AN ABBREVIATED HISTORICAL VILLAGE TOUR
We’re going to take you back to the late 1800s on Sanibel and show you what life was like for the pioneers who braved the harsh conditions of the time.
Our village is not really a village. These buildings were brought here from their original places on the island so they could be preserved and shared with you.
Sanibel started as a farming community, much different from what it is now. Life was hard.
Farmers used mules and worked for generations without modern equipment. Horses and cows couldn’t live on the island because of the mosquitoes. Before Mosquito Control was founded in 1953, the mosquitoes were measured with a New Jersey Light Trap set overnight at the ferry landing. Generally, 25 mosquitoes in a trap constitute an annoyance. One hundred are a problem. If you get up to 2,000 in a night, they get in your throat, your ears, and boil around your legs. Mosquitoes are very much of a problem at 2,000. On September 15, 1950, right at the ferry landing, in one trap in one night, they collected 365,000 salt marsh mosquitoes.
These were brave, tough people.
Shore Haven (1924). Shore Haven, where you entered and bought your ticket, is the museum’s newest acquisition, moved here in 2012 and opened to the public in 2014. Here you can watch the fifteen-minute film on the Island history. The home is a Sears and Roebuck kit house, purchased in 1924 by Ross and Daisy Mayer. Ross Mayer and his brother, Martin, were contractors in Erie, Pennsylvania who had often vacationed on Sanibel. In the 1920s, they decided to buy land on San Carlos bay, near the Sanibel Packing Company. Both families bought Sears houses and built them next to each other, sharing an artesian well and a generator, as well as a bath house and the caretakers’ cottage that we have here at the Village. Daisy Mayer, who lived in Shore Haven, loved to fish and could often be seen on the fishing pier behind their house. The exterior of Shore Haven has been restored to its 1924 look, except for the sun porch – a modern addition.
The Sears Roebuck kit homes were available through the Modern Homes catalogue of Honor Bilt Homes from 1909 until the 1940s. The homes were very popular with “factory” towns because a large company could order as many as needed for their employees and have them constructed in the same location. They were extremely well-built houses, available in three grades. Sanibel’s two examples are of the middle grade. Shore Haven is the “Verona” model and Morning Glories is the smaller “Springwood” model. The electric lights and the bathroom were unusual on the island at that time. Shore Haven and Morning Glories shared a generator, which allowed enough power for lights and plumbing pump but not enough for a refrigerator.
Morning Glories (1926). This historic cottage was milled in New Jersey in 1925 and came to Sanibel in kit form in 1926, purchased by Martin and Ada Mayer. It arrived in 30,000 pieces by rail and barge and cost $2,211. Morning Glories was a sister home to Shore Haven, built by Ross and Daisy Mayer (see above). Martin and Ada had adopted two children, Isabel and Robert. Five years after moving into “Morning Glories,” Ada died. Martin hired a housekeeper and governess, Ava, who became part of the family for almost the rest of her life.
Please note a few things about this building:
- The porch across the back of the house faced away from the bay (an interesting choice!)
- Electricity was fairly new to the island when these houses were built, and the light fixtures were installed upside-down.
- The built-in features (bookcases, buffet, kitchen cupboards, etc.) were purchased from the catalogue at additional cost.
This building and its sister house, Shore Haven, illustrate the gradual transformation of Sanibel Island from an agricultural settlement populated primarily by hardy pioneers into a community serving tourism and “snowbirds,” come to escape northern winters.
Caretakers’ Cottage (c. 1930). This cottage was built not long after Shore Haven and Morning Glories as a multi-purpose building serving both homes. At one point it was the caretakers’ cottage and later served as a guest cottage. A similar structure (or possibly this one) housed a generator, making the Mayer brothers’ homes among the first houses in Sanibel to have electricity – the Bailey Homestead was the first. Frank Bailey got a generator as a present for his wife Annie Mead Matthew Bailey so it would be there when she returned from having their first baby. (It wasn’t until the 1940s that commercial electricity arrived on the island.)
The Gavins, one of the earliest black families on the island, were caretakers of the Mayer homes for a time and the cottage now tells the story of black settlement on the island.
Bailey’s General Store (1927). Frank Bailey, one of the island’s early homesteaders, came to farm in 1895. He soon purchased the buildings on Mathews Wharf and set up a packing house for shipping out produce. This, in time, became the island’s only general store. In the 1926 hurricane the entire wharf was swept away and, within a year, Frank Bailey rebuilt, this time on the shore. The only thing that remains of the first store was the steel safe (now in the corner), which was dragged out of the water. The store was, in many ways, the social center of the island. It had telegraph and telephone service, a freight dock, and after 1926, a ferry landing. People voted here, socialized, and shopped for everything essential. The store’s slogan was “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”
When the causeway was built, in 1963, the store was no longer at the geographical heart of the islands and the Baileys moved it to its present location, where it is still run by the Bailey family.
The Post Office (1926). The first post office on Sanibel was in Laetitia Nutt’s home, Gray Gables. Laetitia Nutt was the wife of a Civil War officer. After he died (after the Civil War), Laetitia moved with her daughters and her brother to Sanibel to be a homesteader. Her Homesteading Certificate, in her name alone, is dated 1895 and was signed by Grover Cleveland. Laetitia was postmistress on Sanibel from 1889 to 1895. George Cooper also collected mail during this time on Pine Island.
The next postmaster was Will Reed (what a perfect name for a postmaster!). Will Reed served as postmaster for forty years. He operated out of his own home until it was destroyed in the 1926 hurricane; the same one that destroyed Bailey’s store on the wharf. Mr. Reed and island children gathered up the floating wood, scraps from the buildings destroyed by the storm, and built this post office. Look up. You’ll see that the building is made out of odds and ends, all pieced together.
Rural mail delivery was established on Sanibel in 1900. The sack of mail was dropped off at Reed’s Landing until the post office was moved to the ferry landing.
Will Reed played on a local baseball team called “The Sanibel Tomato Pickers.” That’s him, in the corner, sorting mail. Mr. Reed’s daughter Hazel became postmistress after her father.
Miss Charlotta’s Tea Room (1926). This building, built by the Baileys, was originally meant to be a gas station to service trucks transporting produce. The hurricane of 1926 changed hose plans when it destroyed the Bailey Packing Company on Mathews Wharf. The gas station became a temporary store until the Baileys rebuilt the store in 1927. (This time on the shore, and with their own gas pumps). The building was then given to Frank Bailey’s sister-in-law, Charlotta Matthews, to use as a tea room, servicing those arriving or departing by ferry. The women might order tea or refreshments that came from the Island Inn (operated by Miss Charlotta’s mother, Hallie or better known as Granny) while the men could go out back and play miniature golf on the island’s first golf course. In 1934, the Kinzie Brothers started a new ferry service that docked at the end of Ferry Road, and Miss Charlotta closed the Tea Room. The building was used to house island school teachers until the 1950s.
The Burnap Cottage (1898). This cottage was built by Sam Woodring as a fishing camp. It sat on the tip of Tarpon Bay. Note the photos of Sam’s widow, Esperanza Woodring, who, at his death, took over and became the leading fishing guide on the island.
The cottage became a home. An extension and a second story were added. Note the picture (hanging in the corner) showing the building lifted up and prepared for moving to our museum. When it got here, volunteers called “The Hammerheads” restored the cottage to its original condition.
The name Burnap refers to Hiram Burnap, a retired businessman from Toledo, Ohio, who added the cottage to his southern fishing retreat in 1902. He and his friends used it until his death in 1910.
The Fresnel lens in the back room, was on a lightship before it was moved to the Sanibel Lighthouse, where it was in use from 1962 to 1982.
The stained glass window and small organ is a reminder that this building was also used by itinerant preacher George Gatewood for Sunday services. The window, at one time, lighted the stairs to the second floor.
Note the picture of The Algiers, our first “mega-mansion.” It was brought here from New Orleans. A trench was dug and it was floated ashore. Unfortunately, the owner died and the boat was never lived in, and after auctioning off as much as could be removed, the rest, considered a hazard, was burned by the city as practice for island firefighters. Outside the door is the bell and the anchor from the boat.
The shell collections are from three lighthouse keepers, Roscoe McLean, Clarence Rutland, and Bob England.
The School House for White Children (1896). The school was originally located on Bailey Road and Periwinkle and then moved farther west on Periwinkle in 1903, using rollers, a winch, and mules. An addition was added in the 1930s to accommodate grades 1-4. Older children, through grade 8, were in the original part of the building (the part we have here). The student whose desk was the closest to the stove was responsible for keeping the fire fed on cold days. Grades were separated in rows running from front to back, and a play area was in the corner for younger students who had finished their lessons. One of the first teachers, Lettie Nutt, received $2.50 per student per semester.
Another school on Tarpon Bay Road (now Lily’s Jewelers) opposite the Bailey Shopping Center, educated the black children. When Sanibel’s present school was built in 1963, it was still segregated. But after peacefully petitioning for integration, the very next year it became the first integrated school in Lee County.
When the present school was built, this building became a theater, the Pirate Playhouse. The chalkboard stayed on the wall even through its 40 years as a theater. When the Playhouse closed its doors, Sam Bailey, who had been a student in this building, was instrumental in bringing it to the museum and seeing it restored to the school he remembered.
The Rutland House (1913). The house was built in 1913 and was located on Periwinkle Way, just to the west of Periwinkle Trailer Park (opposite the Dairy Queen). This is a fine example of a Florida “cracker house.” It has high ceilings for ventilation and is raised off the ground to protect against flooding. The house is constructed of slash pine. The resin hardens and protects the wood from insects and water (but is more susceptible to fire). The hip roof is tin, meant to reflect heat, deflect windstorms and collect rain water.
Clarence Rutland was the son of Irene Rutland and Henry Shanahan, whom Irene married after her first husband’s death. Henry Shanahan was the lighthouse keeper in the early 1900s. Clarence purchased this home in 1928 and lived here
until his death in 1982. He was a fisherman, farmer, and contractor. He and his wife, Ruth, had no children, but everyone referred to him as Uncle Clarence. Ruth was ill and died 30 years before Clarence. After Clarence Rutland’s death, the building was brought here and for a number of years it was our entire museum.
The Calusa room, on your left as you enter, tells the story of the island’s original inhabitants, before the arrival of Ponce De Leon. In the kitchen you will note what could be done without electrical service. The bedroom will remind you that, until the 1950s, Sanibel was the mosquito capital of the world. When people could afford them, screens were put in windows, but when mosquitos covered the screens, no one could see out!
The Museum Store, on the back porch of Rutland House, sells a variety of items related to Sanibel History as well as many books on the island’s history.