Welcome to Milton

MILTON—This is your quintessential West Floridian small town. It is bordered by the Blackwater River, with a cute mainstreet, and a great catfish joint. My hometown is about an hour east of here.

If you want to understand our culture in the Panhandle, you visit a place like Milton, Crestview, or DeFuniak Springs. If you want sixty-story condos with tennis courts, go thirty miles south until you see the Red Lobster restaurants and jet-ski rentals.

Tonight we’re doing a Christmas show at the historic Imogene Theatre in downtown Milton. By “we,” I mean my friends. There will be a band, a choir, and me. I don’t expect many people in the audience tonight because, like I said, this is a small town.

It’s forty minutes until showtime. My wife is with me backstage. She’s trying to stay upbeat because she knows small crowds can be discouraging. Sometimes with a tiny crowd it feels like you’re performing onstage at your own funeral reception.

I ask one of the stagehands, “Do you expect anybody to actually come to this show tonight?”

The man just shrugs and says, “This is Milton,” as if this explains everything.

The bluegrass band arrives. Blue Mullet is what they call themselves. They tune their instruments and take the stage for soundcheck. I can’t help but notice they look perfect, playing in this antique room.

Behind them is a Vaudevillian backdrop—hand painted from the 1920s. The floorboards are heart pine, the brass chandeliers look original, the balcony railing is painted white.

The band plays to the empty theater before the doors open. The fiddle player is making his instrument whine. The upright bassist is “slapping the old doghouse.” The mandolinist sings into a snuff-tin microphone.

I am in the wings, watching with one of the maintenance men.

“You know,” he says, “Hank Williams played in this room.”

“He did?”

“Yep. So did Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl.”

“No kidding?”


I ask him if he thinks anyone will come to this show tonight.

He shrugs. “You gotta remember where we are, this is Milton.”

So I’ve heard.

After the band finishes. A children’s choir takes the stage for their soundcheck. The Pensacola Children’s Choir sings carols so tenderly they give everyone nearby a toothache. They even do choreographed dance moves.

You should hear the sound of a hundred heavy feet clomping on an antique wooden stage that was built in 1912.

“Hope that stage holds up,” says the maintenance man. “It’s pretty old.”

The choir leaps in unison and the windows rattle.

The doors are about to open. I still need to get changed. I wander backstage with the band to our dressing room. The lady flips the light switch and says, “Sorry, our dressing room ain’t very big.”

This is the understatement of the year. The room is about the size of a regulation porta-john.

“How’s the crowd looking?” one of the musicians asks the lady.

“Crowd?” she says with a laugh. “You’ve never been to Milton, have you?”

So five bluegrass musicians and I cram ourselves into this room. Instruments and all. We stand shoulder to shoulder. The fiddle neck is poking the guitar player, who is lying against the upright bass, which is leaning against the mandolin player, whose elbow is in my kidneys, and my left leg is dangling out the window.

But these are bluegrass musicians, and bluegrass musicians are crazy.

“Hey!” says the mandolin player. “Let’s play some Christmas music!”

“Great idea!”

They launch into “Christmas Times A’Comin’” and it’s the kind of music that makes me want to clap my hands. But I don’t. Because if I did, I’d give the bass player a concussion.

Soon, a guy wearing headphones tells us, “Three minutes until showtime.”

The choir performs first. We can’t see how many people are in the audience. We are too busy trying not to put our foot through someone’s mandolin.

Next, the band takes the stage. And I am left in the dressing room alone. I can tell from the noise that it’s going to be a little crowd, probably consisting of four or five people who got gypped when they won these tickets in a free raffle at the VFW.

I listen to the band. And their music makes me feel good. I stare into the dressing room mirror.

“Wow,” I am thinking, “Minnie Pearl once looked into this mirror when she was doing her makeup. Hank probably adjusted his hat while standing in this very spot.”

Knock! Knock! Knock!

The guy with headphones says, “You’re on.”

Here goes nothing. I take a few breaths. I pat my face a few times. I step onto the stage. I hear my own footsteps echo in the old room. I see the audience. And I almost can’t believe it.

It’s a full house. People are standing in the back, spilling into the lobby, and seated in the balcony. And I can’t make any words come out of my mouth or else I might cry. Because I see friends in this crowd, not strangers. Old friends. New friends. Young friends. Some people I grew up with. My cousins are on the front row. My wife is, too. There is even a man in a plaid suit.


I’m ashamed to say that I spent the first half of my youth feeling like a complete loser. Because of this, I tried to figure out a way to leave home. I wanted an exciting life, far from this state. I wanted to do something wild. Something adventurous. To be somebody. But tonight, I am wondering how thick headed could one idiot be? The Florida Panhandle is my home.

And like they’ve been telling me all night:

This is Milton.


  1. Steve - December 7, 2019 8:02 am

    Florida Panhandle? That’s just Lower Alabama. Everybody knows that map was drawn wrong. To find Florida, drive to Tallahassee and start heading South East. That’ll get you closer. If you make it to Gainesville you are officially in Florida. Proceed Southbound until you just can’t take it anymore…..and then come back home to LA! Ha!

  2. Kathy - December 7, 2019 8:24 am

    Sounds heavenly. Small towns are wonderful, although lacking Red Lobster. Thank heavens.

  3. sparkerlpc - December 7, 2019 9:09 am

    I am over here smiling because a friend I never met got surprised by how many people love him <3
    Great to know this happened to you, Sean. May you have many, many more such experiences!

  4. Paul W. Chappell - December 7, 2019 11:18 am

    So very cool. You are a rich man, Sean Dietrich.

  5. Jimpa - December 7, 2019 12:19 pm

    Wish your upcoming events calendar was more accurate. We would love to travel to see you again if we just knew when and where.

  6. Davee Wilson - December 7, 2019 12:26 pm

    I come from a similar place, sure is fun to go back, no one is a stranger!!!

  7. Michael - December 7, 2019 12:30 pm

    We saw you last year in Milton. It was an overwhelming experience, my wife and I live in Jay, you know where that is… wish we could have seen you this year as well; however, we lost a dear family member a few weeks back who also came with us to see you. She loved you, couldn’t stop talking about the experience. Thanks for being you Sean, and welcome to Milton, I’ve lived here on and off for 41 years.

  8. Douglas Perkins - December 7, 2019 1:05 pm

    Milton and Pensacola ARE the original Florida! Along with St. Augustine and Key West. Gainesville and central Florida was northing but bugs and Seminoles. The fact that Tallahassee is the capitol is proof that anything thing but North Florida was not worth spit. I am a Miltonian and Floridian born on Mary Street and raised in a pristine, special piece of the world which has been ruined and take away by Yankees, real estate investors, high rise condominiums on the beaches and progress. Milton is a mere shadow of itself. I scarcely recognize it on my rare visits back. It hurts my heart to much to go back.

    So there….Dougl

  9. Angelique of Gulf Breeze, Florida - December 7, 2019 2:02 pm

    We drove to Milton to watch your show for the first time and it was a joy. I had no idea what to except. A dear friend of mine posts your posts and this is how I learned of you. I’m so happy that we went, I haven’t laughed that much in a while and laughter warms the heart along with the Christmas songs. Hope to see you again at the Imogene Theater only in Milton!

  10. Janis - December 7, 2019 2:30 pm

    So glad you played to a packed house. I’m hoping some of my family and friends were there… I told them you were coming and that they should be there, if they could. <3

  11. Wayne Walden - December 7, 2019 2:42 pm

    Great piece. I came to Pensacola in 1968 on vacation went home quit my job and moved to Gulf Breeze. I worked in Milton for a few years. Now live in Cantonment, as far as I am concerned this is the best place on earth.
    This old world we are living in is mighty hard to beat, you get a thorn with every rose but ain’t the rose sweet.
    Proverbs 22:1

  12. Steve Scott - December 7, 2019 3:17 pm

    What a wonderful and heartwarming story! I am so glad I finally got to meet you and Jamie.

  13. Jess - December 7, 2019 3:18 pm

    I was born in Florida; a fourth generation Floridian. I was raised in Florida. I left home in 1966 when I enlisted in the Army. I had all intentions of returning to Florida once I retired from the Army in 1992, but my part of Florida (Sarasota) was packed solid with folks that had moved from other parts of the country to take up residence in the great state of Florida. I didn’t return to Sarasota, but ended up in Athens, GA. I love Athens, but maybe I should go check out Milton. It might just be my kind of town.

  14. Chasity Davis Ritter - December 7, 2019 3:31 pm

    I bet it was an amazing show. Talk about one of my bucket list items maybe one day I’ll get to see you in person and take my aunt Sandy who introduced me to your wonderful writings. I sooo look forward to your blog everyday. Sometimes I save it to savor the words and sometimes I read it before I’m even awake good or have my glasses on. What a lucky little town this Milton!

  15. Shelton A. - December 7, 2019 3:45 pm

    Friends will follow you anywhere…except to Ohio or Michigan (only crazy people live where it’s that cold). Glad you had a good show. Milton got lucky!

  16. Terri - December 7, 2019 4:14 pm

    As a sixth generation from Milton it is anything from Lower Alabama! And to note Pensacola is the second oldest city in Florida. And as far a LA, i love Brewton, it has its own history. Southern Bell country and the Wonder of the white Antebellum homes and culture. But the stories of Milton, Holly, Crestview, Jay, Munson, coldwater Creek, the old Log Mills, Sneeds, and the lil town my daddy was born in, Two Egg, will keep you, as an adventurer, in its boundaries for years!
    The quaint town of Milton was made up of many families that came from the deep south. My daddy was one of them.
    W.L. “Willie” Butler came riding in on a 1939 Ford carrying a Harley Davidson on a trailer, he was dressed in leather and raring to go! Enough ambition & smarts to spin a work force there. He actually worked at Whiting Field, it brought a many traveler who needed work. Although, there was another plan God lined up for Willie.
    He rented an apartment at the Milton Pool Hall, and ate at the first Boarding House, ran by Nellie Rogers. Her husband had the first fish market, John Rogers Fish House, so many incredible tales from this place. Willie met a young lady, my mother, and soon fell in love. They opened together W.L.Butler Electrical Co, and one of the first appliance store selling the new boxed t.v. Dad had a vision “a man without a vision perishes” but dad prospered and along with several other men put Milton on a work force & family town. Oh! The stories i hold dear to my heart, soul & mind. You dont go any further to find southern hospitality than Milton, Fl. But the whole panhandle has stories galore if you can find any of the generational kids from those beginning days of the 1920’s.

  17. Elizabeth - December 7, 2019 4:31 pm

    I’m trying not to cry at my son’s basketball game as I read this. Fantastic!

  18. Donna Ramsden - December 7, 2019 4:45 pm

    Great to see you AGAIN at same venue. We thoroughly enjoyed you and the evening, especially the wonderful youth chorus. You were spot on, as usual. See you again in Milton, hopefully. Hasta Pronto! Segura Viaje!

  19. Neil Mathews - December 7, 2019 4:59 pm

    Recently started following your daily post and thoroughly enjoy your writing.
    Not surprised you played to a full house. Lotta love in the previous comments. Emphasizes even more that home is where your heart lives.
    Thank you

  20. Gwen Lancaster - December 7, 2019 5:16 pm

    Sean, Your writings have been forwarded to me by a dear friend for a year or so, and I look forward to them every day. Your kind of humor, so self-effacing and often exaggerated, are the stuff of greats like Mark Twain. You have the gift of description that makes the reader feel a part of the scene. I am so glad that Milton turned out for your show, and proved to you that people have now “heard of you.” I’d love to see one of your shows, too.

    I will tell our local college, Reinhardt University, Waleska, GA, to book you if they can next year. They have a college of 1,800 kids and a strong music and various other performances in the Falany Arts Center that are well-attended. I live in one of the local gated/lake/golf developments that houses hundreds of us “retired people” who appreciate “how it used to be.”

    In addition, I am Florida born and raised, Gainesville to Tampa to Inverness to Marianna, and a Stetson Univ. grad who taught English to high schoolers for 30 years in GA. (Came here in 1966 for grad school at Emory, and stayed all these years, but always journeyed back to Fla. several times every year. ) My heart is still small town Florida, as you describe so well. Thank you for continuing to remind us of the values of kindness and little nuances of love that make us the warm-hearted humans that will continue to hold the world together when we flourish. ******

  21. Linda Moon - December 7, 2019 5:22 pm

    I wish I’d had one stone to throw at two birds there in Milton, like I did in Talladega for you at the Historic Theatre and the hard-to-find local cemetery. If I’d known the ghosts of Hank and Acuff and Sara Cannon were there with you, I would’ve traveled to your Live Event and helped fill up the house. One of my favorite cousins was named Milton…..maybe that would’ve given me another reason to travel to the Panhandle to see you, the ghosts, and remember my cousin Milton all at the same time!

  22. Sharon Brock - December 7, 2019 5:24 pm

    There was a line in an Alabama song which says you spend the first 20 years of your life trying to leave your small hometown and the next 20 trying to return. My hometown of Elizabethtown, Kentucky had less than 10,000 when we moved there in 1965. Now, almost 30k. My parents are buried there. My grandchildren are in Missouri so this is where I live. But Kentucky is HOME. Always.

  23. Old Marine - December 7, 2019 6:16 pm

    I was there. It was a great show, worth the trip from northwest mississippi.

  24. MARYLIN ANDERSON - December 7, 2019 8:29 pm

    My husband’s aunt, Emma Martin, lives in Milton. She and her husband, Burdell, were teachers there. I’d glad you had a full house, Sean. Merry Christmas to you and Jamie.

  25. Joy T Lane - December 7, 2019 8:36 pm

    I need to follow more Milton pages. I had no idea that you were going to be at the Imogene Theater last night. I would have been there too.

  26. Dru Brown - December 7, 2019 11:21 pm

    They came for you, Sean! Merry Christmas!

  27. Parsons Gayle - December 8, 2019 12:29 am

    Thank u for using my name , Gayle, in one of your columns- it meant so much to see my own name spelled correctly , but then to find out it was a request from a friend was very touching – made my day . Thnx
    Love your writings – keep them coming

  28. KL - December 8, 2019 12:33 pm

    It was a great show. You were wonderful. I do have one regret…I didn’t stay and meet Jaimie …I wanted to meet the woman that inspires such wonderful words from you. 🙂

  29. G@ry Nichols - December 8, 2019 2:22 pm

    I live in Milton, sorry I missed it. Saw on your website that you were coming to Milton. Contacted Imogene for info, which I didn’t receive. Shucks.

  30. Rita Knight - March 27, 2020 6:11 am

    I’ve never been to Milton. Should have but it never happened. My father met my mother at the ticket widow of the movie house in Milton while station in Pensacola during WW2. I’ve been told that my Aunt was married to one of the owners sons and my mother lived with the. Family legend has it that when Mom would work the popcorn stand my father would buy a box and take it to the side door and give it to the kids that hung out there, then go in and buy another one. He would do this a dozen times a night just to get a chance to talk to my mother. After the war they married and moved to St. Louis. My aunt got divorced and moved back home to Alabama where I spent a lot of summers. Just never made the trip to Milton. Hubby and I have been spending our imposed Covid-19 lockdown reading all of your books. I just finished the last one of the ten we bought “Will the circle be unbroken.” Now I’m making my way through your blog backwards. Must say I have never shed as many tears on a book, has I have with yours. Both good and bad tears. So many memories of my childhood were triggered by your stories. If I had your talent I would have enough fodder for a dozen books of my own about my southern kinfolk and their escapes. Keep up the good word. I will be sharing you with everyone I know.


Leave a Comment