This week’s class took us to Downtown Fort Myers for an educational journey into the city’s past. Since I’m new to the area, and don’t have that much time to explore, it was cool for me to see where the city all kind of started. Yes, it’s different today than it was 100 years ago, but there’s so much history around – you just need to know where to look.
As many of you know, I love history – as long as it’s not written in a book. In all the years I’ve been visiting Fort Myers, I have always wondered the history of the city. Don’t know why I never asked (okay, maybe I got distracted by the beach once or twice), but today I learned a little bit. Fort Myers started out as a big mass of land that wasn’t really utilized. When Spanish explorers came to Southwest Florida during the 16th century, they encountered Indians along the Caloosahatchee River – naming them Calusa Indians – and were met with hostilities from the Indians when they tried to come ashore. Many deaths from these hostilities with the Calusa Indians – including Ponce de Leon. Several of these settlers brought disease to the area, which ultimately wiped out the Calusa Indian population.
The city that is now Fort Myers was originally used for cattle pasture for the city of Punta Rassa. Ranchers would drive the cattle to the area, where they would trade them for cash and other goods. The cattle were loaded into ships to be sent to Cuba near where present-day McGregor Boulevard is. It wasn’t officially dubbed a city until 1841 during the second Seminole War. The city’s name was later was moved to Fort Harvie – which was renamed Fort Myers. It also served soldiers in the third Seminole War and the Civil War.
(Fort Myers is looking good for 100 years old!)
(A statue of Clayton – a member of the African American soldiers of the Civil War)
Once the Civil War was over, the city was able to settle down and become a working city with a working waterfront. Inhabitants of the city during the late 1800s through the 1920s had several trades along the waterfront. They shipped citrus, vegetables, and fish from packing houses on the river wharves, which were originally on Bayshore Road (now Bay Street). Since there weren’t good roads at the time, people also used the river for transportation. It wasn’t until Edison, Firestone, and Ford (the Fathers of Industry) came to town, that the city started to expand industrially.
(The Fathers of Industry statue)
The Caloosahatchee River is really polluted with Nitrogen. It’s so polluted that is can be dangerous for any animals that may use the river. To combat this, the City of Fort Myers built a giant water filtration system in the form of the Downtown Detention Basin. This $5.3 million build filters the water from the Caloosahatchee River and back into the bay, removing the Nitrogen along the way. Before it was built in 2012, there was a mass of mangroves in the area – naturally these had to be torn out in order to have the basin. Ironically enough, the railings around the basin are made to look like the roots of the mangroves.
(The Downtown Detention Basin)
There seems to be this interesting dichotomy going on with the city – it’s like a battle between the economists and the art historians. Economists say the historical buildings are taking up area that could be used to build parking structures and more shops. The economists aren’t concerned with retaining the city’s history. On the other side of the argument are the art historians, who are only concerned with saving the historical buildings in the city. They say these buildings need to be preserved so that the character of the city can be preserved.
(The top floor of the Pleasure Pier – one of many buildings at the middle of the economist versus art historian debate)
This city seems to be so full of biophobia that it’s tried to pepper itself with biophilia so that its builders will feel better about themselves. Downtowns are often mecas of steel and stone, with little room for green space. This extends to Downtown Fort Myers, where the green space seems to have been an afterthought. Centennial Park was added to commemorate Fort Myers’ 100 year anniversary, but what was there before? Yes, there’s lots of green space now, but it makes me wonder how much was there when the city was first opened.
(looking out over Centennial Park)
The city has dubbed a palm garden (one of only two in the world) in the downtown area for people to visit. In this garden there are many different species of palms from all over the world. This green space is frequented by many workers in the downtown area, and many tourists to the city.
(The Talipot Palm is freaking huge!)
This downtown tour was pretty cool for me as far as learning the history of the city, but it also related to all the readings we’ve done up until this point in class. In addition to the discussions about biophilia and biophobia, I just finished a book called A Land Remembered, which is about a farmer’s journey to success and financial stability for his family through the cattle industry. One of the main characters, Tobias, makes a yearly journey to Punta Rassa to trade his cattle. He befriends Seminole Indians, and spends his whole life trying to make things better for his family and future generations.
(Billy Bowlegs – a Seminole Indian chief – as part of the The Alternative History Mural)
The Alternative History Mural was probably my favorite part of the tour. It’s 20 foot tall by 100 foot long, and made of 1 inch square tiles. Can you even imagine how many tiles that is? Yes, there’s a number, but it’s too big for me to calculate (you know I’m not a math person). The mural depicts the Seminole Indians, the African American troops, and the cattle ranchers like Tobias. The commissioners of the mural weren’t happy with the artist’s decision to depict the alternative history of Fort Myers, so they put it in a place where people wouldn’t be able to see it readily. This mural depicts the “true history” of Fort Myers, and it’s hidden away from people. I think that’s ridiculous!