Diverse history comes alive in Fort Myers & Sanibel
"The Calusa Indians were the first to discover the charms of the Fort Myers/Sanibel area as long ago as 5,000 B.C."
Given the area’s wealth of natural resources, it’s no surprise that the Fort Myers/Sanibel area in southwest Florida is also rich in history. An abundance of intriguing attractions and museums throughout the county will satisfy visitors seeking a different perspective on our nation’s heritage. The Calusa Indians were the first to discover the charms of the Fort Myers/Sanibel area as long ago as 5,000 B.C. By the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and other prominent Americans who spent their winters here, helped put the area on the modern day map.
Today, approximately 515,000 people live year-round in Lee County, which includes Sanibel & Captiva islands, Fort Myers Beach, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs & Estero, Cape Coral, Pine Island, Boca Grande & Outer islands, North Fort Myers, Lehigh Acres and more than 100 coastal islands off the mainland. While Lee County has grown in a contemporary fashion, it still offers many homes, archaeological sites and attractions of historical significance and timeless appeal.
Islands and Lighthouses
Much of southwest Florida’s earliest, most colorful history can be found on and around the barrier islands that dot its coastline. Because their beauty can be enjoyed by land or water, these islands are popular among boaters and beachcombers. They also have long been a Mecca for explorers, including Ponce de Leon who discovered Sanibel and Captiva in 1513. It is believed that Spanish pirate Jose Gaspar lived in Pine Island Sound during the early 1800s. Legend has it that the central location enabled him to establish headquarters on Sanibel Island (Santa Isybella Island) and bury his ill-gotten gains on Gasparilla Island. Further, it’s been said that Captiva Island (translated from Isle de los Captivas) was so named because Gaspar kept his ransomed female prisoners there.
By 1900, sea captains and farmers were homesteading the islands. And in 1925, inventor Clarence Chadwick converted Captiva into a key lime plantation. Today, Chadwick’s plantation is the 330-acre South Seas Resort. This tropical, resort paradise is a prime vacation destination, complete with a marina, golf course and upscale restaurants.
While some information is based on oral history, most of the background on the area’s most noteworthy people and places can be verified. Carbon dating, for instance, reveals that southwest Florida was the cultural center of the Calusa Indians. Evidence of the now-extinct tribe remains in the shell mounds and other artifacts found on several islands along the coast.
Impressive historical proof of the Calusa Indian’s shell mounds reside on Mound Key, a state-designated historical site in Estero Bay behind Fort Myers Beach. Accessible only by boat, the key is a favorite with history buffs and archaeologists. One of the best ways to learn about the tiny island and its first inhabitants is on a boat tour. The area’s historical archeological records start 12,000 years ago, including the period from 1513, when the first Europeans arrived, until the mid-1700s, when the Calusa Indians vanished.
The world of the Calusas is the focus of tours offered at the Randell Research Center at Pineland, part of the 200-acre Pineland Site Complex on Pine Island. For more than 1,500 years, the Calusa Indian tribe occupied this 200-acre, internationally-significant archaeological site, leaving behind enormous shell mounds, remnants of an ancient canal and artifacts of daily life. Standing historic structures represent Florida’s early pioneer history and have earned the Pineland Site Complex a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The center allows both a walking tour of the Pineland site and a kayak trip to Josslyn Island, offering informed insight to the archaeology, history and culture of the Calusas. The Calusa Heritage Trail at Randell is a 3,700-foot interpretive walkway that leads visitors through the mounds, canals, and other features of the Pineland archaeological site. Signs along the trail provide visitors with detailed information regarding the Calusa Indians. The trail also features observation platforms atop the site’s tallest shell mound. Guided tours are offered to the public during peak season (January – April) on Wednesdays at 10 a.m. The site is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. For more information, call (239) 283-2062.
Kayak tours to nearby Josslyn Island go out on the fourth Thursday of each month, beginning at 1:30 p.m. To participate in the three-hour tour, no previous kayaking experience is needed, although good physical health is required. Tours are by reservation only at a per person fee of $30. For information or to make reservations for either tour, call (239) 283-2062.
For an "island experience" and to learn more about the wildlife and history of the area, Tropic Star of Pine Island offers a variety of on-the-water adventures from Pineland Marina on Pine Island. The 59-passenger “Tropic Star" offers full- and half-day narrated nature cruises to Cayo Costa and Cabbage Key. On the way, guests encounter two natural bird rookery islands, along with dolphins, manatees and other wildlife. During the cruise, passengers learn about the ecosystem, mangrove islands and history of the area. Tropic Star departs daily at 9:30 a.m. and reservations are required. Rates are $29 for a full day, $25 for half a day for adults and $17 for children under 8 years.
The passenger ferry, the "Cayo Costa Star," transports visitors for a day or overnight to Cayo Costa State Park to enjoy the beaches, shelling, nature trails and swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. The “Cayo Costa Star" departs daily at 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Rates are $23 for adults same day, $29 for adults overnight and $17 for children under 8 years. Reservations are required.
Two-hour cruises on the Calusa Star, a 32-passenger pontoon boat, features Calusa mound viewing on Pine Island Sound in conjunction with Randell Research Center. For more information, call (239) 283-0015 or visit www.tropicstarcruises.com.
Cabbage Key is a near-famous local island that offers a variety of riches, including an inn with restaurant walls, beams and ceilings plastered with $1 bills. Although the island is accessible only by boat, and the inn has only a few guest rooms and cottages, its restaurant and lounge accommodates thousands of visitors each year.
The Inn at Cabbage Key is the former estate of Alan and Grace Rinehart, built in 1938. It sits atop a Calusa Indian shell mound 38 feet above sea level, offering outstanding views of the 102-acre island and surrounding Pine Island Sound. As for the dollar bill wallpaper, it’s a tradition that began in 1941 when a fisherman signed and taped his last dollar to the wall. That way, when he returned, he’d have money to buy a beer. Visitors continue the custom. At about the same time that the Rineharts discovered Cabbage Key, other wealthy settlers also were discovering The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. In 1912, advertising entrepreneur Barron Collier bought the nearby 100-acre Useppa Island and developed it as a resort for the rich and famous.
Meanwhile, the duPont family had founded Boca Grande, renowned for being rich in fish, on Gasparilla Island. Today, the island’s well-heeled visitors and fishing aficionados range from movie stars and moguls to political heavyweights like the Bush family. During the winter, several generations of Bushes (including the former and current U.S. president, and Florida’s governor) often gather there for the holidays.
One of the island’s main attractions is the Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum, built in 1890. Features include exhibits of the Calusa Indians and the Native Americans who preceded them at Boca Grande. Other displays talk about the first Spanish settlers, the development of commercial fishing, the advent of the railroad and evolution of Boca Grande.
Stories of the island’s development highlight Port Boca Grand and its two lighthouses, shining across the waters of “The Tarpon Capital of the World." There’s also a gift shop in the museum, which opens daily November through May, and Wednesday through Sunday from June through October, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed Christmas Day.) Although tours are free to the public, Gasparilla Island State Recreation Area charges $2 per vehicle to enter the park where the museum is located.
Additional insights to old-time island life can be found to the south at the Sanibel Lighthouse Boardwalk. Built in 1884 on the island’s southern tip, the lighthouse has provided a wildlife refuge since 1950. In recent years, the boardwalk was extended to give visitors easy access to the lighthouse and surrounding cottages, connecting this beachfront landmark to a city fishing pier. Call (239) 964-0375 or 964-2965.
Southwest Florida’s first African-American history museum debuted in 2001. The Williams Academy Museum in Fort Myers maintains exhibits and a living history classroom. This two-room white wooden building built in 1942 is steeped in history, having once served as an elementary school. It was an addition to the original academy built in 1912. Exhibit topics include chronological history, religion, education, pioneers, military and law enforcement, business and community service, and sports. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Admission is $3 for adults, $1.50 for students 5 to 15. Call (239) 332-8778.
Pine Island’s natural history is showcased at Museum of the Islands. Here, visitors can see the island’s unique past, from the days of the Calusa Indians to the early fishing pioneers. The centerpiece is the museum’s authentic palm-thatched kitchen, complete with utensils and other household items used by early settlers. Additional highlights include artifacts from the Calusa Indians, as well as exhibits on archaeological explorations. A gift shop features unusual local crafts, books and T-shirts. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children ages 6 to 16, free to children under 6. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m., closed Mondays and major holidays. For current hours, call (239) 283-1525.
The "Useppa Man" is the unequivocal star attraction at the Barbara Sumwalt Museum, among the area’s most uncommon attractions. Located on Useppa Island, the museum’s exhibits tell the 11,000-year history of man on this coastal island. Useppa Man is a forensic restoration of skeletal remains unearthed during an archaeological dig here in 1989 by the University of Florida. Other enticements include the "Useppa Woman," found during the restoration of the Collier Inn, and information about Useppa’s role in the Seminole and Civil wars.
The museum is open daily year-round from noon to 2 p.m. Audio tours are available. Requested donation is $3. Because the island is accessible only by boat, dock space must be reserved. Call the Useppa Island Club at (239) 283-1061 for information on docks or boat transportation. For general information, call (239) 283-9600.
Compared to some of the island museums, the Sanibel Historical Village and Museum seems almost modern. In addition to museum exhibits and displays that tell the island’s history from the time of the Calusa Indians, there is a quaint village dedicated to pioneer families of Sanibel and Captiva. Village highlights range from "Uncle" Clarence Rutland’s home, Bailey’s General Store and the 1926 post office to Miss Charlotta’s Tea Room, Burnap Cottage and a Morning Glories 1926 Sears Roebuck kit home and vacation retreat. Connected by a handicapped-accessible boardwalk, all structures are furnished with authentic period antiques. Other displays include a pioneer garden, antique Model-T truck and replica packing-house.
The Historical Village and Museum is open from the beginning of November through mid-August, Wednesday through Saturday with varying hours. A donation of $5 per adult is suggested. For information, call (239) 472-4648.
Back on the mainland, the Southwest Florida Museum of History offers graphic depictions and artifacts of the area’s earliest influences, beginning in 800 B.C. and including the contributions of the Calusa and Seminole Indians, and Spanish explorers. The museum is housed in the Atlantic Coastline Railroad Depot, a local landmark built in 1924 that has been thoughtfully restored. In addition to an exhibit of the WWII Buckingham and Page Field airports, a collection of early American pressed glass and various regional artifacts together with an impressive collection of photographs and memorabilia reflect the life of local pioneers.The Esperanza, a plush, private rail car from the 1930s, is one of the museum’s main draws. The museum also offers educational programs, rotating exhibits and a shop stocked with historical books and materials, as well as unique gift items. Tours of exhibits take about 90 minutes.
The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $9.50 for adults, $8.50 for seniors, $4 for children 3 to12 years, and free for children under 3. Call (239) 321-7430 for more information.
Parks & Other Attractions
Those who appreciate true curiosities will be drawn to the Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero. The site contains the remnants of a religious commune established by Dr. Cyrus Teed, founder of the Koreshan Unity in the late 1800s. After changing his name to Koresh, Teed moved his followers to this south Lee County site, where he sought to build a utopian society for millions of settlers.
However, the size and scope of the community Teed hoped for never quite materialized. Today, 13 of the original 60 buildings remain, including Teed’s home. There is also a one-of-a-kind globe illustrating the Koreshan belief that the world is a hollow globe, with man living on the interior surface of the shell gazing at the solar system at its center. The site is open daily from 8 a.m. to sundown, with guided tours on weekends at 10 a.m. for $1 per person.
The site also includes a park, which features nature trails, boat ramp, canoeing, fishing and camping. It is open daily from 8 a.m. until sunset. Admission is $4 per vehicle for up to eight people and $1 for each additional person. Single occupant vehicles are $3.
For a schedule of special events, call (239) 992-0311.
Elsewhere in Lee County, historical structures are quite charming, if a bit more conventional. In downtown Fort Myers, restored buildings are easy to spot. Because the fascinating stories behind them aren’t so apparent, the Southwest Florida Museum of History offers a comprehensive Downtown Walking Tour each Wednesday, January through April, beginning at 10 a.m. The two-hour, information-packed tour covers 10 blocks starting at the museum on Peck Street, one block south of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard between Jackson and Lee streets. Groups continue along the old fort grounds to the scenic riverfront and Fort Myers Yacht Basin on Edwards Drive. The cost is $5 per person.
Highlights of the walking tour include the Gwynne Institute (Lee County’s first modern schoolhouse), the Heitman Building (built in the late 1800s and the oldest standing building on First Street), the Bradford and Earnhardt buildings, the old post office/federal building and other architecturally significant structures (including those no longer standing). Comments remark on the Caloosahatchee River facing the city, its influence on local commerce and its role in shaping the downtown area.
Reservations are required for the tour, which costs $5 for adults, $3 for children. Special arrangements are available for groups of 10 or more. All tour participants receive a discount on admission to the museum. For reservations, call (239) 332-5955.
Just beyond the perimeter of the walking tour, at First and Heitman streets along the downtown riverfront, lies sprawling Centennial Park. While the eight-acre park – complete with playground, picnic areas and fishing pier – is not in itself historic, it presents two appealing sculptures that reflect the community’s past.
"Uncommon Friends," considered the park’s centerpiece, pays tribute to three famous friends and winter residents of Fort Myers: Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison. Surrounded by a fountain, the life-like bronze trio created by local sculptor D.J. Wilkins in 1988 has emerged as one of the area’s most beloved landmarks. More recently, Wilkins sculpted another prominent park monument installed in 2000. The "Civil War’s 2nd Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops" is dedicated to the black Union soldiers who defended a federal post in Fort Myers against the Confederates in 1865. It features a single black soldier standing before a wall with a gate, designed to represent the gateway to freedom from slavery. Reportedly, Wilkins named the soldier "Sgt. Clayton" for the ton of clay required to sculpt the bronze figure.
Edison & Ford Winter Estates
Both entertaining and educational, a tour of Thomas Edison’s 14+ acre riverfront estate is a must-stop for visitors toSouthwest Florida. Steeped in history, the inventor’s charming “old-Florida” style home, laboratory and experimental gardens have been authentically maintained as a tribute to the genius of one of the world’s most remarkable men. With over 200,000 visitors each year, it is one of the most visited national Historic Homes in the country.
The Edison Ford includes Nine National Register Historic buildings as well as the botanical and research gardens. The historic research and contemporary gardens consist of approximately 20 acres of lush tropical botanical gardens, 500 unique plants, flowers and trees, including four champion trees, federal C.I.T.E.S. orchid program and propagation greenhouse and nursery. The Edison Ford site is ADA accessible and wheelchairs are available. Food service and picnic areas available at the Banyan Café.
Rare antique automobiles and Edison’s phonographs are among the many carefully preserved memorabilia. His gardens are a wonderland of rare and exotic tropical vegetation, including a banyan tree planted in 1925 that is now one of the largest banyan trees in the continental U.S. The laboratory, where Edison turned goldenrod to rubber, echoes the past. The home and guesthouse, built in 1886, are on the National Register of Historic Places. They were deeded to the City of Fort Myers in 1947 by Edison’s widow, Mina Miller Edison, and opened to the public that same year.
After stepping back in time at Edison’s winter home, visitors can walk next door to the winter home of automobile industrialist Henry Ford. Ford purchased the 3-1/2-acre estate in 1916 to spend the winter months visiting his friend Edison. Ford’s home, “Mangoes,” has undergone extensive restoration to bring it back to the period when he and his wife Clara lived there. A 1914 Model T, 1919 Model T, 1917 Ford Truck, and 1929 Model A also are on display.
Hours: The Edison Ford is open daily 9:00a.m. to 5:30p.m. (except Thanksgiving and Christmas) and includes the homes, museum, laboratory and gardens. The last guided tour departs at 4 p.m. while self-guided tours run until 5:30 p.m. Garden & Estates tour is available on Tuesdays at 10:30 and Behind the Scene tours are available on Thursdays at 10:30. Group tours and rental arrangements available daily throughout the year.
Costs: Self-Guided Audio Tour of the Homes and Gardens including lab and museum, $20 for adults and $11 for children 6 -12 and are available in English, German, French and Spanish; Historian-led Tour of the Homes and Gardens including lab and museum, $25 for adults and $15 for children 6-12. Laboratory and Museum only, $12 for adults, $5 for children 6-12. Children 5 and under free. Group rates are available for groups of 20 or more. Location: 2350 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers, FL 33901. For group rates or further information call (239) 334-7419 or visit www.edisonfordwinterestates.org.