 he had left his property to his wife Mrs. Mary E. Destin, his daughter Mrs. Ellen D. Melvin, and his son, 20-year-old Leonard Destin III. Mrs. Destin advised the adjuster that it was understood that her daughter, Ellen Melvin, would get the house in Destin and her son, Leonard Destin III, would get the house they owned in Camp Walton. However, no formal transfer of any of the property had been made.
The insurance adjuster wrote to W.R. Prescott, General Agent of the Hartford Fire Insurance Company in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 6, 1925, that three violations of the contract had occurred, as follows:
1. First, the house was not occupied by the owner of the policy, Odom T. Melvin.
2. Second, the house was located on leased land that was owned by the War Department.
3. Third, the policy was issued to Odom T. Melvin, who had no interest in the property, except that his wife owned an undivided 1/3 interest as one of the heirs of Leonard Destin Jr.
The insurance adjuster had this to say about the town of Destin: “It is located on the South shore of Choctawchie (sic) Bay at what is known as East Pass and is made up entirely of fishermen. Most of the buildings are small shacks used as fishing camps. However, this particular building seems to have been a very nice dwelling at one time, but it was about 34 years old and I am satisfied was in a bad state of repair. As far as I could learn this was the only building in the settlement which was insured and this is the first policy issued on it.” The adjuster suggested that the Hartford refuse to pay the claim.
For the next two years, letters were written back and forth between the local insurance agent, the insurance adjuster, and the Hartford Fire Insurance Company and a partial settlement of $300 was offered. Finally, Hartford hired Carter and Yonge, Attorneys and Counselors at Law located in Pensacola, while Odom T. Melvin hired attorney R. P. Reese. Reese filed a lawsuit in the District Court of the United States, Northern District of Florida. After the lawsuit was filed Hartford agreed to settle the claim for $1,000, which was accepted by Odom T. Melvin.
In researching land records for my book “DESTIN Pioneer Settlers…A Land History of Destin, Florida from 1819 to 1940” I found a number of instances of deeds being prepared for the sale of homes, even though the underlying land was owned by the War Department. These deeds were prepared, but not recorded until the owner of the home actually bought the land from the War Department in the 1930s. Then, when the land was transferred from the War Department to the new owner, the old deed transferring the home was also recorded.
In the case of Lot 13, Moreno Point, Ellen (Destin) Melvin purchased it directly from the War Department. The lot contained 5.25 acres and she paid $262.50 for the property. That worked out to $50 an acre. But that purchase was not until Dec. 5, 1930, more than five years after the fire to the “Leonard Destin Home.”
So we learned that a Leonard Destin home did burn. It happened in 1925, but it was the Leonard Destin Jr. home and it was nine years after his death when his daughter Ellen claimed the house but did not live in it. Mystery solved!
H. C. “Hank” Klein is a Destin historian, author, and speaker on local history. He visits often and lives in North Little Rock, Arkansas with his wife (the former Muriel Marler of Destin). Klein recently published two Destin history books - DESTIN’S Founding Father…The Untold Story of Leonard Destin and DESTIN Pioneer Settlers...A Land History of Destin, Florida from 1819-1940. Both can be obtained from Amazon.com, The Destin History & Fishing Museum in Destin, Henderson Beach Resort in Destin, The Indian Temple Mound in Fort Walton Beach, and Sundog Books in Seaside. Klein can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.