Curious Tales of the Islands


Semmer Blueway Series Speaker

“I was born in Florida, so that makes me a Florida Cracker,” beamed Joanne Semmer at the start of her Calusa Blueway Speaker Series program, “The Curious Tales of the Lee County Waterways,” to an overflow crowd of roughly 110 people at the Wa-Ke Hatchee Recreation Center in South Fort Myers on Tuesday evening, February 4. Joanne is President of the Ostego Bay Foundation, Inc., that oversees the Ostego Bay Marine Science Center at 718 Fisherman’s Wharf, underneath the San Carlos Island portion of the Matanzas Pass Bridge. “I moved to this area in 1966 and grew up on the water, kayaking in my own homemade kayak before kayaking was cool, especially for girls!”

How Do You Spell “Estero?”

While Joanne’s overall presentation featured many aspects of Southwest Florida, major portions were on Fort Myers Beach. “Over the years, Estero Island had many different names,” she related. “The first reference I found was Estow Island, then in the 1840s, the United States Navy noted it as Estard Island. No one is exactly sure where Estero Island ultimately came from, but a theory is that, back then, everybody of course wrote in longhand with ink pens, and sometimes you would lose parts of the letters. In those day, the ‘a’ and ‘e’ looked a lot alike and it would be easy to lose the top half of the ‘d,’ so when someone rewrote it, ‘Estard’ become ‘Estero!’” Other maps over time called it Big Carlos Island, Mangrove Key and Matanzas Key, then Crescent Beach and now Estero Island as well as Fort Myers Beach. Sanibel at one time was Sanybal and before it was the Caloosahatchee River, it was the Sanybal River. As for the Caloosahatchee, I must have come across at least 15 spellings for that over the years – isn’t that crazy!”

Joanne related that in an earlier era, there were actually two small towns on Estero Island. “These were Bayview and Carlos; Bayview was most likely near the current Bayview Drive, with Carlos by the present Snook Bight Marina. Estero Island was originally quite wooded, with pines and oaks and mahogany trees, but when the Koreshan Unity under Cyrus Teed came to the area from Chicago, his industrious followers established two Estero Island sawmills, one at the south end and the other near Snook Bight Marina, and they cut down all the marketable timber, took it to where the Village of Estero is now, and built their houses, some that you can visit at Koreshan State Park.”

She explained, “The Koreshan Unity believed we all lived inside a sphere and not on the outside of the Earth, and he actually convinced an intelligent group of people this was true! They gave Teed all their money, and in return, husbands and wives could not sleep together and even lived in different houses, though Teed himself resided in the top floor of the women’s house! They joined his group because they thought he would lead them to the New Jerusalem. Teed incorporated all of the Estero Bay area including Estero Island into a proposed giant city and as a result, the residents of Fort Myers hated him, and several beat him up so badly he never did get well and died in 1908. His followers, however, believed he would rise from the dead, but of course he didn’t! A doctor eventually convinced them to bury Teed, so they did so in a big tomb at the south end of Estero Island, but a 1910 hurricane blew it apart and it was never found again. While the Koreshans as a group were smart enough to plat an entire city, they forgot to pay their taxes, so the State reclaimed most of their land. I could do an entire program on the Koreshans, and Koreshan State Park is really interesting, so you should all visit.”

Joanne discussed the Calusa Indians, the Spaniards, Estero Bay, the area’s rivers and environment, early mapping and surveys, the history of many of the region’s smaller islands along with San Carlos Island, the cattle industry, Fort Myers Beach’s first toll bridge, various hurricanes, the first tarpon catch in 1888, and numerous other topics. “There is so much more history to our area,” said Joanne in conclusion. “Sometimes when I cannot sleep at night, I go online and research all these things. I have 40 file drawers full of information, so I could go on tonight for hours and hours – people tell me I should write a book!”

Ostego Bay & Calusa Blueway

The Ostego Bay Marine Science Center provides a Marine Science experience through interactive exhibits, aquariums, touch tank, one of a kind collections and interesting displays. It is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with an admission fee of $15 adults and $10 children age 6 & over. The Ostego Bay Marine Science Center is a ‘touch-&-feel’ facility,” Joanne emphasized. “We discovered a long time ago that kids learn better and retain more information through hands-on education, and that is what we stress at the Science Center – you can even pet a stingray!”

Lee County Parks & Recreation hosts the monthly Calusa Blueway Speaker Series in season, with the final program for this year on Tuesday, March 3, with Victoria Burgess presenting “Cuba to Key West on a Standup Paddleboard” at Wa-Ke Hatchee Recreation Center at 16760 Bass Road in South Fort Myers at 6:30 p.m. For more information on the program that is free and open to the public, call 239-432-2154.


Caption: Joanne Semmer discussed local history at the Calusa Blueway Speaker Series Tuesday evening. Photo by Gary Mooney.