When Bruce Register thinks about South Walton, his memories don’t include bike paths, 30A stickers or many fabulous restaurants.
Rather, his memories of the area consist of fishing with bamboo poles, homesteading in a rustic cabin, and encountering alligators, snakes, and other wildlife.
Register, a longtime Dothan, Ala., resident, started visiting the area in the late 1940s, back when his family owned a vacation cabin along Camp Creek Lake. He visited the area often until the family’s cabin sold in the 1970s.
Register relayed a mélange of South Walton memories through stories and photos to The Sun.
We built a cabin on Camp Creek Lake in the ‘40s. We spent every weekend we could down there. We lived in Dothan. St. Joseph Paper Company had acquired most of the homestead land around us. My uncle had homesteaded the property. We bought a parcel and built our cabin. Later there were three other cabins next to us.
There was a paved road to Seagrove Beach from Highway 98. We had to travel the several St. Joseph Paper Co. fire lanes from Hwy. 98 to get to our site. We would walk three miles down the beach to go to the Seagrove store. In smooth Gulf water, we would drag a boat over the sandbar to go to the Seagrove store. We would refill our gas can for our boat motor.
I slept under tarpaulin that hung on a rope between two pine trees before and as we built our cabin.
Snakes were abundant then. So were alligators in the spring area of Camp Creek Lake. There were no cabins anywhere around then. After World War I, many people had homestead cabins in order to meet the requirement to sleep on the property at least one day a year.
Sometimes we would walk around the lake barefooted and fish standing in about eight or 10 inches of water fishing with bamboo poles with cork float and worms. We were usually pretty lucky with our catches. One time, I standing in the shallow water barefooted and fishing. I did not know that I was snake bitten on my big toe. I thought that two yellow flies bit me. The punctures were close together. I soaked and soaked my foot in hot water and Epsom salts for hours. The swelling just would not go down.
Three days later, I went to a drug store and asked the druggist for something to get rid of the swelling explaining that I had yellow fly bites. I could not wear shoes. He said that it is not yellow flies, "You have been snake bit.” He said that by then I had nothing to worry about and to just wait it out. I did. I recovered.
A hurricane passed over about 1952, the best I remember. I was away in the service at the time. I had a Chris Craft runabout that was destroyed and now sits in the bottom of the lake about 150 feet off shore. That hurricane twisted most pine trees about 30 to 40 feet above the ground. It snapped off the tops and scattered them. None were untouched.
The head springs to Camp Creek Lake came out of a bluff. That bluff sides were smooth where the alligators would slide into the spring water. The old-timer homesteaders call that bluff "The Alligator Slide.” Alligators usually stayed up in the fresh water because Camp Creek Lake was brackish. Hwy. 30A changed that when it was built in 1952. The lake then became mostly fresh on the east and north side of the 10-foot wide bridge. The filled-in highway was like a dam except for the 10-foot-wide space under the bridge.
Even after Hwy. 30A was built, there were very few houses around. It did not take long to develop.
The highway ruined our natural fishing habitat. It restricted Gulf water from getting into the east and north parts of the lake. The state would capture alligators in the residential Panama City general areas and put them in our lake. The Florida alligator protection law was passed. It was illegal to kill them. We swam in our lake. The alligators would surface nearby.
As we had dogs and children, I took the position that human life comes first. I killed one alligator and towed it uplake and left it in the bushes. We seldom saw any other alligators near our dock after I killed that one. We kept a lookout. We would see them around the lake as we fished from a boat.
My mother sold our cabin in the 1970s.
I have many photos around the lake, in the lake and on the beach. Some photos are of our fishing around the lake in the bulrushes sloughs. In those days, we were all alone.
The area has really changed.
Bruce Register is a Dothan, Ala, resident and longtime South Walton visitor.