Not a single stoplight exists in all of Franklin County, Florida. Good luck finding a person outside the county boundaries, even a native Floridian, who has heard of it, or the coastal town of Carrabelle.
Yet there was no mistaking when our 350-mile drive across horse ranchlands and the renown Florida swamp had landed us in Franklin County. Starting at the county line was a strip of still-black asphalt with freshly painted lines – a Florida Scenic Byway rebuilt after a full moon, high tide and Hurricane Dennis combined in 2005 to wash out the road. Between the canopies of towering slash pines, dirt was in the process of being moved. And along the waterfront, the newness of a city dock, launch ramp and privately-owned marinas came to a head in, of all things, an immaculate public fish-cleaning station with stainless-steel fixtures and granite countertops.
"You don't find a place like this anywhere else; I call it 'rural coastal'," said David Allen, owner of Allen's Dockside Marine. Since Allen took over the marina in January 2008, his crews have cleaned up 200 tons of concrete, metal, old vehicles and other eyesores, most of which has been rolled into an artificial reef for St. George Sound. "We see potential, and how far a little effort will go. The goal is to strike a balance between new and tradition."
The new is in progress. The tradition is ingrained in Carrabelle's fabric. Shrimp boats that remain from a struggling industry are moored along the Carrabelle River. The only breakfast joint, Carrabelle Junction, takes no credit cards, but trusts that patrons without cash will make good on their bills. And the white sands of Carrabelle Beach are still considered hallowed ground because of the thousands of World War II soldiers who trained here for the amphibious invasion of Normandy.
"I'm all for progress, as long as we don't forget," said Carrabelle mayor Curly Messer, finishing breakfast at Carrabelle Junction. The five-time mayor first came to Carrabelle from Kentucky in 1942 to train with a quarter million troops, met his future wife, and then moved here after the war. He's also an expert at changing subjects. "There's no better fishing anywhere. You been fishing yet?"
About three hours later, the answer would be yes. This after Dan Ausley, a real-estate broker in Florida's panhandle, piloted his Allbury Brothers 23 center console out the mouth of the Carrabelle River and headed three miles across the Sound to his family's getaway home on Dog Island. There, a strip of sand maybe 60 yards wide separated the Sound on one side from the Gulf on the other. Cruise south and you'd hit land in Honduras. To the north Carrabelle's waterfront is getting closer to Dog Island every year as winds from the Gulf push the island toward the mainland.
"We gained two feet of beach on this side since last week," said Ausley, looking at a new buildup of sand under the dock anchored in the Sound.
A few minutes later, a fishing rod bent over hard. Jacqueline, 7, was on the dock reeling in her first-ever saltwater fish, a sheepshead. Next to her, 8-year-old Mya was about to do the same. Flush with success, they and their sisters hustled to the beach to pick through the latest wash-up of shells.
"People ask what's the worst thing about Dog Island," said Ausley. "I say, 'It's hard to get to.' Then they ask what's the best thing about it. I say, 'It's hard to get to.'"
On the way back to Carrabelle the boat came nose-to-nose with three dolphins near the inlet. "Recreational boaters can't go wrong here," said Ausley. "If it's windy you can go for miles upriver and fish for bass and brim. Tarpon are pretty easy to find in the bay and right into the river. Shelling, kayaking, it all helps maintain that balance between the newness and the character."
This was echoed by Lesley Cox, a certified green guide at an overlook in Tate's Hell State Forest. The forest, which includes the world's largest collection of dwarf cypress trees, is among the 80 percent of Franklin County that's protected land.
"It's delicate when a town is literally surrounded by forest, Gulf waters and rivers," said Cox. "You want people to enjoy it and maintain it at the same time. That's why the boaters here are an advantage. They know as well as anyone how important it is to protect what we have."
This is why, instead of introducing stoplights and four-lane roads to the community, Carrabelle has invested in docks, ramps and the best fish-cleaning station you've ever seen.