My grandparents moved to St. Joe Beach from St. Petersburg in the early 1970s when granddaddy retired from General Electric. He had bought some land on Ponce de Leon Street, as I’ve mentioned in previous columns; they loved the natural “Old Florida” feel of Gulf County, as there weren’t many other homes around, especially compared to the Tampa-St. Pete area. They didn’t know anyone on the beach when they became residents, but it didn’t take them long to be welcomed into the small community.
In the ‘70s, many of the retirees who came to Gulf County came from New York and New Jersey. I’m not sure it’s that way anymore, as everyone I meet seems to be from Georgia nowadays. It makes sense, as it’s a short drive down from some parts of their state to spend the weekend on the world’s most beautiful beach. But in Grammy and Granddaddy’s day, many of the folks they met were people who wanted to escape the winters further north.
My grandparents began attending St. Joseph Catholic Church in Port St. Joe, on Monument Avenue. There they met their friends Jayne and Fred Kleeb, a woman named Kitty and her husband, and a single woman, Kitty’s sister, named Claire. They also met Bill and Kay Crawford, who at the time owned Gulf Sands Motel. This group of people from various places moved to St. Joe Beach and made it their home.
I enjoyed getting to know these people, especially the women, and observing their friendships. It helped me to see that “old people” were still fun, capable, and interesting. For instance, Jane was a retired hairstylist, and would cut my hair from time to time, sitting in her dining room chair while she chatted with my mom and me.
Kitty was an exercise enthusiast, having previously owned a dance studio, if I remember correctly. She led some aerobics classes which I was allowed to go to from time to time. I thought she was incredibly interesting, with her straight white hair, stylish clothes, and distinctive New York accent.
Kitty’s sister’s name was Claire, and she was definitely the more unusual of the two women. She lived in a new, quite small white mobile home on the corner of Ponce de Leon and Alabama on St. Joe Beach. When Claire lived there, she had hanging plants all around the door and front steps, and her little Volkswagen Bug was parked right outside if she was home. Claire was outspoken, impatient, and had a rather harsh (to my young Southern ears) New York accent. She was also quite funny, and my grandmother liked her a lot.
One day, Grammy and Claire took my friend Regina and me to a ballet at the Marina Civic Center in Panama City. Regina and I sat in the back seat of the Bug, and Claire turned on the radio. Blondie’s latest release, The Tide is High, came on, and we girls started singing along. We loved singing, and didn’t hold back our enthusiasm. At one particularly exuberant section of the chorus, Claire turned around, looked at us both, then looked at my grandmother and said, “What the hell is the matter with her?” I didn’t ask which “her” she was talking about. I didn’t really want to know. We giggled and quieted down for Ms. Claire’s benefit.
We thoroughly enjoyed the ballet, by the way. I think it was Swan Lake.
My grandparents also very much liked the Crawfords, Bill and Kay. The Crawfords were from New Jersey, I believe, and bought Gulf Sands in the mid ‘60s. All these friends ate together frequently at the restaurant attached to the motel. Grammy and Granddaddy even had their 50th anniversary dinner party at the restaurant, which my sister Sherrin and I thought was such a fancy occasion. We have a family picture that was taken inside the dining room during that event. I have it framed and hanging on my wall. I always notice my beloved family first when I see it, and then that place that we loved, Gulf Sands. Sweet memories.
Mr. Crawford died in 2019 in Panama City after a life of service to others, through the Rotary Club, Knights of Columbus, and other organizations. I was sad to learn of his death. Mrs. Kay had died in 2001 or 2002, I believe.
The thing that struck me hardest when I read that he had died was that I believe he was probably the last one left from my grandparents’ group of friends. It marked not only the loss of a wonderful human, but also the end of an era. Those people had so many laughs together over dinners at Gulf Sands. They walked on our beach together, looking for shells, and made craft projects with their found treasures. They took a few trips as a group, and the ladies were charter members of the Sea Oats and Dunes Garden Club; a club which no longer exists, as far as I know. And of course, they worshipped together, first at the church on Monument Ave., and later at the mission on Mexico Beach, Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Even their church, the mission my grandfather was so involved in the planting of, is gone. It has been demolished and hauled away after the destruction that Hurricane Michael inflicted upon it. I hope that one day they are able to rebuild it.
I guess in looking back over all this, the thing that stands out to me is that, though these people are gone, their church is gone, their club is gone… and even Gulf Sands is not the same as it was before the hurricane… the memories they left behind are happy ones. The good stuff remains.
I remember the love, laughter and friendship that they shared. I remember how they included us young people in some of their activities instead of shooing us away. And they did good deeds, working to better the community of the beaches.
Even though those folks are no longer with us, I believe that betterment of the community is still happening among the locals and part-time residents, too, especially in the wake of everyone’s shared trauma, Hurricane Michael. People came together in magnificent ways after that tragedy. My family was on the receiving end of many kindnesses after the storm, and if you’re reading this, yours probably was, as well. The churches, the fire stations, the neighbors, all joining together to feed one another, to help each other clean and repair, and to offer shoulders to cry on. I believe it has bonded the whole region in a way nothing else could have. That’s our silver lining.
May we continue to work together to build a better, kinder, and more friendly community of friends in Northwest Florida, so that when we are all gone, the goodness remains. The love and the footprints we leave in the sand are the best legacies we can leave behind.
“If you’re ever gonna find a silver lining, it’s gotta be a cloudy day.
If you wanna fill your bottle up with lightning, you’re gonna have to stand in the rain.
If you’re ever gonna find a four leaf clover, you gotta get a little dirt on your hands.
If you wanna find a head that fits your shoulder, you’re gonna have to go to the dance” – Kacey Musgraves
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home. She is married and has three young adult sons who love St. Joe Beach, too. You can find more of her recipes at whatsouthernfolkseat.com.