Sopchoppy's changing nature
“There’s a slight clash of cultures between the residents who’ve lived in Sopchoppy for generations, hunting and fishing, and visitors and new residents who would rather hike, bike and enjoy nature in different ways. They’re both positive groups enjoying the area’s natural beauty, but each causes anxiety in the other.” Such is the dilemma as an old community grows younger.
The Greening of Sopchoppy Small town’s environment helps with economic development By Darlyn Finch Originally published in the Dec 2010/Jan 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine
You know something big is happening in your little town when a New York Times best-selling author sets her latest intrepid heroine’s leap of faith there. Connie May Fowler even devoted 10 pages of her novel, “How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly,” to describe Sopchoppy’s annual Worm-Grunting Festival.
That doesn’t surprise Robert Seidler, though his literary tastes run more to Mary Anna Evans. Seidler has been in business in this one-and-a-half square-mile town located about 45 minutes from Tallahassee since 1984. He is the kind of man who, like Evans’ heroine, archeologist Faye Longchamp, would rather canoe up the Ochlockonee River to explore an ancient midden and ponder the lives of the folks who created it than worry about the challenges of an economic downturn.
Not that Seidler’s day job doesn’t root him firmly in 21st century concerns. As owner of Seidler Productions, he focuses on educational and instructional films and DVDs, including three series for public television. Two were nature-based, exploring ecosystems and habitats, while the other delved into innovations and solutions for bicyclists, another of his passions. And did we mention his Worm-Grunting video?
Herb Hiller, travel-writing guru and author of “A1A: Florida on the Edge,” works with Seidler on the Florida Bicycle Association-endorsed Capitol City to the Sea Loop, a Greenways Rails-to-Trails bike/walk trail modeled after the St. Johns River to the Sea Loop in Northeast Florida. The hope is to finish the state’s Northwestern loop by 2015, in time for the 500th anniversary of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon’s discovery of La Florida — hopefully to attract cycling tourists to the region.
Hiller says, “I first came [to Sopchoppy] for a bicycle advocacy meeting, maybe 25 years ago. A woman had set up a bed and breakfast in her house, where we all met … . The little downtown (had) a couple other storefronts going. Liked it all; all very place-y … . I also remember a friend of [Seidler’s] on the Sopchoppy River who took me to a prime patch of ripe blueberries … . It was all low key.”
Seidler agrees that the merchants in Sopchoppy are special. He was outdoors in cold weather in 1983 when he got hypothermia and a local restaurateur brought him inside and wrapped him in a blanket. That’s when Seidler knew he’d found his new home.
“Sopchoppy is a walk back in time and a walk into the future, with local businesses run by people who care,” he says. “There’s good food and ambiance in the restaurants. The merchants are interesting and intelligent. Sopchoppy is a microcosm of what community is.”
Dr. Howard Kessler, a Wakulla County commissioner, likes the warm feeling of the town when he and his wife go there to buy feed for their chickens. “Sopchoppy has a ‘down-home’ flavor to it. The restaurants are great; you can get a good cup of coffee. The IGA grocery store is a hidden treasure. The worm-grunting festival and the Fourth of July parade and fireworks are not to be missed. It feels like a small town should feel.”
When asked about the town’s vulnerabilities, Kessler admits, “There’s a slight clash of cultures between the residents who’ve lived in Sopchoppy for generations, hunting and fishing, and visitors and new residents who would rather hike, bike and enjoy nature in different ways. They’re both positive groups enjoying the area’s natural beauty, but each causes anxiety in the other.”
Mayor Colleen Skipper was born here, but don’t lump her in with the folks who can’t tolerate positive change. In fact, as the first female — not to mention the first African-American — mayor in the town’s history, Skipper brought change along with her when she accepted the role.
There have been cutbacks in spending to save money and city staff raises are being kept low. But fiscal belt-tightening doesn’t mean economic improvements aren’t being made to present Sopchoppy as a welcoming home for business and new residents. “With Wakulla County’s help,” Skipper explains, “we’ve just finished a sewer project, installed new sidewalks and repaved several streets.” The town would like to attract professional office businesses, and perhaps a small factory or other light industry. “Even 20 new jobs would have a great impact here,” says Skipper. Personally, the mayor would like to see a Dollar General store, as well, for the convenience of the elderly citizens who lack transportation.
One of Skipper’s best memories was walking down the street in front of Rik and Nell Ott’s From the Heart recording studio while a gospel choir from Atlanta sang inside. “The heavenly music spilled outdoors,” she remembers.
But wait, a recording studio in Sopchoppy? Yes, and not just one: Opossum Tracks, owned by Susan and Walter Solburg, is another one. Skipper adds, “I think visitors and new residents come here because of the pristine waters of the Sopchoppy River, but they stay because of the warm hearts of our people.”
Many of Sopchoppy’s approximately 500 residents work in the downtown restaurants and shops like Backwoods Bistro, Sally’s Restaurant, Posh, Scratch Cakes Bakery, Sisters Antiques and Uniques, Chloe Farms Nursery, Roddenberry Professional Land Surveyors and Mappers, C&L Automotive, Colleen’s Cleaning Service, Sopchoppy Tire & Auto, Crescent Moon Organic Farms, Sopchoppy Hardware Store, Senior Citizen’s Thrift Store and George Griffin’s Pottery Studio. Revell Realty helps visitors become residents.
Some residents work in the seafood industry at Sanders and Sons or Nichols and Sons, or provide bait, like those world-famous, multi-hearted Sopchoppy earthworms, to Lou’s Bait and Tackle. Other families continue to grind sugar cane and make syrup as they’ve done for generations.
Another special Sopchoppy destination is Salli Squitieri and Gabriel Butterfield’s Frog and the Hummingbird, a showcase for artists and craftspeople, and their Butterfield’s Roadhouse, a family-friendly (no alcohol, no smoking) venue for local and national musicians, poets and eclectic performers. Actors Dan Aykroyd and Donna Dixon-Aykroyd teamed with Squitieri and Butterfield to found the Paul Butterfield Fund and Society, with its mission to spread awareness of the legacy of blues-harmonica great Paul Butterfield (Gabriel’s father) and blues music in general.
Squitieri says, “Sopchoppy is a relatively undisturbed community that feels as though you are taking a step back in time … drawn for many years to the richness of the community where young and old seem to connect, and everyone lends a helping hand.”
The Frog and the Hummingbird and Butterfield’s Roadhouse holds two much-talked-about yearly events: the Annual Anniversary Celebration comprised of exhibitors and musicians, and the Annual Bike Day. Another noted affair, this one hosted by Sisters Antiques and Uniques, is the Annual Sopchoppy Community Yard Sale. Christmas in Sopchoppy boasts a Holiday Blues jam, and a Holiday Acoustic jam. If that’s not enough, there’s always the Sopchoppy Opry, with country and bluegrass offerings.
Sopchoppy has even hosted the Sprocket’s World Tour (thesprockets.com) on the town square, and was one of the five most generous pass-the-hat supporters of this two-person circus, which travels the world in a bright green vintage double-decker bus.
Seidler finds that the majority of people interested in moving to Sopchoppy are looking for stability, as well as bio-diverse, healthy environment with natural assets. They mostly arrive from central and south Florida, or come down from Atlanta. “Historically, Atlanta people visited or had second homes here,” he says. “Adventure travelers, cyclists, and hikers will dominate the future.”
Debbie Revell, broker/owner of Revell Realty, says the majority of properties she sells in Sopchoppy are houses for people with family nearby, like the man from New York City who bought two houses next door to each other, because his grandparents were from the area. A few investors have snapped up commercial properties, like the former bank and automotive dealership, to rent out.
The natural beauty of the region and its proximity to the Apalachicola National Forest, more than 5,000 acres of woodlands, wetlands and the Sopchoppy and Ochlockonee Rivers, are major assets. Between Sopchoppy City Park and the Ochlockonee River State Park, four miles away, the opportunities for eco-friendly tourism are numerous. Many of the shopkeepers in Sopchoppy are certified green guides who can provide assistance for visitors who desire to kayak, canoe, camp, swim, picnic, fish, hunt, hike, bike or bird-watch.
Pedigree of a Name
Folks agree that Sopchoppy’s name is of Native American derivation, but disagree on whether it’s from the Muskogee word lokchapi, (red oak), or from the Creek words sokhe (twisting) chapke (long) describing the approximately 50-mile long local river. When Florida became a United States Territory in the 1820’s, the port at St. Marks filled with settlers. After Wakulla County was formed in 1843, the settlers moved up the river. 1899 was a notable year in the area, when a storm and flood washed away the bridge. More than 20 ships in nearby Carrabelle were washed ashore. Later that year, the area experienced seven inches of snow, putting an end to the commercial citrus industry. In 1894, the CT&G Railroad laid out the town of Sopchoppy. The connection with the railroad will be honored in the near future, when Sopchoppy’s old train depot becomes a Welcome Center/History Museum highlighting the town’s past.