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Butterfly House To Open Soon In New Location

After more than two decades in Navarre, the Panhandle Butterfly House & Nature Center is planning to re-open this summer in a new location with more space and a mission to teach “beyond the butterfly.” 

“We’re coming back out of our chrysalis, we’re gonna fly,” said Jenny Weber, president of the Panhandle Butterfly House & Nature Center. “This is so exciting it’s ridiculous.”

Weber is the “volunteer in charge,” as she calls it, spearheading the efforts to create a permanent home for the nonprofit. 

“I was a docent at the original place for five years and I saw the kids come in there and the wonder in their eyes and I totally got hooked and said ‘Ok, yes, I’ll do this.’” 

Jack and Fonda Weatherfell started the Butterfly House in a pop-up tent in the backyard of their Navarre home in 1997. They worked with the county to move it to the Navarre Park on Santa Rosa Sound where it sat for 21 years. But when the county was getting ready to renovate the park and fix stormwater drainage issues, the nonprofit couldn’t afford to rebuild. 

“We got the plans and when we had to use their contractors their engineers the actual fiscal responsibility of it came out to about $1.2 million and everybody got sticker shock,” explained Weber. 

When looking for a new location, volunteers agreed the next home they find would be a permanent one. Last year, they purchased the T.W. Jones House from the Blackwater River Foundation for $125,000. The nonprofit currently owes $75,000, which is payable over the next three years. 

Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
T.W. Jones and his wife, Alice. At its new location, the Butterfly House is as much a nature center as it is a place to learn local history.

Since the Blackwater River Foundation wanted to turn the space into a nature center, it was a good fit for the butterfly house. 

“So, we have nine acres, plus this house has plenty of room to expand and build an outdoor pavilion and a courtyard for people to come and have lunch, a botanical garden in the front plus there’s a wetland trail that goes on the backside of our property,” said Weber. “We’re going to cut that trail out so people can walk it and learn about more than just butterflies.”

The T.W. Jones house was home to Thomas W. Jones and his wife, Alice, who lived at the craftsmen-style house on Henry street from 1897 until their deaths in 1951. 

“Both of them have a big history in the city of Milton,” said Weber. “He was a merchant but he was also the county recorder and her family was in the shipyards.”

At its Navarre location, the Butterfly House benefitted from beach tourism and its prominent location on U.S. 98, but Weber says they can now appeal to a different kind of tourism being in the heart of the county’s historic area. 

“We’re on a pretty busy street out here, too so we’re going to get a lot of the people coming in and out of Milton and going through historic Bagdad,” she said. “So, if history is what you like and you like the old homes maybe they’ll swing in here and take a look at this old restored one.”

Some relics of the Navarre location will be at the new Butterfly House, like the donated bricks and collection of more than 300 mounted butterflies from around the world which was donated by Dr. Tom Grow.  

Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
A collection of 300 mounted butterflies from Dr. Tom Grow is one of the pieces from the original Butterfly House that has migrated to Milton.

Much of the past year has been dedicated to fixing up the home and fundraising. While 2020 was a difficult year for nonprofits, the Butterfly House has been very fortunate to receive widespread community support as well as a $106,000 grant from IMPACT 100 Pensacola Bay Area. 

“With donations of in-kind and grants and things like that we’ve raised over $250,000 — in the year of COVID after our whole community suffered with hurricanes and the wildfires and the tornados,” said Weber. “So, there’s a lot of need for this. A lot of people want this to come back.”

Weber said the Butterfly House will likely have a soft opening in the summer. But volunteers are already making plans for their signature event, Monarch Madness, on Oct. 23. 

“The gamechanger for us was the Blackwater River Foundation letting us have this property and IMPACT 100 Pensacola Bay Area — those two things are really what got us to where we are plus all the support from our communities,” said Weber. “Keep following us and keep attending all of our crazy fundraisers and we’re gonna make you proud — real soon.” 

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.