Home grown by home cooking: Organizers remember 'pure survival' of first Destin Seafood Festival
Destin, 1979 — Members of the Destin Charter Boat Association Auxiliary, all wives of fishing captains, were looking for a way to bring people to Destin and onto their husbands’ boats after Labor Day and the annual exodus of tourists.
The Destin Fishing Rodeo had been bringing anglers to Destin for 30 years. So members of the auxiliary envisioned an event centered around the Emerald Coast’s best food, arts, crafts and family-friendly live entertainment right in the midst of the annual fishing tournament. Thus, the Destin Seafood Festival was born.
Led by Janie Browning, the festival’s first chairman, the ladies set out getting local chefs and home-cooks on board, as well as artists to sell their work and musicians to provide entertainment for the event. They quickly learned gathering vendors for a completely unknown event isn’t easy.
“You see a lot of vendors go on the festival circuit now. Not then. It was all Destin locals,” Browning told The Log. “Now vendors come looking for you. That was not the case with the first Seafood Festival.”
The tide quickly turned, though. Once word got out around Destin, there was no shortage of vendors signing up to be a part of the festival. By the day of the festival, there were 58 in all.
Marcia Green, an auxiliary member, said the group did a lot of praying in the final days leading to the festival.
“We were thrilled, but the week before the festival was pure survival. It was so much more than we expected,” Green told The Log.
Though the original motivation of the event was to help get anglers on their husbands’ boats, many of the captains stayed on shore for the first festival and manned seafood booths, worked as security and even help with setup and upkeep of the portable toilets.
The festival was far more successful than the ladies of the auxiliary had ever anticipated. As more and more people showed, cooks and restaurant workers ran back and forth from their kitchens to replenish the dwindling rations of seafood.
Effort from the organizers, vendors, captains and everyone else involved held the festival together, Browning said.
By the end of the first festival, the Destin Charter Boat Association Auxiliary had created one of Destin’s most popular traditions. So popular, in fact, that by the third year of the event, it had grown far too big for the small group to manage, and they handed organizing responsibilities to the Destin Chamber of Commerce. In 2011, the Destin Charter Boat Association took over as the main sponsor and organizer.
About 15,000 visitors showed up for that first festival in the late ’70s. This year, organizers expect to have more than 60,000 locals and tourists attend the free, three-day event Oct. 4 through Oct. 6.
While Browning, Green and the other members of the 1979 auxiliary aren’t organizing vendors and drawing up festival maps these days, they still set up a booth and sell T-shirts at the event. So stop by their tent while you’re at the festival, buy a T-shirt and thank the ladies who created the Destin Seafood Festival 35 years ago.
CALLING ALL VOLUNTEERS
The Destin Seafood Festival needs your help. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up today!