Keeping it real in Florida
By Bob Berwyn
APALACHICOLA, FLA. — After passing through the heavily developed strip resorts around Destin, it was a relief to pull into the pet-friendly Rancho Inn, in Apalachicola, a historic fishing and harbor village in the heart of what locals call the forgotten coast.
We decide to linger an extra day, if only to learn the correct pronunciation of the six-syllable town.
Since the town sits back from the Gulf Coast a ways, on the shore of Apalachicola Bay, there are no beachfront motels. But it’s a working harbor town, with shrimp boats lined up along the shore of the bay, unloading tons of rock shrimp into small warehouses where they’re immediately sorted, packed, frozen and loaded on to trucks.
The bay is also one of the world’s most productive oyster fisheries, with just the right delicate balance of salt water and fresh water, along with perfect temperatures, combining to nurture productive shellfish beds.
“I’m one of the last independent guys,” says Walter Ward, helping his team of shrimp house workers move crates of the tender pink crustaceans around the packing house, while taking orders on a cell phone at the same time. “Most of ‘em sold out during the real estate heyday,” he adds, referring to the development boom that displaced the fishing industry in many Florida coastal towns for the sake of beachfront condo development.
The story is much the same just across the bay, in East Point, according to Fred Dennis, a shrimp boat captain fishing for rock shrimp in the northern Gulf. Dennis said a slew of independent oyster processing houses were bought up by real estate developers almost overnight during the Florida boom a few years ago.
For a short time, Apalachicola was one of the most important ports on the Gulf. The river starts deep in cotton country, and in the first half of the 19th century, barges and boats loaded with bails sailed down the waterway to load their cargo on to ships headed up the East Coast and across the Atlantic. The city was so important as a commercial center that several countries maintained consulates to keep an eye on their trade interests.
Apalachicola has one more claim to fame. While working here in the mid-1800′s, Scottish-born doctor John C. Gorrie patented the first imperfect version of an ice-making machine, something without which life in Florida would be nearly unthinkable.
Gorrie was looking for a way to cool feverish malaria patients. First he hung buckets of ice from ceiling with an air vent above, then went on to use compressed air to to cool water.
In Gorrie’s words:
“If the air were highly compressed, it would heat up by the energy of compression. If this compressed air were run through metal pipes cooled with water, and if this air cooled to the water temperature was expanded down to atmospheric pressure again, very low temperatures could be obtained, even low enough to freeze water in pans in a refrigerator box.”
Gorrie is honored with a small, award-winning museum on Apalachicola.