Annual Meeting Recalls MH Beginnings
A panel of long-time advocates for the preservation of the historic Mound House provided a delightful, funny and informative presentation at the Friends of the Mound House Annual Meeting on Thursday afternoon, January 17, at the Fort Myers Beach Woman’s Club. “The Making of A Museum: How The Young Town Preserved Its Oldest Building” featured Bill Grace, Betty Simpson and Ceel Spuhler joining Town Council member and former Fort Myers Beach Mayor Anita Cereceda in regaling the roughly 45 people with their remembrances of purchasing and restoring the Mound House, the oldest home on Fort Myers Beach now owned by the Town as the community’s cultural and historic center.
Pirates & “Indian Crap!”
Grace is the great-grandson of William H. Case, who owned and expanded the Mound House beginning in 1906. He gained vast preservation experience in the 1970s and 1980s in saving the Burroughs Home & Gardens in Downtown Fort Myers, despite reluctance from the City of Fort Myers. “There was a meeting in 1995, when the Mound House was for sale, with the thought that the Calusa Indian mound might make it a historic house, and someone asked if I knew anything about it and I replied that my great-grandfather built the original home, though he sold it decades earlier so I never lived there. Its last private owner, Florence Long, passed away in 1994, and it was for sale for $1.5 million, to possibly become an 18-unit condominium development.”
Bill did some initial research but did not find much to benefit its survival, “then we found a little book on Fort Myers Beach history that showed that when the Longs dug out the mound for their swimming pool, they found what looked like a few human bones, though the Calusa did not use it as a burial site. Nothing, however, scares a developer more than human bones, so we attached that to our paperwork! Next we needed the support of the new Town of Fort Myers Beach, as they just had their first Council election, with the Town to become official on December 31, 1995. To my immense surprise, considering our Fort Myers experience where historic preservation was akin to being a Communist, the new Town embraced us and Mayor Anita hugged me – the Fort Myers mayor never hugged me – so this was amazing and the Town rented the property to keep it from development.”
Around that time, “a group of pirates on a Pine Island shrimp boat, complete with guns and Rolex wristwatches, pulled up with a recorded deed,” recalled Bill, laughing now. “They said the Long heirs sold them the property and they moved in! What really happened was they sent flowers to Mrs. Long’s niece in Chicago, and transposed her signature from that receipt onto the deed! Fortunately, the Town filed a lawsuit, with the pirates eventually going to jail for three years. The Florida Community Trust purchased it in May 2000 for $1.03 million and the Town formally accepted the deed.”
“When the Town incorporated on December 31, 1995, it literally had no money,” recalled Anita. “Of the five new Council members, I was the youngest at 34 and the only woman, yet the other members elected me Mayor! Another Council member, Ted FitzSimons, led the Incorporation movement, and was equally passionate that we preserve the Mound House, as was our new Town Manager, Marcia Siegel-George. She and I made a great pair, as Marcia was immaculately dressed while I wore a t-shirt and purple Birkenstocks! I was scared to death about the Mound House, even saying that ‘no one will ever care about this Indian Crap,’ but the years sure proved me wrong! Ted and Marcia were extraordinarily helpful, and saving it was the greatest thing that ever happened to Fort Myers Beach!”
To Anita, the significance of preserving the Mound House is that “communities need places that belong to them, and I get goose bumps just saying that. When you travel around the world, it is places like the Mound House you remember – that sense of place – and now our Town has that. What was great about the Town’s earliest days is we were all newbies and did not know what we could not do, so we just did it and saved it; we did not talk about what we could not do, so that was a very exciting time, as there were no negatives that blocked our ability to see the positives.”
“Where My Heart Is!”
Ceel Spuhler recalled that she had just moved to Fort Myers Beach in December 1995, “after a lifetime in industrial machinery and I wanted something different from that. I saw a newspaper article that the Town could obtain the Mound House and was looking for volunteers to host an Open House so residents could learn how valuable it was, and I was the first one there; I looked over the house and will never forget that feeling and knew it was for me! Marcia called a few weeks later and asked if I could put together some type of tour and story to explain its value to the community and I said I sure will, and Bill and Susan Grace were a wealth of information, including photographs. We put an advertisement in the newspaper asking for volunteer docents and assembled twelve, including Betty. I vividly recall that Mrs. Long had so many books, but many had large sections of pages torn out and I did not understand why – it turned out those rascal pirates did that to start fires in the fireplace to keep warm!”
Betty was already active in various community causes but none on Fort Myers Beach and saw the Mound House as an ideal forum. “The new volunteer docents were not professionally trained; we were ‘Ceel Trained!’ The Mound House was so exciting and I couldn’t wait to share its story, and strongly felt it would be wonderful for our schoolchildren and visitors along with residents. Our original group was small but we were all eager to learn, and we opened the Mound House on Wednesdays and Saturdays from Noon to 2 p.m., along with special occasions like Luminary Nights and Santa Claus for Christmas where we all made cookies, but if you ever saw me around the kitchen, you know mine were store-bought! Not everyone was crazy about the Mound House at that time because it was controversial, but we docents became diplomats to sell the Mound House to the community. I was so excited by all its possibilities then and I still am today because the Mound House is where my heart is!”
Following the presentation, The Friends of the Mound House conducted a brief business meeting with roughly 15 of its 34 members in attendance. The Friends elected a new slate of Officers for 2019, with Ellen Vaughn as President, Gayle Crabtree-Pergoli Vice President, Jim Steele Treasurer and Becky Werner Secretary. They meet in season the third Thursday of the month at 1 p.m. and remind the community their “Artful Intersection” Fundraiser will be Friday, March 22, at $75-per-person, with all proceeds to benefit their Scholarship Fund.
By Gary Mooney