Friends Remember Jim and Ellie Newton
The Friends of the Mound House were in for a special treat last Friday when they attended their monthly meeting at the Newton House. Three friends of Jim and Ellie Newton – Lorraine Regaur and Eric and Lana Peterson – shared some of their stories about the island’s most famous couple.
The Newton House is the centerpiece of Newton Park – which is located in the middle of the island at 4560 Estero Boulevard. It is the former home of Island resident Jim Newton (1905-1999) and his wife, Ellie (1899-2003). Jim – who first came to Fort Myers in 1924 – gained fame through the publication of his book, “Uncommon Friends” where he detailed his personal relationships with key figures of the twentieth century including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Charles Lindbergh, and Dr. Alexis Carrel. Charles, his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and their children regularly visited the Newton‘s at their home, which was built in 1953 and named Seven Seas.
Seven Seas served as a major focus of Jim and Ellie ‘s lives on our island as they lived, worked, and entertained there. Through their involvement in the Moral Re-Armament (MRA) movement, internationally known people visited Seven Seas – including British tennis player “Bunny” Austin, Cardinal Konig, Frits Phillips former chairman of the Philips electronics company, King Michael of Romania and Queen Anne, among others. Many islanders remember fondly the opportunities to meet the Newton‘s visitors and some became involved in the MRA.
After Ellie’s death in 2003, the Town was given a $2.3 million grant to purchase the property from the state’s Florida Communities Trust program. Additional funds from the Lee County Tourist Development Council and Town park impact fees were made available to develop the property into a passive park and community-gathering place with amenities such as covered Tiki areas and bocce ball. In the summer of 2010, Newton Park officially opened to the pubic.
On Friday afternoon, Friends’ Ceel Spuhler introduced the trio, saying they all still live on Fort Myers Beach and that Eric had served in WWII where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
“The three of them have lived on the beach since the 80’s…they were close friends of the Newtons and Jim was in Lana and Eric’s wedding,” Ceel said. “Their early lives revolved around adhering to the principles of Moral Re-Armament, the movement that involved people from all over the world living their lives attesting to Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness and Love under the guidance of God.”
Lana began by telling the story of how Jim was working selling suitcases across the country when he went to work for Harvey Firestone.
“This was at the very beginning of aviation, and Newton rode a little prop plane as he scoured the countryside for places to put up a Firestone store,” she said.
In the 1920’s, southwest Florida saw its first real estate boom and Jim became part of that when he was the president of a company that developed 55 acres along McGregor Boulevard called ‘Edison Park’.
“That’s when he first met Mr. Edison – Jim was only 20 years old at the time,” Lana said.
It was during this time that Jim’s parents, Dr. Robley and Jane Newton – purchased the old Winkler Hotel on Fort Myers Beach and renamed it the ‘Beach Hotel’.
According to the Estero Island Historic Society, in the years that followed, Jim had the opportunity to meet Dr. Alexis Carrel who introduced him to Charles Lindbergh, of aviation fame in 1938. It was Lindbergh who later served as best man when Jim married Eleanor Forde in 1941. The following year Jim was inducted into the Army and five years later released as Major Jim Newton.
“It was while he was in the service that Jim became involved in the MRA – which was a modern, nondenominational revivalist movement to deepen the spiritual life of individuals and encouraged them to continue as members of their own church,” Eric said. “When he met Ellie, she was every bit a match for him – she was the first woman to travel across Canada supporting the war effort, and she used to say that when she was little she wanted to run off and join the circus when she grew up or become a missionary.”
Eric talked about how Jim and Ellie came to Fort Myers Beach and began a real estate business starting from scratch and becoming quite successful. The three friends continued to reminisce throughout the next hour, sharing memories with the Friends – some of whom knew the Newton’s themselves.
“My husband Bob Davis and I became the first non-family associates in Jim’s real estate business (which built Santini Plaza in the early 70’s) and I talked my sister-in-law – Roxie Smith – into joining, too,” said Betty Simpson. “We opened what we called the ‘Ranch Office’ down at Pink Shell where we always wore pink. In fact, the first sales Jim had when he built the Leonardo Arms came from Pink Shell regulars. Jim started building, and the rest is history.”
Keri Hendry Weeg