Story and photos by DOTTY NIST
Human habitation goes back over 4,000 years at Camp Helen State Park. Even when one knows the basics of the 183-acre property, it seems there is always something new to be learned.
The southwestern Bay County state park is now holding monthly history tours, the most recent of which took place on July 7. Emily Smith, past president of the Friends of Camp Helen volunteer group, served as tour leader.
Acquired by the state in 1996, Camp Helen is bordered on three sides by the Gulf of Mexico, Phillips Inlet, and Lake Powell. The property straddles U.S. 98 a short distance east of the Bay/Walton County line.
Smith told tour goers that it is known that Indians once resided on the property in bygone years. This is evident because middens left behind by these Indians have been found, she said, explaining that, contrary to what many people think, a midden is not a burial ground but similar to an ancient trash pile. The middens are not marked or part of the tour because, as archaeological artifacts, it is strictly forbidden for them to be disturbed.
Among the features that attracted the Indians to Camp Helen—and what attracted later attracted others—was the availability of fresh drinking water, the abundance of fish and shellfish as food, and the beauty of the property. Lake Powell is an example of the Panhandle’s coastal dune lakes, unusual bodies of water that exist in the U.S. only on the Florida Gulf Coast and are very rare worldwide.
The development of the area around Phillips Inlet, including Camp Helen, as a recreation area began in the 1920s. Smith explained that there were five families who made their living from the tourist and fishing industry in the area, which was known as Inlet Beach. Many of the descendants of those families are still living in the vicinity, she said.
Along with cabins and other hotels built in the area at that time, the Inlet Beach Hotel and a general store with gas pumps were built on what is now the Camp Helen property. The hotel was constructed near the point of the Camp Helen peninsula. Smith said the Gainous family ran the hotel.
She explained that the children of these five families were educated right in the community, from first grade up to their early teens, in a one-room schoolhouse. By 1927, most of those children had reached high school age and Bay High had opened in Panama City. However, the high school was a long way from the community and good road connections were nonexistent. Smith said the families solved their problem by renting a house close to Bay High for the youngsters to stay in, along with one or more parents to keep an eye on them. The one-room schoolhouse was closed down at that time.
The Inlet Beach Hotel no longer stands on the Camp Helen property, as it succumbed to fire in 1929. However, the general store built near the same time still exists. The oldest of the nine historic buildings found at Camp Helen, it was later used as a kitchen.
Aside from the park’s visitor center, the remainder of the buildings were constructed by the Hicks family, who owned the property from 1928 to 1945, and by Avondale Mills, the Alabama textile company that later acquired Camp Helen.
Robert Hicks, a publisher from Virginia, purchased the Camp Helen property in 1928. Soon afterward, he began building a summer home on the site for his wife Margaret. The family at that time lived in DeFuniak Springs.
Robert died in 1932, but Margaret continued with the building project, which incorporated sturdy logs transported from South America. This is the building that is now known as the Camp Helen Lodge.
When the building was completed, Hicks’ widow Margaret moved there on a permanent basis with her young daughter, also called Margaret. She transferred ownership of her DeFuniak Springs property to Margaret’s older sister.
Young Margaret, an avid reader, christened her new home Loch Lomond, and that became the name of the property while the Hicks resided there.
The Camp Helen tour included the Hicks house and its adjoining tiled kitchen garden area. Smith pointed out a painting of young Margaret as a child that hangs in what was once her bedroom. The kitchen garden still contains bamboo plants and crape myrtles planted by the Hicks family.
Tour-goers were shown the log garage built by the Hicks family, which was expanded to two stories to house the tutor who was brought in for a time to instruct Margaret, since there was no school for her nearby.
Tour-goers passed through the limestone stable built by the Hicks, which was home to a five-gaited horse and a Tennessee walking horse that mother and daughter enjoyed riding on the property.
The caretaker’s house and the small house near the garage were constructed by the Hicks for their property caretaker and their maid and cook, respectively.
In the late 1930s, Smith explained, the Hicks constructed the four small buildings that stand to the south of the lodge along Phillips Inlet. There were originally six of these tourist cottages, known as the Rainbow Cottages. Tour-goers viewed one of the cottages that the Friends of Camp Helen had worked to get restored. Due to regulations regarding handicapped access, there had been a requirement for a wood deck to be built around the cottage as part of the restoration.
Other additions by the Hicks family had been the water tower and a building at the base of the tower that housed electric generators that provided power to the home and cottages.
Young Margaret Hicks finished school at Gulf Park in Gulfport, Miss., and was married at Loch Lomond at the age of 18. Her mother sold the property to Avondale Mills in 1945.
Avondale Mills had recently sold property that the company had owned in the current location of Tyndall Air Force Base, Smith explained. She said this had been property used for employee vacation retreats—and that Camp Helen had been purchased as a replacement for that purpose by the company….
Read the full story in the July 12, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.