Fifty years ago today, a little-known state senator, Lawton Chiles, started a 1,000-mile walk across Florida. The trip - that earned him the nickname “Walkin’ Lawton” - would take him to the U.S. Capitol and later the governor's mansion in Tallahassee. This famous journey on Mar. 17, 1970 began north of Pensacola, in the small Town of Century.
Today, a sign reminds residents and visitors of the campaign trek that propelled Chiles into the U.S. Senate.
A historic marker denoting “The Lawton Chiles Trail” is located on State Road 4, just east of U.S. Highway 29 in Century.
Dedicated to “Walkin’ Lawton,” it includes an image of a pair of his worn-out boots.
“My name is Bubba Hammac. I’m a lifelong Century resident. I’ve been working at Bondurant Lumber and Hardware for 27 years,” said Hammac on a busy afternoon at the store. He is one of several people in the community who were around back in 1970 and recall the buzz surrounding the political event.
“My mother was Mamie Hammac. She ran Mamie’s Restaurant, from 1966-1976, right down the road here, just a block or two away,” Hammac remembered. “And, the year that Mr. Chiles started his walk, he had breakfast in my Mom’s restaurant that morning.”
Hammac was just 12 years old at the time. He’s not for sure, but points out that Chiles and company likely would have enjoyed a plate of eggs and bacon to start the day. He did recall the crowd that gathered at the restaurant and that his mother was honored to host them.
“I think it helped put our business on the map as far as people all over the state saw Mamie’s Restaurant, and I thought that was really neat,” Hammac said. “You know, as I grew older and I’ve looked back on it from time to time, I even brought it up on the internet and looked at it. And, it was; it was great for our business, my Mom’s business and the town.”
“I’m Jerry Fischer, F-i-s-C-h-e-r,” said Fischer, emphasizing the “C” in the spelling of his name.
Retired from careers in photography and insurance, Fischer is president of the Alger Sullivan Historical Society, a post he’s held for more than 20 years.
“(I’ve) been here most all my life. I went to school in Hawaii, but my heart was always in dear old Century. I’ve never wanted to be anywhere else except here,” he declared.
Fischer was in Century and serving on the Town Council at the time of the walk in March 1970. He was at the kick-off event with some of his council colleagues.
“It was great,” Fischer recalled. “I know Marie McMurray, who was one of our black city councilmen [sic]. He really hit it off with her because I think she want for a walk with him some.”
In recounting the story, Fischer recalls teasing McMurry, “I told her then, I said, ‘Marie, you’re too “dad-gum” old to be walking with that young man.”
“Oh, shut your mouth Jerry Fischer,” he says was her lively response. “But, it was fun; it was good.”
A special detail for Fischer is that his wife is from Chiles’ hometown of Lakeland and, amid the “hoopla” over the walk, the candidate took time out to look her up, and meet and greet voters, at the nearby ballpark.
“He was really down to earth. He knew how to communicate with country people like me and Bubba,” Fischer explained. “I thought he did a great job and he was a lot like Bob Sykes. If you needed him, you could call him and he would return your call. He would talk to you.”
On that day back at Mamie’s Restaurant, when it was time to leave, Chiles walked out the front door of the diner, crossed Hwy 29, known locally as North Century Boulevard, and headed out Highway 4 toward Jay.
At the time, there was a sizeable group of media, but Fischer said Chiles seemed more interested in talking to the people who were there.
“They lined the streets. People followed him out of town,” he said of the event. Fischer. “It was a real big event and the people were tickled to death to get that much publicity from Lawton Chiles, “Walkin’ Lawton.”
Lawton walked east across the Panhandle and then south toward the Florida Keys.
An archive report from Miami-Dade College’s Wolfson Archives, features a 1970 interview with reporter Fred Francis of Miami’s Channel 4 News.
“Sen. Chiles, what’s the basic issue you’ve found, the one overriding issue from Pensacola to Miami that seems to be troubling the people,” Francis asked the candidate.
“The overriding issue is that people are frustrated and fed up with the fact they don’t think their vote counts or what they say or think counts anymore and they never see an elected official,” Chiles began. “They just see them on television, when they talk to them, and their taxes go up and up, but they can’t find anything in those taxes that they think affects them. Traffic is terrible on our roads. Pollution is continuing in our lakes, nothing is being done about that. Schools are in a state of havoc, yet money is being spent everywhere and they don’t think any of it applies to them.”
The news clip continues with Chiles talking to some voters what they thought he should do as a U.S. Senator, “I’m walking and listening.”
“That’s what he learned, I think on the walk, was to listen to people; which most politicians don’t listen to people, and Lawton did,” satid Chris Broxson, widow of former state Senator John Broxson, who died just months ago, in December of last year.
Broxson and Chiles were long-time friends, dating back to the 1960’s when they began serving together in the Florida Legislature.
“They didn’t become good friends until in 1966, when there was a wave of House members that were elected to the Senate and Lawton and John were in that class. So, that became a close group.”
Shuffling through some old photos, Broxson said her husband John’s initial response to the walk was that it seemed a little crazy and he thought, “How’s he going to do that?”
“Of course, he did not walk every step of the way,” recalled Mrs. Broxson. “He did have vehicles to pick him up when the only thing there was pine trees and you know there’re lots of miles of pine trees in Florida, still there are. That was the way he got to rest.”
Nevertheless, Chris Broxson says their support for Chiles was there from the beginning and throughout his 91-day, thousand-mile journey.
“He would call John,” she said of Chiles while he was on the walk. “They stayed in touch. He would be somewhere and he’d call and say, ‘I saw so-and-so, and what do you think about this.’”
With very little name recognition beforehand, Lawton Chiles’ walk across Florida was wildly successful, generating much-needed media coverage and the opportunity to meet voters in the state.
He went on to win the Democratic primary and defeated his Republican opponent William Cramer by a margin of 54% to 46%.