Saying Goodbye to a Paradise: The Steinhatchee River Story

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(Originally published in 2010) We found Steinhatchee quite by accident. We owned land right on the Suwanee River just outside Old Town (south of Steinhatchee) and someone told us about a seafood restaurant (Cooey's) in Steinhatchee.


We went there one evening, and there was a piano sitting in the dining room where people could play for parties etc. The folks we were with knew that I played piano, so asked if they'd mind if I played for them. They were happy to have me play, so I did, and the owner was there. He came and asked me if I wanted a job playing piano 4 nights a week there, 6pm to 10pm (Dinner hours). SteinhatcheeRiver400x296.jpg


To make a long story short, I ended up having my own Yamaha E10 organ. We moved up there and I signed a 6 months contract with them. I could have stayed there forever maybe, but I also had another commitment waiting for me in Atlanta, so had to move on. But we'd always go back to Steinhatchee every time we could. Eventually, our oldest daughter and her retired military husband bought land there, and built a home.

Steinhatchee is a small fishing village located off Hwy 19 north of Cross City and south of Perry, Florida. It is a Gulf coastal community in Taylor County, Florida with no stop lights, no Walmart and no McDonald's.

It's old and has a history rich in tales of early sponge divers, and fishermen making their living in offshore crabbing and fishing. There's even a season just for collecting some of the best scallops that can be found anywhere.


The little village has survived more hurricanes that I can count and has watched nearly 600 years of people come and go. It gave those people food and provided a livelihood for more than we'll ever know about. SteinhatcheeRiver400x288.jpg

Now, it's being threatened by an oil spill off the coast of Louisiana just as much as any other coastal town on the Gulf of Mexico. Families that have lived there all their lives are being faced with something they never dreamed could happen. The loss of what they consider their own special "Paradise".

From the early 1400's, Steinhatchee was a safe haven from storms and a place to drop anchor, row the 5 miles into the river and do a little hunting for the wild deer, bear and all the small animals that provided food for men long at sea and hungry for something besides seafood to eat.

Sponge divers used the river and land as the last link with land before trips out into the Gulf for gathering sponges which when sold at the sponge market fed their families living in places north and south of Steinhatchee. Small shacks sheltered them from frequent rains during the summer months and a place to get warm in the winter after a long fishing trip. SteinhatcheeRiver400x291.jpg

It also became a place where boats could be mended with lumber cut from the endless supply of cedar, cypress and old-Florida pine and oak. People loved the quiet and the peace only a few places in Florida could provide after the early 1900's.

They began to build homes and stay year-around. Roads were built, and small Mom and Pop type stores, fishing supply houses and boat rentals were very popular. They came from all over the US just to catch the red fish that were so abundant in the Steinhatchee River and the scallops that were so plentiful that no one ever thought they'd run out. All these years, every season has provided them with all they wanted of fin fish, scallops and crabs.

These people are old-Florida. They eat swamp-cabbage, and fish, venison, rabbit and squirrel stew. The women make biscuits and cornbread every day of their lives, and cook big pots of dried beans or soup.

There's a new-looking elementary school, and several churches, and restaurants like Roy's and "The Fiddler" which used to be "Cooeys", and was started in a little one-room place with sweet, old Mrs Cooey frying mullet and serving hushpuppies, and steamed crab claws.

People came and went, but the old-timers stayed on and shared their simple way of life with everyone coming in just for a weekend or a day of off-shore fishing. Fishing guides are limited, at least the ones who really know their way around where the fish are biting. Some have reputations that keep them busy every day of their lives while newer ones have to earn the right to the best charters. SteinhatcheeRiver400x300.jpg

Men who were on R&R from military duty wanted to live out their lives in a place that offered what Steinhatchee had, so they bought land, and when they retired from the stress and agony of war, they built homes and stayed there, gradually recovering from all the horror they'd seen and lived through. The quiet and a gentle way of life was soothing to them, and they mended physically and me

These quiet people live and work together. They buy the smoked mullet that one sells, or the produce a widow sells to make enough money to raise her children. A little flea market sets up every Friday and Saturday where you can find good deals on just about anything you'd find at WalMart's. It's all been used, but still has lots of life left in it, and at bargain prices.

Artists live and create their masterpieces in the quiet little homes, then find their way to the local festivals like The Fiddler Crab Festival held every year where you will most likely see tables of all kinds of arts and crafts you'd expect and some you might not expect to see as well. You will also get to listen to the music of Mel Tillis who is very active in the local life and Fishing Tournaments. SteinhatcheeRiver400x286.jpg

The oil spill is going to change all that and so much more. All the wild marshes where the big birds live and raise their young will be soaked with the black oil and tar that will smother and kill every living thing for too many years for it to ever come back in our lifetimes. For all those living there now, life as they've known it for as long as they can remember will be over, and they're all at a mental loss of what to do now. Where do they start to rebuild lives that have known only one way and to depend on all they're losing now.

The crab fishermen have already begun to pull their traps, load up everything and move out, hoping to find another place that will allow them to work at the only jobs they know and can do. SteinhatcheeRiver400x275.jpg

There's a VFW in town where they go to remember why they chose to live in Steinhatchee. And now, they and their wives are looking for ways to help the animals who will die without help when the oil hits. One hurricane is all it's going to take to push the oil right up the 4 miles of the Steinhatchee River to the marshes and land, the scallop beds and even the small kitchen gardens that they've planted and tend every day. There is no way to avoid this disaster if Florida has one hurricane.

Every time they go to the grocery store, extra bottles of Dawn dishwashing liquid, rubber gloves and boots are being stockpiled to help the wildlife when it's needed. Some of these people are the ones who'd go anywhere to help clean up the wildlife in hopes that we all will be able to enjoy them 100 years from now.

It's a beautiful sleepy little fishing village still, but it's not going to be for very long. The question is the same for everyone living there, "How do we say goodbye to paradise?" SteinhatcheeRiver400x295.jpg

July 17, 20100 found this helpful

I am Kyra Scott from Bristol,TN. and I too was in awe at 18 years old of the town of Steinhatchee. That has been 36 years ago and my sister and I still recall the memories of this beautiful little town. At the time we were there there was an enormous amount of frogs. Frogs were everywhere! We also ate at a restaurant that was a pier and had very good seafood and a bird sanctuary. Ah the fond memories we still treasure from there! Thank you for your story and re-kindling those memories!

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July 17, 20100 found this helpful

I can only imagine how the people of Steinhatchee must be feeling. Just looking at the pictures brought such a sense of peace and what is real in this world. Just to think that it could all be destroyed brings tears to my eyes. I can understand what the oil is going to do to those marshlands and the beauty of so much wildlife and the pleasure on the river itself.

I can't tell you how sorry I am about what has happened to cause the destruction of so many lives and ways of life that are so rare in today's world. Are we all doomed to accept these tragedies as they seem to keep happening all over our country? Such utter destruction is not acceptable.

Pookarina, thank you for sharing this beautiful story and the photos are just fabulous. As much as I did enjoy reading it, I'm left with a sadness now that I'll think about often as we keep reading and hearing the progressive reports on that BP Oil Spill from every direction. Although I don't even live in your state of Florida, I feel a personal loss. I was once told by a very smart elderly gentleman, "What happens to one of us can happen to ALL of us". How true those words have proved to be.


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July 17, 20100 found this helpful

Pookarina, the pictures most definitely remind me of some of the island paradise places we've visited and loved for all the same reasons that you cite about Steinhatchee. Quiet, peaceful, solitude, time to think your own thoughts, the sound of water nearby and good fresh seafood.

Places like this are getting more and more difficult to find as our own country is more and more developed, and tourism reigns high everywhere. Your pictures could be almost from any of those islands, and how lucky you are to have been able to have them as a part of your personal life.

I too am so sorry for the people who have made their homes there and all the beautiful wildlife that will be lost. Like another reader said, I will never hear another word about the oil spill without thinking of these folks. Thank you for sharing your wonderfully-written story and the beautiful pictures.


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July 17, 20100 found this helpful

What a beautiful way of life. This article will definitely put this on our next place to go and visit. The river and banks are just beautiful. I love to watch a pretty sunset over the water. This one is great.

Thank you for sharing.


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July 17, 20100 found this helpful

Lovely story Pookarina. I thoroughly enjoyed it although I really am upset over what is happening to such beautiful places all up and down the Gulf Coast. People haven't seen what that oil spill has already done to Louisiana and Alabama's coastal areas. It's really more than you can imagine.

You did manage to get some of the best pictures I've seen of what we're going to be losing. I'll bet one of the newspapers would love to get those photos. Just a thought.

Thank you so much for sharing with us.


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July 17, 20100 found this helpful

Hi Kyra,

Thank you for the lovely feedback, and thought I'd let you know that the restaurant you ate at had to be Cooey's. There were torches lit there at the front every evening, and the main dining room had the

birds in it. We always watched them through that big glass window. At one time, Mr. Cooey had some of the most adorable "Silky Chickens" in that aviary I ever saw.

After dinner, we'd walk all around that pier, feeding the big mullet and enjoying the river. During the height of the redfishing and scallop seasons, there would be so many cars around there that we'd have to walk a block sometimes just to get to the front door.

It was a wonderful job, and I enjoyed my time with those sweet people more than I can say. They were so good to me.

It's still there, under new ownership now, and the prices are way more expensive and there's just a totally different atmosphere altogether. The Cooeys built that place, and they made it the best.

Remember the beautiful "pecky cycpress" wood everywhere? I think most of the entire place was built of it (and lots of cement, of course).

It was an especially good time in my life too, so I cherish every memory.

Thank you again and thanks to everyone leaving feedback.


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July 18, 20100 found this helpful

Great photos and fantastic story. A real pleasure read. Makes me want to get up and go find a place like Steinhatchee where I could help them.

I wish those good people well.

Thank you for sharing.


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July 20, 20100 found this helpful

This is a wonderful story and a wonderful description of a life, a world, under threat. I have never read such an eloquent argument for reducing our dependency on oil.

Lucy UK

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July 20, 20100 found this helpful

Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories; your descriptions helped me to understand what you experienced and, now, how the area is coping with a real sad loss of land, friends, and a way of life.

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July 20, 20100 found this helpful

I can only add my ditto with the others who commented about your eloquent descriptions of the area, as well as the photos. We too are feeling the pain of the oil spill, living in Theodore, Alabama. We have one of the bird cleaning stations in our area, and the pictures of some of the birds are so sad. We live just off of mobile bay, (I call it the cheap side of the street), in mobile county. We are not right on the water, but are still hurt by the damage to oystering, fishing, and all things pertaining to seafood. We are not into catch and release, but rather into catch and eat, which is, in our opinion, dangerous, due to the dispersant that was used on the oil. It may be a long time before anything from the water is safe.

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July 20, 20100 found this helpful

Your story although sad, was rich in it's descriptions and gave me many great mental pictures of the way of life of the people of Steinhatchee. You should consider a writing career. I will pray for these people and their town, just as I am praying for all who are touched by this terrible disaster.

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July 20, 20100 found this helpful

Thank you for sharing your story - a story that helped to bring reality to the sad story of this terrible human-created disaster. I am often amazed that I can go about my day-to-day life when a disaster occurs, while others are suffering and simply wondering how they might get by - physically, emotionally, spiritually, economically, etc. Your story has helped me to stop and think. I live in the magnificent mountains of Colorado in a peaceful, serene location, filled with nature. You allowed me to consider what it would be like to watch my own paradise destroyed by the carelessness of others. Thank you for allowing me to take a moment of my day - time to cry for the loss of life, well-being, beauty and nature. Thank you for reminding us that we have an obligation to others to care for our world - to use clean, safe alternatives, that may inconvenience us a bit initially, but that will provide our children, grandchildren and theirs with the same magnificent world that we have enjoyed.

God be with the people of Steinhatchee and the many other communities affected by this terrible disaster - now and in the many years to come.

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July 20, 20100 found this helpful

One of the most heart warming and gut wrenching stories I have read in years.

Thank you for explaining the area, you have a wonderful style of writing.

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July 20, 20100 found this helpful

Beautifully said. I've been praying for those wonderful, hardworking people in the affected area since day one of the disaster. Although I hear the well is more or less capped, I know the area will never be the same, and my heart weeps.

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July 20, 20100 found this helpful

This sounds like the type of place most people dream of living and bringing up there family and eventually being able to retire to. It is so sad to see devastation brought on by this oil disaster and to think of all the lives it is changing now and will change for years to come.

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July 31, 20100 found this helpful

My family originated from here. The town used to be named Stephensville and there are a lot of us that still live in the area. I grew up between Jacksonville and Steinhatchee and most of the best days of my younger life were spent there. I love the town and always have the sweetest feeling of coming home each time I return. My children have grown up visiting and love it also. I thank everyone for their warm thoughts and pray that it survives for families who depend on it, all of us that visit or wish to retire there in the future.

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