FORT WALTON BEACH — While the 2018 Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival in June will include a massive Mardi Gras-style parade, live music, fireworks and fancy costumes, it won’t feature a treasure chest hunt on the beach, a water-ski show or an exploding pirate fort.
Simply put, times have changed.
Just ask Tom and Peggy Rice, who own The Magnolia Grill on Brooks Street. They remember attending early versions of the festival while they were growing up in the Fort Walton Beach in the 1950s and ’60s.
“One memory that fills my head is taking my hard-earned mower money and buying the yearly $1 pirate sword marked ‘Made in Japan,’” Tom Rice said. “These were fascinating to us, as you could bend off parts and see what kind of beer can they were fashioned from. Can’t say that now about molded plastic!”
As the local area has grown, so has the number of festival attendees. This year’s celebration, which is scheduled for June 1, 2 and 4, is expected to attract thousands of visitors.
On June 1, Capt. Billy and his Krewe will dock at the Fort Walton Landing for his reconnaissance mission and a skirmish with Mayor Dick Rynearson and Reed’s Raiders. That clash will be followed by a fireworks show.
The pirates’ landing/invasion is set for June 2 at the Landing, and the parade will roll along First Street and Eglin Parkway on June 4.
The festival has its roots in a city of Fort Walton Beach-led water ski show that took place in Cinco Bayou on Labor Day in 1953, according to the “History of the Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival” booklet created by the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce.
“We put it together about three or four years ago because the history of the festival was fading away,” chamber President/CEO Ted Corcoran said of the booklet. “We got all the old captains together and recorded the history.”
In 1954, the Jaycees began managing the festival and added new events, including a parade and a fish fry. The celebration took on its Billy Bowlegs name and its pirate theme, with a nod to Tampa’s Gasparilla Pirate Festival, in 1955.
The early Billy Bowlegs parades were small, Tom Rice said.
“Everyone in the parade knew each other,” he said. “It was a big event. I remember seeing red, white and blue bunting, with pirate flags in between, on all the buildings.”
The Rices recalled how early parades moving along U.S. Highway 98/Miracle Strip, back when it was known as Main Street. They said the parade route extended between the city’s now-defunct community center, next to City Hall, and Okaloosa Island, which meant participants crossed over the old Brooks Bridge.
The parade made at least two runs along the same route, Tom Rice said.
“As kids, the exciting thing for us was the parade,” he said. “By the second time around, they would let us kids jump on a float. It was a quieter time.”
Jaycees and other participants would walk along the parade route while carrying torches, giving the procession the name “Torchlight Parade,” according to the chamber booklet.
“I remember that second year going through all those cruddy looking costumes for the parade,” former Capt. Billy French Brown said in the booklet. “They were ridiculous, but the kids loved them. We went all the way to Mobile to get those. Compared to today’s costumes, they were nothing. But back then, they were really something.”
Nathan Fleet, who ran the Fleets shoe store downtown, served as the first Capt. Billy Bowlegs and led pirate “raids” of the city.
Since Fleet was short and bowlegged, he “had the body and fit” of his temporary namesake, Peggy Rice said.
According to information from the chamber, the 1955 and ’56 festivals each included a roughly 200-mile water skiing trip from New Orleans to Fort Walton Beach by Allen Warriner.
In 1957, there were 20 water skiers in the festival show, but the water ski portion of the fest ended in 1959 because of excessive insurance fees, according to the chamber.
In 1968, the chamber took over the organization of the festival, which was changed from an end-of-summer celebration on Labor Day to a summer kickoff on the first full weekend in June.
Festival sponsors at the time “were the motel and restaurant owners who wanted customers,” Tom Rice said. “They had been through the long, cold winter, and getting the season started was a really big thing.”
Blasts from the past
After the chamber began managing the festival, it made a treasure hunt a major part of the annual celebration.
A “treasure chest” containing prizes from local merchants was hidden somewhere in town or on the beach, maps were provided by the chamber and some clues to the treasure’s location were created by the Rices and published in the Playground News, which is now the Daily News.
The hunt “sent people all over the place,” Tom Rice said. “People would find long rods and poke in the sand on the beach. Eventually, someone would find the treasure chest.”
The chamber booklet states, “Stories are told of entire families waking up on a Saturday morning, newspaper and compass in hand, searching for the treasure. It’s a cherished memory for many locals — one of the many things that make our community so charming.”
As the popularity of the treasure hunt grew, so did the destruction of city parks, the beach and private property, the chamber reported. Officials ended up switching to hiding “Bowlegs coins” for kids and adults, and the coins were hidden under benches and in other spots that didn’t require digging.
Prizes included bicycles for the children and airline trips for the adults, but “after several years of complaints about various aspects of the hunt,” the competition was eliminated from the festival in 2011, according to the chamber.
The chamber booklet also makes reference to a floating pirate fort that apparently was part of a couple of festivals in about the late 1960s. Tom Rice recalled Billy Bowlegs and his Krewe sailing in the Santa Rosa Sound and blowing up a tar-paper fort that had been erected in a shallow part of the sound near St. Simon’s Episcopal Church.
“There was cannon fire and the fort blew up,” he said. “The kids would cheer and that would be the end of the pirate landing.”
According to the chamber booklet, “One year, Krewe members actually took C-4 from a local military installation and blew up the explosives not far from the Brooks Bridge.”
“I’ve heard that the explosion actually shook the bridge and shattered (island residents’) windows,” former Fort Walton Beach Mayor Mike Anderson said in the booklet. “They didn’t repeat that one.”