A Fish Tale

He takes no offense at the question, coming innocently enough as it does from curious tourists visiting his popular seafood restaurant.

A Fish Tale The industry and family that sparked a town and helped change the future of the Emerald Coast by Tony Bridges

He takes no offense at the question, coming innocently enough as it does from curious tourists visiting his popular seafood restaurant.

It’s just a reflection of how the town, a jewel of the Emerald Coast that bills itself as the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village,” has changed over the past several years.

Still, Dewey Destin can’t help but laugh a little at the irony when he introduces himself to out-of-towners and they inevitably say, “Oh, were you named after the city?”
See, it’s actually the other way around.

His great-great-grandfather was the eponymous founder of Destin, the small fishing camp that has grown over 150-plus years into a resort destination visited by millions annually. While it may be simply a quiet playground for the likes of John McCain and Britney Spears, to the Destin family and a handful of other local clans the city is the embodiment of ancestral history.
“It’s been a real source of pride to be part of the family,” Dewey Destin said. “We have roots in the community that most of the people in this country don’t have.”

A Tragedy at Sea

If the fishing had been better off the coast of New London, Conn., in the early 19th century, Destin might have a different name and a different backstory.
Leonard Destin and the other men in his family made their livings from the sea. After a good season of fishing, they could lay up in port waiting for the schools to return. But when they had a bad season, the men had no choice but to strike out for other waters.

Often they would sail south to the coast of Florida and salvage wrecks during hurricane season. That’s what they were doing in the fall of 1833.

Leonard Destin, 20 at the time, was captain of one vessel, while his father, George, and his brother commanded another called the Hempstead. That September, they ran afoul of a heavy storm off the coast of what is now Cape Canaveral.

The Hempstead capsized. Leonard’s father and brother both perished.

Leonard Destin later ventured south along the coast and around into the Gulf of Mexico. In 1835, he arrived at what was then a small island located toward the western end of the Florida Panhandle. Despite the area still being very much a frontier, he decided to stay.

The Good Life

After building a small fish camp on the island, Leonard Destin and his crew began to fish the blue waters. They used seine nets to encircle schools of fish and haul them aboard, where they were kept in live pens since ice was difficult to come by.

The fishermen would then sail to Pensacola and sell their catch to the Warren Fish Co.

There, the fish were packed in ice and shipped out across the country by rail.

Leonard Destin eventually met and married a woman from South Carolina named Martha and, in 1855, built a home on what is now Calhoun Street in the city of Destin. His fishing fleet continued to grow and prosper. After the Civil War, word of his success spread and attracted others who wanted to fish the Gulf waters.

The first to arrive was the Marler family, followed a few years later by the Melvins and eventually by the Jones, Woodward, Shirah, Maltezos and Brunson families.

The Destin property ran from what is now Tyler Calhoun Park over to A.J.’s Seafood, and the other families settled in alongside. The families began to intermarry and came to form “one big clan,” Dewey Destin said. “Every time someone would have a child, they’d carve off a hundred-foot lot and give it to the child.”

Leonard died in the mid-1870s. So how did the town come to officially bear the name of the man who had started it?

The timing isn’t exactly clear, but at some point, a man named William P. Marler — “Uncle Billy” to locals — became the town’s first postmaster. In order to have a post office, the government declared that the town would have to have a name. As postmaster, it was up to Marler to give it a designation. So, he named it after his good friend, Leonard Destin.

An Industry Changes

Of course, nothing ever stays the same.

When Leonard Destin and the first seamen arrived, there was no bridge to Destin, and storms and shifting sands had yet to close the gap with the mainland. The only way to get there was by boat.
After the first bridge was built in 1936, the direction of fishing in Destin began to change. Fishermen would go out in the morning to catch their load for the day, then take tourists out charter fishing in the afternoons.

“Who better to take you fishing than a native son who knew all about it?” said Jean Melvin, herself a member of one of the area’s oldest families.
Slowly, the number of fishermen seine-fishing out of the Destin docks began to drop, while the charter business grew — especially after billfish were discovered in the waters off DeSoto Canyon in the 1960s.

Dewey Destin, 57, born and raised in the town, never left, except for college. That makes him somewhat of an anomaly in Florida, where most everyone seems to be from somewhere else, and those actually from “around here” often move on to other places.

He started on the boats with his father when he was 6 and had his own small boat when he was 16. It was just a little 24-footer, “but I thought I was king of the world.”

Destin went off to college at Auburn University and earned a degree in political science, a decision that still gives him a self-deprecating chuckle all these years later.

“That was real handy in the fishing business,” he said. “I hung that diploma on the boat, and the fish would just give themselves up. I didn’t even have to catch them.”

Destin, who married his college sweetheart and has four children, spent most of his adult life working the boats and managing the fish business started by his great-great-grandfather. But then, in 2000, the state of Florida made changes to seine-fishing rules that effectively shut down the family operation.

“We were sitting there no longer having a business,” Destin said.

The solution was a little seafood stand he had started almost by accident. While the fishing company was in the business of wholesaling and retailing seafood, Destin also had set out a few picnic tables near the dock where a few customers could eat some fresh-steamed catch. People seemed to like that, so he added grilled and fried seafood.

“It really just kind of mushroomed after that,” he said. “We were quite shocked. The good Lord takes care of fools and fishermen.”

He opened the first restaurant, Dewey Destin’s Seafood, in 2002 and has since added two others, including one in Crestview.

His restaurants are popular with tourists — including the ones who ask whether he was named after the town.

From Family Name to Commercial Brand

These days, Destin is an internationally recognized name.

It’s synonymous with clean white beaches, upscale Florida condominiums, fine dining and great golf. It’s where celebrities, politicians and high-profile business people go to relax for a few days in the sun, where they buy second homes to maybe retire to some day.

“So many people relate that name to a regional area,” said Shane Moody, president of the Destin Area Chamber of Commerce. “Destin is a really strong brand name for this area.”

Rudimentary fish camps have long since given way to a sprawling complex of master-planned communities and golf resorts that stretches for miles along the southern edge of Walton County.

There still are remnants of the original families. Among them are Dewey Destin and his mother, Muriel, along with a few assorted other Destins, Marlers, Melvins and the rest. Moody figures that’s a boon to the community.

“The families of the founders of most cities fade, but here, Dewey and his family still have a very strong presence,” he said. “It’s a unique thing, and I think it adds to the charm of the city.”

But, he acknowledged, not many people, aside from some locals, know that part of Destin.

Ironically, Dewey Destin played a part in the transformation of his small fishing village into a resort town, a transformation that pushed his family toward obscurity.

In 1984, the city of Destin became incorporated, and Dewey Destin was elected to the city council the next year.

“The original council had a healthy representation of the old families that had been here a long time,” he said. “That didn’t last long.”

But as a member of the council over a combined total of eight years, he had a role in the decision-making that led to the city’s growth and eventual recognition as a vacation destination.

The development brought benefits that many people appreciated. Property became much more valuable, business opportunities opened up, and cultural and modern conveniences became available.

It was exciting, especially at first.

“I remember when we got our first hamburger joint and our first stoplight, we thought we had arrived,” he said.

But with the good has also come the bad. The beaches are nowhere near as pristine as before, and the town has become “infinitely more crowded,” he said. And, of course, his family’s contributions have been pushed far into the past.

Having been part of the local government, he has had a chance to see why and how this has happened — and had a say in it, too — so he’s able to remain relatively sanguine about the direction the town has taken. Still, resentment does occasionally bubble up.

“When I feel that coming on, I always tell myself, ‘We were the newcomers too,’ ” he said. “We were the ones who came here and shoved the Indians out of the way. They just came here a little later than we did, but they came here for the same reason.”