Northwest Florida heritage and history are all around you as you travel through miles of mainly rural country, pine woods, and some of the most beautiful sand beaches in the world. This region includes 12 counties. Culturally, it is more like Alabama than it is like the rest of Florida.
Northwest Florida heritage and history is evident in the many small towns that played a key part in early Florida history. You will see many monuments and memorials to the Old South in the form of Confederate soldier statues in town squares and in front of courthouses.
"Becalmed In The Mullet Latitudes" is a wonderful book by the late Al Burt published in 1983. Al was a long time Miami Herald columnist who had a deep love for Florida and a melancholy for the "old Florida" that was disappearing. He celebrated the Northwest Florida heritage along with other parts of rural Florida.
He identified and chronicled the disappearing old places that he
called the Mullet Latitudes. His name for Northwest Florida and the Panhandle was "Florabama". If Al were still alive, I think he'd stick with the name even though there has been a fair amount of Yankee migration into the area since he wrote his book.
Pensacola was settled by the Spanish in 1559. It was the first European settlement in the United States. It was a rival to St. Augustine on the Atlantic settled in 1565 on the other side of the state.
Pensacola was the first capital of Florida. When Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821, the capital was moved shortly after to Tallahassee because it was about halfway between Pensacola and St. Augustine.
After the Spanish left and Florida became a U.S. territory, settlers from Alabama and Georgia began homesteading small farms. In in the years before the Civil War, northern Florida was the most populated region of Florida. These early settlers had a lot to do with establishing Northwest Florida heritage as part of the Old South.
This part of Florida remained largely rural and remote until after World War Two. Many houses and farms did not have electricity until after the war. The communities survived on farming and fishing. Turpentine, naval stores and other timber based chemicals were important businesses in the years immediately before and after World War Two. The pine woods also attracted lumber and paper mills.
The Congressman Bob Sikes Era Begins
The Florida panhandle had a U.S. Congressman named Bob Sikes from Crestview. He was an expert at bringing home the bacon. That's a good old American phrase that means he was good at getting Federal money for his Congressional District.
He had a lot to do with bringing many of the military installations to Florabama. He was in Congress from 1941 to 1979, with some time off during World War Two when he joined the military. He helped preserve and continue the military elements of Northwest Florida heritage.
Eglin Air Force Base was built just before World War Two near Fort Walton Beach. It pulled the remote backwoods panhandle into the modern world.
Eglin is the largest military installation in the United States. The base sprawls across three counties, and is about the same size as Rhode Island. I took my Navy pilot survival training course in the swamps and jungles of Eglin known as the boondocks.
The base is named for Fritz Eglin, an early Army aviator who died in a plane crash. I did not know until years later that my father is named Fritz in honor of the downed pilot. Eglin was my grandfather's classmate at Wabash College in Indiana. Read more about Fritz Eglin here.
Panama City is the unofficial capital of Florabama, with Pensacola running a close second. The Florabama beaches are known by Floridians as the "redneck riviera". They have traditionally attracted Alabama and Georgia tourists.
Star high school football players in Florabama do not typically go to the University of Florida or Florida State University. They are more likely to sign up with the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Auburn Tigers.
The Florida panhandle has fewer "Go Gator" bumper stickers than anywhere else in the State.
A notable exception is Emmitt Smith, Hall of Fame running back for the NFL Dallas Cowboys. Mr. Smith graduated from Escambia High School in Pensacola and went on to gridiron glory at the University of Florida. You non-football fans may remember him from "Dancing With The Stars".