The rest of the story: The life and legacy of diarist Fannie Destin

H.C. "Hank" Klein
This 1906 photo shows the Martha Lillian near completion, as John and Robert Studebaker look on.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the past five weeks, readers of The Destin Log have had the opportunity to re-live, through the eyes of an 11-year-old Fannie Destin, what daily life was like living at East Pass back in 1881. As readers digested those entries in Fannie’s handwritten diary many wondered about Fannie Destin’s adult life and what happened to her and her family.

Martha Fannie Destin was Leonard and Martha (McCullom) Destin’s seventh child and third daughter.  She was born November 9, 1869, at East Pass (now Destin).  Her first name was derived from her mother’s first name, Martha (McCullom) Destin, and her middle name was derived from her father’s mother’s first name, Fannie (Rogers) Destin. 

Eighteen year after writing her 1881 diary, 29-year old Fannie married 24-year old Robert L. Studebaker on Dec. 28, 1898, at East Pass, which was then in Washington County.  Studebaker was born on July 18, 1874 in Dayton, Ohio, and came to Florida in 1888 at 14 years of age with his parents who moved to Pensacola. Robert left his parents in 1890 to “follow the sea as a calling” and settled at East Pass and began working with the Destin brothers in their fishing operation.

Fannie and “Bob” actually lived in an eight-room frame story and a half house. Bob Studebaker had built the house on Lot 9 at what was then Federal government property known as Moreno Point Military Reservation, next to Robert’s brother-in-law George Destin.  Their home was a stone’s throw away from the old magnolia tree, which still is clinging to life at today’s HarborWalk Village.

Their first child, Martha “Mattie” Aleta Studebaker was born on April 22, 1900.

Their second child, also a daughter but unnamed, was born and died on March 3, 1902. Fannie died that same day also from complications involved with child birth. She was laid to rest besides her second daughter at the Marler Memorial Cemetery. 

Life without Fannie

After Fannie’s death, Robert had to make a decision. Should he stay at East Pass or was it time to move on? 

A job opening occurred that changed Studebaker’s life. At Panama City (60 miles to the east), the Federal government was installing range lights to guide mariners into St. Andrews Bay.  There was a job opening for a keeper of the lights and Robert Lee Studebaker applied and was hired for that government job on March 21, 1902.  Robert moved from East Pass with his daughter Mattie, who was a month from being 2 years old to the settlement of Cromanton Bay, which was very near the entrance to the Old Pass.  Today, Cromanton is on Tyndall Air Force Base. The range lights were 1,600 feet apart and in each light was a kerosene lamp that burned all day and all night. Every three days, regardless of weather, the light keeper would sail out to each light and refill them with kerosene.

Shortly after Robert and his daughter Mattie moved from East Pass, he married 24-year old Hattie Pratt on February 12, 1903.  Hattie, a music teacher, had moved with her parents to Cromanton from Minnesota after the Civil War.  The couple had one daughter they named Lillian who died at birth on Nov. 15, 1903. Like Fannie before, Hattie also died during childbirth.  They are laid to rest in Plot No. 59 in the Marywood Cemetery.

More than a light keeper

In addition to being the local light keeper, Robert also helped his brothers Frank and John Studebaker at their store, which was located at the settlement of Cromanton Bay.  The three brothers also repaired boats in their spare time.  Robert turned out to be a master boat builder.  His first boat he built between 1904 and 1906 for Captain Lambert Ware of St. Andrews. 

Although other fishing skiffs had been built earlier, Robert Studebaker’s first boat was by far the largest boat ever built in the area up to that time.  It was designed for snapper fishing and measured 53.3 feet in length, with a 14.6 feet beam, and it drew 8.9 feet of water.  Its ribs were four inches thick by six inches wide live oak and were set on 18 inch centers.  The planking was two-inch-thick cypress, while the masts were made of heart pine. His first boat he named the Martha Lillian after his daughters’ names.

He also built the Princess in 1911, which was similar in size and design and was used for more than 50 years in the local waters.  His next project was the Champion, an excursion boat he completed in 1914. She was used for pleasure trips, mail delivery and family excursions. He later built several other boats including the Conquerer.

Later life

Robert Studebaker’s third and final marriage occurred on April 29, 1909. Robert, 34 at the time, married 30-year old Nina McElderry Ecker.  Robert and his new wife Nina together raised Robert and Fannie’s daughter Martha (who was known as Mattie). Mattie lived in their home for the rest of her life.

In 1919, Robert and Nina moved their family from Cromanton Bay to Panama City. Robert and Nina bought a house near the Tarpon Bridge. The home was next to the Tarpon warehouse and from the second floor, Robert could see all but two of the navigation lights along the channel, which led from the open Gulf of Mexico to the wharves of Panama City.

In 1932, Robert suffered a slight stroke and R. C. Wiselogel became his assistant. On Oct. 1, 1937, Robert officially retired from the Lighthouse Service after more than 35 years of faithful service to the government and the mariners of Panama City. Wiselogel replaced Studebaker as light tender.

Robert died at his residence at 958 Jenks Avenue in Panama City on Aug. 17, 1947, at the age of 73, and is laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery.  Robert’s third wife, Nina, died two years later on Sept. 18, 1949.

After the death of Mattie’s parents, she was 49-years-old and had never married. She was a social worker with the Bay County Welfare Department. On May 22, 1951, 51-year old Mattie married a retired doctor, 69-year-old Roy L. Brown and they settled into Mattie’s home on Jenks Avenue, where they lived for the next 20 years. Roy Brown died on Feb. 3, 1969, and Mattie died on Sept. 7, 1971.  Both are laid to rest in the Studebaker plot in Greenwood Cemetery.

A diary discovered

Mattie left her estate to be settled to her best friend Leah Bright. As Bright sifted through the belongings of her best friend, she made some decisions that would carry Fannie’s legacy to the present.

Mattie’s bedroom furniture had been passed down from her mother and father, Fannie and Robert. It consisted of a walnut bedstead, matching walnut dresser and a small, walnut three-drawer chest of drawers. Both chests had marble tops. According to family tradition, Leonard Destin had ordered the furniture from London as a gift for his daughter.

Bright thought the furniture ought to be kept in the Destin family so she gave it to Mattie’s cousin, Claire Parrott, who also lived in Panama City. Parrott is the granddaughter of Jane (Destin) Woodward, the oldest daughter of Leonard and Martha Destin.

Bright found the childhood diary that Fannie had written in the late spring and early summer of 1881.  In order to be sure this historical document would remain available for historians in the future, she donated it to the local history department of the Bay County Library.

That diary, written more than 130 years ago, has survived and today gives us a very clear picture into life at East Pass, when only a dozen families lived there and fishing was its only industry.

H.C. “Hank” Klein has ties to two pioneer Destin families. Hank’s father-in-law’s aunt, Emma Marler, married George Destin the first born son of Leonard and Martha Destin. While Hank’s mother-in-law’s sister, Alice Shirah, married George D. Destin the son of George Destin and grandson of Leonard and Martha Destin. Hank, who lives in North Little Rock, Ark., with his wife (the former Muriel Marler of Destin), has also contributed historical research for Tony Mennillo’s recently published book “Salty Memories along the Coastal Highway – Historic Stories of Destin and the Emerald Coast.”  He can be contacted at