What were the stories of our century in Okaloosa County?

Staff Writer
The Destin Log
In 1926, O.T. Melvin and three others, in a bid to relieve pressure on Choctawhatchee Bay after heavy rainfall, dig a trench to the Gulf of Mexico. Water explodes through the trench, which becomes the Destin East Pass.

While producing a pictorial book celebrating the county’s centennial in 2015, Daily News staffers spent months considering what should make our list of The 10 turning points. Here are some of the events considered.

1915-1920 1915: State Rep. William Mapoles introduces a bill in the Florida House of Representatives that would create a new county consisting of parts taken from Santa Rosa and Walton counties. The new county is called “Okaloosa.”

1917: An election establishes the town of Crestview as the seat for the newly minted Okaloosa County. A new courthouse is built the next year by Dobson and Company of Alabama at a cost of $30,000.

1919: Valparaiso is founded by Chicago promoter Frank Perrine, who names it after the city in Indiana. “Valparaiso” means “Vale of Paradise.” Nearby Niceville is called “New Valparaiso” and won’t be called “Niceville” until 1925.

1921-1930 1921: There are two public hangings in the Okaloosa County courthouse square in Crestview. They are the last two executions in the state of Florida before Tallahassee takes that responsibility away from the individual counties.

1922: James E. Plew buys a development company’s assets. He is an aviation enthusiast and builds the Valparaiso Inn, which becomes a vacation spot for his wealthy Chicago friends, and pilots from Maxwell Field in Alabama.

1926: O.T. Melvin and three others, in a bid to relieve pressure on Choctawhatchee Bay after heavy rainfall, dig a trench to the Gulf of Mexico. Water explodes through the trench, which becomes the Destin East Pass.

1928: Tower Beach is opened by the Island Amusement Company owned by future Fort Walton Beach mayor Thomas Brooks. The facility has a casino, boardwalk, restaurant, dance pavilion, and cottages directly on the Gulf of Mexico.


1933: The first bridge connecting Okaloosa Island to Destin is constructed out of wood and completed around this year. U.S. Highway 98 is completed next year, opening the isolated fishing village for all to enjoy.

1934: Aviation enthusiast and hotel owner James E. Plew, in a bid to bring the military to Okaloosa County during the Depression, offers to donate 1,460 acres to the government for a bombing and gunnery range.

1935: Walt Spence, along with his brother Wallace, founds Spence Brothers Fish Company. Spence also forms Spence Properties, and owns and operates Spence Brothers Dairy on what is now part of Eglin Air Force Base.


1942: Col. James Doolittle and his Raiders train for their mission to bomb Tokyo at Eglin Air Force Base. Later that year, they will attack the Japanese capital, lifting the morale of Americans shocked by Pearl Harbor.

1944: The movie “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo” is filmed at Eglin Air Force Base and Duke Field. Three years later, the movie “12 O’Clock High,” starring Gregory Peck, is also filmed in the Northwest Florida area.

1946: The Playground News begins publishing. Eventually the newspaper will grow into a six-day per week publication, then a seven-day per week publication, with name being changed to Northwest Florida Daily News in February 1987.

1948: The Destin Fishing Rodeo is born. In the first 50 years, from 1948 to 1998, more than 1 million people competed in the annual fishing tournament.

1950: Okaloosa County acquires three miles of Santa Rosa Island this year. The acquisition of “Okaloosa Island” is the culmination of efforts by U.S. Rep. Robert F. Sikes, who introduced the bill to Congress authorizing the transfer.


1955: The first Billy Bowlegs Festival, which grows out of a water ski show in 1953 and organized by the Jaycees, draws a crowd of about 10,000 people. The event is held over the Labor Day weekend.

1956: Six years after three miles of Santa Rosa Island become Okaloosa Island, a marine-themed park opens, named Gulfarium. The park features large aquariums that feature sea creatures and performances by dolphins.


1966: An amusement park, which features several rides, an animated miniature golf course, a sky lift, and a children's fairyland, opens in March on U.S. Highway 98 on Okaloosa Island, in the current Convention Center location.

1966: The new Brooks Bridge, which links Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island, is dedicated in May. The bridge replaces the old swing bridge, which required a tender to move it sideways for tall boats to pass.

1967: A deadly tornado cuts a swath of destruction from Fort Walton Beach through Cinco Bayou, Ocean City and Shalimar. The twister causes millions in damages and kills one person. Gov. Claude Kirk tours the area.


1975: The first Vietnamese refugees arrived at Eglin's tent city in early May. The base's official refugee capacity is more than doubled to 6,000 before plans are announced to phase out the refugee center by summer.

1975: Hurricane Eloise roars across the Emerald Coast with 135 mph winds, uprooting trees, sinking boats, knocking down power lines and sending thousands of people to evacuation shelters. Total damage toll is estimated at $200 million.

1976: Area residents are all smiles when the brand new Santa Rosa Mall opens for business on Feb. 25 on Mary Esther Cut-Off. The mall features a food court and anchor stores Sears and JC Penney.

1980: Air Force officials announce Fort Walton Beach Fairgrounds will become Camp Liberty, a welcoming center and temporary home for as many as 15,000 Cuban refugees fleeing the Castro dictatorship in the Mariel Boatlift exodus.


1984: More than 25,000 people jam Wayside Park on Okaloosa Island in April to hear a free rock concert headlined by the rock group Heart. Over 100 people are treated for medical problems and 17 are hospitalized.

1988: Frank Athen Walls stands trial for a pair of murders in Okaloosa County. He is convicted on both counts and sentenced to death in the electric chair. He is also suspected in four other unsolved murders.

1989: Servicemen and women from Eglin Air Force Base, Hurlburt Field and Duke Field participate in Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama to remove Manuel Noriega’s government. No local airmen are killed or wounded.


1993: Commute times from Crestview, Niceville and Valparaiso to the south county are shortened dramatically after the opening of the new Mid-Bay Bridge, a two-lane toll bridge across Choctawhatchee Bay that links the Twin Cities to Destin.

1994: Former Congressman Robert L. F. “Bob” Sikes, known as the “He-Coon,” dies of pneumonia at 88, leaving a legacy ranging from Eglin Air Force Base to the library that bears his name in Crestview.

1995: After several close calls, Northwest Florida suffers the fury of three hurricanes. Opal is the strongest and deals a blow to Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties, washing out U.S. 98 between Fort Walton Beach and Destin.

1996: Former Vietnam War POW George “Bud” Day files a lawsuit against the federal government in U.S. district court seeking the restoration of medical benefits and reimbursement for Medicare charges for himself and other veterans.


2002: The Destin City Council gives its stamp of approval to Harborwalk Village, a new harbor-front development from Peter Bos, president of Legendary Inc., after a 2½-year planning process and an 8½-hour marathon City Council session.

2003: The United States invades Iraq in an effort to oust Saddam Hussein and locate possible weapons of mass destruction. Airmen from Eglin and Hurlburt Field are deployed in advance and continue to deploy after.

2004: Hurricane Ivan hits Northwest Florida with winds as high as 130 mph and a storm surge of 16 feet. Ivan destroys more than 1,200 homes and businesses and causes more than billions in damage.

2005: A 14-year-old Louisiana girl is killed at a Walton County beach after being attacked by a shark while swimming 250 yards offshore. Beaches are closed while a medical helicopter flies overhead searching for sharks.

2007: The collapse of the housing bubble kicks off the Great Recession, one of the worst economic downturns in America over the past 100 years. Locally, the real estate market falters and the unemployment rate rises.

2008: State Rep. Ray Sansom of Destin becomes the first Okaloosa County resident to be elected Florida’s Speaker of the House. He resigns the post a mere 74 days later amid a growing political scandal over a job he held at Northwest Florida State College.

2009: Okaloosa County Sheriff Charlie Morris and other Sheriff’s Office employees are arrested on federal charges in connection with a bonus-kickback scheme. Morris and others will stand trial and be sentenced for their role in the crime.

2010: The April 20 BP oil spill spares Northwest Florida for the most part, but tar balls wash up on local beaches for months and tourism takes a hard hit. Remediation begins and continues to this day.


2011 – Charges are dropped against former State Rep. Ray Sansom of Destin and developer Jay Odom after a judge says prosecutors have made no progress in their attempts to prove a conspiracy to steal taxpayer money.

2012 - Tourist Development Council director Mark Bellinger commits suicide after it is discovered he misused more than $1 million in Okaloosa County bed tax money and funds allotted to the county after the BP oil spill.

2014: A flood of the century inundates parts of Northwest Florida with as much as 25 inches of rain in a day and a half. Houses are destroyed, roads buckled, rivers swollen, and bridges damaged.

2014: A freak ice storm brings Northwest Florida to a standstill. A night of sleet and freezing rain covers bridges with ice, causes pipes to burst, leads to house fires, and kills plants and trees.


To find out what made the cut, please join us Dec. 4 from 3 to 7 p.m. at Destin Commons for the unveiling of "Okaloosa County Memories.” There will be prizes and refreshments to celebrate the event. Copies of the book will be available for purchase at a discounted rate and pre-ordered books will be available for pick-up. For more information or to order by phone, call 850-315-4489.