Part Four: Historic buildings and celebrities
Europe and Asia measure the age of their historic buildings in the thousands of years, but on Estero Island (known from the 19-teens to the 1940s or so as Crescent Beach), no still-standing structures can even blow out a hundred candles. Still, as this tropical retreat grew from a fishing outpost into a permanent settlement, enterprising residents built a variety of landmarks that weathered devastating hurricanes and financial crashes to endure – in some form – today.
Marine facility: Sanders’ Boat Yard – 1905
George Sanders, an original member of the Koreshan Unity in Estero, broke away from the Koreshan sect to start the island’s first boatyard and marine ways, with an attached small store, in 1905. The “International Trading Co.” was a wooden structure built out to the channel on Estero Bay at Sanders Street, around the middle of the island.
By 1940 son George Jr. had taken over the boat building and repairs at his home site and repair shop on seven acres. Many charter boats and shrimp boats were on the marine ways or in dry-dock during the 1950’s and 60’s.
By 1969 the Sanders property was sold to Steve and Carol Terry, who cleared the land to build their home and Mid-Island Marina. It offered covered storage, bait and gas plus a boat barn. Restaurants The Rusty Pelican and Fernando’s followed.
In 2003 the Publix supermarket and adjacent parking lot erased the Sanders street sign on Estero Boulevard (a trolley stop marks where the sign stood). The Publix parking lot serves as the entrance to Sanders Roadway where Snook Bight Marina now stands. Bayfront Bistro Restaurant is on the Terrys’ home site, with expanded floating docks again reaching out to the channel where the International Trading Company began more than a century earlier.
Retail: The Cotton Shop – 1933
One of the island’s oldest, still active retail landmarks sits just south of Crescent Beach Family Park on the Gulf side of Estero Boulevard. The distinctive stucco building once known as The Cotton Shop now houses a cigar store and other businesses.
A wooden structure that started as a grocery store, the “Pelican Building” was built on the site in 1933 by C.Littleton Yent. It became Thompson’s Juke Joint, known for its jukebox and drug store with soda fountain. According to Jean Gottlieb’s book Coconuts & Coquinas, the store also sold beer and “bottled martinis. There was no limitation. Kids could go in and buy it just like you buy a Coke.”
Replaced in the 1950s by the current concrete and coquina-rock structure, it housed the post office for a few years before its incarnation as a dry-goods store that provided the name still used among old-timers: The Cotton Shop.
Religious: Chapel by the Sea – 1938
Crescent Beach’s first church, then nondenominational Chapel by the Sea, was a long, cottage-style building with a wooden steeple facing – what else – Chapel Street. By the 1950s other churches appeared and Chapel by the Sea was designated Presbyterian.
Today’s Chapel by the Sea on Estero Boulevard’s 2500 block features long, sweeping lines and resembles a pale-gray modern ark. But the old Chapel building lives on. In 1985 it was relocated to Harlem Heights, where the original Chapel by the Sea continues to serve its community.
Educational: Fort Myers Beach Public Library – 1955
By the early 1950s Fort Myers Beach had 70 students attending junior and senior high schools in Fort Myers, in addition to local children attending 2 island kindergartens and Grades 1 – 6 at the Beach School. A circulating library became a pressing need.
The Clem and Lucy McGee cottage at 1698 Estero Boulevard opened as the first Beach Library in 1955, thanks to an initial donation from the Beach Woman’s Club and payment of half the rent by local Realtor, Clem McGee. The tiny space rented for $300 per year, and could hold no more than 5 patrons. If more visitors came, the volunteer librarian, Marge Quigg, had to step outside.
The first Beach Library housed 1,200 books classified by the Dewey Decimal System; most of them donated, used volumes. Increased demands led to relocation and the addition of more books. Finally, in 1961, the island’s first purpose-built library opened. Relocated in 1994 and fully modernized in 2012, the Library remains a point of pride and a popular community-gathering place.
The small original library building is still in use today as a retail shop and office for The Sea Gypsy Inn.
The Rich, the Famous and the Infamous
Among the earliest celebrity visitors to the quiet tropical haven that was Crescent Beach were Thomas and Mina Edison. Mina was known to take tea and visit with friends at the Red Coconut Trailer Park.
World-renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife, author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, visited these shores a number of times. Charles may have flown in and used the landing strip on the south end of the island, later the site of the Fort Myers Beach Golf Club.
As for other famous visitors, Jean Gottlieb’s Coconuts and Coquinas says: “James Jones is said to have worked on his novel From Here to Eternity while he was on the Beach; Myrna Loy, former President Harry Truman, the writer Elizabeth Bishop, Perry Como and movie stars Frances Langford and Jon Hall were among the famous visitors to the island.”
The book also recounts a supposed visit by a notorious gangster (year unspecified): “Al Capone refuged on the beach once – took a very nice big house – [and] had two guards. They ‘hid’ behind the palm trees. Capone was ill and stayed indoors much of the time, but his guards were very affable fellows.”
The Winkler Hotel – later the Beach Hotel – was said to have a number of famous guests, but the register was closely guarded and those names have vanished into the sands of time.
Who knows what other famous faces have managed to slip past island radar and enjoy our island incognito?
Please report any sightings to the Editor!
The March 10 issue of Sands of Time will look at fishing in the glory days of the recreational and commercial fisheries and early attempts to preserve our fragile ecosystem.