Faces of Walton; Robert Bushnell

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Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in south Walton County is known today for its four championship golf courses and over 1,200 rental accommodations. It has nineteen swimming pools, twenty restaurants, and seven miles of waterfront property. It attracts thousands of visitors from around the world every year. And it has been attracting them for a very long time. A full decade before Seaside was developed, the first vacation homes were being erected at what would later be called Sandestin.

Thirty years before Sandestin put South Walton on the tourist map, the 2000+ acres it now sits on was nothing but trees, swamp, and dunes. And it was this land that inspired Robert Bushnell, a prominent Boston attorney, to try his hand at chicken farming. And this, naturally, almost contributed to the defeat of the Imperial Japanese Army.

Stay with me. I’ll explain.

Robert Tyng Bushnell was born in New York City in 1896. Both sides of his family were New England blue bloods who could trace their lineage back for generations. On his father’s side were the Bushnells of Old Saybrook, Connecticut, who had arrived in the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1638. His mother’s family, the Tyngs, were Mayflower descendants who established themselves in New York.

Bushnell Portrait

Bushnell attended Phillips Andover Academy and Harvard, graduating from Harvard Law School in 1921. In the 1920s he served as District Attorney for Middlesex County, Massachusetts. During the 1930s Bushnell returned to private practice in Boston and rose in the ranks of the state Republican party. He took a stand against Boston’s strict book censorship laws. He became chairman of the Republican Club of Massachusetts and stood up to the Democratic party machine in his state and their “threats of intimidation.” In 1935 he declared he “would not stand idly by and see a Huey Long dictatorship established” in Massachusetts.

It was apparently about this time that he developed his fondness for chickens.

He was enticed to the Florida Gulf coast after reading about the area in an issue of a poultry trade journal that he subscribed to, or so the legend goes. His dream was to retire to the area and raise chickens. Whether or not that was true, in 1941 he did travel to our area with his mother Mary, sister Dorothy, and Dorothy’s husband, John Coffeen, and purchased thousands of acres of trees, swamps and dunes bounded on the east by what is now Mack Bayou Road. The parcel encompassed what is today the Sandestin and Tops’l resorts, the Coffeen Nature Preserve and Four Mile Village.

The Coffeens settled permanently in our area. Robert returned to Massachusetts and was elected attorney general of the state, serving in that capacity throughout WWII. As attorney general he gained notoriety fighting corruption within the Boston police department and presiding over the investigation of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire, a tragedy that claimed nearly 500 lives and led to changes in fire codes throughout the United States.

While Bushnell was fighting organized crime in Boston, Hitler was attacking London with his V-1 “buzz bombs.” In 1944 a nearly intact V-1 that had failed to explode was found on the coast of England and shipped to Wright Field in Ohio for reverse engineering.

Meanwhile, back at the chicken ranch, the Army Air Forces Tactical Center began construction of a specialized testing facility known as Range 64. They chose Bushnell’s land for its remote location and for its large sand dunes, perfect for test launches of the new JB-2 missile.

Within weeks the pristine stretch of dunes was transformed into a mini air force base, complete with mess hall, post office, machine shops, and housing for 200 troops. Hundreds of tests took place over the Gulf. The goal was to fine tune the JB-2 for mass production and use against the Nazis and the Japanese.

The development and deployment of the atomic bomb in Japan put an end to the usefulness of Range 64. The land was returned to its owner. But Robert Bushnell never became a Florida chicken farmer. He died of a heart attack in a New York hotel suite in 1949 before he could return to Florida. He was only 53 years old.

The Faces Of South Walton

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