Theo "Pop" Staff was among Fort Walton’s most colorful and inventive pioneers.
At the urging of his father-in-law Adam J. Gerlach, Theodore "Pop" Staff and his young wife, Molly, left their adventurous plantation life at Medina, Mexico and settled in Camp Walton, Florida. Forced northward by the revolutionary forces in Mexico, Mr. Staff joined his father-in-law in the management of the Gulfview Hotel, still situated behind the Staff Restaurant.
The year was 1913 and the population of Fort Walton Beach was about 90 persons… seriously out number by cows, pigs and chickens that roamed loosely up and down the sandy pathways of the tine community. All serious travel into the area was
accomplished by painfully slow dirt roads or equally tedious passage by boat along Santa Rosa Sound from Pensacola. The latter method provided twice weekly deliveries of mail, groceries and people to the dock in front of the Gulfview Hotel.
Food for family and guests at the hotel was supplemented by fresh grown vegetables from the Staff/Gerlach garden and freshly caught fish of wide varieties from the sound and gulf. Fishing and sunny relaxation were unequivocally the attraction of the hotel in this period, the bucolic and leisurely pace providing a nurturing ground for the Staff off-sprint.
Pop Staff was an ardent fisherman and could be found most any morning fishing from his hotel dock or surf-casting into the nearby Gulf of Mexico. His tall and handsome profile was easily recognized by his ever-present fishing rod and well-worn pipe. His forbearers came to America in the late 1800’s from Czechoslovakia where the family name of Stech or Steck was literally translated to "Staff". With no pun intended, Pop was certainly the staff around which his energetic family gathered.
In 1901, Theodore married the vivacious Amelia "Molly" Gerlach in Crown Point, Indiana. Their first five children, Lawrence, Eddie, Nora and the famous swimming sisters, twins Agnes and Frances, journeyed to Mexico with their parents to forge out a banana, pineapple and sugar cane plantation. (The story of the experience is further addressed in this issue of the Staff Café Times).
Besides his infinite love of fishing, Pop became a devotee of sun-bathing "au-naturelle" and built a three-sided cabana on the dock in front of the hotel, where he could be found reclining in the buff, taking in the sun’s southern exposure. This habit provided some humorous moments when the occasional boat, traversing the sound, came upon the dozing figure in his "privacy shelter". He was awakened by the shrieks of red-faced females and hastened to draw about him his towel. Skippers of that period often warned their passengers to turn their attention toward the island and gulf-side when approaching Pop’s formidable sunning parlor.
Amount many anecdotes surrounding Pop Staff recalled by his grandchildren was his invention of the area’s first air conditioner. Pop Staff’s air conditioner was a true Rube Goldberg device that astounded everyone when it worked! He simply placed a shelf in front of his bedroom window with a tilted screen so angled that a large block of ice on another shelf above it, dropped water over the screen. An electric fan blowing air through the screen, and cold water, effectively cooled the interior.
His standard line to friends of that day when asked how he survived so well was, "I retired at age , put the rest of my family to work and spent my leisure hours planning more leisure". In truth, his inventiveness and lifestyle was occupied with giving his offspring everything from fishing tips (at which he was an expert) to music training and swimming lessons. Until he was age 75, he held a Fourth of July swim meet at the hotel docks. Always the purveyor of sage advice, Pop sort of epitomized the old Thomes Hobbes statement: "Leisure is the mother of philosophy".
A shrewd and ardent barterer, he once traded a brand new Chevrolet automobile for what he thought was a priceless violin. Embarrassed by the deal, he later admitted that his rare violin was worthless. This episode was, perhaps, the only time he was ever embarrassed. His older daughter told a story about the time she accompanied him to the bank. He always wore his trousers very loose and never wore underwear. Often, his means of pants support was one suspender strap. Behind him in the bank this day, she relates how his trap broke and his pants fell to the floor revealing a totally tanned, yet bare behind. Without so much as a blush, he simply reached down and pulled his pants up, nodding politely to the astonished by-standers. The daughter, however, silently crept away to avoid identification.
His inventive and curious nature led him to have the first short-wave radio in the area; and when television came along he purchased the first set in the community. Religious as well as philanthropic, he devoted considerable energy, as well as land and money to bring the first Roman Catholic Church to Fort Walton Beach. The original St. Mary’s Church, Rectory, Convent, and Parochial School were about a block from the restaurant on First Street and Shell Avenue.
As an ardent pipe smoker, he had accumulated over 1,000 pipes in his lifetime and boasted that he had smoked them all.
Considered by all to be a true genius when it cam to fishing, he once lamented that he had spent a whole day trying to catch fish. Disappointed, he and another friend headed their boat for home. En route, so he swears, they encountered a school of mullet and dozens of them just jumped into the boat. He was so astounded by the event, he sent the story to Robert Ripley’s "Believe It or Not". A true, yet tall tale.
Molly and Pop celebrated 72 years of marriage. One year after his wife died, Pop—the colorful legend and pioneer passed away. When he died at the age of 97, he had spent over 61 years in Fort Walton Beach and left a vast vacuum in the spirit and energy of his community.
Prior to Eglin AFB and its huge environs, the US Navy in Pensacola used the Santa Rosa Sound behind the Gulfview Hotel as a landing field---water! The picture below is a first line aircraft of 1918 vintage. The craft is a Curtis "Flying Boat" that carried four persons in two cockpits. It held 6 to 8 30-caliber machine guns and four 230 lb. bombs. Its dimensions were: wing span 103.9 feet; length 49.3 feet and height 18.9 feet. Its twin 400 HP Liberty e3ngines (water cooled) gave it a range of 830 statute miles at 90 mph at sea level. It had a payload of 4,880 pounds. The photo was taken about 1918 by a guest at the Gulfview Hotel.
Shipwreck provides early entertainment
A hurricane reported in the 1909-1910 season proved to be the end of a magnificent Norwegian square-rigged sailing vessel and the beginning of the earliest Gulf Coast tourist attraction.
Visitors to the Gulfview Hotel in the 1914-1920 era flocked to the site of the "old wreck" some fifteen miles west of the then "Camp Walton" where it was drived ashore by the high winds and tide.
The vessel reportedly plied the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico carrying cargo and passengers.
Guests at the old Gulfview used to boat westward in Santa Rosa Sound to the site, then walk across the Island to the shore to swim, frolic and picnic.
It was also the location of good fishing and many caught their share of snapper, mackerel and other delicacies of the area from its canted deck.
Revolution drives Staff family to Camp Walton
A certain chemistry for adventure and a newspaper advertisement alerted a vibrant, muscular young Theodore Staff and his beautiful bride, Amelia known as "Molly" to leave the cold of Crown Point, Indiana for utopian lifestyle in Mexican farming. The ideal they sought was quickly rested when the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (during the 1909 through 1913 period) blew into the Mexican Revolution.
An American community in Medina, Mexico drew hundreds of venturesome and restless "Gringos" to seek fortune and fame, as well as contentment, in the fertile plushness of central Mexico, south of Mexico City. Among them was the young family patriarch "Grandpa Staff".
Married in November, 1901, Theo and Molly began life’s natural order of family with two boys, Lawrence and Eddie and their sister, Nora. These three were soon followed by twins, Aggie and Frances, then Florence, Emily and Louise—eight strong, serenely determined children. Not all the family joined the Mexican experience, but the earliest, Eddie and Nora (and later the twins) spent time there and related their experiences.
The land in Medina was most suitable to the growing of fruit and vegetables and while a wide variety was planted, the main staple focused on was pineapple. A railhead in Medina brought tourists and natives traveling south from Mexico City and provided a close-by marketing outlet for the fresh fruit. These pineapple were of unusual size, often weighing seventeen to twenty pounds, and exuded a pungent freshness that the Staff youngsters remembered their entire lives.
As the forces against the government of Diaz became heated, young Mexican revolutionary, Pancho Villa, joined Francisco Madero and his band of guerillas in pressuring foreign interest who were perceived as supporting the Diaz factions. Their raiders pillaged and threatened the American community at Medina fomenting fear and concern for the safety of all. A trip to the American Consulate in Vera Cruz about 1911 convinced Theo Staff that it would be in the best interest of all if Medina were evacuated and a new homestead was founded in the United States.
Theo’s father-in-law, Adam J. Gerlach, wrote from Indiana in 1910 urging your Theo to sell his interests in Mexico and return with the family. Striking the best deal available, Grandpa removed his family about 1912 and settled north on the Gulf Coast of Florida in a small village known then as Camp Walton. A chance meeting put young Staff in contact with Mr. L. I. Smith, a retired Minnesota banker who had built a large lodging facility on the shores of Santa Rosa Sound in Camp Walton. In 1913, Theo purchased the building from Smith and began the Gulfview Hotel—a grandly elegant structure for the day and started a new homestead.
Second son, Eddie Staff, remembered the Mexican revolutionaries passing through Medina, pursued often by the Federal forces of Presidente Diaz…"The Americans hid from both government and guerrilla troops—we were afraid of them all—the government troops would look for arms and ammunition and hang anyone suspected of harboring such contraband, whether American or Mexican, and revolutionaries pillaged food, livestock and tangible goods such as clothing and horses". In the climate of this maddening time, it was prudent and imperative to get out! Mexico’s loss certainly became Fort Walton’s gain. As the family started growing, Grandpa added dwelling space for both the youngsters and the guests who, by now, had spread the fame of this beautiful area of Fort Walton by mouth and postcard. The hotel, famous for its delicious meals prepared by Theo’s wife, Moll, and sisters-in-law Aggie and Josephine Gerlach, who both came north from Mexico, was soon to be complimented by his sister-in-law Winnie Gerlach’s store on the water in front of the hotel. This store became a docking and refurbishing spot for many luxurious yachts and their enthusiastic owners in the late 1915 through 1930 timeframe.
Tourism in these early days comprised of a few souls who wearily trekked from Birmingham and Montgomery via train to Pensacola and then by small boat to the dockside at the Gulfview. They came to rest and fish; fishing was bountiful and the species varied. Redfish, trout and tarpon were prevalent in the waters of the sound and provided excellent sport along with bathing in the gulf just a short boat trip away. An old wreck, washed up on the short just west of now Mary Esther was a big attraction for early visitors who flocked to the site for swimming and photographs. Covered by sand and sea, portions of this hurricane victim can still be seen at low tide.
A dynasty worthy of television emerged at the hotel—all girls became avid swimming enthusiasts and competitors. See the story on "Swimmingest Sisters" (following pages).
Joining the Staff clan from Indiana were Theo’s brothers-in-law, Joe and Dick Gerlach—who became the first automobile dealers in the Fort Walton area. The site of this restaurant was the first covered garage, built to protect early vehicles and their fragile canvas and paint from the dust and salt air. In fact, the earliest woman driver in the small town was "Aunt" Josephine. She was often seen taking motor excursions along the sandy and ill-kept roads in early Oldsmobiles, Star’s and the proverbial butt of Jack Benny’s jokes, the Maxwell. Her brother, Dick, was an agent for the Star, Maxwell and Studebakers, later branching out to become the area’s first Chevrolet dealer.
About the girls, the twins Agnes and Frances, their sisters, Florence, Emily and Louise: they were not not only healthily wholesome, but ravishing in their beauty. Many a young swain was attracted to this area seeking recognition, but only an intrepid and persistent few were to win the hands, hearts and devotion of these ladies. A young Milton, Florida lad (coincidentally named Theodore) by the name of Bass worked for the Staff family as a handyman. Proving himself a hard worker, dedicated to learning and with an inborn sense of leadership, young Theodore "Docie" Bass wooed and won the hand of Aggie. Her twin sister, Frances accepted the ardent attention of Mr. Dale Moon, a Navy Petty Officer from Oswego, Kansas, and both couples were married the same day in a double-ceremony in 1936 at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Fort Walton.
Mr. Docie embellished the area by starting the Staff Café in 1931. This was when the serving of guests at the Gulfview Hotel moved to the present building. Docie went on to become a community leader and advisor. He was instrumental in the growth and development of Fort Walton Beach’s Industrial Park and served as Mayor and Councilman. Docie was instrumental in the development of the Chamber of Commerce and bringing natural gas to the area thus creating the Okaloosa County Gas District.
From Mexico to Fort Walton, this spirited family has wound its way through life’s turmoil sharing happiness and sadness. Their indomitable faith in God and the goodness of those who have the courage to try, marks them all as witness in an era where hard work, integrity, and honesty were the guidelines of human service and family contentment.
Between the years of 1909 and 1916, Mexico was being ransacked by a group of Bandidos under the leadership of Pahcho Villa. They banned forces to fight the dictatorship of Presidente Porferio Diaz, but were actually nothing but criminals.
Grandpa Theo Staff and his family were among the Americans being pressured to leave Mexico. The Bandidos pillaged and raided the "Gringo" communities forcing them to often hide in the woods. All of their belongs were stolen or destroyed except what they could carry as they ran. Relocation was inevitable.
As they gathered their things together Grandpa knew they would not be back to reclaim their pineapple plantation. He loaded all his family on a train headed to the north, but even knowing where it was going. As it traveled across the untamed territory, again they became the victims of the Bandidos. The train was captured by 17 unsightly, unshaven, and uncouth rebels. As the bullets were flying, a young senorita caught the eye of their leader (so the story goes). As she was being drug from the train she kicked and fought desperately to remain with her family. The leader in his drunken state tripped on a railroad tie and his spur strap broke. As luck would have it, there were Mexican Federalists in the area. A troop of approximately 150 soldiers chased the Bandidos back to the hills leaving the senorita crying and the Bandidos lying in the dirt. Grandpa’s oldest son had been watching while hiding behind a stack of crates. He jumped off the train, grabbed the spur, hid it in his shirt and quickly returned to the train. When the family arrived in the United States he proudly showed that he had the spur. This spur remained in the Staff family until just recently when it was donated to the now growing collection of memorabilia displayed in Staff’s.
Sharing old-fashioned love and hard work
Theodore and Molly Staff brought their "brood" of two sons and three daughters to the shores of Santa Rosa Sound and Camp Walton in late 1913 and purchased the Gulfview Hotel from a retired Minnesota businessman. Shortly thereafter, into the family next crawled three other daughters, Florence, Emily and the youngest, Louise.
Grandpa Staff and Molly were honored in 1970 as Okaloosa County’s oldest and longest married couple. Their marriage in 1901 ended upon Molly’s death in July of 1973. Grandpa Staff passed away in November of the same year. Thus ended for their life nearly 72 years of pioneering, challenge, love, family, and certainly legacy!
The years of 1914 through the early ‘20’s was a period of much chaos. World War I was starting. Mrs. Staff’s brother, Joseph, became a soldier and went to war. The original structure of the Gulfview Hotel took on additional dimensions. As the large families grew, the need for space kept pace; cottages and adjacent housing was built. After all, the purpose of the "family business" was a hotel, but it had to fit the dream of Grandpa Staff’s desire to have it home, refuge, and income source in one package. It was!
This family unit was closely knit. Theodore Staff ran a patriarchal household, aided and abetted by his two brothers-in-law and his three sisters-in-law. It was his utopia to be shared by all with good, old-fashioned love and hard work. Agnes (sister-in-law) was the operator and bookkeeper of the hotel. She also assisted Molly in the kitchen. Josephine was responsible for driving to Pensacola to bring supplies back to the hotel. She was also the link to the parish nuns and priests; providing food and recreation. Winnie worked in the store and managed the supplies and mail that came by boat from Pensacola.
One can only imagine a conversation between Theo and Molly: "Molly, we have a beautiful prosperous home, and eight beautiful, delightful and independent children. The twins, Agnes and Frances, and the other girls should be involved in some athletic pursuit". Theo, muscular, athletic and determined was aware of the potential. Thus he utilized the water as the mode of athletic involvement.
The dock in front of the Gulfview echoed with the splashes of young athletic bodies, cries of "It’s cold in the water" and a stern parental taskmaster who oversaw the proceedings. Twins, Agnes and Frances, sisters, Nora, Florence and Emily, were to embark on a life of swimming excellence. Louise the youngest, while interested in the water and swimming never took competition seriously.
The Gulfview ritual was to arise early (six am), trot to the dock and start swimming. One sister said she felt that it wasn’t understood if they were really little human girls or pollywogs. Grandpa Staff ran a vigorous agenda that honed fierce pride with total swimming ability. They each developed individual swimming styles.
Agnes was crawl stroke specialist; sister Frances was competent in both American crawl and backstroke; Emily in breast stroke; Florence in diving; and Nora in breast stroke.
The Southern Amateur Athletic Union recognized the classical performance, and strong abilities to the extent that hundreds of medals were awarded to these Staff ladies in their many competitions.
Second son, Edward, related how his dad never allowed the girls to compete professionally against one another. Florence, was the diver, Frances (competent in both American crawl and backstroke) won the most medals. Most of these winning cups and medals are on display in the restaurant. Also arranged on the wall are dozens of newspaper clippings, and cartoon depicting Grandpa Staff with a fishing rod leashed on his daughters urging them to swimming perfection.
Molly Gerlach Staff’s sister Agnes and her brother, Joseph, created a great deal of the early history in the emerging Camp Walton business community. One of the areas first automobile agencies to be founded was in the old garage, now the current Staff Restaurant location. Joe Gerlach sold Studebakers, Maxwells (remember Jack Benny’s famous car, which Rochester hated to drive) and a car hardly ever heard of anymore, the Star. In fact, another Gerlach sister, Josephine, was one of the earliest women drivers in the area with a brand new fabric-roofed Studebaker. Joseph Gerlach also became the area’s first Chevrolet dealer; subsequently he sold the agency to Dale Moon who married Frances Staff.
From a humble beginning
Designed as a garage to shelter the delicate fabric and paint of early motorized vehicles, this building was transformed from a full-service garage to Docie Bass’s dream of a restaurant which opened in 1931. The beginnings of the restaurant are dated as 1913 when the family first opened their dining room to the hotel guests.
Renown for our delicate preparation of fresh seafood from tried and true recipes, the Staff Restaurant has been hosts to notables from all walks of life as well as countless tourists who carried the work of excellent cuisine far and wide. Thousands return years later to sample the continued quality and ambience of this fine eating establishment.