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I met the “Indiana Jones of South America” in Apalachicola

Written by Lisa Burwell

I could not resist opening with this headline as my 3½ hour visit with Bill Spohrer, the proclaimed “Indiana Jones of South America,” was fascinating. Bill and his wife, renowned interior designer Lynn Wilson, own the Coombs Inn, Apalachicola’s Victorian-style bed-and-breakfast, where you can escape to the past in fanciful luxury. My husband and I have been to the Coombs Inn several times over the past decade, but our visit that weekend in early March was to introduce VIE to Apalach’ (as the locals say).

We always stay here when we make the weekend trek to Apalachicola – it is a great getaway. Innkeeper Marc Latta bestowed us a warm and gracious greeting upon our arrival. We asked Marc if there was a special event in town, since there seemed to be more activity compared to our last visit, just under a year ago. “No. This is pretty average activity for this time of year,” he said. He must have noticed the somewhat surprised looks on our faces as he went on to explain that Apalachicola has been gaining some national attention over the past few years. Marc pulled out a copy of that day’s edition of The New York Times with an article that was headlined, “On Florida’s Gulf Coast, the South is Still the South.”

It also notes that Apalachicola is best known for its oysters and added that small boutiques and galleries can be found in a charming and sleepy downtown setting.

The Times article touts that Florida’s Panhandle is a great find because it is somewhat undiscovered, and it mentions Apalachicola as home to nineteenth- and twentieth-century homes, elegant churches, B&Bs, and a postcard-perfect downtown. It also notes that Apalachicola is best known for its oysters and added that small boutiques and galleries can be found in a charming and sleepy downtown setting. Grayton Beach, Seaside, and Rosemary Beach are also mentioned in the article. Though Seaside may be accustom to this type of national press, Apalachicola is just now finding its way onto the national press radar. In fact, two separate groups of travel writers were in town during our stay, which were hosted by Joseph Taylor, Apalachicola Chamber president; Franklin County Tourist Development Council representative; and co-chair of the Florida’s Forgotten Coast Plein Air Invitational.

Bill Spohrer in Apalachicola

After learning that we were with VIE and on an editorial assignment of our own, Marc gave us a smile of acknowledgment and pulled out the Apalachicola Chamber newsletter that had been delivered that same day, with the announcement of the upcoming launch of our new regional magazine. We gave him a brief introduction to the mission of VIE, explaining that we were on an “unofficial” visit. He found the magazine concept refreshing and said that Apalachicola is filled with good people and great stories.

With no appointments scheduled during our trip, we spent that afternoon and the next day reacquainting ourselves with the cozy town, meeting people and taking photos. Upon our return from our Saturday outing, Marc had an unexpected surprise. “The journalism gods must be smiling upon you today,” he said. “One of the inn owners, Bill Spohrer, unexpectedly arrived in town to gather some papers before heading back to Miami early tomorrow and has agreed to meet with you.” We were somewhat in disbelief and honored that we were being granted this rare opportunity. “Bill and Lynn really helped save Apalachicola,” he claimed. “They are amazing people.”

We unloaded our things into our room, I made a mirror check, and we headed downstairs to meet Bill in the parlor. This handsome, intelligent, fascinating, and gracious man warmly shook our hands and dazzled us for the next three-plus hours. Bill has been dubbed the “Indiana Jones of South America” based on his adventures as a young man throughout Latin and South America. Also, he is one of the original founding members of a group called the “International Explorers Society (IES)”.

Bill has been dubbed the “Indiana Jones of South America” based on his adventures as a young man throughout Latin and South America. Also, he is one of the original founding members of a group called the “International Explorers Society (IES)”.

His accomplishments in the IES are fascinating; these include participating in the first manned-flight of a hot-air balloon 25,000 feet over the Andes Mountains, wearing thermal suits and oxygen masks. “That almost killed us,” Bill said, after a reflective pause. “They made a movie about it called The Great Balloon Race, and it won an Academy Award.” Our eyes widened. “…For the Worst Movie of the Year,” smirked Bill. Another achievement made while in the Society includes finding ancient relics while searching for the lost “White City” in the jungles of Honduras during that same period.

But there was one achievement in particular that Bill spoke of with great excitement, regarding the mysterious ancient geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert of Peru discovered in the 1930s. Though there are several theories as to the purpose of their existence, Bill and his IES colleague Jim Woodmann had a theory as to how the geoglyphs were viewed by those who made them almost two thousand years ago. “Jim and I believed that the ancient Nazca had the technology to fly – balloons, that is.” Extremely fine cotton fabric that resembles that of modern balloon silk had been discovered in ancient Nazca tombs, so they knew that it could be done. “So, using materials and techniques that would have been contemporary to the Nazca, we built a hot air balloon – and it worked! We achieved manned flight at about two hundred feet, thus proving the hypothesis,” he said.

“So, using materials and techniques that would have been contemporary to the Nazca, we built a hot air balloon – and it worked

Looking around the beautifully restored parlor, Bill recounted the story of purchasing the home-now-B&B, saying, “When Lynn saw this decaying house, she knew immediately that she had to save it. It took us ten years just to close the deal on the former home of James Coombs.” Restoring the historic Coombs Inn to its former glory was not an easy task, as labor was hard to come by and renovations of that magnitude were rare for Apalachicola at the time. The beautiful craftsmanship and attention to detail abounds, and this in itself is a feat. “I credit Lynn with making it all happen,” he beamed with pride.

I wish we could have met Lynn, as she seems fascinating in her own right. She studied architecture and interior design at the University of Miami. Twenty-five years ago, she formed her own design firm, Lynn Wilson Associates International, with offices in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Hong Kong, and Mexico. For the past thirteen years, her company has been rated among the top ten design firms in the world. The refurbished Biltmore Hotel, the Stouffer Vinoy in St. Petersburg, the Boca Raton Hotel, and the Taj Mahal all owe their fresh look to Lynn. She is presently working on a 94,000 square foot home in Orlando.

While sunlight permitted, Bill suggested a personal tour to show us the town that has practically become his own pride and joy. Lynn’s passion for breathing new life into tired and neglected buildings must have rubbed off on Bill, as this friendly and down-to-earth man is now president of the Apalachicola Area Historical Society. He and Lynn have bought and restored several other historical homes and commercial buildings, which they still own, in this town that makes you feel like you stepped back in time.

Lynn’s passion for breathing new life into tired and neglected buildings must have rubbed off on Bill, as this friendly and down-to-earth man is now president of the Apalachicola Area Historical Society.

Bill is passionately spearheading the restoration of the 1838 Ramey House, which will serve as a museum upon its completion. “With a grant left by a Ramey descendant, along with city and personal funding, a much-needed restoration for this home is on the horizon,” he explained during a sneak peak of the house that features an impressive collection of memorabilia and period pieces from the 1800s, much of which was personally donated by Bill and Lynn. “When completed, it is going to be one of the most significant landmarks in town.”

Bill shared some of his favorite pieces of Apalachicola history as we continued our driving tour of the town. “Three thousand people currently reside in this town – roughly the same as it was in 1900” he says. He talked about Apalachicola’s boom that started with the cotton industry from the 1830s to the 1850s, which was then replaced with the timber industry in 1871, and how the town was originally planned not by local homesteaders or developers, but by the Apalachicola Land Company of New York. He added, “Right here, off this coast, we even had ships sunk by Nazi subs during the Great War.” Last, but definitely not least, we topped off the tour with a personal look at his home – a beautiful specimen of the Victorian era – of course, impeccably restored by his wife, Lynn.

Last, but definitely not least, we topped off the tour with a personal look at his home – a beautiful specimen of the Victorian era – of course, impeccably restored by his wife, Lynn.

We had been enjoying Bill’s company so much that we lost track of time. The sun had set and he had an early schedule to keep the next day. We headed back to the Coombs Inn to round out the last of our interview over some wine, where I asked him what his dream was for Apalachicola 10 to 15 years from now. “To keep it the same way it is now,” he replied warmly.

As the previous owner of two airlines, one passenger and the other cargo, Bill is also known as “Gentleman Bill” among his colleagues, a moniker that accurately describes him. Meeting this man of 78 years of age and not looking a day older than 65 was inspiring. He has a passion for Apalachicola and of all the places he has lived and traveled he prefers living here.

Apalachicola doesn’t try too hard to be something other than what it is and that is why people love it. People are down-to-earth, talented, and artistic, and that spirit and creative energy is what will assist in the revival and preservation of the place that they all love so much. It is just the way it is supposed to be. The way Florida used to be.

— V —



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