Fifty years ago next month, the wife of the Carrabelle grocer handwrote a letter to a young Oklahoma groom-to-be that ignited a love affair between a pair of newlyweds and Dog Island that, like their marriage, has blossomed with the years.
The story begins on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1966, when Bill Ford, just back from a two-year stint along Korea’s demilitarized zone with the U.S. Army artillery, went with a friend to a party at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where he was studying for his masters in business administration.
“I wasn’t supposed to be there but I was,” Ford recalled in an interview last week.
It was there he spotted and was smitten by the former Nancy Montgomery, who had graduated from OU that spring with a bachelor’s degree in math.
“But I’m with somebody,” she told him.
“I don’t care,” replied Ford.
“Oh yeah I just stole her, like a thief in the night,” he said, as he readies to mark their golden anniversary with family on Dog Island in the weeks ahead.
A whirlwind courtship led to a proposal two months later, and on Aug. 5,1967 the two were married by the Rev. Floyd Higgins at Trinity United Methodist Church in Purcell, Montgomery’s hometown.
The following day, Ford received his MBA from OU and, true to the businesslike form that would guide his future role with the then 61-year-old milling company that his grandfather had started in 1906, before Oklahoma had even become a state, Ford set about researching the perfect honeymoon for he and Nancy.
He wrote letters to a number of locations along the Florida Panhandle, including Carrabelle. “I was looking at a map and I saw that this was sort of the last little town before the Panhandle turns south,” said Ford. “I thought this would be cool to go down there and watch the birds and catch all the nature we don’t normally see around Oklahoma.”
The letter found its way to Sue Kucich, who worked as secretary of the Carrabelle Chamber of Commerce out of her husband Michael’s M.K. Grocery store. “There was a little desk at the back of store that had a sign that said ‘Chamber of Commerce,’” Ford recalled.
“Thank you again for your nice letter, which I immediately turned over to Mr. Jeff Lewis (owner of Dog Island),” wrote Sue Kucich. “He assured me he would write you by by return mail.
“Hope you will come by M.K. Grocery on your visit. Congratulations and Best Wishes,” closed Kucich’s letter.
That exchange clinched it for the Fords, and on Aug. 9, 1967, the couple went over to Dog Island on an 18-foot metal boat with a small motor piloted by Lewis. Joining them on board were former Florida Gov. Leroy Collins and his son, a Navy officer.
Nancy Ford recalled knowing who Collins was, because he had chaired the 1960 Democratic convention, which nominated John F. Kennedy to run for president.
The Fords couldn’t have enjoyed their honeymoon adventure more, fishing, swimming and celebrating their love in the quiet, out-of-the-way surroundings.
“We had a great time,” said Bill Ford. “Doris Covington and her husband, who lived in that Quonset hut, would cook dinner in the evenings for us. They had a convenient store type of thing.
“We didn’t see anybody on the beach,” he said. “We saw a few people down at the docks.”
So taken by the island, Bill Ford inquired of Lewis, who had bought the former piece of Camp Gordon Johnston for $12,000 after the war, about possibly purchasing a piece of land,
“I said ‘I don’t have any money but I’d like to buy a lot,’” Ford told Lewis. “You put the deed in escrow in your bank and I’ll pay it off in five years.”
Lewis, a prominent Tallahassee banker, knew a good customer when he saw one, and by 1972, the property was in the Fords’ hands.
Over the course of the next 47 years, as Bill presided over the fortunes of the Shawnee Milling Company and Nancy became a systems engineer for IBM and later a lecturer in computer science at Oklahoma Baptist University, the Fords paid taxes on the property, as well as about a half-dozen visits with family members.
It wasn’t until five years ago, when Bill was bounced up to chairman of the board to make way for his son Joe to run the venerable flour and grain mill and dry mix operation, that the Fords decided it was time to put down roots, so to speak, in the Dog Island sand.
They began exploring the idea with their friends Randy and Terri Cannon, and after a lengthy permitting process, set about embarking on the construction, with Randy Cannon as contractor.
“It occurred to me everything down to a toothpick had to be hauled over,” said Bill Ford. “The hauling process was incredible.”
The Fords would start off the 18-hour drive hauling a U-Haul trailer in snowy Oklahoma, drive it to Shreveport, Louisiana, and then east to Apalachicola, where everything would be offloaded into a truck, and driven to Carrabelle, where Randy Cannon would back it on to his landing craft, take it to the island, and offload everything with a giant forklift on to the site, being built 12 feet off the ground.
“That happened on each load,” said Bill Ford. “All the guys who helped him were conscientious and we couldn’t be more pleased with the results.”
As Ford and family prepare to meet up on Dog Island in the weeks ahead, Bill Ford extended his thanks for friendship and hospitality shown by the people of Franklin County. Including the Cannons, the late Mary Westberg, Mike Marshall and the Marshall Marine crew, Millender’s seafood, the Moorings and Carrabelle Marina , the Carrabelle IGA, the Fisherman’s Wife restaurant and their many friends on Dog Island and Carrabelle.
One remnant of the Fords’ early days on the island is a small sign for Lot 24 that Bill made in his woodworking shop, and planted in the center of the lot after stepping it off.
“We’d go down and collect shells and put them around the sign,” he said, “The sign is still there, and right under the walkway.”