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Before Destin became the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village”: Local historian publishes new book

Shelby Desoto
Klein has published his latest book, “Destin Pioneer Settlers: A Land History of Destin, Florida from 1819-1940.” Book Cover by Cynthia Lee Howard.

H.C. “Hank” Klein’s latest book, “Destin Pioneer Settlers” was published recently and focuses mainly on the land history from 1819-1940. The book also delves into the early settler lives of Francisco Moreno, Leonard Destin, the founder of Destin, and how the land developed over time.

Klein said he was inspired by all the stories his father-in-law Clarence Lee Marler would tell him about Destin. In the book you can find a page dedicated to Marler.

Klein, a local historian, has been interested in the genealogy of his distant relatives, the Marlers and Shirahs, since they are descendants of the pioneer Destin families, both being related to Leonard Destin.

“He [Marler] would always tell me things like, ‘I could have bought all that land if I had $35…’” referring to how cheap the land was when it was for sale from 1926-1936.

Klein’s stories talk about how cheap the beachfront property was in the city’s early days because it was not considered good farm land. He has written other books about the genealogy of his wife’s family and about business from his credit union management career, but he says this is his “first real book about Destin history.”

Tony Mennillo of Arturo Studios wrote the forward in the book and mentioned how he, too, was writing a book about Destin. He also added that Klein discovered that the pioneer settlers were able to purchase waterfront property at a startling price.

“Pioneer settlers purchased their waterfront property for a mere $50 per acre. Sound too good to be true? It was true in Destin, Florida, just 80 years ago. The federal government sold land to the pioneer settlers of Destin in the 1930s…” Mennillo said.

“A lot of people thought the early settlers were just squatters, because the land was set aside as a military reservation,” said Klein.

To help give some insight, he added that $50 back in the 1930s is the equivalent to about $1,000 today, which is still a far cry from the million dollar-plus price tags waterfront property has today.

“Destin Pioneer Settlers” is divided into four sections with chapters in each, exploring the history from discovering early Spanish Florida to answering the question from the beginning of the book, were the pioneers homesteaders or squatters?

Given the land was owned by the government, it wasn’t until 1909 that it could be purchased by those actually living in Destin.

Klein told The Log that some considered the land “fish camp area” and fishermen would come during season and lease the land from the war department.

“It was a wonderful place for fishermen, but not for farmers,” he added.

Of course the most challenging aspect for Klein during the writing process was searching and obtaining the documents he needed. He had to travel to the national archives in Washington, D.C., as well as tracking down relatives to get photographs of families and documents.

All told, Klein spent about 2 years researching, and throughout that time he obtained copies of all the original deeds to the land at the courthouse in Shalimar.

“Finding the executive order signed by President John Tyler in 1842 was a highlight for me,” he said.

 The “Destin Pioneer Settlers” can be purchased locally at the Magnolia Grill restaurant located at 157 Brooks St. SE in Fort Walton Beach and also at Dewey Destin’s Harborside Restaurant located on 202 Harbor Blvd in Destin. For more information about Klein and his other books, email  klein@aristotle.net.