My truck is parked on the bay. I am watching a Florida Panhandle sunset while sharing a gas-station burrito with my dog who has not mastered sharing.
I’ve been out of town for a few days. I was on my way home when I pulled over here.
Home. One of my favorite words. If there’s anything more thrilling than coming home it’s probably frowned upon by Sunday school teachers.
Music plays through my open windows. Classical music. In my truck I only play classical. Usually, I select classic masterpieces from the repertoires of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, or Spade Cooley.
Such music goes well with Floridian sunsets.
You’d be surprised how few people are familiar with the finer points of the Panhandle region. A lot of Americans get confused about our area and assume we’re similar to mainstream Florida. These assumptions are wrong.
We’re nothing like Tampa. Nothing like Orlando. My front door is located closer to Houston than Miami. We don’t dress like Jimmy Buffet, and I don’t own mouse ears.
West Florida is its own thing. Our region was settled long before the rest of our tourist-centric state, and it’s considerably more historic than big cities with theme parks.
In fact, for years this area never had much in the way of tourist amusement unless you counted the Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Bay County, where I once took Anna Lee Wilson on date.
Anna Lee puked all over me while riding the Loop-O-Plane ride. She had eaten nachos that night. I lost interest in nachos after that.
Our county is mostly rural. Here we have rich people and poor folks alike.
In the affluent zones, you have Land Rovers, Teslas, and hopped-up golf carts that cost more than Cadillacs. But on my street, most homes have double axles, high mileage, and foam-deer targets in front yards.
We are not fancy. We are painfully downhome. I have a 20-year-old truck which is the nicest thing in our neighborhood.
And in the longstanding tradition of my people, my vehicle is covered in a fine blend of saltwater rust, red dirt, and old duct tape residue. My tires are mismatched. My broken side mirror dangles from the door like a hanging chad.
But don’t misjudge us by our appearance. We will surprise you. We are the salt of the earth, not dumb hicks. Several of us can even do long division.
I received my education within this Panhandle, beginning with my local library.
The Defuniak Springs library resides in a little clapboard house that was built in 1887, back when Buffalo Bill Cody was still on tour and Helen Keller was just a kid.
It is the oldest continuously run library in the state, containing about 25,000 volumes, and growing. And I have late fees that predate the Punic Wars.
And there’s also my alma mater—if you can call it that. My little school began as a junior college in 1963 over in Valparaiso. Officially, it was called Okaloosa-Walton Junior College, but it underwent several name changes.
Although the unofficial nickname for it used to be “Doublewide School Beneath the Pines.”
Something the school never changed over the years was the teachers. They all knew your first name, and asked about your mama. Without these educators in my life, you would not be reading this.
Food-wise, we have the usual beach tourist traps that serve fruity drinks festooned with live parrots. But if you want authentic, go to Nick’s on Highway 20, not far from where I’m parked now.
Walk inside Nick’s Seafood Restaurant and you’ll understand the Panhandle.
The waitresses are younger than you, but still call you “sweetie.” There are chickens wandering the parking lot, roosting on truck hoods. Reba is on the radio. And Nick’s still serves fried mullet.
I bet they don’t eat much fried mullet in Buckhead.
When you’re done eating, you can go for a drive and see our trademarked pine trees. Free entertainment.
Florida longleafs don’t interest tourists, but that’s because visitors aren’t looking hard enough.
Most modern Americans see trees the same way real estate developers see trees. They see unprocessed lumber; organic inconveniences standing in the way of someone’s in-ground swimming pool.
The longleaf has been treated like the American bison: killed for sport, and practically obliterated.
At one time there were 90 million acres of longleafs in the US. Today, we have a fragmented 12,000 acres remaining. That’s less than half the size of Disney World’s property.
Still, the longleaf is one of nature’s strongest, most ferocious trees. It has adapted to survive wildfires, hurricanes, beetles, and the hell that is commercial progress.
And when you sit beside this bay at dusk you feel their strength. These pines are my example of steadfastness.
At sunset, orange beams poke through their trunks like light through the slats of an old barn. The trees run for miles along this sandy shoreline, until the sand finally meets the Choctawhatchee Bay.
Florida’s handle is one of the great pieces of God’s art. The mirrored bay water reminds me that although it’s been a long year, we’re still here. And that counts for something.
I wish I had something more eloquent to say about our area, but I don’t do eloquence so good.
So when I finish writing this column, I will shut my laptop, admire the final pie-slice of sunset, let my dog finish her burrito, and make my way back home.
One of my favorite words.
Susan Parker - April 27, 2021 7:58 am
Golly, you make me want to go to Florida!
Rhonda Hooks - April 27, 2021 7:59 am
I live in Vestavia Hills Alabama but was born in Definitely Springs in 1952..
I was born in a home on that beautiful round lake ( I’ve read it is the second most perfectly round lake in the world.
I was never so excited as I was about 10 years ago to go inside ,it’s a Dr. Office…I can’t tell you how it felt to finally be in the place where I drew my first breath.
Thank God it was a salt air one!.
Keep up the good work and prayers for God’s blessings on you!
Rhonda Hooks - April 27, 2021 8:01 am
DeFuniak Springs. My phone over rode my spelling!
MermaidGrammy - April 27, 2021 8:38 am
You provide such a wonderful way to start the day. It’s still dark here in Suwanee, but I can “see” the sun rise over your home. Thank you
Leslie in NC - April 27, 2021 9:41 am
This one really spoke to me. There is no place like the Florida panhandle. I’ve lived in Tallahassee, Fort Walton and Pensacola, but for a break & tranquility of my soul, I always gravitated to the little towns and hamlets like Carrabelle, Cape San Blas, Mashes Sands, Appalachicola, Santa Rosa which, back then were off the beaten track and not a condo in sight. I have many fond memories of my time there and as you said, Sean, nothing beats the line of longleafs behind the beach on the bay at sunset!
Janice Whittle Dye - April 27, 2021 10:18 am
I also am blessed to live in the Panhandle of FL. Love this column – like all the others. I read your column every morning along with my breakfast cereal looking out at at beautiful FL sunrise. Blessed. That’s what we are.
Jackie Cooley - April 27, 2021 10:30 am
We love the Florida Panhandle. The culture you describe here. The long leafs. The incredible sunsets. Panacea, Carrabelle, Lanark, Sopchoppy, St. Mark’s. The “Forgotten Coast”. Suits us fine it is forgotten and hopefully stays that way!
Jean - April 27, 2021 11:06 am
My fav place….HOME.
Jan - April 27, 2021 12:17 pm
Love the area you call home … not a fan of the crowds and high priced tourist areas or anything to do with Disney.
Terry Holloway - April 27, 2021 12:21 pm
Based on the Punic Wars line, you would be classified as a habitual offender regarding Library late fees. You must have political connections.
Leesa - April 27, 2021 12:39 pm
Beacon Hill, Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe, Apalachicola. What a wonderful part of the world. My husband spent his childhood there in the 1930s and 40s and brought me there in 1977. For 35 years we returned there at every opportunity to restore our souls listening to the wind in the pines and spending time n the bay. I continue to visit when I can and remember a little boy there fishing in the bay with his pop. Their family originally came to Port St. Joe so his father could help construct the paper mill; they were directly connected with those lovely pines also. Thanks, Sean, for bringing back so many great memories of your lovely part of the world.
Mary Fentress - April 27, 2021 12:40 pm
Home there is No Place Like it ❤️
Bobbie - April 27, 2021 12:43 pm
Oh how I’d love to go back to the Cape…San Blas that is. Lived there for five years…the sunsets are indescribable, altho you painted a pretty good picture of them. Do you know the Raw Bar at Indian Pass, or Boss Oyster in Apalach?? Best seafood, especially oysters, you’ll find anywhere ! So blessed to have had the time there, the quiet times on the beach…no sound but the gulls and waves. Heaven on earth.
Can’t say too much about it tho, let’s keep its secret and let it forever be “The Forgotten Coast”. ❤️
Helen De Prima - April 27, 2021 12:57 pm
Thanks for sharing your road less traveled. I feel the same way about the Delmarva Peninsula, especially once you cross into Virginia. I’ve never lived there, only driven the best route south to avoid I-95 hell, but I feel like I could — maybe in one of the villages overlooking Chesapeake Bay or on a narrow road branching eastward toward the Atlantic.
Kate - April 27, 2021 12:59 pm
I grew up in Tampa, in a time when it was not a “large city”. Tampa has changed but the little street I grew up on and the very small house my brothers and I called home have not changed (except for the price – my parents bought it for $11,500,it was last listed for $320,000 and it is about 1200 square feet and is on a very small lot) I am so thankful I grew up in Florida and spent my summers on a farm in Georgia. I always think I got the best of both worlds. I loved the beach and we spend hours on Clearwater beach, Madeira Beach, and Fort DeSoto Beach. All before the development and condo. Wonderful memories. Rural area wherever they are, are the best. I love the people, the food, the small churches, the way people know each other. Wonderful stories about how people still help each other. Thank you Sean for always reminding us of good things.
Te - April 27, 2021 12:59 pm
I’ve always preferred the sugar sand beaches and clear Gulf water of the Panhandle much more than the Atlantic side. Although I have to admit that I was always fascinated by St. Augustine’s history and the fort. We vacationed in Elinor Village in the 50s after Daddy was making enough money working for NASA to afford a two-week stay at the beach. We went several times, and to Miami once. But I digress. My daughter visits Destin and Ft. Walton every weekend she can, as she lives in Alabama, and I envy that. So I understand about the Panhandle.
Gayle Dodds - April 27, 2021 1:00 pm
East point Fl St George Island Apalachicola Port St Joe over to Panama City 29 beautiful years spent in this amazing part of the country thanks for the walk down memory lane
Te - April 27, 2021 1:03 pm
Dang, you make me want to move to Florida – well, where you are. Sounds like heaven.
Kate - April 27, 2021 1:11 pm
Sean, I read a lot, always have, since my mother walked her children to the Book Mobile in front of the Winn-Dixie in our small neighborhood in Tampa. And …. I love the way your write. You are funny and you weave your words with a little bit of magic and pixie dust. You describe every day things with such beauty and grace. You make us laugh and cry, often at the same time. You really are an amazing writer. I was an educator on the high school and college level and have life long experience reading other people’s writings. I have also written professionally so I know writing is not necessarily an easy thing. So I am perplexed when someone leaves a negative comment about your ability to write. (Not today but in the past) Thank goodness you write and bring so much goodness and joy into our homes each day. You are such a blessing and I am so glad that I found you. My life is better for it.
Tom D - April 27, 2021 1:33 pm
The panhandle is truly a wonder and in spite of all the development done to much of the coast (much of it foolish) it remains old Florida which is quite remarkable. You can still drive through much of it and see FL as it once was and still is! It is a national treasure and like its incredible pines should be protected.
jmlmjam - April 27, 2021 1:59 pm
Born and raised in B’ham; vacationed PCB, back before it was ruined with high rises. I’m talking about when the tallest building on the beach was a 2-story Holiday Inn. Everything else was mom & pop motels and old beach homes that had been there since forever. I was blessed to have lived in PC for one year in 1971 (where I met the love of life) when PC and PCB were still more old Florida than what it’s become now.
Larry Grainger - April 27, 2021 2:05 pm
Sean, while I have lived in the Nashville area for the last 35 years, I was born and raised in The Panhandle in Panama City (more accurately, the great metropolis of Springfield). My two brothers and their families still live in Bay County, as well as my wife’s mother and two sisters. We often travel to P.C. to visit them. My family roots are in Defuniak springs, Ponce de Leon, and Westville. Therefore, thank you for this blog entry highlighting The Emerald Coast. I really enjoy reading your writings every day.
Leigh Amiot - April 27, 2021 2:08 pm
My truck is older than yours, Sean. Obama would have paid me to junk it, but I’m still driving it!
Your column today has me thinking of the beauty around me…jasmine running wild that I planted years ago to try to conceal the well, magnolias in bloom, rose gardens, woods on three sides of me…be it ever so humble…
Sandy - April 27, 2021 2:18 pm
I am a native Floridian and have lived in Orlando, Tampa Bay, and Miami. I moved to the Panhandle a few years ago, right before Michael hit. I love Florida, but of all the places I’ve ever lived in Florida, this is my favorite. Most people don’t get it. It’s nice that you do.
Melissa jordan - April 27, 2021 2:55 pm
I’m from huntsville but grew up going to stay the summers with family in Niceville. It was such a great little place to spend the summers, crunched shell roads and you could walk from one end of town to the other rather quickly. Henderson Park holds so many great memories!
Deloris - April 27, 2021 3:15 pm
Enjoyed your article. I live in Fort Walton and came from a small town North of here Lockhart, AL. Love the area although not a big fan of the beach in the middle of the day. No more beautiful beach than here in the Panhandle. Always can get fresh seafood, which I love. The area has grown and changed over the years since I was a teenage, but still love.
tammymoody - April 27, 2021 3:29 pm
Hey Sweetie, if you look hard, in the Defuniak Springs library you may still find books donated by my late Aunt, Mary Jane Robertson. She lived in Campbellton, but traveled to every book store and library in a day’s drive. I was pleased to tag along when I was much younger…
Nancy Huey - April 27, 2021 3:37 pm
Sean,you need wonderful book, “Long Leaf far as the Eye Can See” think that’s it. There no sound that compares to gentle breeze thru pines🕊
Christina - April 27, 2021 3:56 pm
The redwoods around here show me steadfastness. How they teach us to live!
Virginia A Johnson - April 27, 2021 4:14 pm
The Panhandle is a gift from God that only a chosen few unwrap.
Bill - April 27, 2021 4:14 pm
Very enjoyable story…
Mike Matthews - April 27, 2021 5:14 pm
I’ve lived in NW Florida since 1978 on and off I retired from the navy in 94 settled in Pace Fl, loved it ever since but alas I’ve moved again to Daphne AL, just not the same I miss what you described but age and family sometimes dictates the direction we go. Thanks Sean for the moment in mind that you took me. Enjoy each day because as much as you really don’t want change it happens. Sometimes good and sometimes not.
Linda Moon - April 27, 2021 5:35 pm
Home. Music from Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys are among my favorites. You do eloquence very WELL, Columnist. Your column reminded me to look at my picture of four teenage girls on our beach trip at the Panhandle a long time ago. But, your story also reminded me of something I prefer to forget: a guy named Joe who threw up on me while we were riding some loopy ride! Spencer Tracy’s “Joe” is a much better memory. Thanks for the memories. You are one of my favorites, too.
MAM - April 27, 2021 6:10 pm
Ah yes, home. I remember the first year I lived so far away from what was home at that time that I couldn’t get home for Christmas. When the song “I’ll be Home for Christmas” played, I bawled. Home for us has been many places, and the one we’re living in now is the longest I have ever lived anywhere, other than the house I grew up in. And as for eloquence, Sean, you nailed it with “the final pie-slice of sunset.”
Denise M Hendricks - April 27, 2021 6:13 pm
I looked up Defuniak Springs and Wikipedia does not have Sean listed as a “Notable Person” from there. Does anyone know how to get him added??
Barbara Kirker - April 27, 2021 6:55 pm
Sean, you are my kind of people and I love your writing. I am not ‘high-falutin’, meaning I understand everything you say! I spent my first 35 years in small-town Kentucky and the last 35 years just south of Birmingham AL. My husband would say “Roll Tide” but I don’t care. I watch only Kentucky Basketball! Keep on writing! I’m so glad I found you!
Mike Bone - April 27, 2021 8:06 pm
I wrote this for the radio show I used to do (Pre Pandemic) called the Wildwood Flower Radio Hour on KXLU. We have been off the air for over a year now…..we can’t go into the studio, but when I saw the name Spade Cooley, I thought you might like to see this.
Last week on the WWFRH, we had the great fortune to have the FANTASTIC Mood Swing on the show. During the course of their performance Mood Swing played a Spade Cooley song titled “You Can’t Break My Heart”.
After the Mood Swing’s performance I mentioned that there is a nice display devoted to Spade Cooley on the end of the Santa Monica Pier.
Tuesday I went to the end of the pier and looked at the display again and here is what I found.
“The Spade Cooley Show from the Santa Monica Ballroom on KTLA-5.”
There is also a ticket that would admit one to the Spade Cooley “The King of Western Swing” with the times of the broadcast on KTLA TV and on KFWB radio.
The Santa Monica Ballroom was listed as Newcomb’s , on the Pier , beside the Pacific in Santa Monica.
The rest of the display states “As the Second World War drew to an end, the Pier was reborn as an entertainment venue. The La Monica Ballroom opened it’s doors to up and coming musical acts such as Roy Rogers, Desi Arnaz and the “King of County Swing Spade Cooley. Cooley, most famous for his song “Shame on You”, hosted the weekly variety show The Hoffman Hayride which became so popular that it caught the attention of Los Angeles Television station KTLA . On August 5, 1948 KTLA broadcast the show….the first time anywhere in the world that a variety show was broadcast live.”
Cooley appeared in thirty-eight Western films, both in bit parts and as a stand-in for cowboy actor Roy Rogers. If you see a picture of Cooley, you can see that he looks a LOT like Roy Rogers. Cooley and Roy Rogers “The King of the Cowboys” were close friends……very close.
Cooley toured with Roy Rogers as his fiddle player and sang with the Riders of the Purple Sage.
Cooley got his nickname, Spade, as a result of his poker playing skill. He also had 6 top ten pop hits between 1945 and 1947 including the #1 hit “Shame On You” in 1945. (Other songs, “A Pair of Broken Hearts”, “I’ve Taken All I’m Gonna Take from You”, “Detour” ” “You Can’t Break My Heart” “Crazy ‘Cause I Love You”. Pay CLOSE attention to these song titles. “I’ve Taken All I’m Gonna Take from You” and “Crazy ‘Cause I Love You”.
The Spade Cooley TV show became a big hit locally, and won local Emmy awards in 1952 and 1953. Guests included Frankie Laine, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore. The Spade Cooley Show was viewed coast-to-coast via the Paramount Television Network.
Cooley was alledgedly in a “battle of the bands,” with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Afterward, Cooley claimed he won and began to promote himself as the King of Western Swing. I feel certain that there are thousands in Texas that would question the result of that battle!
KTLA eventually cancelled the show largely due to declining interest in western swing music. The ever fickle public and their limited attention span!
After the Mood Swing performance, last Sunday Gordon, one of the violin players advised me to investigate what Paul Harvey would call THE REST OF THE STORY regarding Spade Cooley.
Here is what I found:
In addition to being an American Western swing musician, big bandleader, actor, television personality, Spade Cooley was a convicted murderer!
In 1961, he was arrested and convicted for the murder of his second wife, Ella Mae Evans.
Cooley suspected his wife of repeatedly being unfaithful. In March 1961, Ella Mae told a friend she had had an affair with Roy Rogers. She soon asked Cooley, for a divorce. Big mistake.
On April 26, 1961, Cooley was indicted by a Kern County grand jury for the murder of his wife at their home. Cooley’s 14-year-old daughter, Melody, recounted to the jury how she was forced by her father to watch as he beat her mother to death. Cooley claimed his wife had been injured by falling in the shower.
OK that is terrible and very strange, but wait it gets even stranger.
Cooley was sentenced to LIFE IN PRISON.
After serving 9 years of a life sentence, Cooley was slated to be paroled on February 1970, he was in poor health, but still doing a hell of a lot better than Ella Mae. He was given a 72 hour furlough from prison to perform a benefit concert for the Deputy Sheriffs Association in Alameda County at the Oakland Auditorium. After his performance, where he received a standing ovation, Cooley suffered a heart attack and died on stage!
How strange is THAT?
Karen Holderman - April 27, 2021 9:23 pm
Sean, you took me back to a very early memory I had not had since childhood. I am 72. My dad was stationed in Jacksonville. We periodically traveled home to North Carolina. As we traveled I watched those endless pines as we traveled down the highway from the backseat. They were magical to me. Thank you for the memory of those pines and the drive back home to see grandparents.
MARGARET NAYLOR - April 27, 2021 9:30 pm
I love your stories. My husband even tracked you down to sign my 60th birthday book. I just wanted to let you know, if you are ever in West Virginia, go by a food stand called Trail 12 BBQ in Gilbert, WV. it’s part of a 4-wheeling cabin resort. Hope that made sense. Trail 12 is part of the Hatfield-Mccoy trails. Hope you can make it. It’s mighty good BBQ. I’ll keep on reading.
Bkr - April 28, 2021 12:26 am
Love this. Nothing like home.
Lisa - April 28, 2021 1:07 pm
I relate to so many of your stories. I’m from Birmingham and grew up going to the Gulf, many times to visit a cousin who lived in Sunnyside, visiting grandparents in Abbeville on the way down. Now my daughter and her husband live near the bay by Eden State Park. Thankfully Eden and the surrounding Point Washington forest has remained unchanged. I relate to I-65 travels, the beautiful pine trees and fishing all along the waters from Destin to Panama City Beach. Some good eating in little places along the way. You evoke so many memories. You are a compassionate writer and I enjoy your column everyday.
Jerry Hamilton - April 28, 2021 4:25 pm
Love Long Leaf Pines, planted 115,000 seedlings in Butler, Georgia in 2013, they are beautiful.
Lana Kaiser - May 1, 2021 12:23 pm
Love the trees in our area. I’m on the Alabama coast about 10 miles north of the Gulf. Love the pines but they can be trouble during a hurricane. Had two in my living room during Ivan. Got to say I really hate when all the native oaks, magnolias and pines get cut down and replaced with a palm or two. We are coastal not tropical!