June 2, 2014 | South Tampa Magazine | Categories: City, Culture, Editorial | Tags: Beverlyn Hanson, Bob Erdman, Deadman Bay, Dean Fowler, John Garvey, Steinhatchee, Steinhatchee Falls, Steinhatchee River


PHOTOS: Gabriel Burgos | STORY: Kenneth Edwards

As he meticulously guides his 23-foot Carolina Skiff flats boat west toward the Gulf of Mexico through the Steinhatchee River, Capt. Bob Erdman passionately boasts about the region through which this meandering tributary winds.

Over the purring of the craft’s motor, he is quick to point out its many landmarks.

“That,” Erdman, 61, says pointing to a dilapidated, rusted-out structure along the river’s bank, “is the old bridge into town.”

In the moments that follow, Erdman chats about a building that once housed a fish market, marvels at the architecture of an expensive home belonging to an area restaurant owner, describes in detail the town’s efforts to attract tourists and praises the eclectic group of individuals that call quaint Steinhatchee home.

Before long, his boat is more than a mile into the Gulf. With the mid-afternoon sun glistening off his sunglasses, the former air compressor salesman who moved here from Melbourne stares back toward town, what little of it can still be seen, pauses, then sums up his feelings for the place he has called home for five years.

“It,” he says, “is one nice place to live.”

It’s not a bad spot to visit, either.

Way off the beaten path, Steinhatchee (pronounced STEEN-hatch-ee) sits in Taylor County on Florida’s west coast in what is known as the Big Bend region and has an estimated population of only 800. Affectionately known by locals as being the scallop capital of the world, it’s just 167 miles from Tampa, but feels like it’s on another planet.

There is no Starbucks here. No McDonald’s. No Taco Bell. No Outback. No Publix.

The nearest Wal-Mart is 41 miles away.

If you need to find something to cook for dinner, you either go to Mason’s Market or grab a fishing pole, some bait and head toward the water.

Steinhatchee is not a one-light town. It’s a none-light town.

Truth be known, calling it a town is a stretch. It’s more like a village. Electricity didn’t come to Steinhatchee until 1945. Telephone service was established three years later. In 2009, there are still more dirt roads than you can imagine.

“When people come here, a lot of locals will say, ‘You must have been lost when you found Steinhatchee,’” says Jo Lynn Gordon, a 35-year-old clerk at the River Haven Marina.

Life is simple in Steinhatchee. That, quite frankly, is what the locals love about it. And it’s also what brings tourists here from around the globe.

Dean Fowler once was among the latter. Today, he’s a full-time resident.

The 74-year-old Georgia native, a former nursing home developer and longtime pal of former president Jimmy Carter, came here to fish with friends in 1986. The group loved the place so much they returned the following month and before long, trips to Steinhatchee became pretty regular. Fowler moved here in 1987.

A year later, he started buying chunks of property along the river. On that land, he developed Steinhatchee Landing Resort, an immaculate, upscale hideaway nestled among the moss-draped oaks that offers all the usual resort amenities (pool, tennis, kayaking) and a few that aren’t so usual (chapel, croquet lawn and donkey barn).

Fowler’s resort is breathtaking, to say the least. He designed it to look like a small Florida town in the 1920’s. To achieve this, Fowler left existing trees in place and built 66 Victorian and Florida cracker cottages, which make visitors feel a little bit as though they’ve jumped into a time machine.

The exteriors of the cottages, which vary in size from one to four bedrooms, have a distinct old-Florida charm. But inside, they feature everything you need to keep in touch with the outside world. That is, if one wants to.

“This is an escape,” Fowler says.

There’s no denying that. Some vacation spots are where one goes to be seen or to let loose. Steinhatchee, on the other hand, is the perfect place to hide from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Visitors don’t dance the night away. They canoe along a peaceful river, hike through the woods, dip their toes into the water at nearby Steinhatchee Falls, down a beer with a toothless fisherman on a dock, enjoy the chirping of birds throughout the day, soak in sunrises and sunsets that are equally breathtaking and, of course, dive for scallops.
“We came up here to meet friends not knowing much about the place, but by the time we left we had bought a place,” said Bay-area resident John Garvey.

Located at the mouth of the Steinhatchee River, the area once known as Deadman Bay was on Spanish maps by the early 1500s. Historians say famed explorer Hernando de Soto crossed the river at Steinhatchee Falls.

Native Americans ruled this turf until two future presidents—Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor—were sent here while serving as generals to quash the Seminoles. Later, Steinhatchee became a prime spot to
procure lumber.

Until 1948, the people who crossed into Steinhatchee from Jena, which is on the south side of the river, did so by ferry. That year, the bridge referenced to by Erdman was installed after being brought here from Blountstown, a panhandle community some 113 miles away. It had only one lane.

Throughout the years, fishing has always been an integral part of life in Steinhatchee. Today, boats (charters and commercial) glide into and out of the Gulf around the clock. Flounder, redfish, trout and Spanish mackerel are among the most wanted catches.

Come July 1, though, it’s all about the scallops. That’s the day the recreational harvest season for bay scallops begins.
During the 10 weeks that follow, Steinhatchee’s population swells with guests who come from near and far. Each day, hundreds of boats are anchored near the mouth of the river, where in some places it’s only 3 to 4 feet deep.

“This is our time to shine,” Erdman says. A mile or two off the coast, scallop hunters of all ages grab their masks, jump into the Gulf’s comfortable warm waters with nets in hand and head underneath the surface in search of seafood gold. Their catch often lands in the hands of locals such as Beverlyn Hanson, who has lived here for 30 years.

At a workstation in her tree-lined yard that’s a quarter-mile from the river, Hanson removes the scallops from their shells and cleans them. It’s a time-consuming job, but the payoff is worth it.

“When I get through with them, you can stick them right in your mouth and eat them,” says Hanson, 65.

When the season ends in mid-September, things quiet substantially but life goes on in Steinhatchee.

For many, it’s a life without extras. And well, that’s just fine.