Mexico Beach is one of those places where I’ll always be about eight or nine years old. This past weekend, I noticed that it has the same effect on my brothers, as I watched one body surf in the pouring rain and joined another furiously digging for sand fleas to use as fish bait. And all of us spent at least some time splashing in the water and fishing in the surf. In fact, if you looked past the grandchildren, added some hair and replaced the Penn reels with Zebcos, it could just as well have been 1972.
The occasion was our biennial version of a family reunion, when my brothers and I, along with our families, descend on that corner of Gulf County. (Technically, it’s Beacon Hill because Mexico Beach ends at the Bay County line, but whatever.) We go down to the beach mainly because we spent every summer of our adolescence there in a cottage our grandparents owned. As family legend has it, they were given the lot in 1910 under the condition that they would build on it within a year. Back then, the goal was to attract more people to the coast and develop land that was otherwise ill-suited for farming or even growing timber.
Built in 1910, this cottage was authentic Florida at its best. Although, as a boy, I would have traded some authenticity for hot water and AC.
A century later, I can report that the effort was wildly successful.
The sleepy little village where I was exiled as a child has become a booming beach town, complete with condos, hotels and droves of tourists. Even neighboring Port St. Joe has traded in its signature paper mill for high-end clothing shops, resorts and marinas that house expensive pleasure boats. People who would have gagged on the smell of that town four decades ago now make reservations a year in advance to visit.
Our family hasn’t owned a house at Mexico Beach since 1994 and both my parents have now passed away. But their five sons have multiplied to become a family of 33, counting spouses, children and grandchildren. So when we have a chance to be together, it inevitably means trading stories and sharing memories about the way things used to be. At the risk of sounding sappy (thank you, Amy), here is a random collection of things I remember from the days before Mexico Beach was discovered by the masses:
- Going to the Gulf Station: Miss Marguerite owned this all-purpose store and everybody down there had a charge account. By volume, I think she probably sold a lot more beer than gasoline, but she also had a pinball machine where I spent many hours and quarters.
- Catching whiting: I’m not sure if it was possible to cast a dead shrimp in the surf back then without catching one. The other most prevalent species was saltwater catfish, but occasionally a trout, bluefish or shark would come by just to keep you guessing.
- Driving down to Bullet Hill: This was a long, uninhabited stretch of beach on the Tyndall AFB reservation. It had once been used as a firing range and you could sometimes find old bullets in the lagoon there. You needed a four-wheel-drive to get across the soft sand, but the fishing was great and we would usually be treated to grilled hamburgers and a bonfire in the evening.
- Catching blue crabs: Speaking of Bullet Hill, there were so many crabs there, you could catch them with a net in the surf. Daddy would put a couple of us on the hood of the truck with our nets and drive along the beach until we saw one. The goal was to see them before he did. Otherwise, he would tap the brakes without warning and launch you into the sand.
Going to Mexico Beach from Blountstown meant crossing this floating drawbridge at Overstreet. The sign warns to drive with caution because the tide is low.
- Bringing drinking water: Water from the shallow well at our cottage was rancid, plain and simple. So, we filled gallon milk jugs with water from Blountstown to bring with us. My father commuted back and forth every day, so he was responsible for our resupply over the course of the summer.
- Taking cold showers: At my grandparents’ cottage, the shower was outside and enclosed on three sides (you know, for privacy). There was no hot water, so you wanted to be first in and get all the warm water from the pipes before the ice cold well water got there.
- Bathing rarely: Reference the aforesaid shower, I admit I speak from very limited experience. I spent most of every day in the water and in the mind of a young boy, that’s as good (if not better) than an actual bath or shower. I got in the shower long enough to knock the sand off of me and then only because I would get in trouble for tracking it in the house.
Pictured: My bathtub from birth to age 11.
- Using shells for ashtrays: My father and lots of other adults smoked back then. Thus we must have had a hundred big clam and sea scallop shells that found a second life as ashtrays. Looking back, I find it hilarious that we actually emptied and washed them like they were in short supply.
- Scalloping in St. Joe Bay: I don’t know why we didn’t use a mask and snorkel back then, but we didn’t. So scalloping was a terrible exercise in shuffling slowly along the shallow grass beds in an effort to find a scallop with your feet. You shuffled so as not to step on one of the millions of stingrays that lived there. To me, scalloping meant a whole day of excruciating boredom, followed by an evening expending 50 calories of effort to extract 10 calories of meat from their shells. The big “innovation” was a glass-bottomed box and a scooper (a broomstick with a wire basket on the end) that allowed you to pick up scallops without having to bend over. This probably explains why there were no limits on scallops back then.
What manner of sorcery is this?
- Launching at Presnell’s Fish Camp: Mr. and Mrs. Presnell were still alive in those days and they ran a tight ship when it came to putting your boat in at their St. Joe Bay ramp. I watched many a tourist get schooled by Mr. Presnell about dawdling and holding up the line. (There have been many days since then — at many other ramps — when I actively tried to summon his spirit!)
- Living with cockroaches: Nowadays, if I see a cockroach in my house, I call the exterminator. At the beach, they were just part of the natural fauna. Back then, there was nothing I wouldn’t eat just because a roach had touched it. Which was fortunate because otherwise I would have gone hungry.
- Crossing US 98: My parents feared the highway in front of our house more than anything on the other side in the water. Log trucks still used the road regularly and no one slowed down on that stretch.
- Stepping on sandspurs: Assuming you made it across 98 without becoming a hood ornament, you still had to navigate about 50 yards of old boards and carpet to get to the beach. Step off the path and you were in a minefield of painful stickers. Going down there barefoot was out of the question, so we had dozens of rubber flip-flops lying around. (None of which matched, by the way.)
Yes, we were jealous. Yes, Steve rubbed it in.
- Doing nothing: Especially during the week, there just weren’t many people at Mexico Beach and almost none who were my age. As a result, I got comfortable with my own company. I read, fished, played in the sand and swam, but there were lots of times when I just existed. I can remember sitting in the swing on the front porch, daydreaming and writing scripts for my life that never quite panned out. (Surprisingly, I never fantasized about doing marketing for a tech company.)
This was taken at Mexico Beach 20 years ago. We’ve added a lot more kids since then.
I took it for granted that, no matter what else happened, I would always have my family and we would always have the beach. As it turns out, that’s true. But like everything else, both are much different now. I miss the old days and I miss my parents. But I’m thrilled to see my great nieces and nephews playing in the waves and sand just like their parents and grandparents did. And I wouldn’t trade that for all the cockroaches and cold showers in the world.