Mr. Fred Jones of Niceville was perusing the items at a garage sale in late November when he came across something interesting — an aerial photo of Fort Walton Beach. He bought the photo and gave it to me.
First, let me take this opportunity to thank Mr. Jones. I’ve lived in Fort Walton Beach since the mid-1960s and I’m a bit of a nostalgia nerd for our “Home of the Sonic Boom,” as it was called in those days. This photo will become a prized addition to my collection of all things old Fort Walton Beach.
On a note he included with the photo, Mr. Jones wrote that the date of the photo is unknown. I’ve given it a pretty thorough going-over, even with a loupe, and have decided it was taken in the mid-1960s, right after we got here.
Brooks Bridge, for starters. It is clearly visible in the photo. The bridge was built in the 1965-66 time period and replaced the “swing” bridge that connected Fort Walton Beach to Okaloosa Island for many years. Side note: My grandfather, Lonnie Ready, was one of the swing bridge operators who opened the structure for passing boats. I understand more than one driver failed to notice the bridge open and took an unexpected plunge into Santa Rosa Sound.
Tower Beach is also visible on Okaloosa Island. Old-timers will remember Tower Beach as the hangout for teenagers back then. You could get a terrific burger there, a decent-sized beef patty with mustard, ketchup and pickles, the top half of the bun slathered with grease.
In the spot where today’s Boardwalk stands was a park called Wayside. It consisted of several concrete pavilions with adjoining barbecues, and a shower facility. There were two lakes in front, inhabited by bass, bream and coots. When the Boardwalk was built, one of the lakes was filled. But in this photo both lakes are visible.
More telling is the lack of an amusement park on Okaloosa Island. Long before the Convention Center or Wild Willy's, drivers who crossed Brooks Bridge heading east on U.S. Highway 98 could look to their left and see an amusement park, complete with a sky lift and miniature train that wound its way through the heavily wooded tract of land that bordered Choctawhatchee Bay. The park was built in the late-1960s, which narrows the time frame of the photo to the 1966-68 period.
A greatly scaled-back Uptown Station, then known as Fort Walton Square, can be seen aside a four-lane Eglin Parkway. Using the loupe, I think I can see the fast-food joint that sat directly on Eglin Parkway in front of the square. Mom and I went there for burgers the stormy afternoon that Hurricane Camille ravaged the Mississippi coast.
At the corner of Eglin Parkway and Racetrack Road, I think I can see Gibson’s. Before Kmart and Walmart, there was Gibson’s, a discount store that rivaled today’s big boxes. To my 10-year-old self the place seemed cavernous, especially the Toy Department. I could be found there weekends buying Plasti-Goop for my Creepy Crawlers Thingmaker.
Other landmarks of the mid- to late-60s are visible. There was a garbage dump between Hollywood Boulevard and Jet Drive. They burned it in the 1980s and surrounding neighborhoods were terrorized by exploding aerosol cans. The City Hall complex, and the ball fields behind it, are visible. Did you know there were tennis courts behind the old Fort Walton Beach Library?
Okaloosa Island is completely free of high-rises in the photo. Single-family residences and apartments dot either side of Santa Rosa Boulevard, but nary a tower is visible. The pier jutting into the Gulf of Mexico is no doubt the old wooden pier behind the Gulfarium.
So, Fred. To the best of my amateur detective’s eye, I’m guessing this photo was taken between 1966 and 1968.
I wonder if I am in the photo, a solitary dot in an ocean of dots from the previous century.
Contact online editor Del Stone Jr. at (850) 315-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at @delsnwfdn, and friend him on Facebook at dels nwfdn.