Anyone who has visited Orange Beach has likely come across the name “Romar.” Be it Romar Beach Baptist Church, Romar Tower, Romar Place, Romar House Bed & Breakfast, or the Romar Beach Public Access, among others.
What most people may not realize is the name is a combination of the last names of two men, Spurgeon Roche and Carl “Zeke” Martin, who were the first to build houses on the beach around 1924, some 60 years before the city was officially incorporated.
In an effort to preserve the city’s history and leading up to the state’s 200th anniversary in 2019, Orange Beach officials, community leaders, member of the Baldwin County Historic Development Commission and the public gathered at the Original Romar House Bed & Breakfast on Perdido Beach Boulevard on Tuesday, Oct. 3, to memorialize the site of Romar Beach. While the Martin house was destroyed during Hurricane Frederic in 1979, the Roche house survived and is now run as the B&B by Jerry Gilbreath of Mississippi.
“Romar Beach has a lot of history and this Romar Bed and Breakfast has a lot of history and thank goodness Jerry Gilbreath bought it back in 1981,” local author and historian Margaret Childress-Long said before the bronze marker was unveiled.
The copy on both sides of the bronze marker was written by Childress-Long, who is also a member of the Baldwin County Historic Development Commission.
The Romar Beach marker is among a handful that will be placed around the city. In April, a historical marker at Perdido Pass was dedicated, honoring the city’s fishing heritage and the Callaway and Walker families, at the newly refurbished Seawall Park at Alabama Point. There are also markers already in place at Bear Point Cemetery and the Coastal Art Center, site of the original Orange Beach Hotel.
The City of Orange Beach will pay for four more historical markers, with the next ones placed at the Orange Beach Municipal Complex, and then Bay Circle.
“I can’t tell you how much these historical markers mean to me having grown up here in Orange Beach,” Childress-Long said.
To celebrate the Alabama 200, she said the Baldwin County Commission asked the historic development board to place historical markers throughout the county. “Well, they didn’t have to convince me,” Childress-Long said, “and thank goodness my city has stepped up to the plate.”
The west face of the marker reads:
Romar Beach began as a large homestead property with three miles of beachfront spanning from Gulf State Park to Hwy. 161 in Orange Beach. The original property now covers only 480 feet. It was a true homestead and the owners were required to “till the soil.’’ Of all attempts over the years, only the oleander trees survived. The owners were business friends from Mobile, Alabama – Spurgeon Roche and Carl “Zeke” Martin. The first two letters of Roche and the first three of Martin formed the name “Romar.’’
Their two houses, built around 1924, were the first houses built on the beach. It was difficult to access their property so the two men built their own road south from Canal Road straight to the beach. This included a wooden bridge built over the freshwater lakes. For stability, the roadway was ‘corduroyed’ with logs and lumber across the swamp and sandy land. That road is now “Power Line Road.”
After thanking those in attendance on Tuesday, Mayor Tony Kennon reiterated the importance of site’s recognition and the future of the city.
“This is a very special monument to me. It means a lot of different things and I’m going to let Miss Margaret briefly go into that but one thing that it represents is the original, real official road to Orange Beach, which is right there,” Kennon said, pointing across the street the dirt-based Power Line Road. “And there is no reason that the real official road shouldn’t be the official road to Orange Beach again. So we have got to figure out how to make that happen.”
Kennon was referencing the long-sought roadway through Gulf State Park, known as the Southern Evacuation Parkway.
Touching on the bed and breakfast, Gilbreath said the old Roche house has largely remained the same, including an old pine dining table, built by Spurgeon Roche and an Italian carpenter, still in the home as well.
“This is the original Romar House,” he said.
The east-facing side of the bronze marker recognizes Gilbreath’s contribution to preserving the city’s history:
“The 1924 Spurgeon Roche House has survived many storms. It was originally built on pilings, a second story was added later, and it has been strengthened through many renovations over the years. Jerry Gilbreath of Mississippi purchased the Roche house around 1980. In 1991, he turned it into the Original Romar House Bed & Breakfast. It is still operating as Alabama’s first Gulfside B&B. The original Carl Martin house stood until 1979 when Hurricane Frederic destroyed it.
Mack Shelby was the caretaker of the Romar Homestead which was adjacent to Gulf State Park. Lake Shelby, located within the park, is named for the Shelby family.
Most of the original Roche/Martin homestead was sold to developers over the years and many buildings in the area carry the Romar name, including the Romar Beach Baptist Church, Romar Tower, Romar Place, Romar Beach Condos, Romar Lake Development, and the Romar Beach Public Access.”