What on Fort Myers Beach is 2,000 years old and turning one all at the same time? If you answered the iconic Mound House site, you win!
The Mound House, Estero Island’s oldest standing structure now owned by the Town of Fort Myers Beach and restored to its 1921 grandeur, opened to the public last November 14 as a cultural and environmental learning center. It is a unique historic and archeological attraction that sits atop an ancient Calusa Indian shell mound directly on Estero Bay that offers a variety of programs for residents, visitors and school groups.
Over 2,000 years ago, the Calusa Indians in small fishing villages dominated Southwest Florida and were the first inhabitants of our barrier island. The Calusa were fisher-gatherers whose lives depended on their rich and diverse habitat, but by the 1750s they vacated the area.
In 1898 Robert Gilbert filed his claim to build what is now the Mound House that underwent numerous owners and renovations over the next century-plus. The construction of the Shell Mound subdivision partially destroyed the mound, and it received further damage in 1958 with the installation of an outdoor swimming pool.
The Town of Fort Myers Beach acquired the Mound House in 2000 to save the structure and its 2.77-acre grounds from demolition for prospective villas and condominiums. Today it is a walk through time where the Calusa first set foot all those years ago. Improvements since the Town purchase include an Estero Bay kayak launch, the Shell Mound Exhibit where visitors walk inside the Calusa Indian Mound and landscaping signage that identifies the property’s distinctive flora and fauna.
Museum Director Alison Giesen and Education Coordinator Penny Jarrett reflect on the newest era of the Mound House, as well as future plans and goals. “The first year was about operations, programs and the visitor experience so guests learn in an active and enjoyable way,” reflects Alison. “We promote the Mound House as a cultural and environmental center but it is really a fun and creative outlet. That said, we are a success business-wise as well, exceeding all our initial revenue goals.”
Penny agrees, “We have come long way. The first time I bicycled here the house was boarded up and I thought, ‘What is this?’ A lot of people devoted a great deal of time to make this a reality; now it is such a pleasant visit for all ages and everyone is so complimentary.”
“We have at least one special event or program each day that we are open,” Alison offers, “and that will continue from January to April when we’ll be open every day except for Mondays, and those are in addition to our popular guided museum tours. A key to our immediate success will be the Tourist Development Council’s Arts & Attraction grant obtained by the Friends of the Mound House to really get out the word and aggressively market the site. Few things frustrate me more than when I hear someone say ‘I never heard about you.’ We hope increased marketing will reduce that reaction.”
Alison feels that one of their most successful functions was “hosting many Fort Myers Beach business owners here for an on-site social so they saw with their own eyes all we offer. We always tell people that they have to come to the Mound House and experience it for themselves, because once you do, you will discover it for the first time or rediscover it all over again. We would like to establish this same relationship with the island hotels in the near future. ”
“It is so rewarding to serve our community,” Alison says with a smile. “I love to see people when they walk away looking so happy. They often come in not knowing much about us, and then leave saying ’Wow!’ One of my favorite times with visitors is when they ask ‘where is the mound’ and I tell them ‘you are standing on it!’ The Mound House is a wonderful outlet to inform guests about our environment, early settlers, water quality, nature, plants and how we can be better stewards of all these things – you cannot discuss these important issues too often.”
Penny agrees, noting, “Our tours do not intimidate, overwhelm, or make you feel like you are studying for a final exam, but are an enjoyable format to allow you to absorb the knowledge. We are the perfect mix of education, entertainment and environment, plus I receive a lot of ‘Thank You’s!’ The time I spend here is a reward onto itself.”
In addition to its tour schedule and monthly programs, the Friends of the Mound House have two upcoming special events. On Saturday, November 5, a play written by Laurie Nienhaus, “If These Walls Could Talk” will be at St. Raphael’s Church at 5601 Williams Drive. It is a humorous spoof about some of the characters that lived at the Mound House in its early years. There is wine & cheese at 7 p.m., followed by the performance at 7:30. Tickets are available at the door for $25, with reserved seats for $30.
On December 3, the Friends of the Mound House hosts its annual Fundraising Luncheon, “A Taste of Christmas,” at the South Beach Grille at Santini Marina Plaza at Noon. There will be many exciting auction items, along with entertainment by Jo and Mark List to share the spirit of Christmas; call Ceel Spuhler at 239-765-6472 for tickets.
Mound House admission is $10 for ages 13 & up, $8 for students with IDs, $5 ages 6 to 12, and 5 & under free. Fort Myers Beach residents receive a 50% discount with proof of residence and access to the dog-friendly grounds is free. From May through December, the museum s open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and January through April from Tuesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Mound House is at 451 Connecticut Street, with additional parking at 216 Connecticut. For information call 239-765-0865 or see www.moundhouse.org.