This remembrance of a special time and place is dedicated to those that lost their lives in the 1993 Storm of the Century.
The bare feet of a little girl pad out of the sand and up the ramp to the covered wooden walkway. The carefree gait thumping against the pine boards echos on the water below and the structure shakes just the tiniest bit with each footfall.
Then there’s the squeal of a screen door and “BAM!” as it slams shut. She steps into the interior of the big wooden building and looks around. Behind the counter is an older woman sternly surveying the room. Salt encrusted children are sitting at tables playing games. Others are playing pinball and the sounds of bouncing dings and tings fill in the air.
The girl picks up the rhythm of Creedence Clearwater Revival coming out of the jukebox as she winds among the tables and then out the back door onto the deck. She gives a side-long glance at the long-haired, freaky teenagers lounging in the sun, then stops to peek down through the cracks at the kids lurking in the water underneath.
After surveying all the action around the store, she steps onto the weathered cypress planks of the boardwalk. Then her pace quickens and she joins a pack of honey-brown kids, and off everyone goes, loaded down with nets and buckets, headed down to the end of the dock. It’s Dekle Beach, 1970.
Dekle (pronounced DEE-kle) is off the beaten path, hidden down a winding road leading to a secluded high spot nestled in the marsh. The beach consists mostly of shallow mud flats and marsh grass with limited access for boats to deep water, yet this little settlement on the northern gulf coast of Florida is fondly remembered by so many as an icon of the perfect summer.
Every Memorial Day through Labor Day, Dekle Beach would fill with those seeking respite, leisure and fun. In addition to the residents that made it their year-round home, there were those with their own beach houses that moved in for the summer and, of course, the multitudes who came to stay in the rental cottages for a week or two (or more) every year.
Dekle Beach Inc. was a family operation that catered to families. For thirty years, the resort area of Dekle was owned jointly by Lewis (Ham) and Janie Hamilton and Willie Joe and Ann Moody. There were no white sandy beaches, big waves, or tourist attractions, but it did have many things those sugar sand beaches of the panhandle coast did not - lots of character, endearing rules, roaming wild hogs and rustic style.
Twelve dwellings were available for rent. The four main houses were situated on the front by the water with a full gulf view. The four apartments were housed in an old army barracks located near the boat ramp and docking basin. These apartments, along with the other four rental houses lined upon the road and ramp, all had at least a gulf glimpse.
The cottages were modest, wooden affairs, mostly built of rough cypress and pine, standing just a few feet above the ground and mean high tide. The bathrooms were tacked onto the back, like an afterthought. They featured small, slightly rusty (but very clean) showers with hot running water. House #4 offered the luxury of a bathtub.
The kitchens contained every mismatched cooking/eating utensil you would ever need, including those aluminum cups that made your lips freeze. An inventory of every item stocked was clearly posted and meticulously checked upon departure. There was a small gas stove for cooking, and a refrigerator. Defrosting and leaving these old fashioned models ice free and unplugged was a requirement before check out. The humidity in the air would cause a block of ice the size of a glacier to build up within a week.
Other amenities included a bottle opener nailed to the wall, beds everywhere, rocking chairs, and porches to catch the breeze. Rules discouraged use of the rare electrical outlets. Brave guests could chance plugging in their own fan, but the management frowned upon such extravagance. That’s what the porches were for. To turn on a light, you pulled a string from the ceiling.
The only communication guests had with the outside world was a pay phone centrally located along the beach and road. The phone booth was a hub of information. When it rang, someone was always nearby to pick it up, and a guest getting a phone call from town would soon be big news.
In addition to the rental houses, there was a store and game room, with a boardwalk extending out a quarter of a mile into the Gulf. The store and dock were the heart and soul of Dekle Beach.
Just outside was the swimming area. At full tide, the water would come in high against the bulkhead, making it deep enough for actual swimming (if you were short). Steps led down to the water from land and the dock enabling easy access. Underneath the store, children could be found prowling around in the shallows in search of dimes that had dropped through the cracks.
The dock was long and winding, without a hint of railing. The weathered pecky cypress planks of the first section were crinkly and hard on the feet. The boards would narrow and become newer the farther down the dock you walked, indicating it had been repaired and replaced time and time again. Familiar names and wood etchings were carved here and there, including a very memorable set of Hang Ten feet.
The dock had a satellite, the ski ramp. Water skiing was a popular sport and the calm, bay-like water in front of Dekle Beach was perfect for it, especially with the built in audience. However, boats buzzing around the dock and swimming area were dangerous. So a 12 foot square floating dock was installed, anchored about 100 yards off the end of the main dock, as a base for boats and skiers.
Officially, it was for skiers. Unofficially, it was a meeting place for teenagers. Boys “banned” from the Dekle Beach proper were known to show up here in boats to meet girls. I will not elaborate on that, other than to say, it was a very popular and fondly remembered spot and the girls were quite motivated to make the swim from the dock.
Paralleling the dock on the south side was the Dekle Beach channel and at high and mid tide, boat traffic was brisk going to and from the boat ramp and docking basin. The unsavvy boater coming in at low tide would often have to get out and bog through the mud to drag his boat in. This would provide loads of entertainment for those on the dock and shore.
The management of Dekle Beach provided these many amenities, but perhaps the most important thing they supplied to their guests was peace of mind. Parents could relax or enjoy a few hours out skiing and know their children would be entertained and kept out of serious mischief. In short, kids were let loose to roam.
Recreational opportunities for them were abundant, be it harvesting dinner from the sea, herding fiddler crabs, or hanging out in the store feeding dimes into a pinball machine. The clerk on duty was in a position of authority and the posted rules were (mostly) followed. Regulations were reasonable, but curt.
Absolutely No Beer, No Alcohol Nor Narcotics on the Premises (Absolutely! Strictly enforced around the store, spirits for adults were tolerated in the rentals)
No Spearguns in Swimming Area (good idea)
Drip Dry Before Entering Store (shirts and shoes were optional, but dripping water on the floor of the store was a high crime)
While all of the owners and employees of Dekle Beach Inc. were well loved fixtures, there is one figure that stands in the memory of every single child (and most adults) that ever stayed at Dekle. Mrs. Janie Hamilton ruled Dekle Beach and with the renters, her word was law.
She could appear anywhere, at anytime and she kept all the kids on their toes. Generations of children and teenagers attempted to bypass the rules and walk down to the end of the dock (or prowl under it) at night after curfew only to be thwarted by Mrs. Hamilton time and time again. No foolishness was tolerated on her watch and it is perhaps because of her strict influence and watchful eye that Dekle Beach is remembered so fondly today.
It was from them I learned about the joys of such activities as mud-surfing and chasing the mosquito truck in order to breathe in the sweet (and now nostalgic) scent of malathion. I could continue with a list of vaguely approved of, yet somewhat reckless activities we enjoyed, but I will instead talk more about the sport of mud-surfing.
This is perhaps the best idea ever conceived by the salt and sun addled brains of local coastal children. First, find an old piece of plywood and take it out to the mud flats out in front of the four main rental houses, far enough out to get to the good mud, but close enough to the store and dock to ensure plenty of spectators.
The surfer would put the board on the mud, step back to get a running start and jump on it at full speed. They would take off hydroplaning for a few exhilarating seconds before either coming to a graceful stop, or wiping out and tumbling into a minefield of various sharp marine objects.
Down on the north end of Dekle Beach, past the private homes and away from the action and supervision of the store, was Crab Creek. This tidal creek lived up to its name and children could assert their independence by catching dinner for their parents from the crustacean infested waters. The pungent aroma of boiling crabs wafted around the rental houses in the evenings.
At high tide, the deep sandy spots in the creek were good places to swim. But nowhere around Crab Creek could rival the bridge itself for being the happening spot. It was a meeting, and hiding, place. If a parent had an AWOL child, a drive down to the bridge accompanied by a horn blow usually produced answering children from out over the marsh, or popping out from under the bridge.
In the early 70s, we were renting one summer when I decided it was high time for my name to be carved into the dock. It was forbidden for children to wield knives around the store, but I had a plan. I would conceal a butcher knife (swiped from the many choices of kitchen utensils) in my bathing suit, then nonchalantly leave the house and slink off down the dock. My plan was foiled when my father noticed the saber hanging out of my suit as I creeping out the door.
He had a better plan. He got his pocket knife and we walked down to the dock and discussed location. My first choice was at the end. But he advised that structures on the coast are not permanent. Storms inevitably come, and often, the end of the dock was the first to go. The middle section was risky too. However, the first section, close to the store and built of sturdy cypress boards, that part might last longer. And that is where my name, carved in my father’s neat script, sat upon the dock for the next twenty years.
The Dekle Beach store and rentals closed in 1992. The Moodys and Hamiltons had been in business since 1962 and it was time for an era to end. The houses and property were distributed among the children and grandchildren of the owners and the store was shuttered. It was a sad time, but the structures still stood as monuments of the past, and they were still being enjoyed by those familiar, now grown-up, salty kids. Dekle Beach Inc. had gracefully retired.
The storm devastated our coastline and Dekle Beach was hit particularly hard, the landscape changed forever. The Dekle Beach store, dock, all the rental houses and most of the private homes not raised up on pilings were completely destroyed. Nine people lost their lives.
After the storm, the Dekle Beach residents slowly, and painfully, recovered. The wreckage was removed and many of the homes, and some of the rentals, were rebuilt. So was the dock, but the store is only a memory. It was a relic of the past, when buildings were allowed to be built over the water. The new homes are all modern affairs, on pilings twenty feet in the air. They are held down by concrete foundations on solid ground and built to withstand hurricane force winds.
Dekle Beach is still a unique, charming place, enjoyed by many, especially new generations of children. Families continue to visit the rentals, now called the Eagles Nest, every summer. Most of them end up returning, year after year.
And I think the new way of living, twenty feet up in sky with magnificent views of the marsh and gulf, makes people more aware of the tranquility and beauty of the landscape that was there all along. It is a place where bald eagles and ospreys make their home, and great flocks of migrating birds find refuge to feed.
But no one can deny that something was lost. The vibrant essence of that beloved rustic beach resort was washed away in the storm, and now lives on only in our memories.
Stay tuned for more Dekle Beach coming in the spring. Next time we'll visit the early days with Gus Dekle as he defects from nearby Jug Island and establishes his own beach across the marsh.
Black and white photographs courtesy of Florida State Archives Memory Project. All other photos, unless otherwise credited, belong to Rod and Polly Waller.
A version of this article was previously published in the Perry News-Herald on April 29, 2011
Copyright 2011 - Polly Waller