Country Charm North of the Caloosahatchee

A trip to Bayshore, North Olga and Alva in northeast Lee County feels light years away from the rest of Southwest Florida

BY April 21, 2016


You could call it the Southwest Florida equivalent of a Cicely moment—you know, that fictional community in Northern Exposure where the locals immediately hone in on an out-of-towner. Admittedly, busting out a laptop during a weekday lunch rush is no way to blend in—the Alva Country Diner is about as far away from a downtown Starbucks as one can get—but it turns out to be a great way to provoke conversation.

The Alva Country Diner

There’s a table of older men to the right, the Tuesday afternoon regulars. Their wives are seated separately, around the corner and presumably out of earshot. One of them, Dave, leans over to find out what a solo, out-of-place patron is doing and how she can concentrate in the commotion. When he learns she’s a journalist writing about rural Lee County, he breaks into a grin, announces the news to his companions and flags down his pastor, who’s seated in the center of the pack, and whom Dave believes (rightly) would be an important person to know.

And so, solo no more, said writer begins a journey into Lee County’s northeast corner, a place that may be the antithesis of (and antidote for) the commotion, congestion—and sometimes, yes, the anonymity of the shorelines.

“It’s been the easiest church I’ve ever pastored,” says the Rev. Ralph Cotten of Alva United Methodist Church. He leads a congregation that has 190 members on the books, though easily draws 250 for weekend services. They worship in a tiny white church on the north side of the Caloosahatchee, just over the bridge from the diner and down the street from the historic Alva School, which serves students in grades K-8. The traffic light by the bridge, incidentally, is shut off on weekends and school holidays.

Cotten arrived in 2012 from Pennsylvania. “I had never heard of Alva,” he says. “It’s not what I expected.” Not in the sense of what a Florida landscape and lifestyle might have entailed; there are more horses and cows in Alva than people, he remarks. But he was quickly struck by the close-knit and generous nature of the community. Fundraising goals, whether to enhance the church’s facilities or contribute to global Methodist causes, are met or exceeded quickly.

Now, the congregation is trying to figure out how to manage its growth without tampering with its historic sanctuary, which predates Lee County’s incorporation by one year. Their challenge is an apt metaphor for this whole part of the county.


The rural communities of Bayshore, North Olga and Alva, which lie primarily north of the Caloosahatchee, have managed to maintain their country charm even as developers have gobbled up most of the land along coastal Lee and Collier and pushed east along major thoroughfares.

The recession gave rural Lee a reprieve. Realtor Jim Green, who lives and works in the area, says in the early and mid-2000s, developers had made major plans for the lands straddling Lee and Hendry—including a 5,000-home development by Bonita Bay Group in LaBelle. It and several other large-scale projects never came to pass.

Developers—the ones with foresight, anyway—are eyeballing the region again, Green says. The market is picking up, though not to the degree it is along the coast. Nevertheless, if done right, he believes development can happen without ruining the reason people seek out these communities in the first place.

“We have a lot of roads that are not two cars wide—they are a lane and a half,” he says. “I find it helpful to me because it kind of encourages you to slow down and stop and wave at your neighbor. That’s reflective of what Alva means to a lot of people.”


It is neither coincidence nor luck that has preserved the area’s signature old-growth oaks and unbroken tracts of land. Rather it’s people like Ruby Daniels who deserve credit for understanding development interests, spearheading community conversations and crafting plans that marry inevitable growth with preservation of lifestyle and aesthetics.

Daniels was born in North Olga, educated at the Alva School (back when it went all the way up to grade 12), and settled in Alva with her husband and three children. She taught fourth grade in neighboring Hendry County, and once she retired in 2002 she decided to redirect her civic energy back into her community.

“I just felt I was missing something,” Daniels says. She lives in a two-story white house with a wide front porch that looks like it might have sat there for a century, though it’s a mere (and deceptive) 20 years old. Daniels designed it to honor her country roots.

A proposed development threatened to overtake the land adjacent to her property. Daniels joined the then 2-year-old ALVA Inc., which stands for A Living Vision of Alva, “got educated” and realized how little protection there was from development. She’s now president of the group. Her neighbors have dubbed her Alva’s mayor.

For years, ALVA Inc. worked with residents and county staff to craft a community plan that protects Alva’s lifestyle and honors its history (it was Lee County’s first settlement, once even a contender to be the county seat). That plan was adopted in 2009. ALVA Inc. is now in the final stages of a land development code for commercial projects, which, among other things, limits the business corridor to a several-mile stretch of Palm Beach Boulevard. It will write similar codes for residential development.

“We’re not trying to isolate ourselves. We’re trying to keep what we value but be open to change,” Daniels says.

She adds: “Be prepared for change and the change will not change us.”

For those who don’t live in the northeast corner, the region feels unchanged, time-warpish. That’s because of the aforementioned oaks, the split-rail fences, the pastures—and the places like Lawhon’s Grocery & Meat, a neighborhood grocery/deli/butcher shop that aesthetically looks like it hasn’t been updated since the ’50s, but whose looks are completely irrelevant when you realize what a hub it is for the neighborhood.

Handsome homes like this one line North River Road running from North Olga to the Hendry County line.

“It stays busy. We’re real blessed,” says Tammy Jackson, the store manager. The place is owned by Laurine Belanger, who took it over from her dad, Richard Lawhon, whose family once operated a slew of small groceries around the county.

Jackson had first worked there years ago, in her early 20s, back when clerks still worked the gas pumps out front and checked patrons’ oil. She remembers how Mr. Lawhon used to offer food on credit when times were tight. She now watches his daughter operate with similar generosity.

“People help people,” says Jackson. “It’s just a lot different out here. It’s a different atmosphere.”

Others who’ve grown up in the region, like Bobbi Harrison, will offer a much different perspective of then and now.

“In the mid ’60s, my dad packed us up and moved us out here to (State Road) 31,” says Harrison, who had previously lived in east Fort Myers. “I was just a little kid. All I could think about was he had taken us to the swamp to die.”

She laughs, but it was true, she insists. “It really was a swamp. There was no road. It was a cattle trail. It flooded every year. And how we got around was by riding horses. You could pack a saddle bag and ride all day, and you never came across a fence.”

These days, she says, she too frequently has to pause and wait for traffic to pass before turning on to 31.

“A lot of Cracker families are striking out for other areas—Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee,”
she says.

She does her part to maintain the culture. Harrison is president of the Lee County Posse Arena. The organization was born in the 1960s when former Sheriff “Snag” Flanders Thompson sought a volunteer force to help in search and rescue missions and other civic needs. Today, the posse (no longer affiliated with the Sheriff’s Office) hosts the annual Cracker Day Rodeo, barrel racing events, professional rodeo tours and youth riding competitions and supports 4-H endeavors. All are popular in that part of the county. Harrison’s daughter grew up participating in all those things; she’s looking forward to ushering her grandson through it, too.

“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” Harrison says.   

Any community has to have a dynamic ebb and flow to flourish. Drs. Dennis and Debra Van Roekel recognize that. They run a veterinary practice adjacent to their 87-year-old home on North Olga Drive. They and their team tend to the area’s cattle, horses, goats and sometimes the more exotic creatures—the alpacas and llamas that have been imported.

They’ve been there since 1977 and shrug off pending changes like the development of Babcock Ranch to their north or, closer to home, a proposed development at the corner of state roads 31 and 78.

“They are trying to do it right. They’re going to keep a lot of open space,” Dennis Van Roekel says of the Babcock property. “Life goes on. You can slow progress down, but you can’t stop it.” 

Green, the Realtor, says younger families are taking over the properties that homeowners are leaving for less labor-intensive retirement years. The solitude and safety draws young mothers like Mindy Jennette and Amanda Bodiot. They’re picnicking one afternoon at the Alva Community Park while their children explore the playground.

Bodiot, a mother of three who grew up in south Fort Myers, once swore she’d never live past I-75. Her husband insisted she look at a home in Alva. When the couple pulled up, Bodiot knew she’d found her “forever home.”

“It’s old and unique. It has character,” she says. And lots of outdoor spaces for the kids. Jennette, also a mother of three, asks her 5-year-old what she likes about her home. The child whispers into her mother’s ear, and Jennette repeats: “puddles and big spaces to play in.”

“We’ve had this wonderful community wrap its arms around us.”— Rose O’Dell King

The region lured Rose O’Dell King and her husband, Gary, there for somewhat different reasons. The couple has lived all over the world—Manhattan, rural England and, more recently, along historic McGregor Boulevard in Fort Myers. She’s a French-trained chef and sommelier, a denouncer of factory farming, a champion for real foods—the kinds grown without pesticides, antibiotics and altered genomes.  

She paused one day to ask herself: What’s the best life you can live?

She found an answer here, on a 100-acre farm where she has turned a passion for unadulterated foods into the thriving Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm where she raises Longhorn cows, Red Wattle pigs, Dominique, Australorp and Silver-laced Wyandotte chickens—all heritage breeds—that roam the property and graze off the land. O’Dell King and her staff harvest organic produce, bake fresh breads and put together tantalizing menus for weekly farm luncheons. 

“We’ve had this wonderful community wrap its arms around us,” she says. “I feel really, really great about nourishing families.”

She’s busy—the farm is still young and defining itself—but pauses often to marvel at the landscape around her. The other night, she remembers, she awoke to a pair of great horned owls perched on a tree, their deep hoots rising out of their chests like opera singers.

And that’s what it is to live out there in the country. Stars sparkle against black skies, woodland creatures peek out of vegetation, and neighborhood diners brim with familiar faces.

O’Dell King pauses and surveys her lands. “It is the best life. We’re living it.”  

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