It was nearly lost forever, but a few tenacious nonconformists fought for a decade to save their precious beach
By Wendy O. Dixon
It’s Memorial Day, 2009, and local residents and tourists bask in the sun and bury their feet in the sugar-white sands of Grayton Beach. Children splash in Western Lake, trying to catch tiny fish by clasping their hands together. Sandcastles, rainbow-colored umbrellas and a few four-wheel-drive vehicles are sprawled along the shore.
On this hot, sunny day, families are enjoying boating, fishing, swimming and sailing along the coast. Little do most of the people on the beach today realize it all could have been lost if not for a few dauntless and determined Grayton Beach residents who, more than 30 years ago, made it their quest to save Grayton Beach.
The Friend – Betty Haynes
Affectionately known as “Beachmama” to her daughters’ friends, “Beach” to others and “Bets” to the rest, Betty Haynes was the creator and coordinator of the Friends of Grayton Beach, an organization that was formed in 1974 to save the threatened Grayton Beach area from over-development and construction of a condominium complex. For nearly a decade, the group of about 140 members, who either lived in Grayton Beach or had seasonal homes there, fought to save its precious treasure.
“(Bets) wanted to save the beach for generations to come,” Haynes’ son-in-law Billy Buzzett says. “She did something that would sustain over time.”
Haynes’ ancestors pioneered Walton County in the early 1800s, and her family has been in love with the area ever since. She was born and raised in DeFuniak Springs. When she and husband Gap Haynes were married in 1954, Bets Haynes’ parents, L. Wells and Bessie Tervin Nelson, gave them a small piece of Grayton Beach land on which they moved a home from another location. They, along with their four daughters, spent every summer at Grayton Beach, which was how Haynes was given the nickname “Beachmama” by her daughters’ friends, who claimed her as their own.
“She loved Grayton Beach, loved to swim (and skinny-dip) in the ‘Guff,’ and taught every one of her children and grandchildren to body-surf,” daughter Leslie Provow says. “In fact, it was at the beach where she made most of her memories … her engagement, many weddings and family celebrations, too-numerous-to-count tea times at sunset, dancing and partying at the (Butler General) store, watching the pelicans’ graceful flight, and literally and almost singlehandedly saving Grayton Beach from the greed of developers, beginning in the 1970s and 1980s and continuing until she died.”
While Haynes and her daughters were spending a day at the beach during the summer of 1974, they spotted an earthmover on the sand and suddenly realized their treasured beach was being threatened.
“Until then, no one really thought about who owned that land,” says Haynes’ friend Bibba Jones, who was one of the Friends of Grayton Beach, says. “We were carefree, having a great time on the beach, and didn’t think that it could possibly end.”
In that instant, the only thing they could think of to do to stop the earthmover was to get in the way –– literally.
“We lay down in front of the earthmover to prevent the bulldozer from moving,” Jones says with a laugh. “They couldn’t do anything then.”
Haynes and Jones, along with other supporters of the cause, came together to pledge their money, time and energy into saving the beach. And the Friends of Grayton Beach was born, with Haynes as the chairwoman of the group. She had no idea at the time that she would spend a decade in the struggle.
She began by keeping a watchful eye on developers who were trying to illegally build on the beach.
“Various (developers) brought in bulldozers, and every time she would complain that they were doing it without permits,” husband Gap Haynes says.
Over the years, Bets Haynes wrote to every resident of Grayton Beach, asking for support in the form of money and letters to then-Gov. Bob Graham and the state Cabinet.
Her aim was to convince the state to purchase the land.
“All of Walton County will benefit from this action should it come to pass,” she wrote in one of her many letters. “By joining the Friends in requesting Grayton Beach be acquired (by the state), we hope to be able to save it so that future generations of Walton Countians, as well as those visitors from out-of-state, may enjoy it and have the privilege of always being able to see a Gulf beach in its natural state.”
Haynes’ youngest daughter, Holly Barber, recalls her mother’s tireless efforts.
“I remember Mom calling people, which I don’t even know how she had the nerve to do, asking for $5 or $10,” Barber says. “Every little win was a victory.”
Haynes had no formal office — only her telephone, typewriter and a big roll of stamps.
“What was so amazing was that she did this during a time when there were no computers, cell phones or fax machines,” daughter Kelly Buzzett says. “She put carbon paper behind every sheet in her typewriter to have a copy of what she sent.”
There was a time when the Friends of Grayton Beach account had only $15 in it. But as money trickled in, Haynes carefully recorded every dollar.
By 1982, Haynes and the Friends of Grayton Beach pledged $25,000 to help the state pay for the beach property. Although it was a meager amount when compared to what the state would need to purchase the land, the Friends considered it an act of good faith and commitment toward their cause.
At times, Kelly Buzzett recalls, it seemed like all hope was lost. With every small victory came another challenge.
“It was frustrating for my mom because the Department of Natural Resources approved all these developments,” she says. “It was like taking one step forward and two steps back.”
But Haynes never gave up, according to her husband. And her persistence paid off for all of Grayton Beach.
“What you see on the beach now wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her,” Gap Haynes points out. “She was not the only one (who wrote letters and made numerous visits to Tallahassee), but she was the main figure. She was the backbone of the whole thing. The Department of Environmental Regulation even called her and asked, ‘Just how much of the beach do you want us to buy?’”
Haynes’ grandchildren enjoy Grayton Beach today — the way it was when she was a child. She died Jan. 30, 2005, with the satisfaction that she helped saved her beloved Grayton.
“Her motivation was pure and simple — Grayton Beach was worth fighting for,” son-in-law Buzzett explains. “Her fight was personal. She wanted Grayton to be available to the people of Walton County for generations, including my children and ultimately my grandchildren.”
The Attorney – Jerry W. Gerde
As the leader of the Friends of Grayton Beach, Haynes needed an attorney. She hired someone who, at first glance, seemed an unlikely candidate for the job of representing them — Jerry W. Gerde of Panama City. Haynes was a lifelong Democrat and was never shy in voicing her political opinions. Gerde was chairman of the Bay County Republicans. Although they had different political views, they both shared a love for the environment.
“The Friends were an odd lot,” he says. “They included bluebloods … and then there were the youngsters, some who did not get haircuts, who believed in today’s values of preserving natural resources. It was an interesting collection of people with wildly different social and economic statuses.”
Gerde was the third attorney Haynes and Jones interviewed for the job. They wanted someone who knew the challenges that lay ahead and would be ready to go to war.
“It was David vs. Goliath all the way,” Gerde says. “I knew it would be a tough fight, and I knew it could last 10 years. A disagreement like that can, indeed, last that long.”
Gerde’s firm charged the Friends a meager $55 an hour and sometimes went months without receiving payment.
“We didn’t have any guarantee of any funds,” Jones says. “But he would have worked for free anyway. He was dedicated to trying to preserve that land. He knew our cause was just.”
The case was never about money. It was about standing up for the average citizen who wanted to enjoy the natural resources of Florida.
“The new constitution, which had been adopted in 1968, said all Floridians had the right to enjoy the resources in their natural state,” Gerde says. “But we also knew we had those crusty old judges who thought I was a revolutionary. They were tough times for the average citizen.”
Haynes knew she had hired the right man for the job when she saw the vigor with which he represented the Friends.
“He has been incredibly tireless in his efforts to help us, particularly when one considers our delayed payment of his bill,” Haynes wrote in a newsletter to the Friends. “… Jerry has had to spend a number of days in Tallahassee and in DeFuniak representing us and doing research in our behalf.”
“Jerry said that he would send (the Friends) a bill but not to worry,” Kelly Buzzett says. “It was just to help with their fundraising efforts. He was committed to the cause and was doing it for free.”
But Gerde gives credit, he says, to the dedicated Friends of Grayton Beach, who worked as a united front against developers hungry for money.
“If it hadn’t been for ladies who are not alive anymore, who put on their Sunday dresses and loaded up in cars that were not air-conditioned and beat the dusty trail to meet with the agriculture commissioner, the commissioner of education or controller of the currency, none of this would have happened,” Gerde says. “It was a pretty thin arsenal to take to Tallahassee, but the golden cufflinks would hit the chestnut tables as (members of the Cabinet) leaned forward in their chairs in disbelief.”
The Native – Van Ness Butler Jr.
One of the few Grayton Beach natives, Van Ness Butler Jr., whose family has owned property at Grayton Beach since the 1920s, also played a major role in the quest to preserve the area. But initially, Butler was not a supporter of the Friends of Grayton Beach.
“We didn’t see eye to eye on everything,” he says.
Weary from the cold South Dakota winters, Butler’s grandfather, W.H. Butler, moved his family to DeFuniak Springs in 1907. Butler’s father then settled in Grayton Beach in the 1920s when the area was a vast plain of desolate beach. He built the first homestead in the area, as well as a general store and dance hall called the White Elephant.
Everyone in Grayton Beach today knows it as Red Bar. The sign “Butler General” still hangs outside the building.
“That was the place everyone would come to dance,” Butler says. “We had a lot of good times there.”
When architectural firm Blondheim Williams and Chancey made a proposal to buy part of the homestead land from Van Ness Butler Sr., it intended to build homes and create artificial dunes and lakes across what is now a public portion of Grayton Beach.
“(The firm) offered my dad a lot of money,” Van Ness Butler Jr. says. “And he thought he should sell it.”
When word got out, the fight between the Butlers and the Friends of Grayton Beach ensued.
“(The Friends) claimed it was their beach and didn’t want us to sell it,” Butler says. “But we bought it in the 1920s. They said it belonged to the people at Grayton. Well, it didn’t.”
However, Butler admits that in the end, he and his father decided that their property at Grayton Beach should be preserved in its natural state.
“I have to credit Hanes and her group for keeping us from making a bad mistake,” Butler says. “That wouldn’t have been good for Grayton or for us.”
From then on, Butler says, he and Haynes worked together to rally the state to purchase the land and ensure that it be preserved for public use.
“I kept going to committee meetings and (the Friends) really got behind it, and we worked together on it,” Butler says. “It all worked out in the long run.”
When Grayton Dunes was formally dedicated, both Butler and his father were among those seated with the officials.
“At the time of the dedication, Gov. Graham called me the father of the project, which I was,” Butler says. “Bets was instrumental in getting the local people behind it, but she didn’t do the groundwork behind it. For years, I went to committee meetings and talked to the bureaucrats over and over again. Bets attended the Cabinet meetings but I attended the committee meetings, which was where all the action took place.”
The Governor – Bob Graham
Bob Graham spent much of his childhood in Grayton Beach, where his uncle and aunt owned a beach house.
“When I was a boy, we used to love to get up on top of the dunes and roll down as fast as we could,” the former governor and U.S. senator says of the now-protected dunes. “I grew up loving the beauty of that part of the state.”
But it was not only Graham’s personal connection to the area that prompted him to get involved in rescuing the beach. When he became governor in 1979, he saw that Haynes and Butler needed his help.
“I was concerned about what (development) would mean about the quality of the area,” he says.
Gap Haynes says Graham was a passionate advocate and instrumental in helping from a state level.
“Fortunately, our governor was very concerned with the state properties and parks,” he says. “He was very good about supporting us.”
The state’s Conservation and Recreation Lands program, which was created by the Legislature in 1979 to save some of Florida’s landscape from development, annually recommends to the governor and the state’s elected Cabinet where government funds should be spent on private property to preserve land and maintain public access. The Grayton Dunes proposal was among 100 other proposals on the first list for discussion. When the list was narrowed down to just 40, Grayton Dunes was still among them.
Along with the Friends of Grayton Beach and Butler, Graham encouraged the state to use money from the Save Our Coast program and the Conservation and Recreation Lands program to have the Grayton Dunes project placed high on the acquisition list, hoping to preserve the area in its natural state.
“They were the leaders of the citizen group that was advocating for this,” Graham says. “There was a lot of competition for the Save Our Coast money, and they both advocated that this be given a high priority. They did a great job of advocating for the community.”
A number of private agencies wanted to buy the land, and Graham knew the state could not compete with private money.
The sale was being orchestrated by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation because the property was owned by a New Orleans bank that had failed.
“We knew if it were put up to open
bids we would have a hard time being competitive,” Graham says. “The (FDIC) finally agreed to let us make an individual offer.”
Graham credits Haynes and Butler with getting the FDIC to make what he considers the single most important decision — to let the state put in the single bid.
“He and Bets Haynes were a team,” Graham says. “She was good at getting the community involved and putting pressure on the advisory group for the Cabinet.”
Ultimately, Grayton Beach residents and supporters prevailed. In a Sept. 11, 1984, letter Haynes credited Graham and the Cabinet with bringing their efforts to fruition and coming to their aid.
“Thank you so much for standing up for the average citizen of Florida who loves its beautiful white beaches and emerald waters … your mother would be proud!” she wrote to Graham.
Haynes foretold the future of Walton when she said to a reporter in 1983, “Whether we like it or not, Walton County will experience a tremendous growth in the next 20 years. It is the responsibility of every citizen of Walton County to encourage and help our local county officials to seek out ways to manage this growth so that the reason for this growth … our wonderful natural resources of beach, bayou and bay … will not be overbuilt and overdeveloped in a hasty and hodge-podge manner, as has occurred in some of the neighboring counties.”
On March 25, 1985, the dreams of those few who fought for a decade to preserve the land for future generations came true. Graham and Dempsey Barron, who represented the area in the state Senate, officially dedicated the nearly 900 acres that were to be incorporated in the Grayton Dunes State Recreation Area. The state paid $18.5 million for the property.
Story Courtesy Emerald Coast Magazine