On anniversary of Prohibition's end, a local mystery
EDITOR'S NOTE: To mark the 80th anniversary of Prohibition's end, The Log presents this 2012 story on Al Capone's purported links to the Emerald Coast.
Growing up along the Emerald Coast, you can’t escape the stories of gangsters, bootlegging and illicit booze filtering in through our bays and bayous during 1920s Prohibition.
“Because it was desolate and hard to get to, it was known for its moonshine,” lifetime resident and historian Tony Mennillo said.
But local folklore includes the most notorious bootlegger and crime boss of all, Alphonsus “Al” Capone.
The Chicago kingpin had plenty of ties to Florida. He owned property in South Florida and was even in the Sunshine State during the nefarious St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, when seven members of the rival “Bugs” Moran mob were machine-gunned against a garage wall. But pinning down Capone’s connections to the Emerald Coast is more difficult.
RELATED STORY: Readers recollections, stories of Capone's connections
The stories of the mob boss are most often tied to Valparaiso and Florosa, years before the Tampa Tribune dubbed Northwest Florida “Little Las Vegas” because of the proliferation of illegal gambling outfits.
Rumor has it that the Chicago crime boss was running liquor from Cuba to America using the then-little-regulated Choctawhatchee Bay and nearby bayous to sneak the outlawed substance into dry America.
But was the draw of the secluded waterways enough to bring around the most notorious gangster of all?
“When it comes to Al Capone, we had heard the folklore and that he was here,” Mennillo said. “I never could corroborate that … There was never a newspaper clipping.”
But Menillo’s grandfather’s memoirs ultimately convinced him that, yes, Al Capone was here.
“The key element was the train in DeFuniak went right to Chicago,” said Mennillo.
He explores the topic in his latest book, “Salty Memories Along the Coastal Highway.” Much of the information within the book’s pages is sourced from the journal of his grandfather, Captain Reddin “Salty” Brunson.
“There was a man who everyone called ‘Big Al,’ ” said Mennillo. “The whole mannerisms … we do believe that was Al Capone.”
According to Mennillo, Brunson recorded that he crossed paths with the notorious gangster as a youth in Val-p.
As the story goes, Brunson was picking Bermuda grass to sell to the local golf course. A car drives up and the driver asks Brunson and his friends if they’d like to caddy for him.
“He introduced himself as Al Capone and we caddied a round of golf for him,” Brunson wrote.
At the end of the round of golf, Capone took the boys up to the clubhouse to
get a beer. When the bartender refused service to the young boys, Capone reportedly fired back with, “They’re with me and I said get ‘em a beer.”
Brunson, who died in Destin in 2011, wrote: “It was the most gosh awful stuff I’ve ever tasted!”
According to Mennillo and Brunson’s account, Capone was no Bubba Watson. Rather the gangster was a golfer who would make hefty bets with his friends about something as simple as the direction in which the ball would travel. Even though he may have lacked skill, another yarn tells how Capone owned the now-Eglin Eagle Course.
Some pretty credible sources seem to back that story up. The Air Force’s online guide to its more than 65 golf courses worldwide states: “The Eagle Course: Originally constructed as an alleged winter retreat for Al Capone and his friends as the Chicago Country Club of Valparaiso, the Eglin Eagle Course has provided quality recreation for over 80 years.” Even Travel + Leisure Magazine gets in on the gangster action with a “Top Ten Military Golf Courses” article that states the course’s layout “was originally funded by Al Capone.”
But Eglin Golf Course manager Jeff Gutierrez says the chatter is nothing but rumor.
“We have a copy of the original deed,” said Gutierrez, and Capone’s name is not on it.
He said that when Eglin purchased the course on Feb. 4, 1949, the name on the original deed was Peter Foote.
“They’re not even sure he ever stepped foot on the property,” Gutierrez said of Capone.
Much of the lore seems to stem from the fact that both Capone and the original developers of the golf club were from the Windy City.
After establishing a vacation home in a place dubbed the “Vale of Paradise,” James Plew, owner of the Chicago Towel Company, built the Valparaiso Inn in 1924. It became quite the vacation spot for wealthy bigwigs from Chicago looking to escape the frigid winters, and was even nicknamed the Chicago Country Club.
The club continued to operate until it went bankrupt in 1929, two years before Capone would be sent to jail on tax evasion charges.
So in the end, we are left with the same question we began with: Did Capone cavort on our coast? He may have taken the answer to his grave in 1947 — when he died at his South Florida home, an estate on Palm Island near Miami — that he had purchased in 1928.
“There’s really no proof,” said Gina Marini, director at the Heritage Museum of Northwest Florida in Valparaiso. “If he was in the mafia, he probably purposefully didn’t want that trail.”
Florosa innkeeper remembers kicking out Capone
EDITOR’S NOTE: This report was written by then Northwest Florida Daily News writer Jeff Newell in Sept. 1990.
FLOROSA — Agnes Hall didn't know the man who seemed to be in charge of a group of men the night they asked for the entire second floor of the Florosa Inn.
Hall who was 95 in 1990 was the inn's manager during the early 1930s when the men arrived, most likely by boat. She suspected they were planning a wild party.
"I told him that I wasn't going to have any roughhousing or drinking here," said Hall. "I told him if he was going to do that, he could just go back to Fort Walton where he came from."
It turned out the man was really from Chicago.
Even though Prohibition, enacted in 1919 and repealed in 1932, was still in effect then, "people had plenty to drink," Hall said.
Hall learned the man's identity the next day from a waiter who overheard the men talking at dinner. The man she had warned against "drinking and carousing" in her inn was none other than Al Capone, who built a criminal empire from illicit liquor profits and controlled the Chicago underworld during the 1920s.
"I knew who Al Capone was, but I didn't know that was him there (at the inn) at the time," Hall said. "You would never know who he was by looking at him. He was dressed just like everyone else."
Hall's brush with the then-most notorious gangster in the country was uneventful, said Hall's niece, Mary Johansen.
"There were no problems," Johansen said. "They just got up the next morning, had breakfast, tipped the waiters and left."
"I don't know why he stayed there," Hall said. "The hotel was vacant. When I found out who he was, I thought I was crazy for talking to somebody like him the way I did."
The inn, which years later served as the Hurlburt Field Officers Club until it was torn down and replaced by a modern brick building, was the object of rumors for years. Even though there wasn’t a shred of physical evidence, it was widely believed that it was Capone's secret hideout and the remoteness of the Florosa area at the time only added credibility to the Capone hideout mystique.
Capone, also known as Scarface, stayed only that one night at the inn which gave the area its name, Hall said. But others in Florosa have long maintained Capone's presence in the area was more substantial than a single night's stay and involved rum-running from Miami. Those rumors have never been verified.
To download local historian Chick Huettell's collection on Capone and local gangster activity, click here.