EDITOR’S NOTE: On April 1, 1955, the town of Santa Rosa became known as Santa Rosa Beach. In honor of that milestone, The Sun is proud to present this retrospective by an author and longtime visitor.
In December, 1956, word reached Panhandle property owners in Florida’s south Walton County that a “beach route” would be built to link the coastal enclaves of Seagrove Beach, Grayton Beach, and Blue Mountain to each other and to Destin to the west and Panama City Beach to the east. It would be called 30A.
Not everyone liked the idea.
The vice president of the First National Bank in Birmingham, who owned a cottage in Seagrove, wrote the head of the Florida Highway Department that he had invested in the region “because of the quiet seclusion” and did not want that to change. The Florida Highway Department ignored his objections.
C. H. McGee, who developed Seagrove Beach, offered the state land away from the coast if it would route the road around him. The state turned the developer down.
McGee was one of Florida real estate’s unsung pioneers.
After World War II, when places like Panama City Beach were actively creating “amusements” and promoting fishing to attract visitors from the lower south, McGee took a different tact. Hoping to impress people like the Birmingham banker, McGee laid out a tightly regulated community with a covenant that promised “no trailer, tent, shack, outhouse, or other temporary structure will be allowed.”
Lots were plotted for single family dwellings and only “approved and accepted” building material could be used. Then to seal the deal, McGee guaranteed that “no noxious activities, offensive noises or odors, nor any nuisance” would be allowed to intrude on the quiet and seclusion.
Those who wanted cheap accommodations and “amusements” could go to Panama City Beach where what would come to be known as the Redneck Riviera was rapidly rising. Folks who were financially and socially above that could find their own kind in Seagrove.
In effect, McGee created a gateless gated community. Three miles off U.S. Highway 98, without a road to connect it to its nearest neighbor, Grayton Beach and Seagrove sat in splendid isolation. There was a little store for staples. Later a small motel with a café was added, but that was it. A “beach route” promised change and vowed not only to bring traffic and noise, but to open the coast to the element that Seagrove homeowners wished to avoid – rednecks.
Homeowners were not happy.
The road was built in phases and by the early 1970s it was completed. At first few used it. Though a pretty drive, most folks traveling between Panama City and Destin were in a hurry so they stayed inland on U.S. 98. There was so little traffic that late in the 1970s a nude/gay beach began unofficial operation at a secluded spot off the road.
In the early 1980s things began to change.
Walton County was run by upcountry agricultural and timber interests. The coast did not even have a county commissioner. So when developers sought permission to build two high-rise condominiums on the beach side of 30A, just east of Seagrove, the commissioners allowed it.
Homeowners were not happy.
With construction came problems. At a curve where 30A veered away from the beach someone opened a restaurant and bar that quickly turned into a honky tonk where workers from the condos, and shrimpers and oystermen from back on the Bay, mingled with some of the year-round residents to give Seagrove a taste of redneckery.
Homeowners were not happy.
Meanwhile, condo developers ran into problems with water pressure and sewage treatment.
Developers were not happy.
Commissioners began to wonder if condos were not more trouble than they were worth.
That was when a delegation from Seagrove showed up at the commission meeting. The exchange went something like this:
“We don’t want any more high rises.”
“What do you want?”
There was a pause. Not thinking they would get this far the delegation had not come with a consensus on height.
Then someone spoke up. “Fifty feet.”
So it came to pass that 30A would not have the “wall of condos” and the multi-storied motels that were rising at Panama City Beach and Destin. Nor would it have the “amusements” and bars that attracted the sort of people who rented those condos and motels — no Goofy Golf, no carnival rides, and no bands with the name “Trashy White” singing “I’ll be glad when you’re dead you sumbitch you.”
30A would attract affluent and accomplished baby boomers looking for a place to relax and young urban professionals — “yuppies” — whose attitudes and affectations were anything but redneck.
They found what they wanted at Seaside.
Seaside’s story is well known. Its “founder,” Robert Davis, set out to create a “real town,” yet one more carefully designed and controlled than anything C. H. McGee ever envisioned. There people would live, work, and interact with their neighbors — even if the interaction was only sitting on the mandated front porch and talking with folks on the other side of the required picket fence.
What started as a collection of cute, brightly painted cracker cottages around a village grocery, hardware store, and shrimp shack quickly evolved into an architectural fantasy world, a laboratory for New Urbanist ideas, an investment opportunity, an upscale resort, and a tourist attraction, complete with concerts and events, like wine tastings. Seaside has been called many things, but never redneck.
Not long after Seaside began, the honky tonk in the curve closed.
Seaside set out to become the cultural capital of Walton County, a title for which there was little competition, and when its rental program got going the community became a destination for the well-bred and affluent who enjoyed recreational eating, recreational shopping, and entertainment that did not include all-the-beer-you-can-drink for $5, wet t-shirt contests, or singers praising recreational sex. Other planned communities soon followed — WaterColor, WaterSound, Alys Beach and Rosemary Beach — spreading sophistication as they swallowed up acres of sand and scrub.
No more seclusion for the nude and the gay.
No place for the redneck to play.
Recently, Florida Travel and Life announced that 30A was the “Pearl of the Panhandle,” a place where visitors would find “southern hospitality in a trendy setting.” And when the magazine described what it called the “ethos of 30A” it focused on the “anyone-can-do-it” doings that characterize life along the route.
Well, “anyone can,” if they want to “do it” in a setting a bit more structured, better organized, more expensive and, some would argue, more self-absorbed, than you find on stretches of the coast where redneckery still survives.
However, along 30A, where communities are not overwhelmed by high-rise condos and where entertainment is more refined, people who can pay the price can enjoy what a redneckless Riviera has to offer.
C. H. McGee would be proud.
Harvey H. Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville (AL) State University. He is the author of The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera (University of Georgia Press, 2012).