Will Apalachicola revive its shipbuilding past?

Thanks to a new state grant system, Florida’s traditional waterfronts may come back to life. The Stan Mayfield Working Waterfronts Florida Forever Grant Program, created in 2008, is aimed at restoring once-vital coastal communities. Apalachicola is the first community to receive money from this pot, which may help the Water Street district hum with the sounds of one particular waterfront industry: boat building.

Boatworks Revival ‘Working waterfronts’ are back in the forefront of community revitalization By Jason Dehart Originally published in the Aug/Sep 2010 issue of 850 Magazine

In the old days of Apalachicola, the port’s “working waterfront” may have been crowded with cotton bales, sponges, oysters and the buzzing of burly fishermen, teamsters and boatmen.

Back in those days, “King Cotton” ruled the local and regional economy, and in 1836 the town had the third-largest port on the Gulf coast, behind New Orleans and Mobile, Ala. More than 40 warehouses dotted the port. Barges piled with puffy cotton bales regularly floated down the waters of the Apalachicola River, and larger sailing vessels lay offshore waiting for cargo. Inestimable fortunes rode the waves.

But things change, and those days of shipping glory vanished long ago. First there was drought, then the arrival of rail service — which was more resistant to low water levels than were steamboats — and war. Over the succeeding generations, Apalachicola had to reinvent itself with each new change in the economic and environmental landscape. Aside from cotton, sponges, fishing and tourism all have played a part in the town’s history.

The seafood heritage lingers on. Today, Apalachicola Bay produces 90 percent of Florida’s oysters and 10 percent of the nationwide supply. But there are a number of abandoned seafood houses on Water Street these days. Only a handful of functioning dealers are left to tend to business.

Time and tide have also worked against the bay. Storms, high gas prices and water shortages have caused all but the most stubborn oystermen and shrimpers to leave the waterfronts of Apalachicola and neighboring Eastpoint.

But thanks to a new state grant system, Florida’s traditional waterfronts may come back to life. The Stan Mayfield Working Waterfronts Florida Forever Grant Program, created in 2008, is aimed at restoring once-vital coastal communities.

Apalachicola is the first community to receive money from this pot, which may help the Water Street district hum with the sounds of one particular waterfront industry: boat building.

We’re not talking aluminum johnboats or modern fiberglass inboard runabouts. We’re talking about small, working seafood boats with time-honored, plank-on-frame construction.

George Kirvin Floyd, founder of the Apalachicola Maritime Museum on Water Street, has long dreamed of offering a traditional boat-building class at the museum. His plans got a boost earlier this year when the city joined with the Florida Communities Trust to buy the vintage Apalachicola Boat Works not far from the museum.

The first project may be something simple, such as a demonstration project at the existing maritime museum, Floyd says.

“Probably an oyster skiff, to get people involved,” he said.

He was hoping that the grant management plans and other government documents would have been in place to allow him to do that this spring, but the wheels of government move slowly. Instead, Floyd said he hopes to have everything in place this summer.

“It’s frustrating how slowly things turn,” he said.

Meanwhile, Floyd is taking the opportunity to focus on making improvements around the maritime museum. Final touches to the museum’s new dock were added in April, and the touring ketch Heritage was undergoing some restoration work.

Floyd said he would like to model Apalachicola’s boat-building program after the historical program featured at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.

“It enriches lives and turns out great commercial boats as well,” he said.

The Florida Communities Trust awarded $814,703 in Florida Forever money to the city of Apalachicola to buy the old building, abandoned since Hurricane Dennis hit the area a few years ago.

The Apalachicola site has the distinction of being the first property to be bought through the state grant program. More than $7 million in Florida Forever money is available to coastal communities that want to buy land connected to commercial seafood or aquaculture, or property that promotes and educates visitors about the economic and historical value of working waterfronts. Communities have to go through a competitive grant application process to be considered.

Mayfield was a Republican lawmaker from Vero Beach who died of cancer in 2008. The grant carries his name because he was “passionate about maintaining the seafood industry,” Floyd explained. The Apalachicola Boat Works is one of three projects awarded funding during the program’s inaugural grant application cycle two years ago.

The Apalachicola purchase will expand the existing maritime museum and establish an educational commercial seafood boat-building and restoration shop.

It remains to be seen whether the old boatworks will be the actual location of a new boat shop, Floyd said, or something else just as important, such as classrooms. Architectural elevations for the new, three-story maritime museum building indicate a workshop space.

“The core of the boat building may be at the (existing) museum,” Floyd said. “What really needs to happen is a structural assessment of the (old boatworks) building, which tells us what really can be done there.”

The boatworks building is a two-story, tin-clad shack originally built back in the 1920s by a real estate speculator. Three were built, but this is the only one that remains.

“It’s in a sorry state of affairs,” Floyd said. “The roof is peeling back. It’s been abandoned since Hurricane Dennis. Right now there is no plumbing and essentially no electricity. I don’t know about putting heavy-duty shop equipment in there. It would make an excellent classroom building, but it’d be a big refurbishing effort.”

Right now, the community doesn’t have a repair shop for commercial boats, but the purchase of the property may change that.

“This will be the first active boat-building program in Franklin County since the 1960s or 1970s,” said Floyd, whose Apalachicola roots run long and deep.

Mayfield’s widow, state Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, grew up in the Panhandle and was enthusiastic about the news.

“Being raised in the Panhandle commercial fishing industry, it certainly is gratifying to see that Apalachicola is moving forward to ensure that working waterfronts are preserved for future generations,” she said. “This was a priority for Stan, and he put a lot of effort into making it a reality. The Apalachicola project, together with those in Sebastian and Brevard, will serve to keep the trade of the commercial fishing industry and the legacy of Florida’s traditional working waterfronts alive and prosperous.”

Florida Communities Trust is part of a Florida Department of Community Affairs effort to help communities plan and manage growth. And the working-waterfronts program perfectly dovetails into that mission.

“Traditional working waterfronts play an important role in the culture and economic fabric of Florida’s coastal communities,” said Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham. “I congratulate the city of Apalachicola for receiving this grant to protect a piece of its heritage and provide a much-needed service to the community.”

“Apalachicola is well-known for its rich commercial fishing heritage, and if we do not protect and preserve our maritime industry, we will lose it forever,” said state Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City.

The museum provided $50,000 in seed money to start the rehabilitation of the building, Floyd said.

“We’ll work with the city to do more grant writing,” he added, noting that these things don’t come cheap. “Fifty gets you started, but you can’t pick up a hammer for less than $10,000 today,” he said.


Florida’s commercial fishing industry

has taken a beating in recent years, no thanks to hurricanes, ever-changing regulations and rising fuel prices. Fishermen, however, are carrying on. If you do business with these hardy souls and want to learn more about their hardworking way of life, check out the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Working Waterfronts website.