Valparaiso Inn, Valparaiso Florida

Date added: May 19, 2022 Categories: Florida Hotel

The Valparaiso Inn played an integral part in the development of Okaloosa County, the city of Valparaiso, and in the establishment of Eglin Air Force Base, the country's largest air force base. It is also representative of the architectural style (Mediterranean Revival) most prevalent during the Florida land "boom" of the 1920's. The Inn is the only survivor from the original town of Valparaiso dating from this period.It served as the social center for early investors and developers, as well as a center for local social activities until the 1950's.

Frank Perrine, a Chicago promoter, bought 16,000 acres of land along Boggy Bayou in 1919 and attempted to develop the city of Valparaiso. When Perrine died in 1921, his Valparaiso Development Company went into bankruptcy, and in March, 1922, James E. Plew (1862-1938), also of Chicago, purchased the company's assets for about $46,000 and the assumption of several outstanding mortgages.

Plew's business career prior to coming to Florida was varied and successful. A graduate of Bennett Medical College and Gilmore Business School, James E. Plew established with an associate a roller towel company in Chicago. His grandson, C. W. Ruckel, Jr., still serves on the Board of Directors of this company, F. W. Means Company. He also owned a bicycle company in 1897 and invented and patented a bicycle seat known as the Plew saddle.He was an early promoter of aviation, owned a plane in Chicago before 1910, and in 1911 organized with Robert McCormick, of International Harvester Company, the first Chicago International Aviation Meet.

After Plew moved to Florida in 1922, he reorganized the Valparaiso Development Company, for which he served as president, and named his son-in-law, C. W. Ruckel, Sr., to serve as secretary. Plew organized the Valparaiso State Bank, which is still important in Okaloosa County financial affairs, and in 1924 built the Valparaiso Inn, with an associated but independent golf course, the Chicago Country Club. (This is now the Eglin golf course.) The Inn was heavily advertised in golfing and real estate magazines and soon became the site of regional golf tournaments, a vacation spot for Plew's business associates from Chicago, a resting place for prospective investors in real estate in Northwest Florida, and a weekend retreat for aviators in the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field near Montgomery, Alabama. Plew organized excursions from Chicago and Washington to bring prospective buyers and investors into the area. They came by train to Crestview, were driven to Valparaiso, and stayed at the Inn. Plew also lived in an apartment in the Inn with his wife and family until their home was built. The Inn became the social center of the area, and, in 1926, Plew entertained Florida's Governor John W. Martin and 150 guests at the hotel.

By the 1930's, Plew and the Valparaiso Inn began serving the Army Air Corps. When Air Corps officials looked for a site for a bombing and gunnery range in 1931, Lt. Arnold Rich of Maxwell Field, who has spent many weekends at the Valparaiso Inn, suggested the Valparaiso area. Plew and the Valparaiso Realty Company offered to donate 1,460 acres to the War Department for a military reservation, an offer that was officially accepted in 1937. In 1935, Maxwell Field's General Order 22 officially established the Valparaiso Bombing and Gunnery Base, which was renamed Eglin Field in 1937, in memory of Lt. Col. Fred I. Eglin, who had died in a crash earlier in that year. The development of Eglin Field, later Eglin Air Force Base, escalated with the outbreak of World War II.

Plew and his associates advertised the Valparaiso Inn as a thoroughly modern, year-round vacation spot. Swimming, sailing, fishing, golfing, horseback riding, and tennis were offered to guests. Plew and the Ruckel family operated the Inn as a hotel until about 1955. In 1957, A. L. Harrell purchased the hotel and remodelled it as an apartment building. Beeler Development Company purchased the Inn in 1973.

The building was destroyed by fire on October 25th 1980.

The following article appeared in the Pensacola Journal on October 27th 1980:

A state Fire Marshal's investigator said the smoldering rubble that was once the lavish ValParaiso Inn was still too hot Sunday to collect evidence in an investigation of a "suspicious" fire which razed the historic structure early Saturday.

Investigator Dale Otterbacher said he expects to be at the fire scene today to collect evidence. But he was not optimistic as to his chances of unearthing the mystery behind the blaze.

"I haven't ruled out arson yet," said Otterbacher, "but I don't think I'll come up with a lot."

"There was no electricity or gas or anything like that inside," said Otterbacher, "It's definitely suspicious."

"I understand it was used as a party place by lots of young folks and someone may have been careless with a cigarette," Otterbacher said. "It's still too soon to say."

He termed a recent meeting by Valparaiso City Commissioners putting the owners on notice to make repairs of the deteriorating inn a "coincidence."

The following appeared on January 6th 1981:

The ruins of an Inn: Valparaiso Inn, a landmark for more than 50 years, is still nothing but a pile of rubble. The argument over who is going to clean up the mess is still continuing.

The following appeared on February 18th 1981:

Phelps Construction Co., of Niceville is in the process of cleaning up the debris of what remains of the historical Valparaiso Inn that was destroyed by fire last year. The Inn has been the subject of controversy for the past few years after it was sold to a California couple. Since the fire, the debris has been an eye sore and city commissioners ordered the clean-up.

The site has since been turned into Valparaiso Village, a condominium complex.