Residents of Apalachicola give directions based on “the blinking light.” That’s the flashing downtown signal where U.S. 98 makes a right-angle turn. No one ever mentions the legit stoplight (the only one in Franklin County) nine blocks west.
No wonder tourism promoters call this stretch of the Florida Panhandle “the Forgotten Coast.” Apalachicolans seem to embrace that as a badge of honor. “They’re awesome people. They’re so self-reliant,” Shaun Donahoe says.
Shaun moved here in 1970 from upstate New York, married a “local gal,” and later went into real estate. He says Apalachicola possesses the easy-living qualities that New Urban communities such as Seaside, a couple of hours west, seek to re-create. “New Urbanism is where you can walk everywhere and sit on your porch and visit with the neighbors,” he says. “We have it!” The National Trust for Historic Preservation agrees. It recently honored the town as one of the nation’s most “distinctive destinations.” The historic district amounts to a giant candy store for architecture aficionados. Grand Victorians stand next to modest “Apalachicola bungalows,” all liberally interspersed with tall pines and muscular live oaks. Some homes predate the Civil War.
The essential character of Apalachicola―a hardworking but laid-back town intimately linked to water―has survived decades of booms and busts. A few visitors grouse about the gentrifying influx of galleries and high-end antiques shops. Residents disagree. After all, two prominent downtown streets are named “Market” and “Commerce.”
“The old mercantile buildings have changed functions, but they’re still pretty much what they were originally intended to be,” says photographer Richard Bickel, whose gallery inhabits one of those buildings a half block south of the blinking light. Richard visited on a magazine assignment in 1994, loved the “polite Southern town,” and moved here six months later.
As with a lot of small towns, economic worries have buffeted Apalachicola, particularly affecting the oystering and shrimping industries. But tourists consider it a hidden gem, and newcomers are adding to the town’s mix.
Dale Julian, owner of Downtown Books & Purl, which sells books and knitting supplies, says Apalachicola’s essence hasn’t changed. She sums up the town with a smile and four words: “Perfect climate. Gracious people.”
(published December 2008)