“Since the beginning!”
That simple answer covers decades of Fort Myers Beach history, when you ask Pete McCagg, 88 this March, how long he has been with the Fort Myers Beach Lions Club and its sponsorship of its 59th annual Shrimp Festival!
“The Fort Myers Beach Lions Club took over the existing Beach Day in 1959,” said Pete. “The big winter festival back then, as it is now, was the Edison Festival of Light in February, but when that concluded, the news outlets would say that was the end of the event season, except for that insignificant Beach Day on Fort Myers Beach. Several members of the Lions Club, and I was a main one, saw this as a way to raise charity funds while hosting an outing that would separate the beach from the Edison Pageant.”
Pete said there was no reason to reinvent the wheel, so the Lions incorporated several Beach Day traditions into theirs. “St. Raphael’s Church began the blessing of the shrimp boat fleet several years earlier and that became a big part. We carried over the Princess Pageant as well. We began the parade that ran from the Beach Elementary School to the park that today is Lynn Hall Park, but it was so little! The school kids decorated their bicycles and that was about the extent of it in the early days, except the Lee County Sheriff then, Snag Thompson, who was a real publicity hound, would ride out in one of his squad cars and lead the parade! St. Raphael’s Church made and sold shrimp rolls for Beach Day, kept it up for us, and still do as a church function.”
“Eat More Chicken!”
And they barbequed chicken!
Yup – Chicken!
“We would barbeque chicken among stands of mangos trees,” Pete recalls with a full laugh! “We would start with a big bonfire until it burned down to the coals, then we barbequed chicken. Since Fort Myers Beach was a major shrimp port, somebody decided it would be a good thing to stay local, boil them, and call it a shrimp fest! Now we have huge boiling pots of gulf pink shrimp, and go through more than a thousand pounds throughout the weekend.”
An early problem occurred over the festival’s constantly rotating date. “We did not want to compete with the Edison Festival of Light, so we always waited a few weeks after that,” Pete explains. “But it had to be close to the full moon because that is bad for shrimping so all the boats were in port. Soon however, we started the arts & crafts fair and the vendors asked us to set specific dates so they could schedule us annually, and we chose the second weekend in March. That gave us cushion from the Edison Parade, almost always guarantees good weather, and it has just grown and grown and grown.”
One event Pete misses is the Gopher Derby – “the land turtle, not a furry little animal,” he emphasizes! “We used to paint their shells for decoration for race day, as it did not hurt them. The course featured two circles, and they would start in the small one and the first turtle to get to the outside circle was the winner. It was a big part of the festival but conservation groups convinced us to end it; too bad because it was a lot of fun!”
Rain & Cold
The only time the Lions canceled the Shrimp Parade came under Pete’s watch: “I was Club president several times, including the only year we called it off – it was horribly cold and a straight downpour, making that Saturday miserable, and we just had to cancel, but it cleared up by that afternoon and the vendors all did exceptionally well that Sunday and were happy. We came close a second time on a terrible wintery Saturday; it was bitterly cold but we still managed to get through everything – the poor girls in the beauty contest practically froze to death! Other than those two, we have been so lucky with the weather.”
Although in its 59th year, the Lions Club did pass the Shrimp Festival off to another organization for one year – sort of! “Beach Lions has always been a small club – only about 30 or so members,” Pete related. “At one point we were down on membership, and the event really promoted Fort Myers Beach so it seemed like a perfect Chamber of Commerce project and they agreed, but we still did all the work so we said ‘the hell with that’ and kept doing it.”
Pete’s family are multi-generational Lions, as his daughter and granddaughter are members of the Beach Club. “It is rather unusual to have three generations in the same club,” he said with pride, “and they literally grew up around the Shrimp Festival – when my daughter Fran was young, she was in the princess contest and won Miss Congeniality!” Today Fran is in charge of the raffle, with granddaughter Shelby running the recently-added Shrimp Eating Contest.
“It’s all worked out very well,” Pete commented upon reflection. “The first couple of years, quite a few of the locals called it ‘McCagg’s Folly,’ but that was long ago! While the Shrimp Festival is fun, the main function of the Lions Club is sight conservation and preservation and we are real proud of that and what we do to help people with vision problems. Since our fiscal year began last July, the Beach Club has assisted in over 20 cases to provide eye glasses or surgery and that is how we use the vast majority of the money; we hear from some of these people occasionally, and it is very touching and makes everything we do worthwhile.”
Enjoy the 59th annual Shrimp Festival presented by the Fort Myers Beach Lions Club on Saturday and Sunday, March 11 & 12.