Family Snapshots from the Past
When a fifth-generation Florida Cracker shares his family archives and photos, history’s shadow falls on today’s familiar places and the past fleshes out in full color. A capacity crowd enjoyed just such an intimate glimpse into our region’s roots when Robert Ballard presented One Family’s Early Life on Pine Island Sound to the Estero Island Historic Society Public Meeting on Monday, February 13, at the Fort Myers Beach Public Library.
Ballard’s easy-going delivery and whimsical stories enlivened old land records, government documents, family letters and photos that traced his family’s arrival and settlement in southwest Florida starting in 1887. The screen flashed through images of scruffy, happy-looking kids with no shoes and adults busy with commercial fishing on the islands in Pine Island Sound for 70-plus years.
The true definition of a Florida Cracker, said Ballard, is not the cowboy cracking a whip to herd scrawny cattle through scrub and nettles. A Florida Cracker is a native Floridian who is rural, self-sufficient (thanks to growing and hunting their own food), accustomed to living in primitive conditions, and more likely to be a fisherman than a cowpoke.
He brought not just a slide show but treasured artifacts, including the gray metal box that his grandfather carried on ships he sailed to the Keys and Cuba. Robert lifted out of the box a battered old photo album that commemorates Barron Collier’s boat trip to Useppa Island in the early 1900s.
Ballard’s great-uncle William Spearing settled on 110 acres on Cayo Costa (then known as La Costa; now Cayo Costa State Park) in 1888 and was named Trustee of the Cayo Costa School. Though built in 1911, the school couldn’t find a teacher until 1913. And nobody could recall where that school had been until Ballard and a retired surveyor from Maine found a corner post in April 2015, then the other corner posts and the well pump.
While census records show that common names of the area in the late 1800s included Albert, Anna, Archie, Emma, Fannie, Frieda, Henry, Nellie, Otto and William, Ballard’s grandmother (born in 1897) bore the exotic name Oriole Thigpin.
The Thigpins (sometimes spelled Thigpen) and Spearings rambled all around the barrier islands of Pine Island Sound. Ballard’s mother Norma and her siblings were born at home on Cayo Costa, Cedar Key or Gasparilla. And these homes were hand-built wooden structures lacking even window screens. Mosquitos, sand spurs and nettles were the bane of early settlers’ days.
When Norma (born in 1929) was 13, her father moved the family from Cayo Costa to Bokeelia on Pine Island so she would not have to commute to high school by boat across often treacherous Pine Island Sound.
Commercial fishing for mullet was the main livelihood. A run boat brought ice to the ice houses and picked up fresh fish from the fish houses, all on stilts over the water, scattered across Pine Island Sound and Charlotte Harbor. Ballard showed photos of 5 fish camp houses on Captiva Rocks of which at least portions still remain today.
One night of net fishing could bring in upwards of 5,000 pounds per boat, which increased to 40,000 pounds during the late-winter “run season.” The tarpon-fishing craze that started around 1944 on Boca Grande and Useppa brought a new seasonal occupation: fishing guide.
The net-fishing ban of the 1990’s ended a way of life in Pine Island Sound. Ballard’s family scattered to Fort Myers and other areas, though he still keeps a house in Bokeelia. Modern gill nets trap, kill and waste far more fish than the old wide-weave commercial fishing nets, says Ballard.
A way of life is gone but not forgotten, and brought vividly back to life by presentations such as Robert Ballard’s.
Join the Estero Island Historic Society for our final Public Meeting of the season on Monday, March 13 at 7 p.m. in the Fort Myers Beach Public Library (3rd floor Community Room). Woody Hanson, who holds a Master’s degree in Florida Studies, will focus on the early years in Estero.