“You should know the history of the area where you live,” begins local historian Russ Carter at his “History of Fort Myers Beach” program at the Fort Myers Beach Public Library on Friday morning, March 10th. “I specialize in telling 2,000 years of history-an-hour, so get ready for 2,000 years of Fort Myers Beach history in 4 chapters: the Calusa, Spaniards, the Wackos from Chicago, and Homegrown Wackos!”
Estero Island was a strip of land that was the beach and a swamp a foot or less above sea level between 100 BC to Zero, explains Russ, “when the first Calusa Indians set up a village by the current Mound House. The Calusa were of Mississippian tribal ancestry who were big and healthy mound builders and hunter-gatherers. The men were often 6 feet tall and the women over 5 feet, with weapons like the bow-and-arrow, spears and lances. Other Southwest Florida tribes paid them tribute because they were the boss!”
Between 200 and 500 AD, oceans rose 2 to 5 feet, meaning the Calusa had to build mounds here and especially on the 125-acre Mound Key that were 50 to 60 feet high. They constructed a chickee hut that could hold 1,500 people, had a teenage girls choir with 1,500 members and an organized religion: “The Calusa believed humans had three souls,” Russ says. “The iris of your eye, your shadow and your reflection on the lake. When you die, the iris goes into a lesser life and through continued reincarnation a lesser and lesser one until they go all the way down to nothing, meaning Calusa souls are No-See-Ums!” The Calusa eventually left, but their mounds remained, with Lee County using them as roadfill for Estero Boulevard.
“In 1513, the Governor of Puerto Rico had colonist problems and fled to Cuba,” Russ explains. “The Indians there said, ‘you don’t want to stay here as we have nothing, but there is a huge land up north full of gold, jewels and The Fountain of Youth,’ so Juan Ponce de Leon said ‘let’s go!’ He sailed into the Melbourne area, then down the east coast all around the end and ended his voyage of exploration right here, making landfall at Punta Rassa near the present tollbooth. The Calusa barreled out of mangroves with spears, yelling at the Spaniards in Spanish to get out, because the Calusa traveled to Cuba and learned some of the language; with the Spanish quickly leaving.”
Ponce de Leon returned in 1521, introducing cattle to Florida, “with the State today the #2 cattle-producer in the nation,” emphasizes Russ. “The Calusa King, Carlos, responded with a huge force that slaughtered the Spanish; ‘Matanzas’ is Spanish for slaughter. During the battle, Ponce de Leon suffered a poison-tip wound and his troops took him back to Cuba where he passed away; he died in Cuba but was killed on Fort Myers Beach!” Over the next 300 years, the Spanish influence was negligible, with only a few scattered semi-permanent seasonal fishing villages until the 1820s.
The Wackos From Chicago
“The 19th century was an exciting time for Fort Myers Beach – The Boom and Manifest Destiny all rolled into one,” Russ exclaims. “Big cattle, cowboys and famous outlaws, crackers cracking the whip to drive cattle down McGregor Boulevard that was unpaved to the Punta Rassa dock for shipping to New Orleans and Cuba. Eventually Tootie McGregor contributed $10,000 to pave the road in her husband’s memory, as long as no cattle came on her yard!”
By 1839 Florida was a territory, and in Upstate New York was born Cyrus Reed Teed, who grew up to became a medical doctor specializing in electrical physical medicine that was all the rage by the 1860s. “In 1869, Teed electrocuted himself,” said Russ. “When he woke up, he revealed an archangel told him he was the reincarnation of Jesus, and to gather true believers to form the New Jerusalem and that is what he did! His new name became Koresh, his followers had to give him all their money and be celibate, even the married couples, and taught that humans do not live on the earth but inside it.”
Russ told the audience that “Koresh’s first compound was in San Francisco, but land was too expensive to build a city, and there were already too many wackos in California, so he moved across the county to Southwest Florida where he conned an old German homesteader out of his land that would eventually become Koreshan State Park. They tried to take over all of Lee County and this caused a friction between them and the locals that led Marshal Sanchez to pistol-whip Teed in 1906, from which he never recovered, dying in 1908. During this time, Koreshan relatives settled on Fort Myers Beach and subdivided it into nine sections at $1-per-acre, with the Mound House the first one homesteaded by the Gilberts, with the Longs from Chicago eventually buying it in the 1950s, and it was the Chicago Wackos who got the beach into the 20th Century.”
The island’s first drawbridge opened in 1921, “with a 54-cent toll,” Russ says. “That was a fortune, as $3-a-week was the average wage. It was not until the Big Carlos Pass Bridge in 1969 when Fort Myers Beach ceased being a destination place but a route in-between. Soon after the bridge came the cotton shop that is now the cigar store, along with the Gulf Shore Restaurant and the Mound House big house. Now you could bring trucks onto the island to build better cottages, making it a summer resort by the 1930s, until everything changed big time on December 7, 1941, and the Second World War.”
Training bases opened at Page Field for fighter pilots and Buckingham Field for bomber gunners, with Buckingham becoming the largest airport in Florida. “These brought tens of thousands of soldiers through Southwest Florida,” Russ explains. “On weekends they came to Fort Myers Beach that was a Soldier’s Delight, as you could rent a cottage for $30 to $50 a month. Soon thousands of military wives followed, and after the war, when they became young parents and discovered summer vacations in the 1950s, they returned here where they bought lots for $150 and built cottages everywhere and the island became what we know today.”
Home Grown Wackos
The Greatest Generation gave way to the Baby Boomers, who took out permits for 20-story buildings, like those all along the east coast. In 1991 came the news of a 27-story hotel, and that was the tipping point, with the formation of the Civic Association to halt it, resulting in a public hearing to settle the issue. “There was confusion over the timing,” Russ recalls, “meaning no one was present to oppose it, so the hotel that ultimately became the 13-story DiamondHead Beach Resort & Spa received approval. The Civic Association took umbrage and chartered busses to go to Lee County to protest, leading those wackos on Fort Myers Beach to demand incorporation and that was the start of the Town in 1995. And today, Fort Myers Beach continues to have plenty of our own Homegrown Wackos!”