April 21, 2020 – Visitors to the Sanibel Historical Village can explore Burnap Cottage, an 1898 fishing cottage built by Sam Woodring. The building sat on the tip of Tarpon Bay for about 100 years before being moved to the village. Photos of Esperanza Woodring, Sam’s widow, adorn the walls. At Sam’s death, Esperanza took over and became the leading fishing guide on the island. Her stove and sewing machine are on display in the cottage.
The building’s name 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 the cottage for tarpon fishing in the bay every November until his death in 1910.
A number of features of island life are on display in Burnap Cottage, including a Fresnel lens in the back room. This lens was on a lightship before it was moved to the Sanibel lighthouse, where it was in use from 1962 to 1982. A lot of information about the Sanibel lighthouse fills the back room, including schematics and a timeline of the lighthouse keepers, all of them with interesting stories to tell.
In one corner hangs a stained glass window above a small organ, reminders that this building was also used by itinerant preacher George Gatewood for Sunday services when Burnap was not using the cottage. At one time, the window lighted the stairs to the second floor.
Burnap Cottage also houses photographs and memorabilia from the Algiers, Sanibel’s first “mega mansion.” It all began in 1925 in a Cincinnati shipyard where a workhorse boat was built to haul automobiles across the Mississippi. The boat had been a car ferry for 25 years until a wealthy Boston couple with a fondness for quirky fixer-uppers bought it at an auction in 1958.
Lathrop and Helen Brown brought the 155-foot boat to Sanibel in 1959 to the 25 beach-front acres they had bought after vacationing on the island. They were no ordinary vacationers, though, as Helen was a shipping heiress, and Lathrop was a New York congressman and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s college roommate and best man.
They gave the rather plain boat a glamorous makeover, retrofitting the exterior with antebellum trimmings, a huge paddle wheel, feathered smokestacks, and vintage gingerbread. Inside, they created a palace with Italian terrazzo tiles, French marble countertops, and sinks inlaid with gold seahorses and gold-plated dolphin faucets. There was an elevator and a restaurant-equipped kitchen boasting a fairly new-fangled invention: the microwave.
To get the Algiers to its Sanibel destination, the Browns had it pulled by tugboat. They hired crews to cut a channel through the island’s interior which they filled in behind themselves as they went. The Browns had borrowed the volunteer fire department’s pump truck to help move water in the canal.
Lathrop died suddenly soon thereafter.
Broken-hearted, Helen returned to Boston, never to return to Sanibel and never to sleep in her “dream boat.” Eventually, she put it up for sale for $550,000 and in 1979, when the newly incorporated city of Sanibel was looking to acquire more beachfront land, it was suggested they consider the Brown property. The deal closed in 1981, but by then, the boat was dangerously dilapidated. Though there was talk of using it as city hall or leasing it for a restaurant, it was beyond repair. After everything salvageable was stripped and auctioned, the city had the Algiers demolished in 1982. The one building left standing was the servants’ quarters, which were converted into the restrooms at Sanibel’s Gulfside City Park, also known as Algiers Beach.
From the boat itself, just a few things remain: the captain’s wheel, the anchor, and the bell, all of which are on display at the Burnap Cottage in the Sanibel Historical Village.
Burnap Cottage eventually became a home, and an extension and second story were added. When the building was moved to the historical village, the volunteer group known as the “Hammerheads” restored the cottage to its original condition.
Located at 950 Dunlop Road on Sanibel, next to BIG ARTS, the historical village is closed at this time until further notice due to the coronavirus pandemic. A re-opening date is uncertain at this time.