No Such Thing as a Stranger

Small-town Sopchoppy revels in its friendlinessNo Such Thing as a StrangerSmall-Town Sopchoppy Revels in its Friendliness

Sopchoppy storeowner Debbie Dix has lived in the small Wakulla County town for 12 years. Looking back on one of her first days in town, she recalls her initial experience with worm grunting – the local art of catching earthworms.

“This man knocked on my door and says, ‘Can I grunt worms in your backyard?’”

Bemused by her new neighbor, Dix allowed the man and his minimal equipment onto her property.

“All of a sudden my whole house started to vibrate,” she recalls. “It’s pretty wild.”

The man pierced the ground with a “stob,” a wooden stake about 3 feet long, and then rubbed it with an “iron,” a flat metal bar. The movements create a grunting sound and send vibrations deep into the soil to coax earthworms to the surface. They are then collected and sold as bait.

To the rest of the world, worm grunting may be the only thing Sopchoppy is famous for (hundreds come to the festival in April), but for the people who live there, everything and everyone is worth celebrating. Close to 450 people live in Sopchoppy, and most have been there their entire life. Those who haven’t didn’t stay strangers for very long.

Walk down Rose Street or Yellow Jacket Avenue and the closeness of the community becomes apparent. Shop doors are wide open, and so are the people.

“I just love to talk to everyone,” Dix says.

While visitors are immediately recognized as outsiders, they are not treated as outcasts. If you’re a hungry traveler, just ask a local where to go. The Backwoods Bistro is the best restaurant in town. It also is the only restaurant in town.

You can’t miss it – a giant gorilla statue stands at the entrance of the restored brick building. Since 1912, the structure has evolved with the town. It has been a pharmacy, a soda fountain, and in the 1940s became a doctors’ office. More recently, as a restaurant, the place was shut down when City Hall banned the selling of alcohol within 100 feet of a church. But it’s back open again.

“I’ve had this place a little over a year,” says Bistro owner and head chef Jesse Rice. The 22-year-old grew up in Sopchoppy and, after leaving to study culinary arts, came back to serve delicious specialties. The walls are decorated with black-and-white photos that tell the story of Sopchoppy, though the images don’t change much from frame to frame.

The bistro is a family affair. Jesse’s father, Randy Rice, hustles behind the long alligator-shaped counter, taking orders and helping in the kitchen. The whole family helps out, including Hinto, Jesse Rice’s husky, who greets guests on the back porch, where musicians play on weekends.

“There’s a steady crowd who drives in from Tallahassee,” Rice says. His special desserts have a following. According to the guest book, Rice’s fans live as far away as California.

“It’s still Sopchoppy, though,” Rice says. He is, of course, referring to the locals who dine at the Backwoods Bistro from Tuesday to Thursday, the familiar faces and loyal twice-a-dayers.

“This is a town where everyone knows everyone,” Rice says.

This fact couldn’t be more apparent than at the historic IGA grocery store. Husband and wife owners Dewayne and Beth McClain carry on the tradition of personable service. They know that every Friday afternoon, 96-year-old Mrs. Langston will come in, and they know what type of milk she will buy.

Beth McClain has grown up in and out of the IGA. Like many stores in historic Sopchoppy, it is rooted in family. She purchased the store from her father before he died and now runs it with her family.

This isn’t your typical grocery store. Weathered signs in windows advertise low prices and something special for local hunters: “We Process Deer.” While supermarkets of other towns would dwarf it, the IGA is the hub of Sopchoppy. Diners walk to purchase drinks and take them back to the restaurant before their meal arrives. Citizens jump at the chance to praise Dewayne McClain, declaring that “he cuts meat better than you’ll find anywhere.”

Not every business in Sopchoppy has lasted as long as the IGA. People retire, leaving flower shops vacant. (Don’t worry, Joann still comes in to decorate the window front.) Even at Sisters, the antique store run by two sisters-in-law, eBay is used to buy and sell unique pieces because of the low number of walk-ins.

“It’s a struggle to own a business here. But I believe in the future,” says Dix, who owns Posh, an eclectic store featuring items such as hand-poured candles and hand-milled soap. “It will grow.”

With grand festivals and two parks prime for outdoor recreation and camping, historic Sopchoppy has all the elements to become a great weekend trip.

Categories: Forgotten Coast 2008, Forgotten Coast Archive