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Roadhouse Blues at the Old Dutch

Old Dutch

By Robert Register

The Old Dutch was the first bar ever built on Panama City Beach and for thirty five years, from 1940 until 1975, billed itself as “The Oldest Recreation and Pleasure Center On The Beach” and was the first on “America’s Finest Beach” to advertise to the public to “Eat, Drink, Dance & Make Merry In The Cool Gulf Breezes.” By the 1960s, the kitchen had all but closed except for short orders and the old bar and dance hall had gained fame as a Spring Break and summer vacation destination for college students all over the Deep South. In the words of Wilbur Walton, Jr.,” It was a Mecca for dancing, fighting and music; like the Wild West but without the guns.” Simply mention the three words “The Old Dutch” to most any aging Baby Boomer who went to college in the Deep South during the Sixties and you’ll put a smile on their face. There are exceptions to that rule as well. Many a relationship met a premature end in the alcoholic excesses that characterized The Old Dutch.

When you walked into the barroom of The Old Dutch, you felt as if you’d just stepped into a rustic Florida roadhouse time capsule lifted out of some Forties film noir classic. The bare cypress log walls were covered with various clocks, curios and stuffed hunting and fishing trophies; all crowned with a high ceiling of exposed rough cypress beams. As you entered you faced a huge stone fireplace, constructed from 113 tons of rock that could burn logs five feet long. The anchor of the old 160 ft. coastal freighter, Tarpon, sunk off Phillips Inlet in 1937, stood mounted on the mantelpiece. To the left was the unpolished bar made of cypress lumber and blackened by the tobacco and whiskey it had dispensed since 1940. Not only did The Old Dutch offer its hospitality to the Sixties college student but it had done the same thing for their grandparents in the Forties and for their parents in the Fifties.

The story of The Old Dutch began over 75 years ago when Sylvan Beach, New York’s Frank Burghduff pulled his “palatial” nineteen-and-a-half foot mahogany and steel travel trailer down Highway 98 for the first time and fell in love with Bay County’s beaches during the winter of 1936-’37. Burghduff and his wife, Etta, parked at the newly opened Sea Breeze Hotel near the Y. They made their headquarters in this first hotel on the beach to offer hot and cold running water and began meeting “the powers that be” in the St. Andrews Bay area.

Burghduff could not have chosen a more perfect time to arrive on the soon-to-be Miracle Strip than in the winter of 1936-’37. On the Panama City beaches time scale, this was equivalent with the “End of The Ice Age”. The Phillips Inlet Bridge had been recently completed in ’35, finally opening the Coastal Highway. J.B. Lahan had begun development of his Laguna Beach and Gid Thomas held his grand opening for his Panama City Beach on May 2, 1936. When the Coastal Highway Association was formed a few years later, Burghduff was recognized for his pioneering achievements to promote tourism and was elected secretary while only two other men were selected to represent the interest of the beaches: A.W. Pledger who was the son-in-law of deceased Panama City Beach founder Gid Thomas and J.E. Churchwell, the owner of Long Beach Resort.

Burghduff returned to the beaches in the winter of ’37-’38 and by 1939, after purchasing a piece of beachfront from Wells, Dunn, Hutchison, Bullock & Bennett, was ready to begin fulfilling his dream of building a one-of-a-kind beachside roadhouse. Unfortunately, while construction of The Old Dutch was underway, Burghduff’s wife, Etta, whose family was also from the Lake Oneida, N.Y. area, developed a partial paralysis and passed away in September after being transported to a hospital in Dothan. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery along with Frank where both of their grave markers bear similar inscriptions, “Etta Burghduff -Wife & Pal” and “Frank Burghduff-Husband
& Pal”.

When the summer season of 1940 commenced, The Old Dutch opened its newly constructed doors for the first time but with little fanfare. The first advertisement we find in the News-Herald is printed on September 28, 1940, inviting “Panama City Folks” to come out to the beach for “low winter prices” and listing “Special Meals, Cocktail to Dessert 75 cents, Seafood Grille 45 cents, Real Italian Spaghetti 35 cents, Western Steaks $1, $1.25, $1.50” This ad is significant because it’s the first time a Bay County restaurant ever advertised “Western Steaks”. At this time, the Florida cattle industry was in its infancy and most Americans considered Florida beef inferior and only good for the Cuban market.

In November of 1940, Burghduff began to purchase small ads in the local papers promoting weekend floor shows but his publicity machine really cranked up in December when he began broadcasting a short Friday afternoon program on radio station WDLP which was still in its first year of existence. Among the first to appear on this radio show promoting The Old Dutch was Neal McCormick and his Hawaiian Troubadours. McCormick, a Northwest Florida Creek Indian who had never even visited Hawaii, felt that the Hawaiian label went along well with his band’s pioneering use of the electric and steel guitars plus discrimination against Hawaiians was far less in the Deep South than it was against Indians. McCormick was the first to hire Hank Williams as a musician and there’s a good chance that a seventeen-year-old Hank Williams played with the Hawaiian Troubadours during the first New Years Eve show ever put on at The Old Dutch in 1940.

The first hint that there was going to be trouble in paradise for Burghduff occurred when a short comment was printed in a gossip column that appeared on the editorial page of the Panama City Pilot on Friday, July 18, 1941.  In “Our Town: Off the Record Bits and Views”, we read, “Apparently the sheriff’s office is going quietly about investigating the $700 burglary of The Old Dutch Tavern last weekend. That office has a habit of going quietly about a good many things.” Not only was Burghduff missing his proceeds from the July 4 holiday but before Christmas, he ran an ad announcing to the public that they needed to “make reservations now for your Christmas party and New Years party”. Also included was the first of many more to come announcements of a change in management. The Old Dutch was now being run by Maud B. Meyers of the “Exclusive Spinning Wheel of Virginia, Specializing in Southern Fried and Bar-b-cued Chicken and Seafood.” More importantly, 1941 ushered in something far greater than a change of management. It brought WWII to the beaches.

A war with Germany put many Bay County tongues to wagging about the tavern keeper at the beach with the “German” name. In January, Burghduff had to take out a large ad in the News-Herald denying the “false and damnable rumors” about him being picked up by the FBI on several occasions because he was a Nazi spy with a short-wave radio.  He declared his pride in his “Dutch blood” and emphasized, “I AM AN AMERICAN CITIZEN 100%”.

But big ads in the local paper could not reverse the changes Burghduff faced on the home front due to the war effort. The influx of workers at Wainwright Shipyard and GIs at Tyndall Field could not make up for the fact that pleasure driving Old Dutch had been made illegal and the Old Dutch being located by the Gulf meant that all its lights had to be extinguished from sunset to sunrise. Being located ten miles out of town did not help in a world where everyone had to beg, borrow, barter and save ration stamps just to get gas and tires so they could go to work. Even ten buses running up and down the beach from downtown to Sunnyside twenty hours each day was not enough to prevent Frank from having to repeatedly run ads throughout 1942 and 1943 declaring that The Old Dutch really was “Open For Business”. By 1944, the pressure was too much and Burghduff packed up and sold out to Cliff Stiles, the manager of downtown’s Dixie-Sherman Hotel.

Cliff Stiles had arrived in Panama City during the fall of 1938 to take over the Dixie-Sherman after his hotel chain had purchased it. Stiles owned hotels all over the Southeast and in 1946, he purchased one of the largest hotels in Birmingham, The Redmont. Much of the talent that later appeared on the stage of The Old Dutch would be recruited from the Redmont.

From 1944 until 1950, not much was heard from The Old Dutch. Stiles kept a low profile and there were no promotions and no efforts to attract tourists. Construction on the beach exploded in the late Forties so that brought in business from the workers and Stiles remodeled the cypress log cabin and began building a motel around it. During its first ten years, this roadhouse was generally known as “The Old Dutch Tavern” and, occasionally, “The Old Dutch Inn” but after 1950, it was known almost exclusively as “The Old Dutch Inn” and by the mid-Sixties, “The Old Dutch Motel and Nightclub” or, more popularly, as simply, “The Old Dutch”.

The “Gala Opening” of The Old Dutch “under new management” occurred on April 22, 1950. The Joseph brothers out of Birmingham were brought in by Stiles to run the show and a variety of talent was recruited from the stage of the Redmont as well as the Joseph brothers own Jack-O-Lantern Club in Birmingham. It is not within the scope of this article to examine the careers of all the entertainers who performed on the stage of The Old Dutch but an excellent insight into the status of show business on the Gulf Coast in the middle of the twentieth century could be gained from a study of this variety of musicians, dancers, acrobats and comedians.

The management of the Joseph brothers may not have contributed to the events of June 1952, but the arrest of The Old Dutch Hotel manager for embezzlement brought Auburn’s H.H. Lambert in as the new proprietor of the “air conditioned” Old Dutch Inn. Lambert lasted two years on the beach and when he turned in his keys in September of ’54, he returned to Auburn where he built the War Eagle Supper Club, an institution that continues to do business in the present day and which remains, in the words of singer Taylor Hicks, “a true southern roadhouse” that promotes itself with a slogan that could have been applied to the Old Dutch in its heyday: “Cold Beer. Hot Rock. Expect No Mercy.”

By 1957, Stiles had begun selling his old properties while acquiring Holiday Inn franchises. After building the first Gulfside Holiday Inn on property adjoining The Old Dutch on the west in ’63, he hired Betty Koehler to manage The Old Dutch Motel and Nightclub. As The Old Dutch acquired its reputation as the classic Panama City Beach bar during the Golden Age of Beach Music, Stiles began to sell his newly constructed Holiday Inns and he ceased to lease out the roadhouse’s premises to managers. Betty and Cliff worked together and formed a team that turned The Old Dutch into “a nickel silver plated money baling machine”.

Exotic dancers continued to perform during the Sixties but the “bread and butter” performers during the season were rock and roll bands composed of young guys in their late teens and early twenties. Any dreams they ever had of a summer filled with sun, surf, sand, beer and bikinis were crushed when they realized their schedule included at least eight sessions a week and as many as twelve a week during the week of July 4. Guitar players regularly changed out their strings every week from the wear that was enhanced by the salt air and sweat. These young musicians had to be dedicated and determined to show the world that they were special. During July 4th week, multiple bands were hired and after 1971, live entertainment began every day at noon and went on in continuous four hour shifts until 4 A.M. in the morning.

There was no such thing as a fire code in The Old Dutch and the dance hall often looked like a smoke filled cavern; packed to the walls, shoulder to shoulder. More than one musician who played there has made this remark using the same words, ”I didn’t know you could get that many people in a room.”

You grew up fast when you played The Old Dutch. Many a teenage guitar player witnessed his first striptease act standing behind the stripper while providing her with the music to which she was dancing. Many of the cocktail waitresses and Go-Go girls didn’t appreciate male affection and many musicians first witnessed their first open “display of affection” between a same-sex couple when the waitress’ short-haired “boyfriend” came to pick her up dressed in madras shirt, pressed khakis and penny loafers. The first time many a Tri-State male saw a woman go out in public without wearing a bra was at The Old Dutch. To craft your first fake I.D. and use it to get into The Old Dutch was a Gulf Coast rite of passage.

This article only scratches the surface on the story of The Old Dutch. Somebody needs to write a book about this old roadhouse. This is a story that transcends generations. The events of the four decades when The Old Dutch stood on the beach would chronicle the emergence of live entertainment on Panama City Beach.

This writer will never forget going to see a 60-something guitar player as he lay on his deathbed in a V.A. hospice. It was 2006 and Greg Haynes had published his giant thirteen pound book, THE HEEEY BABY DAYS OF BEACH MUSIC, with its 552 pages and 800 images. My friend forced himself out of his drug-induced coma so he could see the newly published book. He silently gazed at the pictures as I turned the pages for him. He held himself up as long as he possibly could and as I turned the page that had the image of The Old Dutch, he said, “Oh, I remember that place.” Those were his only words and I soon left and a few days later my friend passed away.

The Old Dutch passed away in 1975 due to damage produced by Hurricane Eloise and by the summer of ’76, it was ready for demolition.

The Old Dutch was built on shifting sand, moving each day in countless ways, reforming thousands of times. The beach itself never stands still yet The Old Dutch stood for over 35 years serving the migratory hordes of vacationers each summer. The memories of those excesses of so long ago were made within alcoholic oblivion but those memories of The Old Dutch are not lost. To my dying day, I’ll say, ”Oh, I remember that place.”

For More Information go to my blog , Zero, Northwest Florida  www.robertoreg.blogspot.com & you can see over 30 images pertaining to THE OLD DUTCH plus some comments.

Anyone who would like to share their reminiscences or images of The Old Dutch is welcome to contact me at robertoreg@gmail.com

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