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A Guide to Some Really Strange Places
By Jerome Pohlen
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2004 Jerome Pohlen
All rights reserved.
Just after the Civil War, Florida came up with a great idea to raise some badly needed cash: sell the Panhandle to neighboring Alabama. The far western region had long been the state's stepchild, geographically speaking, and a majority of voters in the area approved the proposed sale. But Alabama wasn't any more solvent than Florida and had to take a pass.
Well, it was Alabama's loss. Though often dismissed as the Redneck Riviera by Disney-bound tourists, the Panhandle can hold its own against overpopulated tourist traps like Orlando and Miami. Not only are Panhandle beaches cleaner and less crowded than those farther south, the region can also boast the state's highest peak and the only Florida cave system open to the public. That's right, you can climb to the 345-foot summit of Britton Hill simply by stepping out of your car in Lakewood, and just a short time later explore the depths of Florida Caverns to see stalagmites, stalactites, and lots of bat guano.
Is Britton Hill not uplifting enough? Head on over to Bristol, where you can stroll through what some believe to be the original Garden of Eden, a true heaven on earth. Or do you expect to be headed someplace a little lower, and warmer? Well then, step through the grinning mouth of Lucifer into Dante's Inferno at a Panama City Beach amusement park. Heaven or hell, the Panhandle has them both. Orlando? It's just got hell.
God Bless John Gorrie!
First things first. The only reason you've even considered vacationing in Florida (or living here) is due to both the ignorance and the genius of Dr. John Gorrie. What did he do? Believing that malaria and yellow fever were caused by hot, swampy air — as opposed to the real culprit, mosquitoes — he developed a method of making ice using compressed air. He built his first working prototype around 1847, but it wasn't until 1851 that he was issued U.S. Patent Number 8080. A year later he modified his invention to produce cold air. Air conditioning was born.
Though ice had to be shipped from the north during those days, Gorrie was never able to spur enough investor interest to finance mass production of his new machine. This was due in part to bad press from reporters who had been encouraged by northern ice-shipping conglomerates to badmouth his invention. He eventually abandoned the device others dismissed as "too fantastic." Cold air or not, Gorrie contracted yellow fever in 1855 and perished a poor, unrecognized hero. Not until 1911 did Florida properly honor this hero, sending a statue of the doctor to the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall.
Five years later, Frenchman Ferdinand Carre developed a closed-loop, ammonia-based cooler, the final major improvement toward today's air conditioning. Gorrie's original machine ended up in the hands of the Smithsonian, but you can see a scale model in a museum across the street from where his body is buried.
John Gorrie Museum, 46 Sixth St., PO Box 267, Apalachicola, FL 32329
Hours: Thursday-Monday 9 A.M.–5 P.M.
Cost: Adults $1, Kids (under 6) Free
Directions: Three blocks southwest of Rte. 98 (Market Ave.) on Ave. D, at Sixth St.
World's First Pre-Fab Church
Look around the Panhandle today, and it's hard to imagine a time when pre-fab structures weren't part of the landscape. Architecturally speaking, pre-fabs have been around Florida almost as long as Europeans. In fact, back in the 1830s, Apalachicola made history by erecting the world's first pre-fab church: Trinity Episcopal, organized in 1836 under Reverend Fitch W. Taylor.
And did they know how to make them back then — this was no standard double-wide, but a Greek Revival design with stained-glass windows and a pipe organ. It was built in New York and shipped in pieces to the Gulf Coast where it was reassembled using wooden pegs. Having avoided the fate of so many trailer houses — tornadoes and COPS raids — this white pine structure is still open for business.
Trinity Episcopal Church, 79 6th St., Apalachicola, FL 32320
Hours: Exterior always visible; Services, Sunday 7:30 and 10:30 A.M.
Directions: At the intersection of 6th St. and Ave. D, in Gorrie Square.
The Original Garden of Eden
Years ago, a local fundamentalist preacher, the late Elvy E. Callaway, claimed that he discovered the true location of the Garden of Eden, and it was right in his own backyard! What led him to make such a bold claim? This is the only place on earth where the gopherwood tree (Torreya taxiflora) grows. Also known as the stinking cedar or the Torreya tree, it's the very wood that Noah used to build the Ark.
But that wasn't all. Twenty-seven of the twenty-eight trees mentioned in the Bible grew right here in the Apalachicola River Valley. And according to Genesis 2:10, "A river rises in Eden to water the garden; beyond there it divides and becomes four branches." The Apalachicola River also has four branches, which occurs in only one other place on earth, but that's in Siberia. There's no way in heaven or hell God would place Eden in Siberia, Callaway reasoned.
Bristol itself is hardly a paradise, but the surrounding countryside is quite beautiful, if not Eden. Still, if you're on a hike, beware of talking snakes and seemingly innocuous apple trees.
Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, Torreya State Park, HC2 Box 70, Bristol, FL 32321
Hours: Daily 8 A.M.-Sundown Cost: $3.25/car
Directions: North of town on Rte. 12, left on Rte. 270, north to Garden of Eden Rd.
World's Smallest Police Station
Carrabelle must be a fairly peaceful town because the local government didn't get around to erecting a full-size police station until a few years ago. Instead, in 1963, they converted a phone booth at the town's main intersection into what is now believed to have been the world's smallest police station. The town only had two cruisers; one was usually out patrolling while the other was parked next to the phone booth, waiting for a call. (Just in case both vehicles were away from the booth, the phone also rang over at City Hall and the desk of the town secretary.)
Of course, Carrabelle's police station wasn't set up for inmates...should anyone ever be arrested ... though it came in handy if a scofflaw needed to call a lawyer. When arrests were made, prisoners were taken down the road to the Apalachicola jail. After all, the Carrabelle police wouldn't want the criminals answering their 911 calls.
Carrabelle has finally entered the 20th century, just in time for the 21st. A small police station has been erected nearby, though they've left the old one standing where it has for 40 years, and they still park a police car beside it. This attracts tourists like you who wouldn't otherwise visit Carrabelle. The current booth lacks a working phone.
Rte. 30, Carrabelle, FL 32322
Hours: Always visible
Directions: At the intersection of Curtis Ave. (Rte. 30) and Meridian St. (Rte. 67).
Sasquatch Country Zoo
First a warning: if you're expecting to find a caged Sasquatch (known as a Skunk Ape in these parts) at this privately run animal attraction, you're about to be disappointed. They've got llamas and mountain lions and ostriches and Siberian tigers and camels and gators and miniature horses, but no Bigfeet.
But if one of those hairy beasts is ever captured, this might not be a bad place to lock it up — nobody would have to change the letterhead. Also, Sasquatch Country is not your typical zoo. They sometimes call themselves the Home of the Happy Animals, and they're right. Rather than take a hands-off approach to their critters, caretakers make a point of petting, touching, and hand-feeding their animals. The trick to handing a raw steak to a cougar? Do it verrrrry carefully.
5262 Deer Springs Dr., Crestview, FL 32539
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday 8 A.M.-4 P.M.
Cost: Adults $5, Seniors $4.50, Kids $4.50
Directions: Three miles east of town on Rte. 90.
Tappin' Teddy and Stretch
Harrison T. Baben ("Harry T") was a jack-of-all-trades — soldier, fisherman, tour guide — but the job he enjoyed most in his life was being an acrobat with the Miller Brothers Circus, which he joined in 1902. When he was almost killed in a 1912 high-wire accident, Harry T had to give up performing, but his heart remained under the big top.
One of Harry T's best circus friends had been a brown bear named Tappin' Teddy. This creature was originally adopted by a California couple who used a music box to teach him to dance to the strains of the "Lonesome Prairie Waltz." With such talent, Teddy joined the circus, where he met Harry T. In time, Tappin' Teddy expanded his repertoire and became best known for getting audiences to clap along as he hopped around to the "Beer Barrel Polka." And when Teddy went to that Great Ballroom in the Sky, his furry body was stuffed and shipped to Harry T on the Gulf Coast.
A similar fate met Stretch, the Miller brothers' trained giraffe. Years earlier, Harry T captured Stretch after he escaped from his pen in Chillicothe, Ohio, but the animal never held it against the acrobat. When Stretch died in 1916, the Miller brothers had him sent to Florida, just as they had Tappin' Teddy. Stuffed, of course.
Both critters remained with the Baben family long after Harry T died. They can now be seen in the dockside restaurant named for the patriarch, along with other circus memorabilia. Tappin' Teddy, mounted on his hind legs, wears a top hat and cummerbund. Stretch is naked.
Harry T's Boathouse, 320 Highway 98E, Destin, FL 32541
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 A.M.-9 P.M., Friday-Saturday 11 A.M.-10 P.M., Sunday 10 A.M.-3 P.M.
Cost: Meals $7-$20
Directions: East of the East Pass bridge on Miracle Strip Pkwy. (Rte. 98E).
Eglin Air Force Base
Air Force Armament Museum
So many air force museums focus on the air portion of the military branch; here's one that demonstrates the force. Guns, bombs, missiles, more bombs, this place is armed to the hilt. Need a Gatling gun that fires 4,200 rounds per minute? They've got it. A cruise missile to launch at Osama bin Laden? They've got a few left over from Desert Storm. A pistol to hide in your boot, just in case you get shot down behind enemy lines? Check out the Sikes Pistol Collection — it's bound to have a gun that's just right for you.
Oh, they've got their fair share of planes at this museum, too. An SR71 Blackbird spy plane is parked out front. Inside you'll find a B-17 Flying Fortress, an F-105 Thunderchief, and a P-51 Mustang, among others. But the emphasis is always on stuff that shoots or blows up. They even explain how World War I biplanes fired machine guns through their turning propellers without hitting the blades. Now that's timing!
100 Museum Dr., Eglin Air Force Base, FL 32542
(850) 882-4062 or (850) 651-1808
Hours: Daily 9:30 A.M. — 4:30 P.M.
Directions: Between the airport and Ft. Walton Beach on Rte. 85, just outside the base's West Gate.
The Gulf Breeze UFO Flap
To ufologists, the eerie sightings at Gulf Breeze in the late 1980s rank up there with the Roswell crash as the best evidence yet that we are not alone in this universe. And let me tell you, if the scores of reports are true, our neighbors are running down the property values.
The story begins in November 1987 when Ed and Frances Walters spotted a mysterious craft hovering outside their Gulf Breeze home. Ed grabbed a camera and snapped five Polaroids before being paralyzed by a beam of blue light. Two of the shots were anonymously published in the Gulf Breeze Sentinel a week later, and the Martian toothpaste was out of the tube. Reports of mysterious lights flooded into the paper and local police departments — some of them made by state troopers. A craft was spotted over the Pensacola Bay bridge, and across the border in Alabama. A crop circle appeared in the grass at Shoreline Park. The Sentinel did its part by reporting them all, with photos, which only encouraged additional "witnesses" to come forward. One resident said he'd gotten a message that the town would be vaporized by the intruders if his story wasn't published. The newspaper printed the story — better safe than sorry.
Still, the Walters family seemed to bear the brunt of the aliens' attention. A big-eyed, silver creature stared through their windows. A UFO shot a blue beam of light at Frances, just missing her (which Ed captured on film). Sometimes, when the UFO appeared, Ed unexpectedly began dreaming of dogs who were speaking Spanish! And the aliens even followed Ed to work, causing his pickup to break down. Scariest of all, Ed had several episodes when he could not account for his whereabouts, yet he had marks on his body suggesting he had been abducted and examined — mostly bruises, not the classic anal probes. Eventually, the Walterses left town.
Great story, right? Too bad it now appears to have been an elaborate hoax. Ed managed to wrangle a six-figure advance from a publisher wanting to tell his story. The new owners of the Walters' home found a UFO model stashed in the attic that bore a striking resemblance to the craft seen in Ed's photographs. Soon, a local kid, Tommy Smith, fessed up that he had helped Walters fake the photos. And then neighbors revealed that during the entire flap they had been trying to get anyone to listen to their story: before this all started, Ed Walters was famed in the community for making double-exposure photos of ghosts. Ooops! (Later, photographic experts pointed out that in several of Ed's daytime photos you can see reflections of everything except the UFO in nearby car windows and fenders — either the flying saucers were imposed on the film earlier, or they were vampires.)
But how does that explain all the others who saw lights in the skies over Gulf Breeze? Take a quick look at a map of the area around Gulf Breeze and you'll see no fewer than 21 air fields, civilian and military, from Fort Walton Beach to Mobile, Alabama — it would be odd if folks didn't see lights in the night sky.
Still, the believers are convinced they haven't been duped. You can still find groups after dark in Shoreline Park with binoculars, looking skyward, cameras at the ready. Most are looking for "Bubba," a large red orb they claim hovers over the waters, and a faceless man who sometimes parks his black sedan in the adjoining lot. The crowds are smaller than they used to be — sometimes nobody shows up — leaving the cosmic door wide open for a Martian invasion.
Shoreline Park, Shorline Dr., Gulf Breeze, FL 32561
Hours: After dark
Directions: Turn south on Shoreline Dr. from Rte. 98/30, two lights south of the Pensacola Bay Bridge, and follow it to the access road leading left, just past the South Santa Rosa County Recreation Center.
As High as You Can Get in Florida
As states go, Florida is about as low as you can get. If any place should be concerned about the Greenhouse Effect, it's the Sunshine State, as no part of it is more than 345 feet above sea level. And where is it highest? Britton Hill, just outside of Lakewood on the Florida-Alabama border. Britton Hill is not too impressive — after all, there are apartment complexes in Miami Beach that are higher — but this bump offers you a low-impact option to brag to your friends about climbing a state's highest mountain. Don't mention that it wasn't in Colorado.
What does the future hold for this geographic region? Perhaps a land boom. If the ice caps start melting in a big way, and Florida residents want to remain in their income tax-free state, they should probably look into real estate near this Panhandle peak.
Britton Hill, Lakewood, FL 32538
Hours: Always visible
Directions: Along Rte. 285, watch for the sign.
Excerpted from Oddball Florida by Jerome Pohlen. Copyright © 2004 Jerome Pohlen. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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