History of Boystowne, Fla.
By Fran Thompson
Capt. Dennis Arsenault was the mayor of Boystowne. Jimmy Louis was the man who gave the place its name.
And everybody agrees that times were different then.
The two friends created the pseudo RV park by clearing land owned by their friend, Joe Gilchrist, on Old River across from the Flora-Bama back in 1987. Gilchrist had bought the waterfront property about a year earlier.
“Joe said you may have to leave tomorrow, or whenever. But go in there and do your thing. He said he didn’t have any use for it at the time,’’ Arsenault said.
Gilchrist, who still owns a slice of the Flora-Bama, bought the land from Wayne Hendricks.
“It was in the mid-80’s at about the same time they were putting the Waffle House in over there, which is another story,’’ Gilchrist said.
“The CEO of Waffle House used to come into the Flora-Bama, and he said he’d like to have a Waffle House right there. That’s how that worked, and I’d say it worked out pretty good for him.
“I also bought the old KFC, which is now the package store and that included 160 feet on the water on both sides of the road around then,’’ Gilchrist added. “I can’t remember which parcel I bought first. But I didn’t have any plans for the land at the time. For the first six years I was open, it was all I could do to keep up with the Flora-Bama.’’
Gilchrist said Hendricks had previously operated the parcel as an RV Park. So, he assumed there were already electric hook-ups on the Boystowne property.
“There were not any rules and regulations you had to follow back then,’’ he said. “I didn’t need it. So musicians started staying over there.
“I know Jimmy Louis was over there for awhile. I think Rusty (McHugh) and Mike Fincher also lived over there. It was just five or six little campers, maybe 10 people, as I remember it.’’
With permission from Gilchrist, Arsenault and Louis brought in mowers, weed eaters and machetes to clear the property. They dug into the sand to find the septic tank. Remarkably, the electric hook-ups were still in order.
Arsenault said Hendricks’ trailer park – along with a second RV park, Stars by The Sea, to the west of Boystowne in Alabama – were home to musicians even before he and Louis set up camp at Boystowne.
“I don’t know if some hurricane wiped them out or who knows, but there was nothing on the land when we cleared it out. We knew it already had a septic tank and hook-ups,’’ he said.
Soon after they moved into their campers, Louis left to work on a yacht in Mexico. Arsenault was the lone Boystowne resident for a bit. He hung a hammock under a palapa (four poles and metal roof – a sort of open air tin cabin) adjacent to the two campers just a step or two from Ole River.
“Many times, I would wake up in the morning and see (Tugboat) Willy Lipe asleep butt naked on that hammock,’’ Arsenault said. “He would be playing music with Kenny Lambert and partying at the Flora-Bama all night. I’d wake him up, and he would stumble off to work.”
Sam Glass, Perdido’s official Beach Bum, came into town in a van with captains’ chairs to play at the Flora-Bama. His look then was full blown cowboy, complete with the oversized hat, boots & jeans with a shiny buckle. He was George Strait with dimples.
“He turned into Beach Sammy,” Arsenault said with a laugh.
“That’s true,’’ Glass said. “I stayed on Frankie and Corky’s boat. It had two cabins on each pontoon. It was built like a Sherman Tank. I also lived high on the hog on Joe’s sailboat, the Nexxus, for about two years. Sometimes I would use Joe’s beach house when the weather was crappy. But I didn’t live anywhere else from 1991 to ‘95.’’
Those aforementioned adventurers from South Florida, Frankie and Corky, sailed up from Captiva Island on the aptly named Forever Restless and stayed interminantly for the next few years at the invitation of Frankie’s friend, Jimmy Louis.
Although their real names are Phillip Courtland Dunford III and David Frank, in Boystowne they were simply Corky and Frankie, sailors who arrived on a 36 ft. catamaran that Frankie built himself.
“I got fired from my job in North Captiva and I told Frankie that I wanted to play music, and he said, in that case I needed to meet his friend Jimmy Louis,’’ Corky said. “So, we hopped on his boat and sailed to the Flora-Bama.’’
Corky said he lived on the boat about six months of the year for three years and also lived in a trailer behind the old KFC, which at one time was TJ’s Restaurant, where he worked for a bit.
“The Forever Restless. We had some amazing parties on that thing,’’ Arsenault said. “When the ‘Bama would close, we’d cruise up and down Old River ‘til daylight.’’
“I was just trying to learn to play country music,’’ Corky said. “I remember there were free songwriting seminars in the studio next door that Sammy Glass, Ricky Rayburn and I used to go to. The first gig I had was at The Keg.’’
Corky, now back living on Pine Island, is still playing music for a living. He said his band, Brother Love, plays Rusty McHugh songs written when Rusty lived at Boystowne.
“Rusty was a good guy and a good writer,’’ Corky said. “I loved that guy.’’
Corky said he also remembers Jimmy Louis stopping him while he was heading to Old River for a swim to play him a new song he wrote.
“It was in the middle of the afternoon, and Jimmy was already in the cuffs,’’ Corky said. “He’s playing this new song and he was just killing it. Then I noticed he had tears running down his face. The song was so sad he even made himself cry. It was some sad stuff.’’
Like everybody who lived at Boystowne, Corky felt a sense of community. “It was a good time. There were pick-up campers sitting on poles, tents, old trailers, but it was awesome,’’ he said.
That is also how Glass remembers it.
“I remember a lot of tents and overcap campers,’’ Glass said. “I think there were a few FEMA trailers there. I have forgotten about a lot of that stuff, but we were like a tribe. We ate good, cooked good and played a lot of music.’’
Arsenault was running inshore fishing charters as a gig. Louis was also an avid fisherman and Hendricks returned to the land he once owned most days with a net and a bucket to cast for mullet. They would often cook feasts that they shared with the employees across the street at the Flora-Bama.
One of those employees, Robin Lusk, still works as night manager there. She never lived in Boystowne, but she spent time hanging there with its residents.
“It was quite a little community,’’ she said. “Darrel Roberts used to do gumbo. Jimmy Louis would also cook. It was like a different entity of the Flora-Bama, a community within the Flora-Bama community.
“Those guys looked out for one another and took care of each other,’’ she added. “It was nice. Something special.’’
Soon other musicians, Flora-Bama employees and various vagabonds started squatting at Boystowne. By then the Mullet Toss (a suggestion from Jimmy Louis as a spin-off to a cow patty tossing competition he saw while out west, or so the story goes) was a regional event.
Garth Brooks had made country cool and the Flora-Bama was named Playboy’s Best Beach Bar and GQ’s top Honky Tonk. The Lounge on the Line had arrived.
Thanks to its songwriters fest and its owner’s love for original music played by the writers, the juke joint already had a solid reputation in Music City. The ‘Bama was seeing its first waiting lines, at least on summer weekends. Boystowne, right across the street, became the go-to alternative to heading to the Keg at closing time.
“There were so many guitar pools on so many nights,’’ Arsenault said. “Just to hold all the songs written on napkins around the fire, it would have to be a big box. Those were some good times.’’
Arsenault said the Boystowne population probably peeked at about 20. But it was way better when there was way less. “We only had the one shower and the one bathroom.’’
Musician Nick Branch said he was living at Boystowne in 1993 when he set the record for most consecutive days playing music at the Flora-Bama at 52. He said he moved into a trailer Rusty McHugh shared with a true Flora-Bama character since departed, Frog.
“I lived there for two and a half years,’’ Branch said. “I started off staying in a trailer Dennis Arsenault had lived in until I got a trailer passed down to me. Sometimes, I would just sleep in the hammock outside. There was always something going on there.
“Hank Cochran (Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter) used to park his boat there when he came down to see Joe (Gilchrist),’’ Branch added.
“I remember returning after one of the hurricanes (probably Opal in 1995) and the water in my trailer was about thigh high. I opened the door and thousands of frogs came pouring out. They had moved in after the storm.’’
Branch said that although Gilchrist never asked for money, he would pay for electricity. “When the musicians would line up for Sunday payday, I’d tell him to take $25 off the bill for electricity,’’ he said.
Branch did not even own a car when he arrived here from NYC and worked his way onto the Bama’s Possible-Probable musicians’ list. He eventually bought a 1966 Oldsmobile that he parked beside his Boystowne trailer.
“It was a great car. I bought it for $200 and sold it for scrap for $100 after one of the hurricanes,’’ he said.
Another Flora-Bama musician, percussionist Lonnie Ferguson, built a shack out of tarps, discarded lumber and pallets and lived at Boystowne with his nephew. “They just threw some mattresses in there, and that was their home for the summer,’’ Arsenault said.
Dave Johnson, Randy Robertson, Johnny Hawkins and Larry Strickland (see page 18 story) were also among those who lived at Boystowne at one time.
Arsenault remembers one fireworks show that he and Hawkins put on that ended with a huge hole in the middle of the Boystowne dock. Johnson lived on his boat with a litter of cats that used to jump in Old River and swim back and forth to the beach from his sailboat.
Rick Whaley, not to be confused with fellow musician and one time Boystowne resident Ricky Whitley, is another local with Boystowne ties. He kept an RV there even when he still lived in Nashville. Although not much from the outside, Whaley’s RV had cable TV, a hot shower, a cooking area, a telephone and a surround sound stereo system.
“I think I put it there in ‘96 or ‘97. After I moved out, I let Donna Slater, who was booking entertainment at the Flora-Bama back then, put people up there from out of town,’’ he said. “I remember letting Ken Smith, the fiddle player, stay there for about four months.’’
Whaley said he bought his RV from Jim Hurt, who worked at Bama Blues, the music studio Gilchrist opened in the old KFC building.
“Jim would work at the studio until about 4 p.m. and then I’d go over and work until my gig at the Flora-Bama later that night,’’ Whaley said. “We recorded a lot of demos and anybody who worked at the Flora-Bama. I also recorded some of my own stuff there using musicians from the area.’’
Whaley said he often went back to the studio after his Flora-Bama gig to continue working.
“It was nice to walk outside and go fishing on the dock past Mike Fincher cooking up brisket for everybody, but Boystowne wasn’t really a party thing for me,’’ he said. “Working at the studio and the gigs across the street were my thing.’’
Whaley said the last time he saw his RV was after Hurricane Ivan, and it was laying beneath another RV on the side of what was left of Perdido Key Dr.
Even before Hurricane Ivan, Boystowne had started changing. “It started to get out of hand. A lot of people coming and going,’’ Arsenault said. “It was attracting more of the drifter type. We had to start telling people that it was kind of time to move on.’’
“I could see how that would eventually come up,’’ Glass added. “It was pretty open and wild when I was there.’’
A place where the displaced and others both lost and found their way, Boystowne has grown in legend since Arsenault and Louis first cleared the land in 1987. It was a place in time made possible first of all by the generosity of the land owner who allowed his parcel to be utilized as a camp for wayward musicians.
The idea of songwriters, artists, bartenders and vagabonds squatting on one of Perdido Key’s most beautiful parcels of land sounds ridiculously farfetched now.
But it was just another Perdido Key neighborhood back then.
After moving to Pine Island, Jimmy Louis sailed back to Boystowne to record an album. Whaley was heading from his trailer to the dock with his morning Irish coffee and saw Louis at the dock throwing stuff around his sailboat and cursing everything and everyone, including Whaley. Whaley went back to his trailer and fetched Louis an Irish coffee.
As Whaley tells it, Louis was ticked because he saw in a newspaper (not ours) that credit for starting the Mullet Toss was attributed to Ken Lambert, the first musician ever to play at the Flora-Bama. He was also mad that when he tried to get into the bar, the new kids up front wanted $5.
He then went to the studio next to Boystowne, but he was unable to get time, even though he helped Gilchrist design the studio.
Louis eventually calmed down and Whaley ended up cancelling his gigs for the next two days for marathon sessions recording and producing Louis’s album.
“We recorded the entire album in two days, and it came out wonderful,’’ Whaley said.
Boystowne TV with Rusty McHugh & Mike Fincher
Dave Jensen, who along with his brothers John and Jimmy from Jensen’s Marina, are part of Boystowne’s Captiva Island connection (forged by Frankie and Corky) forwarded a recording of Tommy Robinetti’s UZTV interview with Mike Fincher and Rusty McHugh from Boystowne Beach back in 2001. Steve Picou, a college professor who played bongos with most of the Flora-Bama possible-probable musicians at the time, is laying in a hammock behind the men throughout the interview filmed on the banks of Old River. At one point, the camera pans to Boystowne Mayor Dennis Arsenault filleting a spec and the original Boystowne sign (above).
Tommy: I’m here at Boystowne, the last free spot here in America, with Rusty and Mike, and we’re just hanging out on a beautiful Sunday afternoon having some fun. Guys. How you doing?
Mike Fincher: It’s beautiful.
Rusty: Hey, man, it’s great. What a nice day out here. It’s good to see you guys.
Mike: Every day’s a holiday and every meal’s a feast. And if I was twins I’d just be having that much more fun.
Tommy: It’s like that every day at Boystowne. I love it here at Boystowne.
Rusty: Where’s the sign? Show the sign.
Tommy: Let’s talk a little bit about your new song that everybody’s talking about, The Bus Back To Birmingham.
Rusty: The Bus Back to Birmingham. You know I used to hang out around in the Charleston area out on Sullivan’s Island. And the beach music out there was the old soul music, the sand on the floor and the jukebox. That’s what we kind of had in mind. To try and get back that feel for beach music. We don’t do a whole lot of serious songs. We’re more of a comedy thing and we like to do tsongs like this every once in a while just to let folks know we know how to write a (serious) song.
Tommy: So how’d you come up with this idea?
Mike: First of all, I got off the bus and found out I was in the wrong town and she was supposed to be on it and not me. That was another one of Rusty’s ideas there.
Rusty: We were thinking of a sad situation that’s probably happened so many times. Folks come down here and they say, “Let’s move to Florida.” They get down here and get a job and this that and the other. One of them doesn’t do the right thing. The area, it will get to you. The night life will get to you. And that’s what the song’s about. He screws up. She gets on the bus and goes on back, and he feels real bad about it.
Rusty: Let’s don’t forget our manager back here, Steve Picou (sp) doing his thing. And there’s Dennis (Arsenault) over there cleaning a nice big, long speckled trout. Hey, Dennis.
Tommy: Dennis, the official fisherman of Boystowne, ladies and gentlemen.
Rusty: I got a new song idea, you ready for one? I’ve giving up everything but @#$%^&*.
Tommy: It’s got a good beat. So I’m gonna give it a 48.