Island Originals: The Santini Family
Visitors to the southern half of Fort Myers Beach can hardly miss the storied Santini name. Prominent on Estero Boulevard is sprawling Santini Marina Plaza, home to Fish Tale Marina and an array of popular shops and restaurants. Leonardo Arms – the island’s second condominium, south of the Wyndham Hotel – was named for its developer, Leonard Santini, while Lenell Street is named for Leonard and his wife Nell.
The Santinis are among the most historic, forward-thinking, and philanthropic families the island has known. They were true pioneers who helped to shape this special part of the world. And Fran Santini still lives in the house in which she was born in 1931, on Primo Street. Three generations of island residents know her by name and multitudes more have benefitted from her ongoing volunteer work.
“Everybody knows me, but then I’ve been here a long time,” Fran observed. “I’ve just loved this place all my life, and still do. We are one of the founding families. There’s not too many of us left.”
From Corsica to Florida
The Santini family patriarch was Philip Armand Santini, born in 1804 in Corsica. His relative, Jean Noel Santini, was a trusted servant of Napoleon in captivity. When the Santinis were involved in a plot to help Napoleon escape, brothers Giovanni (John) and Philip, fearing for their safety, set sail for America.
The young men landed in New York and went their separate ways. Philip moved to Charleston, South Carolina and then to Chokoloskee, Florida, where he had three sons, including Fran’s grandfather, Santino (Tino) – born in 1844 – and three daughters. Tino married and had nine children before moving to the Fort Myers area. His son, Joseph Cyril (JC), – 1879 to 1951 – was the father of Fran, her late sister Blanche, and older brother Leonard Cyril, who died in a hunting accident at age 19.
“Our grandparents went where the fishing was,” said Fran, “but they farmed too. They would take vegetables, turtles and feathers by sailboat up to Punta Gorda and down to the Keys. They swapped produce with the Indians for fish and venison. During the Seminole War, they supplied beef to the army.”
Early days on the island
JC and his second wife Margaret moved to Ft. Myers Beach in the late 1920s, where they lived aboard a houseboat while he fished in Estero Bay. Soon joined by brother Nicholas, JC also farmed a homestead in Iona.
Blanche Santini was born in March 1929 aboard a houseboat on the island’s first built canal on Primo Street, when there were only five houses on the island. The lumber to build them had to be shipped by barge from Fort Myers or San Carlos Island. “My father built his house for $500,” said Fran.
Island living in the 1930s did not include electricity, municipal water or sewage service (outhouses were the norm). Sulphur-smelling “fresh” water came from artesian wells, or as sweet rainwater stored in cisterns.
“Of course, there was no air conditioning back then,” Fran noted. “That’s why all the early cottages have big, low-opening windows – for air flow.”
Fishermen circled big gill nets to capture the abundant mullet, which are vegetarian and hence hard to catch with lures or bait. Fresh mullet sold for only 3 cents a pound, but Fran said, “They made good money. We never wanted for anything.”
Excess fish were bled, salted and dried on the tin roof of the house, along with mullet roe – a delicacy. JC spread his nets in front of the house to dry and repair.
JC and Nicholas Santini were soon joined on Fort Myers Beach by their brother Leonard, who started out as a potato farmer. “Up on San Carlos Boulevard, near where Wal-Mart is now, was all potato fields,” Fran recalled. “Uncle Leonard’s farms started around Pine Ridge Road and Summerlin.” Sister Mary Olive Santini married Dennis Kelly, also a farmer, for whom Kelly Road was named.
“Squatting” in fish houses built on stilts out in the bay was not uncommon, and a number of the mangrove islands (including Coon Key and Dog Key) were home to hermits who sought isolation from society.
“I used to go out with my Dad in his boat,” Fran recalled. “I spent as much time on the water as possible.” By her early teens, Fran got her own small sailboat to ply the waters of Estero Bay, then known as the Back Bay.
The island environment provided many opportunities for outdoor recreation. “We used to go down behind the packing houses on Pine Ridge Road,” said Fran. “It was all mangroves then. We’d go duck hunting and fishing, and sometimes we caught little tarpon. We’d cook steaks on sticks over the fire and just enjoy being back in the bush.”
A Different World
Imagine children operating a swing bridge, attending mass in a bar, surfing behind a jeep, and attending school on an island reached only by boat. These were some of the early experiences of the Santini children on Fort Myers Beach.
Early residents, including two of JC Santini’s three children from his first marriage, traveled by boat to the school on Mound Key, which held a small settlement. In 1937, eight mothers got together and rented a building at the end of Chapel Street to use as the first school on Fort Myers Beach. Blanche was in Grade 3 and Fran in Grade 1 in the tiny, three-grade school, used only for one year. The next year the Beach School was established in what is now the Woman’s Club.
Soon Blanche and Fran were riding a school bus into Fort Myers to attend St. Francis Catholic School. “We liked to operate the wooden swing bridge,” said Fran. “We’d all jump off the bus and turn the ‘key’ by pushing both ends of a big wooden plank to align the bridge.”
Fran added: “The way we learned to swim was they would drop us in the canal and we’d just dog paddle. The water was so clear then, we could see 12 feet down to the bottom.”
With no church on the beach in the early years, mass was held in the bowling alley of Jenks’ Bar. To rectify this situation, Leonard Santini bought and donated an extensive plot of land for the Catholic Church of the Ascension on Estero Boulevard. When he learned that St. Francis Catholic Church in Ft. Myers could not pay its $75 mortgage, Leonard rode his horse into town and sold it for $84, more than covering the debt.
Leonard Santini founded the Southwest Florida Foundation and funded the Santini Center in Ft. Myers. He also gave money to Bishop Verot High School. He offered access from Estero Boulevard to Estero Bay for a proposed mid-island bridge that never was built.
In 1948 Leonard purchased all the land on Fort Myers Beach from the current site of the Outrigger Motel south for $43,000.
“People thought he was crazy to pay that kind of money” for what was then undeveloped jungle, said Fran. Santini Marina Plaza (built in the 1970s), 192-unit Leonardo Arms (1968), the island’s first major condominium complex and the many condos that currently stand on the southern third of the island prove he was crazy . . . like a fox.
When the U.S. joined World War II in 1942, military men stationed at Page and Buckingham Fields flooded Fort Myers Beach for housing and R&R. “We rented our house out to a serviceman during the war,” said Fran, “because they needed all the housing they could get. Uncle Leonard bought the Side-O-Sea cottages in 1942 (on the present site of the Lani Kai). We lived there and ran those cottages all during the war years.”
Aside from a small cinema near the northern end of the island, most entertainment was self-created. “Our favorite pastime was to walk down to the Beach Hotel at night and watch the people fish,” said Fran.
Support posts from numerous fishing piers dotted the beach until the 1970s. A long row of tall but decaying uprights on Little Estero, just south of the Wyndham Hotel, are all that remain today of the once-massive Santini Pier – dating back 70-plus years.
“We had picnics on the beach, we drove our cars on the beach (the road extended only to the current Outrigger site), and we surfed on the beach. A car would pull the tow rope from shore.”
When Fran was young, kids dug “sleeping pits” on the beach and spent the night, unafraid, under the stars. Nobody was a stranger at the island bars and eateries. There were roving Christmas carols and community fish fries, and Rocco the barber – who worked in town during the week – cut the locals’ hair on Sundays.
It wasn’t all fun in the sun, however. Fran graduated from high school in 1949, and her father died in 1951 at age 72. A hard-working fisherman all his life, JC “did not miss more than 15 days of fishing in his last 50 years,” according to an obituary.
“I was 20 years old,” said Fran, “and I had to go to work” to help support the family. Her first job was in the insurance business in Ft. Myers, followed by bookkeeping with the Agriculture Department.
Fran liked the work, but I didn’t like having to drive into town every day. “So I started working in the lumber business, and for the rest of my career (43 years), I wore Bermuda shorts to work every day!” She served as a bookkeeper for Beach Lumber and Supply, then for Franklin Lumber and Gleisley Lumber on Mound Street.
“I retired in 1996,” said Fran, “and now I’m busier than ever!” She volunteers countless hours to many Ft. Myers Beach associations and events, including the Board of the Estero Island Historic Society. Fran is the unofficial “neighborhood captain” on Primo Street and rarely misses Sunday Mass at the Church of the Ascension.
“When they built the bridge off the south end of the island in 1965, it brought lots more people in,” said Fran. That, plus air conditioning and mosquito control, changed Fort Myers Beach from a quiet community to a bustling tourism destination. “In the old days there were always tourists,” said Fran, “but you could get to know them easier. There was more of a community feeling.”
Leonardo Arms, Church of the Ascension, and Santini Marina Plaza maintain the family name on Ft. Myers Beach, and Leonard Santini’s philanthropy also lives on through the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.
A preservationist yet also a realist, Fran Santini helps to conserve our history and strives to protect the best of island life. Her house on Primo Street will pass on to a family member, and another piece of the Santini legacy will endure into the future. For now, we on Ft. Myers Beach can celebrate having Fran Santini representing her family’s heritage among us.