A Taste of Florida’s History in ApalachicolaPosted by Mary Ann DeSantis on Mar 13, 2012
Florida Press Club 2012 First place winner, Travel & Tourism.
Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style Magazine, March 2012.
How could a little thing like an oyster change history? A visit to the Panhandle town of Apalachicola is all it takes to understand how Florida’s seafood industry and subsequent economic development boomed because of an invention by an Apalachicola physician.
It’s only fitting that the first ice machine — and forerunner to refrigeration and air conditioning — was invented in Apalachicola by John Gorrie, who wanted a way to keep his yellow fever patients cool. Once the third largest shipping port on the Gulf Coast (behind Mobile and New Orleans), Apalachicola was originally founded as a customs district in 1821 to keep an eye on moonshine smugglers. Then cotton became king and the town had as many as 48 warehouses on the waterfront by 1837. Oyster harvesters wanted a way to expand their markets, too, and Gorrie’s invention, which as patented in 1851, paved the way. Apalachicola became world-renowned for its sweet oysters and the rest, as they say, is history.
A healthy respect for the past is a major part of Apalachicola’s charm. The picture-perfect view from the Highway 98 Bridge which crosses the Apalachicola River reflects a time when streets were wide and metal roofs and white shutters dominated the architecture. With more than 900 historic homes and buildings in the National Historic District of Apalachicola, the waterfront town has been recognized as one of America’s Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The first building you see upon entering Apalachicola from the east is the blue and white Gibson Inn, built in 1907 and once the only luxury hotel between Pensacola and Jacksonville. The large wrap-around porch offers a chance to sit a spell and relax after some fried oysters or seafood gumbo prepared by Chef Jeanine Slagle, a graduate of both the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson & Wales College. Consider yourself extremely lucky if her simple oyster casserole is a special on the day you visit.
The John Gorrie Museum State Park, where a replica of the first ice-making machine is displayed, is a great place to begin a visit in downtown Apalachicola. The small, yet informative museum has several exhibits chronicling the area’s colorful history and because it’s part of Florida’s State Park system, a ranger is usually on hand to share even more Apalachicola trivia.
Across from the park is Trinity Episcopal Church, where John Gorrie was a member. The Greek Revival building was shipped in sections by schooner ships and assembled with wooden pegs in 1838. Still an active parish, the church hosts an annual Apalachicola Historic Home & Garden Tour every May, which is a wonderful opportunity to see many homes not usually open to the public.
Just around the corner from the church is the Coombs House Inn, considered the town’s most beautiful residence when lumber magnate James Coombs built it in 1905. The ornate staircase and verandas look like movie sets, but they are part of the amazing renovation completed by former Miami interior decorator Lynn Wilson who was appalled at the mansion’s deterioration after it sat vacant from 1911 to 1990. She and her husband restored the original house and opened one of Florida’s most elegant bed and breakfast inns in 1992.
“The American dream is still possible in small towns like Apalachicola,” says Lynn, who didn’t plan on opening the house as a B&B originally. “The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well here, and that’s how our country began.”
In addition to the historic homes and buildings, Apalachicola has several delightful galleries and picturesque parks. The Grady Street Market is reminiscent of an old-time mercantile store with its eclectic assortment of clothing, décor items, jewelry and more. The area has no fast-food chains, but do not worry about going hungry because more than 30 locally owned restaurants offer simple-to-exquisite menus. Local shrimp and oysters, however, are the cuisine kings.
Visiting Apalachicola without tasting the local oysters is much like going to Maine and not ordering lobster. When it comes to eating oysters, I am usually not much of a fan; however, Apalachicola is the one place where I will gulp the sweet, non-gritty delicacies with pleasure. Maybe it’s the taste of history with them that makes me believe Apalachicola indeed serves the best oysters in the world.
Photos by Mary Ann & Tony DeSantis