A Look Back…
Growing up you either loved school or were not too fond of going. That has not changed over the years, but the history of schools certainly made some strides. The history of schools or schooling in any town or community is usually traced back to a resident, often a parent conducting lessons in their house. Eventually as the child population increased, so did the need for a larger structure, more school supplies and an organized curriculum. For Fort Myers Beach, an actual schoolhouse and formal schooling began in 1937.
Mayhew Page Cottage
In the late 1930s, a group of women addressed the needs of the community about establishing a school on the beach. After a meeting with the County School Board, which would furnish them with a desk and the salary for a teacher, they examined facilities, finances and other resources. On the gulf side of Estero Blvd., a small cottage owned by Mayhew Page became the schoolhouse on Cottage Avenue. According to Rolfe F. Schell’s 1980 book, “History of Fort Myers Beach Florida,” the Mayhew Page School was “named after the son of Mrs. Page who died a few days after the school was formed.”
In 1937 Miss Lois Alexander (later Mrs. Lois Congdon), was hired at $80 a month of which $12.50 covered rent for living in the cottage. Twenty-three students enrolled: eleven first graders, five second graders and seven third graders made up the student body. Miss Alexander acted as teacher and principal. Mrs. Jo Canady Hughes, a former student of Miss Alexander’s recalled her early elementary years in an interview. “She was a great one for personal hygiene. We got inspected when we went to school. If our fingernails were dirty we had to go to the bathroom and clean them.” She also recalled that Miss Alexander “did an excellent job. She was loved by the kids and the parents.”
With no bus system or Lee County Transit, it was up to the parents to get their children to school on time and provide them with lunch. Just one year later the student body had outgrown the small cottage and the search began for a new location. Funds were raised by hosting food sales, fish fries and bingo games were held at the Voorhis Red Coconut Trailer Park to build a new school. Land (an acre and a half near McPhie Park) was donated by M. R. Pence and the Fort Myers Beach Improvement Association. Materials were donated by various groups in Fort Myers and a two-room building was erected by the W.P.A. while the County School Board contributed the furnishings. Mothers of the students painted the building and purchased a piano.
In an interview from 1987, Lois Alexander (now Congdon) recalled, “We had a very good time, because we could do things you couldn’t do in any other school. We would celebrate children’s birthdays. . .and we could walk to the beach and have our physical education.”
After the student body was relocated to their new school in 1938, a second teacher was hired – Miss Ardys Klenzing. In 1942, Mrs. Alvin Bassett was added to the staff. She was later assigned to other schools, but returned in 1955 as principal until her retirement in 1964. From an article in the Beach Bulletin in 1983, Carol Lamb recalled the 1938 school building: “Each room featured its own wood stove, restroom and coatroom. The mothers insisted upon adding one more convenience, a lunchroom.”
An interesting, yet frightful evening occurred at the school one night in 1945. In Donald O. Stone’s book, “The First 100 Years: Lee County Public Schools 1887-1987,” a conversation with former teachers Mrs. Alice Kramer and Mrs. Amber Edwards shared that the principal, Clara Harris, was residing at the school temporarily because her house had burned down. Late one night, Mrs. Bassett and Ms. Harris “were grading papers, [when] they heard an unusual noise. Ms. Harris grabbed her shotgun and they went out to investigate. As light reached the play area, they were startled by the luminescence of the eyes of a huge, but beautiful Florida panther under the swing set. They returned to the workroom, shotgun unfired. This incident shows that in 1945, Ft. Myers Beach was still pretty much a wilderness.”
Kramer and Edwards further recalled how in 1947, “The auditorium was eventually dismantled and divided into two classrooms in return for having the school cafeteria air-conditioned. Twenty thousand dollars were raised in nine months time!” According to Alexander, that same year property was purchased in the Winkler subdivision on Oak Street where a “wooden school building” was moved and became the auditorium and was divided into six classrooms. In February of 1948 the student body and staff moved into the building. She also recalled that was the same year the Parents Club became the Parent Teachers Association.
When the old school on what is now Sterling Avenue officially closed, the building was given to the Beach Improvement Association to use as a Community Hall. The Fort Myers Beach Woman’s Club assisted in the upkeep of the hall and eventually assumed ownership of the building, which they still use.
The third beach school opened in 1949 with a large auditorium and six classrooms. A cafeteria was added in 1995 and two kindergarten classrooms opened in 1972. This building, still in use today was known as Fort Myers Beach Elementary School, which locals still just call “Beach School” or “Beach Elementary.”
Southwest Florida historian Timothy Jacobs serves as an advisor to the Southwest Florida Historical Society and is a regular contributor of articles about early life on the beach.
Photos courtesy of the Estero Island Historic Society
- Students stand in front of the Mayhew Page cottage school that opened in 1937.
- The second Beach School opened in 1938 with two classrooms on Sterling Street.
- The third and current Beach School opened in 1949 on Oak Street.