History of the Niceville-Valparaiso Community

By Lisa Weatherwax

Ten thousand years ago, Native Americans thrived in the Panhandle area now called Niceville. In fact, Okaloosa County derives its name from the Indian phrase, “Black Water.”  “Oka” means water, and “lusa” means black in Choctaw, a language with Muskogee linguistic origins. It’s believed that tannin from the trees that surround the area’s beautiful bayous darkened the waters, hence the phrase.

Around the sixteenth century, European explorers arrived. Conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon named Florida after his arrival in 1513; Hernando de Soto, in 1540, led pursuits that also fueled aggression between Native Americans and Europeans. Following years of struggle with the British, Spanish, and French, white Americans seized control in the 1800’s; in 1821, Spain ceded Florida to the United States.

Naming Okaloosa County in 1915 by emphasizing its linguistic connection to water is appropriate, for water has vital historical importance to Niceville and its sister city, Valparaiso. Boggy Bayou, named for the large peat deposits at the mouth of Juniper Creek, was the original home of Boggy fishing village. Following the decline of the lumber industry, the village depended heavily on fish. During the Depression, many pioneer families survived in the Twin Cities of Valparaiso and Niceville because fish provided them the means for bartering with neighboring farmers in states such as Alabama.

Jessie Rogers, a cattleman, drove his herd here in 1842, and was one of Niceville’s first settlers. After the Civil War (1861-1865), others followed. John Nathey, and his father, William, built a gristmill. Cross the first bridge coming into town near Turkey Creek today; that bridge is named for William Nathey.

Lumber was big business, and many homesteaders cut pine and hardwoods. The lumber was used for constructing wooden boats, steamboats, and building the railroad lines. Turpentine distilleries emerged, workers drawing sap from the pines in the Choctawhatchee National Forest. Trade expanded at the turn of the century. Logs, floated down the bayou, were sawed and shipped to Pensacola. In the 1800’s, supplies generally came to Niceville by water from Pensacola, on the steamer Fritz.

Locally, George Parish established the Parish Boat Works in the 1800’s, close to where Lion’s Park is today. His fine sailing ships were known throughout the Southeast.  His grandson, Bud, built the last boat in the 1960’s.

The Spence family, pioneers of the area since the mid-1800’s, built a sawmill on Boggy Bayou, and played a key role in the lumber and fishing industries.

Following the Depression, the lumber trade took a hit, and fishing took on more importance. Families who once fed themselves on snapper, grouper, mackerel, pompano, and mullet began supplying beyond the area to world markets. The area’s first commercial seafood industry was developed by Claude Meigs, who opened the Bayou Fish Company (1918), later renamed the Niceville Fish Company. Roughly 30 years later, the Spence brothers, Walter and Wallace, purchased the business, and Meigs began constructing needed homes for Eglin’s military families. The bridge over Rocky Bayou, towards Bluewater Bay, is named after Meigs. His wife, Cebelle Warren Meigs, ran a successful boarding house on Bayshore Drive. Aaron Howell Sr. introduced the first mullet fishing net, and the Edge and Spence families opened one of the area’s earliest general merchandise stores.

When Niceville was incorporated in 1938, Boggy Bayou figured prominently in everyday life. Beyond the fishing and lumber trade, however, life near Boggy meant diving, swimming, and gigging all the flounder one’s heart could desire, in water natives say was clean enough to drink.

 

Valparaiso

John B. Perrine, an industrialist from Chicago, visited the area on a boating trip during the 1890’s, and was immediately struck by its beauty. He was determined to come back and call it home. And in 1918, he did, purchasing land originally acquired by homesteader Allen Brown, Jr.

Perrine built his home near Tom’s Bayou, and installed a wharf and warehouse on its shore at the end of Westview Avenue. Education was important to Perrine. In 1921, the community was granted a municipal charter. The same year, Perrine built a one-story schoolhouse which served grades one through eight; children from Valparaiso and Niceville attended.

With 15,000 acres of newly acquired timbered land, Perrine dreamed big, and hoped to create a resort-like city, with villa lots, farms, plentiful parks, a school, golf course, and paved streets: in short, the works. Purchase of one of Perrine’s villa lots included the lure of ten acres of sugar cane farm. Unfortunately, getting large numbers of investors didn’t materialize rapidly enough. Meanwhile, Perrine’s health declined, and bankruptcy meant his dream of enormous development went unrealized. But the city he promoted is still breathtaking, with its shining bayous and waterfront parks. Visit Valparaiso today and note that one of the city’s parks, Perrine Park, is named for its founder, moreover, Perrine’s name for the city still stands: he named Valparaiso for the Spanish term, “Vale of Paradise.”

In 1922, Chicago financier James Plew came to the area and also found it an ideal place to live. He purchased Perrine’s assets, assumed some of Perrine’s outstanding mortgages, and organized Valparaiso Realty Company. Plew, president of Valparaiso Realty Co., was a remarkable person, and was highly instrumental to the area’s growth. In 1885, he worked through business as well as medical school, and was one of the first people in Chicago to own an airplane. When he moved to the area, many of his wealthy friends came to visit, and stayed at his plush Valparaiso Inn. Many of these visitors were pilots from Maxwell Field in Alabama. Plew laid the foundations of Eglin Air Force Base, and in 1937, he donated additional land for use as a gunnery range. Meanwhile, the Federal Government made 340,000 acres of adjacent land available to the Army Air Corps.

Plew also fostered long-term community success by building stores, and the Valparaiso State Bank. Soon, there was a pulp mill, hardware store, brick plant and ice factory; the town quickly grew and prospered, and at its industrious heart was Eglin.

Maxwell Field was activated as a bus-post in 1937, and the Eglin Air Force Base became an independent post in 1940. The Air Corps proved ground one year later. During World War II, many pilots trained as gunners at Eglin. The Tokyo Raiders were under General James Doolittle’s leadership; their success in Tokyo in 1942 captured the nation’s attention, and boosted American spirits during the war.

The largest air force base in the U.S Department of Defense, as well as the free world, Eglin draws a significant military population to Niceville and Valparaiso. Valparaiso’s residents number roughly 6,500. The greater Niceville area, which encompasses Valparaiso and Bluewater Bay (located east) has a total population of approximately 40,000.

Northwest Florida Regional Airport, on leased Eglin property, has significantly grown over time. Spanning 130 acres, it serves civilians and the military in surrounding counties and is just minutes from Valparaiso and Niceville. Flights to Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Memphis, and Tampa are just a few of the services. The airport recently revamped its appearance with an up-to-date passenger terminal, and is expanding rental car facilities.

Newcomers to the area will enjoy perusing Valparaiso’s Heritage Museum of Northwest Florida. The museum covers the area’s rich history, spanning pre-historic times to the mid-twentieth century.

Several waterfront parks, including Lincoln, and Florida Park, continue to carry on the city’s legacy of bringing enjoyment through its beautiful waters to visitors and locals alike.