October 20, 2014

Going, Going ... But Not Gone

After living 22 winters in Naples, with random, off-season visits, I think of myself as at least part Floridian. I love the area deeply and have experienced South Florida not only through my own life, but also through those of the characters in the three novels I’ve set here. It’s not that I have chosen to write about this unique, beautiful part of our country; rather, it has chosen me.

But I’m struck now at how much things are changing—and the very real possibility of losing so much of Old Florida that we treasure the most. I know the preservationists are hard at work and most fervently wish all this new progress wouldn’t wipe out the places and traditions that have given Southwest Florida its valued character.

INEVITABLE CHANGES
Putting aside the predictions of those who insist global warming will inundate low-lying areas like South Florida, we know that some changes are inevitable. We’ve come a long way since the original land developers promoted South Florida land as unsettled—unsettled by their standards, which ignored the Seminoles and other deep Everglades’ denizens. Early brochures touted the area as "The Italy of America—the Only True Sanitarium of the Occidental Hemisphere!"

Once visitors and residents began to arrive, they hunted for bear and panther nearby. Charles Lindbergh, a guest at Henry Ford’s home in Fort Myers, flew into Naples using Sixth Street as his runway. The now defunct Club 41 entertained the likes of Gary Cooper and Gloria Swanson. Thomas Edison drove several hours in a Model T Ford down from Fort Myers for the then-extravagant price of a $2 dinner at the old Naples Hotel (located where the Third Street South shops and parking are today).

Since the late 1980s and ’90s, other changes have rolled in like waves on the shore. My husband and I once knew where to find fabulous shells. South of Doctor’s Pass in Naples, myriads of perfect, left-handed whelks washed in; closer to Gordon Pass lay the big olives and six-inch-long Old Maid’s Curls; and, almost anywhere along the sugary sand, droves of rainbow-hued coquina upended and re-buried themselves after each big wave. Maybe because of the widening of the beach or re-dredging of boat channels, most of these shells are now rarer than original Shaker furniture.

Across the mouth of the Gordon River from Keewaydin Island, we used to hike around the turn of the coast. Then, only a German shepherd guarding a ramshackle house made us walk in the water. Today, a huge home and guesthouse occupy that stretch of sand. Once on that beach, we ran across Secret Service agents keeping an eye out before former President George Bush dropped by to host a fundraiser for his son’s presidential bid. Now the grapevine bushes are so thick there that we can’t turn the corner anymore. Yet blessedly in Naples, the beach still has public access and is beautifully conserved and maintained.

WARNING SIGNS
Many times along the Gulfshore, we watched local fishing boats netting hundreds of mullet by trapping them against the shore and then hauling them in. But—for good or bad—the net ban of 1995 ended that. Yet the local Combs Fish Company boats still deliver fresh fish to the back door of Kelly’s Fish House, where we watched men in orange hip boots hose off their decks after they came in with their catch.

Opened in 1952, and operated by its current owners since 1972, Kelly’s is the oldest seafood restaurant in Naples. After a dinner of hushpuppies, slaw and macadamia nut-encrusted mahi-mahi, I recently spoke with owner Kelly McGill, who is still going strong.

"My son, John, manages everything now, and my daughter, Shirley, makes the pies and other desserts," she told me. Located next to Tin City on U.S. 41—with a motif of local shells scattered on walls and displayed beneath the glass-topped tables—it’s got an Old Florida ambience while feeling modern as well.

And the Gulf itself? You don’t have to be in the area long to know about red tide, but more dire colors than the green flash are on the watery horizon: Black water events, also called dead zones, are showing up throughout the Gulf of Mexico. These areas lack oxygen and kill plant and animal life. Old fishermen say they used to be able to see about 25 feet down into the water, but now they see barely three feet.

The Naples Daily News series called "Deep Trouble: The Gulf in Peril" reports that before heavy local development, Naples Bay took water from the surrounding 10 miles of land and estuaries. Now it is the watershed for 120 square miles, reaching as far away as Golden Gate Estates. So with fertilizer and other pollution runoff, we can hardly be surprised that sea grass meadows and other life in the aquatic food chain are endangered.

Water once teemed with snook, tarpon, redfish, mullet and grouper, especially in the Ten Thousand Islands, a favorite setting of mine for my suspense novels. But it, too, is in trouble and not just because boaters have occasionally come across floating "square mullet" (shrink-wrapped drugs dropped from a plane). Although I was never honored to meet the late "Totch" Brown, a famous—and infamous—old-time gator hunter and colloquial historian of the area, I’ve listened to hours of tapes he made. He said you used to be able to hear "mullet pouring up the river in Chokoloskee, jumping three feet out of the water." He claimed 50-pound fish hid in the trout grass around Chok (what the locals call Chokoloskee Island). Of course, we know how it is with fishermen’s tales, but most fiction is based on fact—honestly.

GOODLAND—FAR FROM GONE
I’ve researched and written about several fascinating topics that used to be synonymous with South Florida. Florida panthers (OK, the closest I got to them was through a wire fence at Babcock Wilderness Adventures north of Fort Myers) are seen in ever-dwindling numbers and their gene pool has been altered by mating with cougars imported from Texas. I’ve used the settings of the deep ’glades, although I have not yet seen the so-called Skunk Ape, the ’glades version of the Abominable Snowman.

I also came to admire a little place that receives scant notice and likes it that way—Goodland. This small and independent-minded enclave beyond the south end of Marco Island still lives its own history. The Goodland water tower is painted with endangered species, which I’ve always regarded as the symbol for the entire town. More than once, I’ve seen its citizens wearing T-shirts emblazoned with what seems to be their motto: "Goodland, Fla. A drinking village with a fishing problem." Despite the onslaught of luxury homes at its borders, cats and dogs still snooze in the streets, and the VIPs of the town are venerable old-timers like Stan Gober. He is the founder of the wild and crazy Mullet Festival held each January, where the Buzzard Lope dance contest beckons.
Dancing With the Stars? Try dancing the Buzzard Lope under the stars in feathers while singing Stan’s original song, "Flap your wings. Take a step back and go round and round …" Even Stan’s Web site is fun: www.stansidlehour.net.

But my favorite old-time Goodlander, Elhanon Combs, is the proud guardian of the Fountain of Youth. Combs bought the Mar-Good Resort with its general store and trailer park in 1954. It was built in the 1920s by two retired circus performers, Reckless Rex Johnson and his wife, Reckless Ruby. That all fits with the eccentric, wonderful South Florida I adore and love to write about.

Being in Goodland is like visiting a time capsule. When I interviewed Combs on March 5, 1997, for a book, I found him forthright and informative. After trekking through his "museum" of Calusa Indian artifacts at his Mar-Good resort, I was allowed to see the deep cistern built of traditional tabby (shell concrete). Since some historians claim Goodland is the oldest-named place in North America, and Goodland is marked on Spanish conquistador maps as early as 1523, who is to say that natural fountain is not the famed water that legend Ponce de Leon sought?

As Combs so succinctly puts it, "Don’t mess with Goodland."

Yet change is happening even in his own family. In 2002, his grandson Chris moved down from North Carolina and turned an unused, screened room into a down-home bar and café called Sharky’s. Now the barbarians are at the gates of Goodland with their plans for tall condos and luxe boat slips. Goodlanders have fought and won some battles against encroachment, but others loom. Their independent Florida cracker spirit is in danger of going, but it is far from gone. And, I think, despite the prevalent "if you build it, they will come" atmosphere of Southwest Florida, that individualism must be cherished.

PARADISE … AT A PRICE
The previously mentioned Chokoloskee Island is another great place steeped in the Old Florida sensibility. Once a haven for Civil War survivors, Seminoles and, later, Prohibition rumrunners, today its houses still sit on stilts. On Chok, as in Goodland, pity the person who even whispers "gated community." There is something so sound—so American—in that non-elitist stance. You’ll find that "not yet gone" ambiance, too, at the Ted Smallwood Store and Museum, where I have set several scenes for my novels.

Smallwood made the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, which might help to preserve other important buildings from being torn down for more mansions and golf courses. Built in 1906, the store was resurrected by pioneer Ted Smallwood’s granddaughter Lynn Smallwood McMillin and her friend, Nancy Hollister, both delightful amateur historians of the area. Hollister says barrels and tins, including "swamp angel (mosquito) ointment," were "still sealed away as in an Egyptian tomb" when they restored the place. McMillin tells tales of "getting rid of rats as big as cats" during the reclamation in the early 1990s.

When I visit this well-preserved site overlooking the ’glades, I can still hear Totch’s mullet jump and the swish of canoes cutting through the mangrove maze as Seminoles come to trade. Famous former tribal chairman James Billie’s band has played more than once for Smallwood’s Seminole Indian Days Festival, which is now on hiatus. But times have changed for Billie since he was fired by his tribe in 2003. In his 24-year reign as tribal chairman, the local folk hero, alligator wrestler and songwriter took the tribe from subsistence on federal grants to a $300 million a year corporate behemoth. But, unfortunately, he also siphoned off tribal funds.

Whereas the proud, independent Seminole tribe told white negotiators in 1936, "Just leave us alone," now, in their post-Billie era, they advertise their casinos and visits to their reservation in glitzy TV ads. As with all of South Florida, isolation for preservation just isn’t possible anymore. Too many people want a piece of paradise without realizing there is a price—and that price may be a large part of what people want to purchase.

Still, steps are being taken to stop the precious past from disappearing. The Goodland Preservation Association has proved its mettle more than once. Florida panther experts Chris Belden and Darrell Land are working hard to protect the loner, territorial big cats. Collier County has hired sea grass expert Dave Tomasko, and initial improvements in bay and Gulf water are being made. County commissioners and the Pelican Bay developer WCI Communities are funding mangrove forest restoration.

More people with the power to make the right kinds of changes are realizing that "auld acquaintance" should not be forgot in the march of big development. My fervent hope is that everyone who loves the treasures of South Florida will do everything in their power to honor our illustrious past. They must, don’t you think?

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