History Mystery: The man who once owned nearly all of Destin

Hank Klein | Special to the Log/USA TODAY NETWORK

DESTIN — In 1926, after the War Department declared Moreno Point Military Reservation surplus, Congress agreed that it could be sold.

The War Department had been leasing the waterfront lots on the bay from the east end of Joe's Bayou to the Destin Bridge. They also leased the lots from the Destin Bridge to the old East Pass on the Gulf of Mexico side to the local pioneer settlers, during what is commonly called the Fish Camp era.

That is a total of 43 waterfront lots from what is today Benning Drive east to the bridge.

The rest of the land - 5,783.09 acres - was then sold by the War Department to one person. In our History Mystery this month we will discuss that one person, why he wanted all that land, and what he did with it.

James Russell (J.R.) Moody, of Red Head, Florida, who was the owner of the Vernon Land and Timber Company, purchased all of the remaining land (except for the 43 waterfront lots previously mentioned, which contained 178.45 acres).

In one single transaction he bought over 97 percent of the land in what is today known as Destin on April 25, 1935. He paid a total of $38,226.22, and that works out to a price of $6.61 an acre for the purchase of Destin. So yes, you could say that one man owned all (or nearly all) of what is today Destin in 1935.

(James Russell (J.R.) Moody Sr. and Corine (Miller) Moody are pictured in 1966.

But J. R. Moody wasn't a land developer or a fisherman. He was a "turpentiner" and he wanted the vast forest of virgin longleaf and slash pine trees that blanketed the interior of Moreno Point Military Reservation for the production of turpentine and naval stores (tar and pitch) they could produce.

In fact, J. R. Moody was not really interested in the land at all. His entire interest was in gathering sap from the pine trees and then after four to six years, harvesting the trees for lumber. But the land was valuable, and he believed he could recoup his initial investment by selling the land, retaining the right to tap the trees, and then harvest them.

Over the next year and two months, in three large transactions, Moody resold (and in one of the transactions leased) portions of the land that brought him a return of $45,000. So, you can see he recouped his initial investment and made a little profit, but what was important to him was the pine trees.

Destin pine trees are being prepared for shipment to the Bagdad Lumber Company.

So, in each of his transactions, J.R. Moody retained the right to the pine trees (and other trees) on the properties he sold or leased. His retained rights to the trees allowed him to set up camps on the property, build roads to the camps, and harvest the sap from the trees.

Pine trees that have been used for the naval stores' industry usually lasted about four to six years. Moody also retained the rights to harvest the trees. He sold the lumber to the Bagdad Lumber Company in Bagdad.

The rights that J. R. Moody retained to the trees on the property he sold lasted for six to seven years and would have run out in about 1943.

If you want to learn more about the land history of early Destin, my book, “DESTIN Pioneer Settlers…A Land History of Destin, Florida from1819 – 1940,” provides readers a detailed early history of the area.

Destin has come a long way from the time when the most valuable item in the area were the pine trees and no one thought much about the beautiful sugar-white sand beaches and the views of the Gulf of Mexico.

History Mystery by H. C. “Hank” Klein

H. C. “Hank” Klein is a Destin historian, author, and speaker on local history. He lives in Bob Hope Village in Shalimar with his wife (the former Muriel Marler of Destin). Klein recently published two Destin history books - DESTIN Pioneer Settlers...A Land History of Destin, Florida from 1819-1940 and DESTIN’S Founding Father…The Untold Story of Leonard Destin. Both can be obtained from Amazon.com, The Destin History & Fishing Museum in Destin, Henderson Beach Resort in Destin, The Indian Temple Mound in Fort Walton Beach, and Sundog Books in Seaside. Klein can be contacted directly at klein@aristotle.net.