Marler Street named after influential family

Sheri Kotzum | 315-4353 | @DestinLogSheri |
Many descendants of the Marler family are still living and working in Destin today. [SHERI KOTZUM/THE LOG]

Marler Street is not named after one specific person, but after an entire family. The Marler family was instrumental in the creation of Destin.

William Elisha Marler born in 1823 in Georgia. He was a farmer until 1861 when he enlisted in the Confederate States Army Service in Columbus, Georgia, at the age of 38. He served until his regime surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

In January 1865, William married Sarah Rotinica Lancaster. He was 42, she was 19.

Their first child, William Thomas Marler, was born in January 1866 in Georgia, as was their second child, Emma Marler, in September 1867. The Marler’s moved to Boggy Bayou, which is now Niceville, in 1871. They went on to have six more children born in Florida. William owned a grist mill in Boggy Bayou that was located where the Jackson Guard is today. In 1880, the family moved to Destin to farm watermelons and peanuts in the flatlands behind Wild Cat Hill. William died in April 1884 at the age of 61. Sarah died in June 1932 at the age of 87.

In 1879, when he was 13, William Thomas, or “Uncle Billy” as he would be called, began to work at East Pass for Leonard Destin Sr. as a fisherman, earning $8 a month. He ended up becoming a boat builder and carpenter and built over 100 boats, fish camps and homes.

In 1896, William Thomas filed an application with the Post Office Department for a post office at East Pass. The department rejected the application and asked for a single-word name for the location. William Thomas resubmitted the application with the name “Destin,” after his friend, and established a post office in his home on Marler Lake. He served as a postmaster for 46 years before retiring from the postal service.

In 1902, William Thomas became the lighthouse tender and keeper, a job he performed for 34 years before retiring. He also established a school where he hired the teachers and provided their pay, room and board until the county included Destin in their school systems. He established a church, where he brought the ministers in by boat and let them stay in his home. He also filled in as a lay minister when a pastor wasn’t available. In 1915, he began the community Christmas Tree celebration, where his father played the role of Santa until passing it down to “Uncle Billy” in 1927. “Uncle Billy” continued the tradition until he died in September 1960.

In the 1920s, “Uncle Billy” lobbied for a bridge connecting Destin to Okaloosa Island. He was on the committee that selected the site of the bridge, which was built in 1935 in the same location as the current bridge. It wasn’t named the William T. Marler Bridge until 1999, nearly 40 years after his death, when Marler’s great-niece, Susan Myers, had the idea to memorialize her great-uncle with the naming of the Destin bridge.

“I was driving to Destin and I noticed that there was not a sign up naming the bridge and I thought it would be fitting to name it after William T. Marler because he had such a pivotal role in building Destin,” Myers told The Log in a 2015 interview. “I knew someone on the Destin City Council and I asked him if he thought it would be a good idea, and he thought it was a great idea.”

Today, many of the Marler descendants continue to live and work in Destin. The Destin History and Fishing Museum’s Executive Director Kathy Marler Blue is the granddaughter of William Thomas Marler’s youngest brother, Charles Absolom Marler. She’s lived her whole life living on a portion of the same piece of property in Destin that William Elisha and Sarah Marler lived. Her father, Ross Clinton Marler, was the last “Marler” postmaster in Destin when he retired in 1972.

“My life was filled with stories and tales of Destin and those that lived here,” Kathy said. “I remember my dad always saying to be very cautious of what you said in public, as your relative’s ears are everywhere and what is said travels fast.”

After teaching at Destin Elementary school for 31 years, Kathy became the associate director of the museum in June 2009 and then executive director in September 2015.

“I look at the museum as a school and I’m kind of the principal and teacher all rolled into one creating an environment to learn and experience Destin’s unique heritage,” Kathy said. “Two of the many things my dad instilled in me was a strong work ethic and to make a positive constructive difference in the lives of others. He was all about moving forward, but not forgetting about who you are and where you came from, to protect the story of the past and your heritage.”

Streets. They get us from point A to point B. They connect thousands of cities through all 50 states. But have you ever stopped to wonder about how a street got it’s name? Streets like Dolphin Street or Starfish Avenue are self-explanatory enough, but what about the streets named after people? What are their stories? Over the next few months, we’re going to take you through a series about Destin’s streets and how they got their names.