By Rosanne Dunkelberger
While Destin’s restaurants, golf courses, boat docks, and every-water-related-amusement-under-the-sun looks like they sprang up wholesale in just the last couple decades, the area actually has a rich history stretching back more than 175 years.
So, if you’ve soaked in a little too much sun, or it’s a rainy day, consider a visit to the homegrown Destin History & Fishing Museum to learn a bit of the area’s lore. Located near the foot of the Destin Bridge, it’s easy to miss this little gem amidst the grander amusements along U.S. Highway 98.
Tourism might be king now, but fishing was a huge part of Destin’s history and where its story begins. To escape hard times and cold weather, New London, Conn. fisherman Leonard Destin set up an operation here in 1835 in what was then a remote frontier. Over time, a total of 15 “pioneer” families would settle here — and for nigh on 100 years, these families married, hired and helped each other, living a relatively primitive, hard life, said Kathy Marler Blue, associate director of the museum.
In a way, Destin’s history is Blue’s, because she’s a “fourth-generation Marler descendent,” the second family to settle in the area. When giving a tour, it’s like she’s opening up the family scrapbook for visitors to enjoy. Which, in a way, she is, because many of the colorful characters like William T. “Uncle Billy” Marler are people she’s related to or has known personally. One display is devoted to Uncle Billy, telling the story of the area’s first postmaster, and how he named the town for his first employer. (A Marler would serve as Destin’s postmaster for 76 years, the last one Blue’s father.)
The museum is set up like a timeline through the area’s fishing history, starting with the seine nets used in a time when there was no such thing as modern rods and reels.
“The earlier (boats) were powered by six to eight young men — back in that day a man was age 12-up,” she said. “The seine nets were very long but only waist high with buoys or floats at the top and weights at the bottom.” The fishermen would find a likely school of fish, set the nets in a semicircle along the shore and then haul in the catch from either end. Across the street from the museum, the Primrose is on display, a restored seine boat originally built in 1926.
Fish that weren’t preserved were “corralled” live in pens next to the docks until they could be sold — which is why the month-long local saltwater tournament was named the “Destin Fishing Rodeo” when it started in 1948.
Now one of Destin’s main attractions, the charter fishing industry evolved from those early fishermen, who would make their catch early in the day and then take out paying customers for some recreational fishing in the afternoon. Captains began outfitting their serviceable boats with higher sides, chairs and roofs to make them more comfortable — ultimately creating “head” boats (so named because the fee was per person, or per head) dedicated to recreational fishing.
If the sugar-white sand is Destin’s No. 1 natural attraction, that famous 100-fathom-curve is most certainly a close second. Nowhere in coastal Florida does the continental shelf come closer to shore than just off Destin, a huge boon for the avid sport fisherman.
“All of the gulf’s species live in a column somewhere of depth, surface to floor, and anglers out of Destin can reach every depth of fishable water for all gulf species quicker than any other ports,” said Blue. “That makes a difference when you’re paying to go fishing … you’re paying to fish, not to ride.”
The museum displays antique tackle and more than 75 fish mounts, all caught in the gulf waters off Destin. They include the usual piscine suspects such as grouper, shark, mahi mahi, snapper, marlin and cobia, as well as oddities such as the Mola Mola. Also known as the Ocean Sunfish, the mounted specimen is flat, practically round, with a body that seems to be all head. “I really felt sorry for him when I did my research. This one was a little one,” she said. “He was only 357 pounds. They can grow to 2,200 pounds.”
Destin’s modern era began when the two-lane Destin Bridge was built, offering easier access with the mainland. Other displays are dedicated to the town’s first retiree and land developer, Tyler Calhoun, and how turpentine worker Coleman Kelly became one of Destin’s most notable businessman.
In addition to the permanent displays, populated mostly with items donated by descendants of those founding families, there is also a seasonal board highlighting what’s going on at the time. In March and April it was dedicated to cobia, a sportfish that was passing by Destin at that time, making its annual migration around the Gulf of Mexico.
You can be escorted through the displays by Blue, Executive Director Jean Melvin or a docent, or wander at your leisure. The museum offers scavenger hunts for kids “and the young at heart,” Blue says.
Destin History and Fishing Museum
108 Stahlman Ave.
Destin, FL 32541
Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. (Fall and Spring)
Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. (Summer)
Adult $5, Seniors & Military $4, Children $3, Children under 6 Free