History of South Walton
The Mission of the Walton County Tourism Department is to direct and manage activities that will strengthen the position of the South Walton brand in the tourism marketplace, in order to increase the tourism economy of Walton County. The Walton County Tourism Department will manage and maintain our beaches as a primary attraction and serve as a responsible industry organization to take a leadership role in addressing issues that affect tourism and the quality of life in Walton County.
South Walton's stunning beaches were created by the weathering of the Appalachian Mountains over millions of years. Particles of quartz from this mountain range were washed into riverbeds and eventually transported by these rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. The ebb and flow of the water over this long distance broke down these particles and buffed their edges, making the sand as fine as sugar when it finally rested along the Florida Panhandle. There are no large sediment-heavy rivers directly influencing the water in South Walton and so the reflection of the sun on the white sandy bottom of the Gulf of Mexico creates the water’s brilliant turquoise hue.
A variety of cultural influences can be seen in the area. South Walton has been touched by the traditions and influence of early Native American, Spanish, French, and English cultures. Each of Walton County’s four municipalities, DeFuniak Springs, Paxton, Freeport and Santa Rosa Beach continue to reflect these cultures today.
Native American Influence
In the 1700s and 1800s, Native American tribes including the Muscogee, Creek and Euchee Indians lived in and around Walton County. Today, the Muscogee Nation of Florida is 1,100 members strong. For generations, the Muscogee people have strived to preserve their language, culture, songs, stories and way of life. Today, the Muscogee Nation of Walton County, located at 278 Church Road in the town of Bruce, seeks to share its heritage with residents and visitors alike. The historic schoolhouse is filled with crafts and work of the tribe’s elders.
Located in northern Walton County, DeFuniak Springs was founded in 1880 and is the county seat. At the heart of this historic town is one of two naturally round spring-fed lakes in the world (the other is located near Zurich, Switzerland). DeFuniak Springs started out as a railroad town, serving as a stop on the route of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. In February 1885, the Chautauqua Assembly, a cultural celebration originally held at a campsite on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in New York, held its first winter celebration in DeFuniak Springs. This annual assembly, which brought in speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day, transformed DeFuniak Springs into one of the cultural centers of the southeast until the late 1920s.
Today, efforts are underway to continue the cultural activities of the town. The community continues the tradition of holding the Chautauqua Assembly each February. DeFuniak Springs is also focused on preservation and a walk through the historic district around the lake is like a journey back in time. Historic buildings await exploration and a canopy of towering mossy oaks shade the roadways. A stroll down the quiet streets allows visitors to admire ornate, Victorian-style homes, representative of time when labor and materials were plentiful and elaborate architectural details were featured in nearly every home.
The Walton-DeFuniak Library was established in 1886 and is the oldest library in the state still serving the public (the library in St. Augustine is only library that is older). Also located in the historic district is the Depot Station, which today houses the Walton County Heritage Association and Museum, filled with relics from Walton County’s past. Down the street, the Historic Chautauqua Building (aka Hall of Brotherhood) was established in 1909 and served as an enclosed amphitheater. The building was severely damaged during a Hurricane Eloise in 1975; however, several portions of the building have been restored. The building continues to serve as a focal point of the community, and is used for a wide variety of activities.
Located near the north edge of the county, Paxton became home to the area's first sawmill in 1903. As the commerce around the mill increased, the community grew. Today, Paxton continues to flourish and grow from its early farming roots and is also the site of the highest point in Florida at 345 feet above sea level. Known as Britton Hill in the Lakewood County Park, the unique Florida plateau is photographed by hundreds of visitors each year.
With the introduction of sawmills, logging, and turpentine processing, other areas in Walton County began to grow and prosper. The town of Freeport benefited greatly from these industries and soon became a renowned shipbuilding center along the gulf coast. The town’s name is derived from its early roots as a shipping port that was free from any type of imported goods tax. Due to this, the ships would deliver or pick up goods tax-free, making it a popular and successful port in Walton County.
Santa Rosa Beach
In the late 1800s, towns were beginning to form south of the Choctawhatchee Bay. By the early 1900s, Hogtown Bayou in Santa Rosa Beach was a bustling town center. Steamboats bringing in residents from Mobile and Pensacola helped to quickly grow the area’s population to nearly 1,200 people. Unfortunately, a crop disaster followed by a hurricane spelled doom for the town. The town eventually took on a lawless "Wild West" vibe and many residents boarded steamboats and left en masse. The town's hotels, churches, stores, cafés, and cottages took on the feeling of a true ghost town. The few remaining locals eventually dismantled the town for lumber. Today, Cessna Landing (named for the town founder) is a public park and quiet place with picnic areas and a fishing dock. Next to the park, the Bayou Arts Center of Walton County hosts groups for art classes, workshops and other cultural events.
The historic community of Point Washington lies on the Choctawhatchee Bay and includes several bayous. A busy sawmill was the center of activity around the turn of the century, shipping lumber around the world. Today, the historic Wesley Mansion, located in Eden State Gardens, is one of the few historic treasures that still exist in South Walton.
Along the beach, there was also activity. In 1885, Army Major, Charles T. Gray built a homestead along the coast. At the time, the federal government owned much of the land and few people had reason to settle there. The soil was too sandy to farm and there were better timberlands inland. The closest settlement was at Point Washington to the north. Five years later, Army General William Miller and William Wilson moved their families there and mapped out where the village's streets and blocks would be built. Named after Major Gray, Grayton Beach celebrated its 110 year anniversary in 2000.
Reaching Grayton Beach at that time was not easy. There were no bridges over the Choctawhatchee Bay, and what roads existed were merely sand trails. In 1913, W. H. Butler and his son, Van R. Butler, made the day-long trip from DeFuniak Springs to Grayton Beach and ended up staying. W. H. Butler decided to start a resort project and bought most of what is now Grayton Beach. The Butler family built and rented cottages, sold an occasional lot and operated the town’s general store and a dance hall (site of the present-day Red Bar).
Access to Grayton Beach became easier with the construction of Highway 98 and the Highway 331 bridge in the 1930s, and Grayton began booming. In the 1940s, the addition of electricity and the beginning of World War II brought more people to the town. In 1942, the U. S. Coast Guard established a 40-man station here, and the federal government rented many of the homes for barracks and offices. The only building still standing in Grayton Beach that is thought to date back to the beginning of the town is a two-story home, known as the Wash-A-Way, at the end of County Road 283. In the Wash-A-Way, you can find the name of one guardsman written in ink on the wall of a closet he used as a darkroom.
The community and the state have helped keep Grayton Beach small by virtually surrounding the community with park land. In 1967, the state used its land east of the town to create Grayton Beach State Recreation Area. In 1985, after years of lobbying by residents, Florida bought the village's beachfront and the dunes and forest land to the west and north.
Historically the development of Walton County can be attributed to its largest industry at the time, farming. As time passed, other industries such as logging and the harvesting of pine gum and turpentine played a vital role in the growth of the area. Watch our History Of South Walton video.
Today, tourism contributes greatly to the county’s success. Annual events and historical and cultural festivals throughout the year showcase Walton County's rich heritage.