A Walk through Estero Island History

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Sands of Time

Part Three: Still standing: Historic Structures

Every structure on 7-mile-long Estero Island claims its own chapter in local history. Some properties have changed hands, form and purpose multiple times. Many buildings have been lost to fire, neglect or demolition. Old photos and early residents’ recorded memories retain the only traces of some historic treasures.

This week “Sands of Time” looks into stories (and a rumor or two) about several historic structures of which all or portions still stand.

Oldest structure: The Mound House – 1906

At the end of Connecticut Street sits the oldest remaining structure on Fort Myers Beach, now a museum and educational center. This lovely, elevated site overlooking Estero Bay has a long, complex history.

Archeological evidence indicates the Mound House was part of a sizable village occupied by native Calusa for over 1500 years. Estero Island held at least 3 Calusa mounds – created over centuries from layers of shells, fish bones, earth and pottery shards. These “middens” served as foundations for temples, residences, and in select cases, burial sites.

First homesteaded by Robert Gilbert in 1898, within a few years the Mound House property was sold to William Harrison Case from St. Petersburg, Florida. In 1906 Case put up a small Tudor-style home and added the brick “Bungalow by the Banyan” in 1909. The site was sold in 1921 to Captain Jack DeLysle, entrepreneur and rum runner, who expanded the house to a grand 2-story residence.

In 1947 it became the Shell Mound Experiment Station, run by scientists and scholars from the James Foundation. In 1951 William and Florence Long bought the property, dug into the mound and partially demolished it to build a swimming pool.

Locals whispered that the property was haunted by one of the house’s early occupants, Calusa spirits or perhaps pirates. Workers reported flickering lights, ghostly figures seen in windows, objects moved from place to place inside the locked building.

Rolfe F. Schell wrote in his 1980 History of Forty Myers Beach Florida (p. 26, “[I]n a shallow grave at the end of Connecticut Avenue, two skeletons were uncovered in January 1958. The mound was a kitchen midden, not a burial ground…[i]n all probability these bones were of two pirates who helped bury or sink a long boat with treasure and were killed so they would tell no one about it, or try to recover it themselves.”

First Hotel: Winkler Hotel and Pier
(later the Beach Hotel) – 1912

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The Winkler Hotel Pier was part of the first hotel on the island in 1912.

Accessible only by boat when it was built on the beachfront by Dr. William Winkler in 1912, this grand hotel featured a long pier projecting into the Gulf of Mexico onto which a schooner deposited guests. The hurricane of 1926 destroyed the pier, which was later rebuilt, even though by 1921 Crescent Beach – as Estero Island was then known – could be reached via swing bridge from the mainland.

In 1936 new owners renamed it The Beach Hotel. Tucked among luxuriant tropical trees and flowering bushes, it became “a haven to the rich and famous of the times, attracting poets, artists, writers and movie stars,” according to the Estero Island Historic Society website (bit.ly/winklerhotel). The hotel pier was a popular spot for local fishermen and sunset watchers.

The Beach Hotel pier was not rebuilt after the 1944 hurricane destroyed it again. But some of the original pilings remain today on the shore in front of the island’s first hotel site, just north of Red Coconut RV Resort.

In 1975 the Beach Hotel was demolished to make way for high-rise condo buildings.

Fifth Cottage: “We’re Here” – 1921

In 1921 Harry K. Davison, father of 4, built a wood-frame cottage on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico for his young family. The 5th cottage built on Crescent Beach, it was dubbed “We’re Here.” When the 1944 hurricane destroyed it, Davison rebuilt and changed the name to “We’re Still Here.”

Five generations of the Davison family used the two-bedroom cottage, surrounded by a wide porch, as a beach retreat. From 1949 to 1992 it became the San Castle Kindergarten, owned and run by Harry’s daughter, Sue Davison.

Sue became the Founding President of the Estero Island Historic Society in 1991. When she retired, the cottage was donated as a museum for the EIHS.

The Historic Cottage was moved from its beachside Mango Street location to its new home on Bay Road on August 2, 1995. After extensive work, the Estero Island Historic Society and Nature Center officially opened on May 5, 1997.

First (and only) RV Park: The Red Coconut – 1920s

On a broad expanse of sand Dr. Virgil Voorhis opened the island’s only trailer park in the 1920’s. At the time Estero Boulevard was an unpaved road of crushed shell, known as Eucalyptus Avenue, that extended only as far south as Connecticut Street. Most cars used the wide beach as their road and parking lot.

Voorhis built a pavilion in 1932 that served as a voting precinct and then a spiritual center (no church existed on the island until 1938). The pavilion was incorporated into a community center that is still in use at the Red Coconut RV Resort.

First Casino and Bathhouse: Gulf Shore Inn – 1921

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Gulfshore Inn, 1944

Tom H. Phillips built the 70 by 70-foot Crescent Beach Casino near the island’s north end as a “bathing casino” that rented bathhouses, swimsuits and towels. The business also sold hot dogs and hamburgers to visitors who parked along the shore.

By 1930 – after the addition of a restaurant, dance floor, gambling casino and rental rooms – the name was changed to the Gulf Shore Inn. Rumors swirled that the popular spot also served as a bawdy house, with some rooms rented for purposes other than sleep (unproven local lore).

Battered by the notorious hurricanes of 1926 and 1944 (and surviving many others in ensuing decades), the Gulf Shore Inn was never destroyed and continues today as a popular restaurant, with the addition of an adjacent building known as The Cottage.

One of the island’s first eateries, Nettie’s Place (established in the 1930s), located just north of the Gulf Shore Inn, was run by the Pavese family. “Nettie’s Spaghetti” was said to serve the best Italian food in all of Lee County. It was severely damaged by the 1944 and 1947 hurricanes, rebuilt as Nettie’s Bar (“Where you are a stranger only once”) and destroyed by a series of storms in the early 1950s.

Writes Jean Gottlieb in her 1999 book, Coconuts & Coquinas: “This time it was Nettie’s daughter and son-in-law, Rosie and Eddie Pacelli, who not only rebuilt but renamed Nettie’s. It became the Surf Club, a bar and package store, which is still in operation” – now called the Mermaid Club.

Such places of historic significance endure and enrich our island to this day.

The February 24 issue of Sands of Time will cover more early buildings along with a few famous (or infamous) island visitors of past years.

 

Janet Sailian