Falling Jeeps, German POWs and other things you might not know about Northwest Florida


There are some things that even longtime residents might not know about our little slice of paradise. Here are 10 things you might not know about Northwest Florida.


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Each year, thousands of visitors descend on the Emerald Coast to discover our area. Try as they might, however, there are some things that even longtime residents might not know about our little slice of paradise. Here are 10 things you might not know about Northwest Florida:

1. Surrounded as we are by military bases, over the years residents have become accustomed to the occasional mishap, including missiles that have gone astray from their targets. But did you know that in 1964, a military jeep fell from an Air Force plane and hit a power line on Mooney Road?

According to a story by former Daily News staff writer Bill Tennis, employees of the Fort Walton Beach Municipal Golf Course heard a C-130 cargo plane flying low overhead. Suddenly, a dark object fell out of the plane and two parachutes opened. The young men ran toward the parachutes and found a jeep in the middle of Mooney Road. The parachutes were entangled in some nearby power lines. The commanding general of the Tactical Air Warfare Center said he was extremely sorry about the accident and was relieved to know that no one was injured.

“This stuff is normally tied down,” the general said.

2. One of the jewels of the Florida State Park System is the Henderson Beach State Recreation Area, located on 208 pristine beachfront acres in Destin. You might have heard that the park celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, but did you know that it might never have been preserved if it weren’t for the efforts two Fort Walton Beach High School students?

Starting in the early 1980s, Cliff Reynolds and Jeff Crumpler gathered signatures for petitions and lobbied the state Legislature to set aside the property, which was owned by the Henderson family, for public use. They eventually won over then-Gov. Bob Graham, and in 1983 the property was purchased for $13.1 million as the state’s first acquisition under the Save Our Coasts program.

3. At the other end of Okaloosa County, another government land purchase resulted in the creation of the Escambia Farms community. Back in 1933, during the height of the Great Depression, the federal government purchased 12,915 acres of former timberland about 11 miles from Baker and developed it into several 95-acre farms. Each homestead had a four- or five-room house, and several outbuildings such as a barn, smokehouse, poultry house and “privvy.”

The government built roads, a school that doubled as a community center and a general store. At one point, about 72 families lived in the planned community.

4. About a decade later, a different type of housing project sprung up in north Santa Rosa County on the military installation known as Whiting Field. During World War II, the base was home to a German prisoner of war camp. During their captivity, the POWs were put to work helping to build infrastructure at the Navy auxiliary field, which is now home to pilot training.

5. Fans of the TV show “Little House on the Prairie” and the “Little House” series of children’s books might be surprised to learn that their author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, once made her home in Northwest Florida. Back in 1891, Laura’s cousin, Peter Ingalls, invited her and her husband, Almanzo, and their daughter, Rose, to join his family in the Holmes County community of Westville, which is just across the Walton County line. Almanzo was recovering from a serious bout of diphtheria at the time, and the Wilders hoped that the warm Florida weather would be good for him.

Laura, however, hated Westville’s humidity and mosquitoes. According to a short story later written by Rose, there was apparently some disagreement between the family members regarding moonshine making, as well. The Wilders returned to DeSmet, South Dakota, in 1892.

6. Many people have heard of the reported unidentified flying object sightings near Gulf Breeze in 1987. But did you know that former President Jimmy Carter and Eglin Air Force Base are linked by a UFO sighting dating back to 1969?

Two years before he became governor of Georgia, Carter gave a speech to the Lions Club in the small town of Leary in the southwest corner of the state. That evening, he and some other folks noticed a strange object in the sky that started out as bright white and later changed to several different colors before disappearing in the distance.

Years later, a man named Carl G. ‘Jere’ Justus suggested that what Carter and his companions saw was probably a barium cloud released by scientists at Eglin to study atmospheric conditions.

Carter reportedly said that he never believed he saw an alien spacecraft, but since the object was unidentified, it qualified as a UFO.

7. Speaking of Eglin, did you know that the McKinley Climatic Laboratory is on the National Register of Historic Places? The massive all-weather test facility is named after Ashley Chadbourne McKinley, an Army colonel and aerial photographer who was a pioneer of sub-zero aviation. McKinley served as the aerial photographer for Richard Byrd’s expedition to the South Pole.

8. Just down the road from Eglin, the city of Niceville can boast that its mayor, Randall Wise, is now the longest currently serving mayor in the state of Florida. Wise and City Manager Lannie Corbin were both sworn in 45 years ago. Ironically, the previous record holder was the late Valparaiso Mayor Bruce Arnold, who passed away in February after serving his city for 53 years.

9. On the topic of record holders, did you know that the highest point above sea level in Florida can be found in Walton County? Britton Hill, near the community of Lakewood, is a whopping 345 feet high. It’s not exactly something to brag about, however, since Florida has the lowest high point of any state. Neighboring Alabama’s high point, Cheaha Mountain, is 2,407 feet above sea level, while Georgia boasts a high point of 4,784 feet at Brasstown Bald.

10. Before you dart away, there’s one last thing you might not know about our little slice of paradise. The massive Eglin reservation, which stretches across Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties, is the only place on earth where you can find the Okaloosa darter. Listed as an endangered species in 1972, the tiny fish has been the subject of an intense recovery plan by Eglin environmental managers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2011, the darter’s population had increased enough to warrant its “downlisting” to threatened status.