Jean Melvin: Keeping and making history in Destin

Tina Harbuck
Jean Melvin spent years working and serving in Destin, the place she loves to live.

For years she has been a keeper of history and treasured items that have made Destin what it is today, but in a few days she will be retiring from what she calls her “passion.”

Jean Melvin, 73, has served as director of the Destin History and Fishing Museum for the past 10 years, but due to health issues she will be stepping down.

The museum board will be hosting a retirement party for her on Sept. 9 at Harry T’s at 5:15 p.m., people are welcome to stop by and wish her well on the next chapter of her life. Melvin will also be honored with a proclamation from the city of Destin during its city council meeting Tuesday night at 6 p.m. in the City Hall Annex (next to the Dog Park).

As for some of the early chapters in her life, Melvin, who was married to Ray Shoults, moved here in 1973 from Huntsville, Ala., along with their three sons Mike, Jeff and Brad.

It didn’t take long before she fell in love with the “Luckiest Fishing Village in the World” and got involved.

Chapter One: Rodeo

In 1975 she took on the position of Rodeo Secretary and was under the leadership of Rodeo Chairman Jerry Najarian. The Destin Fishing Rodeo, held every year in October, is one of the oldest traditions in Destin and will be kicking off here in a couple weeks.

“I made $3 an hour,” Melvin said.

“And most of the time I had to pay myself if I wanted to get paid,” she laughed.

Melvin served as secretary for seven years.

“I saw some wonderful people come through. That’s when you had to love it … to do what I did you had to just love it.”

In the early years, the rodeo secretary had a desk in the chamber of commerce office where they would sign up boats for the month-long event.

But with the help of avid fisherman Henry Hinkel, a rodeo office was built near its current location on Stalhman Avenue.

“Henry asked, ‘where do you want to put it?’ ” Melvin said.

“I walked around out there and found a place where I could look out at the pass … and that’s where we put it. I wanted to be able to see through the pass from my desk,” she said.

“There was a lot of years I could tell you exactly what boat it was and who was driving it as they came up through there,” Melvin said.

But back then everybody knew everybody along the docks.

“That was back when the boat captains would book their own boats. They would be down at the boat, so you could go down and see them. It was a really good thing, you could meet and talk to them.”

And the night before the rodeo, Najarian would walk the docks, and if a boat captain had not entered, “he’d enter it right then and there, making sure there was enough,” boats in the rodeo, Melvin said.

“He was just wonderful,” she added.

“Jerry (Najarian) always instilled in me to have enough money in the bank to have the rodeo if there was a hurricane and that’s what I always did.”

She got out and sold ads, $14,000 worth, to pay for the rodeo book.

“It was all brand new … just somebody wanting to do it,” she said.

Melvin changed a few things in her tenure as secretary.

“The prize money was $10,000 when I got there, and when I left it was over $100,000,” she said.

Melvin also put out the first color rodeo book.

After seven years of service she stepped down.

Chapter 2: Museum

In 1983, Melvin married Capt. Royal Melvin.

“He taught me so much,” Melvin said.

“He got me involved … with all the early people.

“I was very fortunate to be accepted by these people,” she said.

And in 1986, Melvin was contacted by Edna Windes to start a museum.

The original museum was setup in the shopping center at the foot of the Destin bridge now known as Moreno Plaza across from the Emerald Grande.

“Mattie Kelly had given us that place rent free,” Melvin said.

The museum was located there for a number of years, housing fishing mounts and other things from under the sea, until the building was bought out, and rent was no longer free.

Melvin said they tried another site, the old Sockeyes building on Emerald Coast Parkway.

“It didn’t do well there,” she said.

So the exhibits and artifacts got scattered around town.

In early 2000, Melvin started looking to get the museum pulled back together and started collecting information.

“We started looking for a building, we didn’t have anything,” she said.

At that time, the Destin Library was moving into it’s new location and their old building on Stalhman was going to be empty.

“I went to the city and they were glad to do it,” Melvin said of the museum's new home.

The museum was birthed again in October of 2005.

“When we went in that building there was nothing, just white walls. And nothing to go in it,” she said.

“The things we had had in the other museum had been scattered around city hall and different places.

“We got those things back right away, but there wasn’t anywhere to put them.”

Exhibits had to be built and Mike Long knew a man who was able to help out at no charge.

“I opened that museum and I only spent $2,100 to get all the exhibits in there and get it open. Now, that’s unheard of,” Melvin said.

But why even have a museum?

“That’s almost like saying why have Destin,” Melvin said. “You can’t have Destin without having the history of Destin, and we’ve got it and people love it. So why not tell them about it.”

Her “pride and joy” in the museum is “all those people … you go in there and look at their faces, and learn about them. They are what made Destin. You have to realize there was nothing here,” she said, when the early families settled Destin.

“Those women, there was a sophistication and a class to those people. They maintained a sense of who they were and where they come from, and they brought it to Destin.

“It was a way of life.”

The photos and artifacts in the museum have come from various families and collections around town.

“Not a week goes by that we don’t get new things,” Melvin said. Family members pass away and then those left behind bring it to the museum.

“I’m just fortunate, that they trust me to take care of it,” she said.

Chapter 3: Swan Song

The museum will be celebrating 10 years in its current location in October.

But the legacy Melvin is leaving behind, “It’s sitting on that hill up there,” she said.

“I think moving the Primrose and the Old Post Office … that was my swan song.”

The Primrose, Destin’s first seine boat, and the post office were recently moved to their new location in an outside historic park beside the museum.

“You can’t imagine what it took,” she said. “The Primrose didn’t have a roof and the city said they didn’t have the money.”

Melvin started calling around and got enough volunteers and materials donated to get it done, all that was needed was a permit to get started.

The permit finally went through and construction began and the park, which houses the Primrose and Old Post Office, celebrated its opening in May.

The Next Chapter

Melvin is not exactly sure what the next chapter of her life will hold.

“I like to paint pictures and furniture … I’d like to get back into that,” she said.

“I’m not accomplished enough to have a medium, I just paint.”

Plus she plans to spend time with her five grandchildren.

“This is selfish on my part, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world, and I hope I don’t have to, other than Destin,” she said.

“There’s a peacefulness here that doesn’t come anywhere else … especially when I’m sitting on that porch right there.”

“I was very fortunate in that I loved it, the people, I loved doing what I did. You won’t find many people who are as passionate about something that doesn’t provide you with a lot of money.”