By Samantha Lambert
It’s my hometown, but it’s also a great town. There’s a lot of stories when you peel back the layers.
– Joel Vetsch
Gareth Stearns is the creator and administrator of Fort Walton Beach: What We Did, and he calls it “the most nostalgically addictive Facebook group this side of the Florida Panhandle.” What started out in 2009 as a simple way to share memories of growing up in his hometown has now grown to 19,534 members with the 10-year anniversary just around the corner.
Stearns came to Fort Walton Beach with his parents when he was just three months old. He grew up on Middle Drive in the Garniers Beach area. He visited his childhood home on the day of this interview and relished in the nostalgia the house brought back. His house was directly behind the Goofy Golf.
“Goofy Golf is so special to me,” he says. “I used to go there a lot as a kid. Plus, golf balls always came over the fence into our backyard and I would hit them back over.”
Stearns attended Ocean City Elementary, then Meigs Junior High, and graduated from Choctawhatchee High School in 1996. He went to Florida State University where he graduated in 2001 with a major in English and Creative Writing. FSU is where he met his wife Erin, who was from South Florida.
“My wife and I decided that whoever got the first grownup job, that would be where we moved to,” says Stearns. She got a job in Greensboro, North Carolina in sales. He also got a job in sales, working in the field for about eight years. He then decided to go back to school to get his teaching degree in social studies, largely because of his expanded appreciation for local history acquired after the group began taking on a life of its own.
Stearns started the Facebook group,” Fort Walton Beach: What We Did” in February 2009. “It was difficult at first. I had my own stuff to put on there, like yearbooks that I acquired and scanned. My hope was that as the group became larger people would share their memorabilia on the site.” After two months, Fort Walton Beach: What We Did had 500 members. Stearns became a collector of FWB memorabilia and searched eBay for more.
“I like to think of the group as a metaphorical jigsaw puzzle that might never be completed, but it sure is exciting when a new ‘piece’ is discovered,” he says. Members of the group mail items to him and he scans them onto the site. “I am amazed that complete strangers mail things to me that they have held onto for years simply because they feel that is where it belongs.”
On the Facebook group page, Stearns states: “Think of this group as a never-ending digital scrapbook. With more than 19,000 members, and with a searchable library of more than 20,000 vintage images of the area, FWB: WWD has become the definitive source on the entire Internet for all things related to the history of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and its surrounding communities.”
Threads on the page include where you lived growing up in FWB, where your first job was, businesses that are no longer around, and amusement parks on Okaloosa Island. There are pictures of now-defunct restaurants like The Sand Flea, June’s Dunes, and The Green Knight. Search and you will find pictures of a waterskiing team at the Cinco Bayou Bridge and photos of the Museum of the Sea and Indian. There’s also an FWB: WWD Nostalgic Videos page at Facebook.com/fwbwwd.
Rick Stevens, a Fort Walton Beach resident and FWB: WWD member, says Stearns is “a digital dynamo. FWB: WWD is a closed group where no advertising is allowed, civility is maintained amongst the participants, and everyone just has a wonderful time looking at the old photos, videos, ideas and memories everyone is sharing here.”
Stearns just finished his third year of teaching high school social studies outside of the state of Florida. He and his wife Erin have three children, and Stearns tries to get back to Fort Walton Beach often. His parents still reside here.
“The timing of social media becoming popular really helped the growth of FWB: WWD,” he says. “Someday I hope to self-publish a book about the history of FWB and the surrounding areas through artifacts and stories.” He also hopes to hit 20,000 members by next February’s 10-year anniversary.
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