The Flagler County Commission miscalculated terribly this week when it gave its unanimous approval to back Flagler Beach’s attempt to kill Gamble Rogers out of that recreation area’s name. And yes, Flagler Beach is trying to kill Rogers a second time, as if his first death wasn’t bad enough.
Gamble Rogers, in case you don’t know—and most of us don’t until we look him up—was a folk singer who sang about Florida and the South and had a habit of letting loose in long witty monologues that elicited comparisons, at least from his publicists, to Will Rogers and Mark Twain. He was nowhere near those two talents, just as his music was nowhere near that of Hank Williams or Bessie Smith, two singers took a lot from. But just because he wasn’t an international sensation doesn’t diminish what he was: a soulful singer whose premature death robbed us of lyricism and laughs, two drugs we can’t have enough of these days. Half the pleasure of looking up his name is in a discovery that makes the effort worthwhile, and makes the point of memorializing his name. It’s a way to give him new life.
Rogers loved to hang out in Flagler Beach. He and his wife were on a break from touring the fall of 1991 when they stopped at the recreation area for some camping. When Rogers heard a man in distress in the surf, he rushed in. Neither he nor the other man survived. The Florida Legislature wisely renamed the recreation area in his honor a few months later. It had been the Flagler Beach State Recreation Area. It became Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area at Flagler Beach. And there his name has been, his only significant memorial. Flagler Beach has done nothing since to honor man or memory. Now it wants to dishonor him.
It’s doing it for the worst reasons, and without a whit of evidence that it’s even necessary. The Flagler Beach City Commission and its economic development task force claim that returning the recreation area to its former bland name will create jobs and bring more people to it. “Rogers often sang about what Florida loses to runaway growth,” the News-Journal’s Mark Lane wrote Thursday in his own affecting memorial to Rogers, “so he would have been amused that local boosters want no part of a park named after a folk singer because it doesn’t bring anyone into town.” That’s assuming that the boosters have their facts right. They don’t. The recreation area’s camping sites are booked solid for just about a year ahead. The area is doing fine. All those people are shopping in Flagler Beach, swimming in its surf, drinking its beer and guzzling its gas. Clearly, the Gamble Rogers recreation area has a loyal following. Change the name, and it may mess with a good thing by confusing that loyal following and possibly losing some of it.
But the worst reason behind the attempted name-change is Flagler Beach’s nuzzling up one of the most god-awful fad of early 21st century tourism. Even the word is awful, as if it were all a matter of cattle: branding. I have nothing against branding. It works with corn flakes. It works with Brillo pads and beer, and it works very well with toilet paper. But culture isn’t toilet paper. You don’t brand your heritage. You don’t brand your town, your history, your people. You honor them, celebrate them, memorialize them.
If Flagler Beach is so interested in improving its tourism, why not build an annual folk festival in Gamble Rogers’ name as St. Augustine did? Why not pair up with St. Augustine and turn the event into something worth traveling for? Why not create a cultural destination with more than surf and sun? But that would require quite a bit of work, and running around with power points that flash the word branding is much simpler. It’s every tourist developer’s magic wand, and the laziest.
The recreation area doesn’t belong to Flagler Beach anymore than historical and cultural memory is for Flagler Beach to erase. Cities can name their own parks and streets and bridges all they please. But state parks and recreation areas are reflections of state pride, of nature’s bequests and of cultural legacies. Thankfully our local legislators, Sen. John Thrasher and Rep. Travis Hutson, appear to understand that and are not too keen on following Flagler Beach’s lead. City officials got ahead of themselves earlier this week when they claimed to the county commission that Hutson was ready and willing to file a name-change bill for them, only for Hutson to set them straight when he read about it: he’s willing to hear them out of they can show unanimity across the county for the change, but he never claimed he’d be their bill-carrier.
Clearly, there is no such unanimity. Flagler Beach tried to manufacture it by way of a specious petition (funny how petitions in that town can be vilified one day and worshipped the next) and lobbying from the town’s economic development task force. But the only thing worth killing is this crass talk of branding, and any plans to silence what’s left of Gamble Rogers’ music yet again.