SANIBEL’S BEST KNOWN SITES
THE COMMUNITY HOUSE (1928) – The Community House was truly a community project. It started in 1927 on land donated by Cordelia and Lettie Nutt and was completed in 1928 after generous contributions from Sam Woodring and Frank Bailey. Sam provided the seed money and Frank got folks to donate materials. Donating his time as well as money, Curtis Perry, an artist who lived at Island Inn (then known as The Matthews), visited every home on the island seeking subscriptions. Frank Martin, a local carpenter, was responsible for the building. Frank Bailey supervised the construction and served as treasurer. The two had worked together the year before constructing the “new” Bailey Store in 1926.
In 1935, a serious hurricane damaged the roof. Since money was scarce during the Depression, local residents repaired the roof.
Island shell shows were first held at The Matthews but were moved to the Community House in 1936 and called the “Shell Fair.” Dr. Louise Perry, who believed that Sanibel people should help one another and thus took no money for her services, was instrumental in organizing the shell fairs, shell exhibits, and other affairs at the Community House.
Some of the activities at the Community House included evening dances, school functions, tea parties, community plays, and holiday celebrations.
THE CAUSEWAY (1963; replaced 2007) – By 1959, Sanibel and Captiva had become so popular that four ferries could hardly handle the traffic. Cars were lined up for more than a mile to board the boats, which could accommodate only a few automobiles at a time. There was repeated talk of a bridge. Hugo Lindgren, a businessman from Jamestown, New York, offered to finance the bonds for the bridge, provided it terminated on land he owned on Sanibel at Shell Harbor. The Lee County Commission approved this idea, which proved to be controversial. An opposition group took its cause to the Florida Supreme Court – only to lose. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others warned about the impact of a bridge on the natural environment, but the Lee Country government saw the bridge as a commercial venture. The Fish and Wildlife Service recommended the roadway be entirely supported by pilings, but this was rejected as being too expensive. The adopted plan provided for three connection bridges and the dredging of the bay bottom to provide fill for two islands where the water was quite shallow. The islands altered bay life, the bridges, and island life.
When it was completed in 1963, the causeway cost $5 million. It paid for itself many times over with two-thirds of the income going to Lee County, which was charged with maintaining the bridges. The causeway opened on May 26, 1963, the date of the last ferry run.
Over the years, drivers complained about the delay caused when the bridge opened for boat traffic, and boaters were unhappy about long waits in between the drawbridge openings. But it was damage from constant and ever-increasing traffic, the relentless wave action, and lack of maintenance that eventually led to Lee County’s insistence that the causeway be rebuilt. Again, there was opposition; many Sanibel residents believed the first causeway could be rehabilitated. The county prevailed and a new causeway, with a high fixed-span bridge to eliminate the drawbridge, was completed in 2007 at a cost of $50 million.
THE SANIBEL COMMUNITY CHURCH (“The Little Brown Church”) – The Reverend George Barnes, the “mountain preacher” from Kentucky, first visited Sanibel in 1888 while on a vacation. His houseboat ran aground on a sandbar off the beach. Believing this was God’s plan, the Barnes family filed homestead claims near where they landed. Shortly after building a home, Rev. Barnes built a church, known as the Church of the Four Gospels, which reportedly held 200 congregants. This building was severely damaged in the hurricane of 1910 and very little was salvageable. Some church pews were rescued and have been incorporated into the present church on Periwinkle Way, next door to Jerry’s Shopping Center.
After the hurricane destroyed their church, the community worshipped at the School for White Children on Sundays. In 1914, the majority of the churchgoers were Methodists, so the denomination was organized with an elderly English minister named George E. Day, and plans were drawn up for a new church.
The Mitchell family donated land for a new church building, and money was raised from food and bake sales. Construction was underway by 1917, with materials being shipped to the Wulfert boat landing and carted to the church site down the sandy, rutted road by mule-drawn wagons. Islanders donated the labor, and the job was finished in 1919.
Church services were held only once a month when the pastor came from Fort Myers. Sunday school for all ages was held on the other Sundays. By 1925, the church was out of debt but then the hurricane of 1926 altered the island, its population, and the church. With the good topsoil being washed away, most of the farm families left Sanibel. With fewer members, church services were held only when a minister came from the mainland.
In 1938, Reverend Alexander Linn, a Presbyterian Missions worker, was charged with re-opening the church on Sanibel since the Methodists had no plans to do so. Services were held year-round starting in 1950. In the mid-1950s, there was discussion about building a new church, but the Methodist Church agreed to sell the building and land.
More land was purchased for a parking lot. New transepts were added as well as a cement front porch, new front doors, a new pump, and ceiling lights.
The “Little Brown Church” is now Sanibel Community Church.
THE WULFERT AREA – Today the area is known as the Sanctuary Golf Club, but at the end of the 19th century, this land supported a small farming community with some interesting characters. The Calusa had been in this area many centuries before, but the first white settlers were Oliver Fellows Bowen and his wife, Mary Dos Santos. Bowen had been a Mississippi River pilot, a pilot for the Confederate River Defense Force, a fresco and sign painter, a resident of Venezuela and, finally, an unsuccessful farmer on Sanibel. Mary, who was his third wife, once remarked, “The only time Oliver ever made any money on Sanibel was when he killed a snake and sold the skin!”
It was Mason Dwight who gave his name to “Dwight Settlement” in 1897. His farming partner was Thomas Holloway, whose house was moved and renamed “The White Heron House.”
Jennie and Lewis Doane farmed, held séances, were rumored to be starting a spiritualist community, kept their coffins in the parlor, and took care of the mail. Lewis delivered and Jennie was the postmaster. When the postal inspector came by to assign a name to the village, she told him “Doane.” Not unexpectedly, Mason Dwight said his own name. Eventually the post officer named the community “Wulfert.” Ahead of her time, Jennie wore calf-length skirts over PANTS!
Josiah Dinkins and his wife, possibly a former fat lady in a circus, put in an extensive orchard and carried on a continuous spat with neighbor Father Stahley. The Gibsons moved in on New Year’s Day, 1900.
Eventually, there would be five generations of Decatur/Gibson/Stokes Sanibelians. Robert Bowman, another settler, never finished his homestead claim but left his name on the beach.
A school was built in 1902 for 19 students, and the Fort Myers Press claimed Wulfert was “an up and coming” town.
Wulfert recovered from the hurricane of 1921, but when the devastating hurricane of 1926 wiped out another crop, the “Florida Boom” came to an end for Wulfert. Land was eventually sold for a fraction of its earlier value, buildings were abandoned, and only a few trees from the original groves remained. Surveys in the late 1980s and early 1990s revealed some lime trees, papayas, a fading roadway, and some dumping areas.
There were also some surprises – a large concrete cistern, a wooden-sided well only a foot or two deep, the rusting remains of farm equipment, and the remnants of the Gibson packinghouse. The Calusa had been there long before. A careful archaeological survey found a crescent-shaped shell impoundment, possibly used to capture fish, turtles, and/or more shells. A small area of habitation was also found.
Oddly enough, an Indian shell mound excavated in the area produced 19th century enamelware, 20th century plastic, and on top of it all, a golf ball!