Destin and Bagdad - a century later

Staff Writer
The Destin Log

Last month, our History Mystery was about the similarities between Destin and Bagdad in the mid-1800s. Both villages were founded by a single man. Leonard Destin founded Destin as a small fishing village. While Joseph Forsyth founded Bagdad as a large industrial town. These two men had a lot in common. Both men came to Florida from New Orleans and both men were born in New London, Connecticut, in the early 1800s. This month our History Mystery is about two men from Bagdad that had a profound affect on Destin in the late 1930s.

Burney McIver Henderson – Henderson was the last owner of the Bagdad Land & Lumber Company in Bagdad. At 34-years old he had the responsibility of closing down the mill and the company-owned city of Bagdad in 1939. Bagdad Land & Lumber had been in business for 111 years, since 1828 and was founded by Joseph Forsyth. They produced more long leaf pine lumber than any other mill in the WORLD.

Henderson’s interest in Destin was initially only in the long leaf pine trees. In the mid-1930s he bought pine trees from J.R. Moody and his employee, Coleman Kelly, from their Vernon Land & Timber Company after they had been used for turpentine or what was called "Naval Stores." In 1938, Henderson bought three miles of beachfront property in Destin from land speculator Broughton Wilkinson for $10,000, possibly as an effort to move into land sales.

Henderson built the old Crystal Beach Fishing Pier, which was destroyed by Hurricane Eloise in 1975. Then in 1983, six years before his death at 83 years old, Pensacola businessman, Henderson sold 6,000 feet of beachfront land in Destin to the State of Florida for $13.1 million. That beachfront land became what we know today as Henderson Beach State Park, which opened to the public in 1991.

William Walker Milligan – Another individual from Bagdad who had a profound effect on Destin in the late 1930s was Billy Milligan. William Walker Milligan was the son of Ed and Emma Milligan, who lived in Bagdad. Ed worked for the mill as a skilled electrician. Bagdad was one of the first cities in the state of Florida to have electric service in all its homes. The Milligan house in Bagdad is preserved today as the office of the Bagdad Village Preservation Association and is located on Church Street in Bagdad. Ed and Emma’s oldest son was William Walker Milligan, known as Billy; he followed in his father’s footsteps. Billy also became an electrician at the mill.

When Bagdad Lumber Company closed down, all 1,200 employees in this large industrial city had to find new employment, including 26-year-old Billy Milligan. Billy Milligan married Johnnie Mae Melvin, my father-in-law’s sister’s oldest daughter, on March 19, 1938, and moved to the very small village of Destin, which had a population of 318 in 1940.

Just about that time electricity first came to Destin. Electric poles were all installed and the electric lines were run to each home in 1937. However, the fisherman’s houses, docks, and businesses in Destin had never been wired for electric service. Billy Milligan became the Destin electrician, wiring all of the houses, docks and businesses in Destin, including the home of my father-in-law, Clarence Marler, so that the new electrical service could be used by the residents of Destin.

While Destin and Bagdad are 50 miles apart, they had a lot in common, both back in the mid-1800s when they were first established and in the late 1930s when drastic change came to both Destin and Bagdad. These two cities that had so much in common in the past seem to be in two different worlds today.

Bagdad hasn’t changed much from the time the mill closed in 1939. Its population is 1,490 and the entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places. Destin has grown rapidly since 1940. Today Destin has a population of 12,305 and is a well-known tourist destination and the “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.”

Funny how things turn out sometimes, isn’t it?

H. C. “Hank” Klein is a Destin historian, author and speaker. He visits often and lives in North Little Rock, Arkansas with his wife (the former Muriel Marler of Destin). Klein recently published two historic books about Destin - DESTIN’S Founding Father…The Untold Story of Leonard Destin and DESTIN Pioneer Settlers...A Land History of Destin, Florida from 1819-1940. Both can be obtained from, Tony Mennillo of Arturo Studios at 850/585-2909, The Destin History & Fishing Museum, Dewey Destin's Restaurants in Destin, the Magnolia Grill in Fort Walton Beach, and Sundog Books in Seaside. Klein can be contacted directly at