Florida remains in a population boom, increasing by roughly 650 people each day, with development constantly expanding neighborhoods and communities. In a state where 20 years ago seems like a long time, Robert Ballard is a 19th century kind of guy!
“I can trace my various families – the Ballards and Thigpens, the Youngs and Joiners, the Spearings and Summeralls, in Florida to as far back as the 1830s and in other regions further than that,” explains Robert, a well-known local historian and expert who will discuss this at the free Estero Island Historic Society (EIHS) Meeting on Monday, February 13, in the Fort Myers Beach Public Library at 7 p.m. “Notice that none of my family members are the wealthy aristocratic old-names like the Hendrys or Colliers; mine were the rural people out in the woods who lived off the land and eked out an existence.”
With so broad a family history, he will narrow it down for his presentation to the Spearing side from Cayo Costa back to 1888. “That was my Mothers’ side; she was born in Cayo Costa in 1929.” He will focus on early life in Pine Island, a land the Calusa called the Sound Home that was an important winter fishery for Cuban mullet.
Shaking Hands With Pilgrims
“I became interested in my family history as a teenager and started to ask Dad where do we come from, and he was kind of a wise-acre and said ‘I don’t know where we come from but we were already here to shake the hand of the first Pilgrim when they got off the boat!’ That may be a little exaggeration, but my Dad’s side first came down from Georgia to Florida early enough to fight in the first Seminole War with General Andrew Jackson’s army to remove the Indians from 1816 to 1819. My ancestor must have liked what he saw and came back.”
As for his mother’ side, “even though Mom was born in Cayo Costa, I could not figure out how her family came to Southwest Florida, as Grandpa was born in the Panhandle and his dad near Jacksonville. It turns out that my great-great uncle acquired 110 acres of land on Cayo Costa in 1888, with his sister another 60-some, and that was the connection.”
Robert traces the Ballards back to Jamestown, Virginia, in the 1630s; “there was a Ballard in the House of Burgess Commonwealth and when we took a trip to the Capital in Richmond, his name is on the wall. From the Thigpen side, we go back to the 1640s and the Virginia-North Carolina border, and we visited their former plantation and my great-great-great-grandfather’s law office building. One of my great-great-great-grandfathers served during The American Revolutionary War and helped blaze the trail down to Apalachicola, the first step that led the Thigpens to Englewood. There are still Thigpen trail markers in Georgia – they are a huge family and the subject of the book, ‘The Thigpen Tribe.’”
Interestingly, his library presentation is on the Spearing Family, “and I have the least amount of information on them than any other branch, going back to my great-great-grandfather to Clinton, Maine. He is the only Yankee in the family but oddly enough served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He had a daughter who married William Nelson Murdock, of Murdock Cove and Murdock Point. He was a Civil War overseer of seacoast plantations in the Charleston area, and their marriage most likely did not work out, as he relocated to Massachusetts and she here. He eventually ended up in New Hampshire, not too far from where I would one day live, so it is funny how these things work out the more and more you learn. Even though it is my least researched, I can go on for hours with this stuff!”
Mutiny On The Bounty
He finds tracing his background “fascinating! Some segments of the families I take all the way back to Europe. One Thigpen was 8-years-old when his father died so he became a ship’s cabin boy, and then eventually a captain captured on the Barbary Coast and sold into slavery on a ship for 7 or 8 years, before leading a mutiny and sailing back to Spain. The Spanish King wanted him to become a Catholic and lead the navy but he did not want to convert so he bought a ship and returned to England – amazing! I think about Dad’s old joke not being too far off!”
His biggest connection to date was finding the 1888 link to Cayo Costa “because that filled in a gap from 1927. I can’t tell you how many years I beat my head against the wall, and then all of a sudden everything comes out and that is a wonderful feeling. That was one of the best finds for me because it reestablished the connection down here and suddenly everything else made sense.”
Robert himself grew up in Bokeelia on north Pine Island, saying “you don’t run into too many Floridians on a shuffleboard court or golf course – you have to come out and look for us. I enjoy a wonderful life, as we lived in a nice fishhouse as my mom and dad ran the Bokeelia dock, with Dad unloading the ice and fish, before he went to work for a Fort Myers physician who had an 11,000-acre Pine Island ranch for 8 years. I tell people I had the ranching life and fishing life and they get confused and think I am a lying SOB! The reality is I had the best of both worlds; as a kid I romped on the 11,000 acres with woods and cows and fishing ponds and birds and hunting – I just didn’t play cowboy; I was a real cowboy!”
When Robert was a teenager, “we could drive Pine Island Road back & forth to Downtown Fort Myers to check out the action at 120 miles-per-hour and just fly! What were working ranches with cows on Del Prado Boulevard are now an industrial park. I worked to help open The Edison Mall and to build the old gymnasium at the former Edison Junior College, and flew out of Page Field before there was a Regional Southwest International Airport. Those are wonderful memories; I wish I could say there is a good part to all our drastic changes over the years, but this is still home, and when I go out to Bokeelia to our family cottage and get on the water, it is home even more.”
The Rape of The Land
The worst part to him “is the population explosion and its resulting rape of the land. I am a member of several environmental groups to try to protect our clean water supply and the mangroves, but sadly we cannot save it all. Civilization here used to end at the Fort Myers County Club until you got to Bonita Springs, then it was empty again until you reached Naples; now that is all solid development without much open land and that is what hurts me the most, and there is no slowing down. People are happy once more because we are undergoing a building boom but I ask ‘how much more can we take?’ Would I like to go back to the Gold Old Days – most of it, sure, but I don’t miss having salt water rather than fresh water, or the hordes of mosquitos.”
Despite his love and passion for Southwest Florida, Robert relocated to the New England area in his early 20s until returning 17 years ago, calling it “a 31-year tour of duty! For a native Floridian who finds 50 degrees cold, living through 31 winters was brutal!” Oddly, he has pangs of guilt about that decision all those years ago: “families stayed close together but at 21 I moved north and that hurt my Dad, then I made it worse when I convinced my little brother to move to Connecticut with me. Now I did it to my children when I relocated back here and they remained up north because that is their home. My son is a small-town New England boy who enjoys the cold weather and rural setting.”
People are always telling Robert to write a book, “and I even started to jot down little stories, but these are more for my kids and grandkids – I have one 8-year-old grandson who just eats these up, and when my kids were little and asked for a bedtime story, they didn’t want something made up but asked Daddy to tell them what life was like when I was a little boy! It would be hard to write a book that makes sense of all these short stories.”
For Robert, exploring his past is “a burning passion, but you need a great deal of time. Technology now is fantastic, as you can go online for records and archives and military information, but sometimes the most exciting thing is to personally go to local libraries and historical societies and site visits to uncover those little nuggets and treasures on your own.”
Robert’s free Historic Society Meeting presentation is Monday, February 13, at the Fort Myers Beach Public Library at 7 p.m. The Historic Society offers free monthly historic presentations open to the public during season. The Historic Cottage at 161 Bay Road, just south of the Beach Library, is open Wednesday and Saturday 10am-noon year-round. Admission is free. Stop by for a glimpse into the Island’s fascinating history.