Marler Memorial Cemetery is located in Destin, Fla., a playground for pale-faced sun-seeking vacationers since the 1970s. According to the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection, over 80 percent of the Emerald Coast’s 4.5 million visitors each year visit Destin. The first time I ever visited was in the 1980s with Christi when we were in college. When you ask most people what comes to mind when they think of Destin, they’ll tell you go-carts, mini golf, beaches, and seafood. Not necessarily in that order, of course.

But once upon a time, Destin was a sleepy fishing village. Most of its pioneers are buried at Marler Memorial Cemetery, whose earliest marked burial is 1868 and 241 memorials recorded on Find a Grave.

Marler Memorial Cemetery is located across the street from the First Presbyterian Church of Destin. You can park there and walk over.

How Destin Got Its Name

Thanks to Destin historian H.C. “Hank” Klein’s articles in local newspapers, I found some great information on the cemetery and the folks buried in it. I’m just sharing what he wrote here so thank you to Hank! It all starts with a fisherman named Leonard Destin, who was born in New London, Conn. in 1813 but left it for warmer climes in Florida.

Around the time Leonard married local miss Martha McCullom in 1851, he started a fishing village in Moreno Point. When their son Willie died at age 10 on Aug. 1, 1868, they needed a place to lay him to rest. Leonard put aside some land east of their home and that’s how Marler Memorial Cemetery came to be, although it wasn’t called that at the time.

According to Leonard Destin’s memorial on Find a Grave, he and his descendants fished and navigated the only channel passage to the Gulf of Mexico between Panama City and Pensacola, known as Destin’s East Pass.

Willie Destin, who died in 1868 at age 10, was the first burial at Marler Memorial Cemetery.

Leonard and Martha’s son, Gaines, would die on April 6, 1873 at the age of 7. He was the second burial at the cemetery.

Gaines Destin, Willie’s brother, died in 1873 at age 7.

Over the years, Leonard and Martha would have nine children together. Leonard died on July 24, 1884 at age 70. He has a handsome monument beside Martha (who died in 1896 at age 61) and some of their children.

Martha McCullom Destin died 12 years after her husband at age 61.

So how do the Marlers figure into all this? As a teenager, William “Billy” Thomas Marler came to the area from Boggy (known now as Niceville) in the early 1880s to work for Leonard Destin. Billy talked his brothers, sisters, and mother into leaving Boggy for Moreno Point, too. Eventually, the village was named Destin after Leonard and his family sometime around the turn of the century.

According to Hank Klein, Moreno Point had no undertaker at the time. So it fell to Billy Marler to shoulder the task of of building coffins and burying of the dead in the cemetery from 1884 until his died in 1960. I would say that’s more than a good enough reason to name the cemetery Marler Memorial Cemetery. Plus the fact that there are more than 60 Marlers now buried there.

The Heartbreak of Carrie Marler

Back in 2019 when I was wandering around Marler Memorial Cemetery, one of the first graves I saw was for Carrie Marler. That got my attention because back in the 1980s, thanks to Christi’s influence, I watched the CBS soap Guiding Light. One of the more colorful characters was named Carrie Todd, who fell into a romance with local attorney Ross Marler. They got married and she became Carrie Marler. Unfortunately, poor Carrie had multiple personalities and to make a long story short, much drama ensued and the two eventually split up.

Sadly, the Carrie Marler buried at the cemetery also endured a great deal of tragedy but it was all too real.

Billy Marler and Carrie Bowers wed in 1891. This may have been a wedding photo. (Photo source: “Destin History and the Roots Run Deep“)

Born in 1873, Carrie Bowers was the first wife of Billy Marler. They wed around 1891. Over the next years, Billy and Carrie would have several children together. And one by one, eight of them would die.

Over the course of their marriage, Carrie and Billy Marler would lose eight children.

Next to Carrie’s marker is one for the eight babies she lost. Since Billy made the caskets and performed all the burials, I feel almost certain it was he who laid his little ones to rest. I cannot imagine the heartbreak this couple felt. Why they all died is unknown.

Billy Marler with sons Ernest (left) and David (right) around the time of Carrie’s death in 1903. (Photo source: “Destin History and the Roots Run Deep“)

Fortunately, Billy and Carrie did have two sons who survived infancy, Ernest (born 1899) and David (born 1901, died in 1978). But while Ernest did make it to his 30s, his life would also come to a tragic end in 1938. Perhaps it’s fortunate that Carrie, who died in 1903 at age 29, was not alive to suffer yet another death of a child.

Ernest, by then married with four children, was living in Cape San Blas (about 125 miles east of Destin) and working as an assistant lighthouse keeper. On March 17, 1938, one of Ernest’s daughters went to call him for lunch and found him dead. He was lying in a pool of blood, with several wounds in his neck and chest.

Ernest Marler’s murder was never solved. (Photo source: Pensacola News Journal, March 18, 1938)

Ernest’s murder was never solved, and rumors flew about who the killer might have been and the motive. According to his Find a Grave memorial, some thought he was murdered by moonshiners. Others felt it was a revenge killing for his testimony a few days earlier against some thieves.

The Patriarch of Destin

Billy soon remarried to Camela Catherine Brooks, who was 20 years his junior. Having endured so many losses, Billy felt blessed to father nine children, most of whom lived well into adulthood, with his new bride.

By this time, Billy Marler had taken on the moniker of “Captain Billy” because not only was he a superlative sailor after having worked for Leonard Destin, he learned how to build a sloop of his own. I read that he’s credited with building more than 100 boats during his lifetime.

In addition to being the village undertaker/coffin maker, Capt. Billy was Destin’s first postmaster and set up a post office in his own home. He handled the mail for 46 years. His daughter, Nellie, would later serve as clerk and postmaster for 27 years. Church services were also held in the Marler home during the early years. You might say Capt. Billy’s home was the center of Destin’s action because he also ran a store out of it for a time.

Capt. Billy Marler, the Patriarch of Destin, rests beside his second wife, Camella, at Marler Memorial Cemetery.

Capt. Billy’s role in making Destin a tight-knit fishing community could fill up several blog posts but I’m sure the locals could tell you that story much better than I could. Even if you don’t know his name, you can see it on the William T. Marler Bridge (Destin Bridge) where US 98 crosses East Pass connecting Destin to Okaloosa Island.

When Capt. Billy died in 1960 at the age of 94, it was very fitting that “Patriarch of Destin” was inscribed on his grave marker. I can think of few people who deserved that title more than he did. Camella, the “Matriarch of Destin” died in 1979 at age 92.

To Light the Way

One Marler grave that caught my eye was for Capt. Billy’s grand-nephew, Glen Marler. He was the son of Billy’s nephew, Clarence Marler (1901-1991).

Glen Marler was a life-long resident of Destin, Fla., and much loved by his friends and neighbors.

Born in 1924, Glen was the oldest surviving Marler at the time of his death in 2012. From what I could tell, he loved fishing and being out on the water as much as Capt. Billy. He remembered the early days of Destin as a humble fishing village before it became a haven for pale-faced tourists (like me) who descended every summer like a swarm of locusts.

One article I found from 1986 mentioned a local ordinance up for consideration concerning fishing practices. What Glen said at the meeting echoed what Capt. Billy might have remarked if he was still alive.

“Let’s remember what Destin was founded on…fishing,” he said. “Let’s not make this a yacht territory and do away with the charter boat fleet.”

I think Capt. Billy was smiling in Heaven when he heard that.

These words are inscribed on the slab above Glen Marler’s grave.

I’ll be back next week for more stories from Marler Memorial Cemetery.