Discover and Preserve Local History: The Estero Island Historic Society

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A Walk through Estero Island History

For an island whose history of human settlement dates back thousands of years, Fort Myers Beach has only a quarter-century record of systematically preserving and sharing its past, thanks to the Estero Island Historic Society.

What have we lost in the sands of time?

Shell mounds that once dotted the island, created over centuries by Calusa Indians, were casually destroyed, their contents used as fill, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The mounds’ shells and small artifacts, now known to be archeologically significant, served as fill for subdivisions carved out of swampland, or paving material for Estero Boulevard and other island streets.

Traces of the Spanish explorers who visited this area in the 1600s, and of pirates such as Black Augustus who followed, have long since disappeared under sand or seawater. There are still whispers about buried treasure somewhere on Estero Bay’s mangrove islands.

Fishing shacks built in Estero Bay by Cuban fishermen in the 1700s, and by early 20th-century homesteaders, have vanished, victims of both weather and changing uses of our waterways. Dozens of unique cottages, plus the iconic stone archway that once marked the entrance to Fort Myers Beach, now exist only on antique picture postcards.

The Koreshan Unity built a small, thriving religious community on the southern tip of Fort Myers Beach starting in 1894. After the Koreshans moved inland to Estero, their beachside house on the south end of the island disappeared in storms. The tomb of this cult-like group’s founder, Cyrus Teed, was washed into the Gulf of Mexico during a hurricane, erasing all traces of the island’s first community.

historic cottage 2005, estero island historic society, fort myers beachThese early eras and artifacts would have faded from our collective knowledge if not for the preservation and education work of the Estero Island Historic Society. The EIHS was started in 1991 by a group of islanders who recognized the value of preserving the history of their island community, and wanted to educate others about it.

Some members of the past and current EIHS Board grew up on Fort Myers Beach in the 1930s to 1950s, when it was a small village concentrated on the northern half of the island.

To these people, history is no abstract concept; it is part of their lives. They are equally fascinated by, and dedicated to sharing and preserving, what remains of the early history of this area.

Finding a home for our history

In 1993 Lee County officials procured land at the entrance to the Matanzas Pass Preserve at the bottom of Bay Road. The 5th cottage built on Fort Myers Beach, by the Davison family in 1921, was donated as a museum and headquarters for the two-year-old Estero Island Historic Society.

The cottage had to be moved from its beachside Mango Street location to its new home on Bay Road. That required significant funds and logistics, as did the renovation and refitting of the structure.

Fort Myers Beach residents pitched in and dug deep. They joined up as EIHS members, and donated funds that were matched by the Lee County Historic Preservation Assistance Program. Reckwerdt Plumbing donated all the plumbing fixtures and labor.

The Historic Cottage, as it was dubbed, moved to its new site on August 2, 1995. After extensive work, the Estero Island Historic Society and Nature Center officially opened on May 5, 1997.

The EIHS needed still more space. Laughing Gull Cottage was donated and moved from its beachside perch on Seaview Avenue to the Historic Cottage site in 2002. It now serves as the EIHS library, media room and Board meeting room.

The Estero Island Historic Society serves three main missions: archival, educational and historical. It holds videotaped recordings of over 80 local oral histories. Standing displays in the Historic Cottage show how this community evolved from a sparsely populated barrier island to the popular tourist destination it is today.

Come by to visit!

aerial view, matanzas, bay oaks, fort myers, circa 1950sThe quieter period from mid-April through November is an ideal time to visit the Historic Cottage and sample local history. Drop by 161 Bay Road between 10 a.m. and noon any Wednesday or Saturday. Browse through the cottage museum, packed with artifacts, photos, books and descriptions of days gone by. Volunteers will be happy to provide a tour and answer your questions.

You can purchase note cards with charming watercolor renderings of Fort Myers Beach cottages, a woven afghan with images from the area’s past and a number of books on local history.

For a fascinating glimpse into local and regional history and ecology, plan to attend a public meeting of the Historic Society. On the second Monday of November, January, February and March, the EIHS holds an open meeting (free of charge; donations welcome) at 7 p.m. in the 3rd-floor Community Room of the Fort Myers Beach Public Library. In December, everyone is welcomed to a holiday Open House at the festively decorated Historic Cottage.

The EIHS invites seasonal residents and visitors to join the Historic Society for modest annual rates of $10 per individual or $20 for a family. Lifetime membership costs a mere $100. To inquire, contact Russ Carter, EIHS President, at 239-233-3571, or by e-mail at wechoose@yahoo.com

Above all, discover the unique history that makes Fort Myers Beach far more than a lovely tourist destination. Thanks to the Estero Island Historic Society, a many-layered past still lives today.

Dazzle your friends with local lore!

Become a Fort Myers Beach history expert! Here is a sampling of the facts you can learn at the Historic Cottage:

Q: According to archaeologists, when did the first settlers arrive on Mound Key in Estero Bay?

A: Around A.D. 100.

 

Q: Who was the first European recorded as landing on or near Fort Myers Beach?

A: Juan Ponce de Leon on May 24, 1513.

 

Q:  What is the origin of the name Matanzas Pass (the strait between the north end of the island and San Carlos Island)?

A: Matanzas means massacre in Spanish, and historians believe many local Calusa Indians were slaughtered near here by the Spanish.

 

Q: For whom was Bowditch Point (northernmost tip of the island) named?

A: Naval Officer Nathaniel Bowditch, author of a well-known nautical reference book.

 

Q: In what city was Fort Myers Beach’s original county seat?

A: Key West

 

Q: Who was the most famous (or infamous) local pirate?

A: Jose Gaspar, for whom Gasparilla Island is named.

 

Q: What does Estero mean in Spanish (Estero Island, Estero Bay)?

A: Estuary.

 

[Sidebar]

Estero island Historic Society Seeks Curator

Do you have experience in curation, archiving, museum work or historical documentation? Do you enjoy learning and communicating about local and regional history, both human and natural? If so, please consider applying to serve as the volunteer (part-time) Curator for the EIHS.

The Society has a wealth of materials, documents and artifacts related to Fort Myers Beach history that have been carefully maintained by a volunteer Curator who is stepping down.

This position is ideal for a retiree or part-time resident with a background in organizing and managing exhibits, and organizing document/photo storage and curation. Depending on the candidate’s skills and experience, this part-time volunteer position can include:

  • conceiving, developing and implementing exhibitions;
  • performing scholarly research; and
  • assisting with fund-raising and donor cultivation.

For more information or to volunteer, please contact Leroy Hommerding at the Fort Myers Beach Public Library at 239-765-8165 or by e-mail at leroyh@fmb.lib.fl.us