[one_third last=”no”][colored_box color=”blue”]In the briny waters off Apalachicola, where the river waters meet the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida oysters thrive and survive despite hundreds of hurricanes that have passed by this coastal community in the centuries that folks have been here to harvest them. In this panhandle panacea, oysters are synonymous with gold. That’s why so many men, and now women, have risked life and limb delving beneath the water’s surface to find these delicacies. While oysters may be hard and craggy on the outside, inside they are soft and sensuous, not to mention, delicious. Which is why each year for the past 50 consecutive years, the oyster is celebrated with a festival here in this charming north Florida town that boasts a population of only 2,340 residents.[/colored_box][/one_third]
THE EARLY DAYS OF THE FLORIDA SEAFOOD FESTIVAL
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 1963, a group of eight men, all members of the local chapter of the Jaycees and Directors of the Apalachicola Chamber of Commerce, gathered together to contemplate what it would take to bring visitors to the town since the new interstate 10 was diverting traffic off the once-well-traveled highway 98 which passed right through the heart of Apalachicola. This wasn’t the first time the town had to find alternatives to boost its economy aft er another major transportation route was diverted away from the town. It happened in the 1800s when the railroad bypassed Apalachicola for Port St. Joe, 23 miles to the west. Both times, as transportation detoured from the town, so did the people and the dollars they might have spent. As fate would have it, Billy Spikes, a young marketing manager with Florida Power Corporation, led the charge to create a Florida Seafood Festival.
The idea of a festival honoring the local catch had been tried before back in 1915, when residents celebrated Apalachicola’s bounty with Harbor Days. Years later, an Apalachicola Mardi Gras would draw visitors. However, in time, both festivals fizzled. Spikes and his group of volunteers, along with members of the Apalachicola Chamber of Commerce led by Judy Hoffmann, would promote the first Florida Seafood Festival from Tallahassee to Pensacola and all points in between.
“Volunteers with dedication to the community made each festival a success! The first several festival meals were served free of charge, just come and see us. Helpers like Buck Siprell, CT Ponder, Papa Joe Toranto, George Wefing, Dr. Raymond Mabry, and so many others gave their all to make each festival a success. I am so proud of today’s volunteers and volunteers of all past festivals,” says Billy Spikes, now retired from the power corporation.
In 1964, the first Florida Seafood Festival was held on the first weekend of November. It was a success, to be sure, as thousands of new visitors trickled in from all over the region, gathering in Battery Park to taste the catch of the day – oysters, shrimp and fresh fish. From dignitaries, like state senators and cabinet members, to regular common everyday people, each enjoyed the fun, the food and all the festivities surrounding the event like the oldfashioned downtown parade and a “Blessing of the Fleet”. There were also pony rides, blue crab races and an oyster shucking contest all amid folk music and dancing.
THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY
As it has been on the first weekend of November for the past 50 years, folks from near and far will gather again in Apalachicola’s Battery Park as festival flags wave up and down U.S. Highway 98. The crispness of autumn will envelope visitors like an old friend.
“I asked myself what was the most special memory of the Seafood Festival,” says festival chairman John Solomon. “My answer was no surprise. It’s that the Seafood Festival brings together everything that’s great in this community in one weekend.”
And that sentiment is held by most who come to the Florida’s oldest maritime event. At the Florida Seafood Festival you’ll see grandparents who attended the first festival now bringing their own grandchildren to the 50th. And friends who might not have seen each other in decades will reunite to rekindle relationships of old.
The Florida Seafood Festival will officially open Friday, November 1st at 10 a.m. Celebrants can enjoy more than 90 local artisans sharing their hand-made goods and delight in some 30 food concessions operated by area non-profit groups that cook and sell the local seafood, most of which is caught the day before the festival. The menu will consist of plenty of fresh Apalachicola oysters on the half shell, fried oysters, oyster stew, fresh fried shrimp, boiled shrimp, shrimp gumbo, shrimp corn chowder, smoked mullet, smoked mullet dip and fried scallops. On Friday, there will be the historic “Blessing of the Fleet” where fishing vessels and personal water craft will parade underneath the bridge and past the festival to be blessed by local clergymen.
“The idea is for the vessels and people working them to have a bountiful catch for the season and to bring all fishermen home safely from their journeys,” explains Solomon, who has been the festival chairman for the past six years.
And speaking of parades, the Seafood Festival parade will follow the same route it has for the past 50 years. Leading the parade this year as the grand marshal will be Billy Spikes, now 78, his daughter Caron, who was in the first festival parades and her husband Danny “Chocolate” Myers of NASCAR fame. As it has been for the past five decades, there will be an Oyster Shucking Contest. Apalachicola’s grand champion Mike Martin has won for the past three years and has gone on to win the national Oyster shucking Championship held in Maryland, even progressing on to compete in the World Oyster Shucking competition in Ireland. There’s also an Oyster Eating Contest and last year’s winner ate 22 1/2 dozen oysters in 10 minutes.
Of course, the children will enjoy the carnival atmosphere and the Blue Crabs Races held for children 12 years of age and younger, where the blue crabs race back into the Apalachicola Bay down a race track. All participants take home a prize. There will also be a 5k Redfish Run that will begin on the steps of the Gibson Inn and traverse through the Historic District of the town. Apalachicola is one of the oldest, if not THE oldest town in Florida. All of these events are free to anyone who wants to enter.
On Friday night, there’s the King Retsyo Ball (Retsyo is OYSTER spelled backwards) where the fine Southern ladies and gentlemen adorn their finest threads to celebrate the king and queen of the festival. Throughout the day on Friday and Saturday of the event, festival goers will enjoy the entertainment of a variety of musical artists at the main Florida Seafood Festival stage, culminating with Saturday night’s headliner, country music star and Dancing With the Stars Champion, Kellie Pickler. Saturday night ends with a large fireworks display over the waterfront. It’s an idyllic time in a magical place that many say looks more like Cape Cod than the Deep South.
“For 50 years, the Florida Seafood Festival has survived hurricanes, recessions and other things, but has fought through with volunteers like myself giving up time away from their families to make sure the dream of the first ever festival chairman, Billy Spikes, stays alive,” says Solomon who grew up only blocks away from event.
Last year, some 30 thousand people enjoyed the Florida Seafood Festival. With the 50th anniversary and so much more to offer festival goers this year, Solomon says he expects the crowds to be even larger.
“The vision has always been for the festival to draw people to the town of Apalachicola and Franklin County to enjoy our wonderful seafood industry,” says Solomon, adding, “I am happy to say that where other festivals and celebrations have come and gone over the past 50 years, we remain the oldest annual maritime event in the state of Florida and there’s no end in sight.”