Sanibel was an agricultural island with several advantages:
- The slightly warmer temperatures almost always assured a successful crop, and an earlier one than on mainland farms.
- There was fine topsoil and abundant water (the ponds that became the Sanibel River).
- Large grassy areas meant few trees needed to be cleared before crops could be planted.
- The island had an undulating topography of higher ridges and lower swales. In the dry season, farmers planted crops in the swales and collected scant rainwater. In the wet season, crops were planted on the ridges to prevent root rot from too much water
But there were disadvantages:
- Crops had to be shipped to a railroad terminal to go north; the closest one was in Punta Gorda, until the early 1900s when the railroad came to Fort Myers.
- Hurricane damage ended commercial farming in the 1920s after topsoil was either too salty or was washed away.
Please note in the garden:
- The garden at the Historical Village is meant to illustrate that Sanibel was a farming community. Early settlers grew vegetables and citrus in their “truck gardens,” enough to feed their families. In fact, the Bailey Store did not carry much in the way of produce, because families grew their own.
- Typical crops included tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, and watermelon. Our garden includes these and other vegetables as well as a mango and several citrus trees. Sanibel grapefruit at one time won recognition at state fairs and would have cost $1.25 each in New York City or Boston during the winter. Sanibel tomatoes were also highly prized and featured on the menus of the top hotels in New York City at $1.50 each.
- The garden also has castor beans, which were grown commercially after the Civil War for a few years as a cure for yellow fever. There are also coconut palm sprouts, pineapple (more popular in Punta Gorda), and agave (grown where the Sanctuary Golf Course is today) for its fiber that supplied material for the St. James City rope factory on Pine Island.
Please note that other plants growing in the village are native.
The Calusa used the area’s native plants in a variety of ways:
- Blue Porterweed – beer was made from the leaves
- Jamaica Dogwood – a hallucinogen was created from the bark
- Stopper – the leaves were brewed to calm intestinal problems
- Coontie – a flour and meal were ground from the tubular “cones”
- White Indigo Berry –dye was made for clothing
- Myrsine – The berries attract birds and butterflies
- Tobacco Bush – used as a filler for “cigarettes”
- Gumbo Limbo Tree – the bark was used for skin rashes
- Sea Grape – the “grapes” were used to make wine and jelly
- Dogwood – Also called “fish poison,” the Calusa would throw leaves on the water, which would stun the fish. They’d float up to the surface, and the fisherman could just grab them.
How coconuts got to Sanibel: Clarence Chadwick had them planted during the very early years of South Seas Plantation.