2017-08-16 / Top News

LEGACIES

People and places of the past leave a lasting mark on our community
BY GLENN MILLER
Florida Weekly Correspondent

LEGENDARY PEOPLE AND PLACES of Southwest Florida can be found sprinkled through books, found in old newspaper clippings or buried away on the internet waiting to be dug up by Google. Entire issues of Florida Weekly could be devoted to legends from various fields — agriculture or law or sports or literature. … A man who wore a grass skirt on the streets of downtown Fort Myers … a record-setting athlete, healers, philanthropists, pioneers and businessmen who shaped the city and surrounding communities. And across Lee County special places — elegant homes and historic treasures —have survived wrecking balls and bulldozers.

One can find dozens of these gems, from the Arcade Theater, to the Murphy- Burroughs Home and across a causeway to the Sanibel Lighthouse.

WILD BILL BELVIN

HE WORE A GRASS SKIRT IN PUBLIC IN downtown Fort Myers in 1931 but that wasn’t the reason for Wild Bill Belvin’s very public arrest, one documented in newspaper photos.


William “Wild Bill” Belvin, right, as he emerges in 1930 from the wilderness that is now Cape Coral after spending a year living off the land. Belvin was reportedly paid for the stunt by the local newspaper, The Tropical News. 
COURTESY PHOTO William “Wild Bill” Belvin, right, as he emerges in 1930 from the wilderness that is now Cape Coral after spending a year living off the land. Belvin was reportedly paid for the stunt by the local newspaper, The Tropical News. COURTESY PHOTO The charge was stealing pelican eggs, not indecent exposure. It was part of Belvin’s lark to help promote the area early in the Depression.

Even nowadays with more casual clothing styles it’s unlikely you’ll find a shirtless middle-aged man wearing a grass skirt in public. At least we hope you don’t.

There was a method behind Belvin’s apparent madness. Long before there was a place called Cape Coral, Belvin vowed to spend a year in what was then wilderness to prove one could live off the land.


COURTESY PHOTO / FRANK TATA COURTESY PHOTO / FRANK TATA As The News- Press reported in 1931 upon the end of his time in the woods: “The former boiler maker and preacher, who yesterday completed a year of life in the jungle vastness of Pine Island sound with a pair of spectacles and a set of false teeth as his only aids from civilization, was arrested by Sheriff F. B. Tippins as he entered the White Way barber shop to receive his first hair cut and shave in 12 months. The sheriff carted him to the jail immediately, not even permitting him to have his hair cut and shave.”

His year of wandering the wilderness was actually a publicity stunt to prove one could live off the land. Belvin became a minor national celebrity in the early 1930s, an eccentric in a grass skirt in a corner of Florida.

Lee County’s population was around 15,000 when Belvin ventured into pine trees, palmetto bushes, mosquitoes and snakes of that swath of undeveloped land. He supposedly lived off fish, wild game and bird eggs and, perhaps, handouts from friends.


HEITMAN HEITMAN On Oct. 15, 1931, he spoke at the Arcade Theatre about his experiences. He gave matinee and evening talks.

HARVIE HEITMAN

ALTHOUGH HIS NAME IS ON A DOWNTOWN Fort Myers street, few Southwest Florida residents likely know about Harvie Heitman. He was only 49 when he died of stomach cancer in 1922 but his impact on the city was profound.

Author T. M. Jacobs’ 2009 book “H. E. Heitman, An Early Entrepreneur of Fort Myers, Florida,” features a picture of very young Heitman from 1890, shortly after he arrived in town in 1888 at 16 from North Carolina. He looks like an earnest and serious young man, a fellow in a hurry to make his mark.

Before his death 32 years later, Heitman transformed downtown. He was the force behind the city’s first brick building, which was located at the corner of First and Jackson streets.

Heitman served on the city council from 1896 to 1920. But first and foremost he was a businessman who used brains and creativity to help develop the town. Not everything, of course, went as planned.

In October of 1896, for example, he received a shipment of 350 harmonicas, a development that the local weekly newspaper reported.

“Ye suffering Moses,” The Press reported. “What a medley of sounds there will be in Fort Myers Christmas day.”

Harvie Heitman was nearly always in tune when it came to business. He built the city’s first sidewalk and his business ventures included a bank, bakery and livery stable. The Earnhardt Building was another one of projects.

Heitman’s death was such big news in 1922 that one of the most famous men in the world was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral. That was Thomas Edison.

SANIBEL LIGHTHOUSE

WHEN THE SANIBEL LIGHTHOUSE was first lit to guide mariners in 1884 it was a rare beacon of illumination in Florida, a sparsely populated peninsula.

The state’s population only four years earlier in 1880 was 269,493 and the nearest community of any size, Fort Myers, had little more than 300 people at the time.

Now, the lighthouse is likely viewed by most as little more than a scenic and historic relic, something beachgoers can gape at when they’re not bent over looking for seashells or gazing out at the water hoping to see dolphins breaching waves.

The lighthouse began its life as a vital navigational tool.


Dr. Ella Piper with children. 
COURTESY PHOTO Dr. Ella Piper with children. COURTESY PHOTO Historian Prudy Taylor Board pointed out in a 1991 booklet on the lighthouse that Sanibel settlers petitioned the federal government for a lighthouse in 1833. That’s 12 years before Florida became a state and 51 years before the lighthouse became a reality.

DR. ELLA PIPER

SHE CAME TO FORT MYERS AS A VERY intelligent young black woman in 1915 or 1916. Historical accounts offer different years. But this much is certain: It was a time before women could vote and long before the Civil Rights movement took root.

Her name was then Ella M. Jones. In 1925 she married a man named Frank S. Piper. It is as Ella Piper that she is now known, 63 years after her death in 1954. What she accomplished between the mid-1910s and 1954 is remarkable, especially for a black woman in the Deep South.

She was what was then known as the chiropodist, or foot doctor. But she was so much more. Piper was a businesswoman who owned a hair-styling salon called the Fort Myers Beauty Salon and a soda pop bottling company. She was also an activist for civil rights, a social worker and a philanthropist.


TOOTIE MCGREGOR TOOTIE MCGREGOR She was more than the owner of that hair-styling salon. Piper was such a gifted stylist that some of the wealthiest and most prominent white women in town wanted their hair styled by Piper.

As the Fort Myers Press reported on April 1, 1922: “There is always one place that Mr. and Mrs. Thomas A. Edison never fail to visit when sojourning in the beautiful city of Fort Myers, and that is Ella Jones Piper’s Beauty Shop on Hendry Street.”

Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, was also a regular customer.

She balanced her business work with charity and in her will Piper left her home to what was termed “the poor, indigent or physically handicapped.”

Piper’s legacy lives on in the Dr. Ella Piper Center for Social Services, which opened in 1976. Its mission is providing help to the elderly.

It is located on Dr. Ella Piper Way.

TOOTIE MCGREGOR

SHE WAS ONE OF THE RICHEST WOMEN IN America in the early 20th century. Tootie McGregor used some of her immense wealth to help her adopted home of Fort Myers.

Her name and legacy lives on. Thousands of people every day travel McGregor Boulevard. Terry Park in east Fort Myers was named for one of her husbands. The Bradford Hotel in downtown Fort Myers was named for a son who died young.

She and the men in her life are all over Fort Myers. A statue of Tootie stands in front of Fort Myers Country Club, which faces McGregor Boulevard. The club once had a restaurant called Tootie’s.


W. Stanley Hanson. W. Stanley Hanson. When Tootie and her first husband, Ambrose, hit Fort Myers in 1892 it was a remote little town lacking railroad service. Most people arrived by boat, which is how Thomas Edison first found the tiny settlement only seven years before Tootie and Ambrose.

Eight years after hitting town, Ambrose died. He was loaded. Tootie’s husband was president of Standard Oil and he left his widow $6 million in 1900. An online inflation calculator estimates that at more than $160 million in 2017 dollars.

Yep, Tootie was loaded.

In 1912, Tootie offered to bankroll the building of a 50-foot wide road from Whiskey Creek to Punta Rassa. She asked the city to build the portion between downtown and Whiskey Creek. It had been called Riverside Road and was little more than a dirt path.

In return, she wanted the street named in honor of her first husband.


SANDERS SANDERS Terry Park in east Fort Myers is named for her second husband, Dr. Marshall Terry. The park exists because Tootie donated 40 acres for it.

Tootie McGregor never lived to see McGregor Boulevard finished. She died in 1912, the year she ponied up the money to transform a dirt path into what it remains — a scenic and now legendary road lined by royal palm trees.

MAY OLA WELLS

SHE WASN’T RICH OR FAMOUS. MAY OLA Wells didn’t own huge chunks of land or set sports records.

But Wells, who was born in Punta Gorda, may have set a record even more impressive than one that has anything to do with home runs or touchdowns. Wells, who moved one county south in 1938 to Lee County, was a prolific midwife who helped deliver around 5,000 Lee County babies during 34 years in roughly the middle of the 20th century.

That’s right — 5,000. That’s nearly half the capacity of JetBlue Park in Fort Myers.


NALLE NALLE Wells may have been born to the role she played. Her mother before her had been a midwife.

Wells was black but delivered black babies and white babies. All that mattered were the babies.

But one thing changed over time. By time she retired in 1972 her fee was $75. When she started four decades earlier the fee per birth was $15.

In 1972 The News- Press featured Mrs. Wells in a story along with a photo of her holding a plaque. The plaque was from the Dedicated Ladies Progress Club.

On it were inscribed these words: “To Mrs. May Ola Wells – In recognition of her many years of medical service rendered to the city of Fort Myers.”

She learned the profession from her mom.

“My mother always told me in her lifetime that being a midwife was my God-given talent,” Wells told The News- Press in 1972.


TILLIS TILLIS She learned early, tagging along with her mother when was she only 16. It soon became her profession.

Wells also told The News- Press this: “I feel have served this community well for 34 years and the only thing I could say in closing is may the work I have done speak for me.”

W. STANLEY HANSON

HE WAS KNOWN AS THE WHITE MEDIcine Man, a Fort Myers resident who the native people of Florida knew they could trust. He literally spoke their language, learning Seminole and Miccosukee as a boy.

Perhaps the best description of Mr. Hanson comes from a 1950 book by Allen Andrews, “A Yank Pioneer in Florida.” Mr. Andrews first met the White Medicine Man in 1906 and over the years got to know him well.

This is from a chapter in that book devoted to Mr. Hanson and his dealing with the Indians: “When they were hungry he fed them. When they were cold he furnished them bedding. When he learned of sick Indians in the wilds he drove many miles at his own expense to their rescue, bringing them to the hospital. If they recovered he took them back again to their camp and if they died he saw that they were decently buried. Altogether he was one of the most unselfish men that I ever knew. …


TOWLES TOWLES “No wonder the Seminoles trusted him implicitly.”

His respect for them was enormous, as Mr. Andrews knew.

“In every respect Mr. Hanson claimed the Seminoles to be an exemplary people,” Mr. Andrews wrote. “They would not lie, steal or cheat; were kind and considerate and cared for their aged and indigent. ...”

Mr. Hanson had a job, one he needed to take care of his family and the Seminoles and Miccosukee. He was a tax collector and Lee County commissioner. But his primary passion was helping a people whose land was stolen from them generations earlier.


COURTESY PHOTOS / FLORIDA REPERTORY THEATRE COURTESY PHOTOS / FLORIDA REPERTORY THEATRE In the 1920s he was part of a hardy band led by two Indians, Billy Cornapatchee and Assumahatchee, who blazed a trail through the Everglades so the Tamiami Trail could be built.

W. Stanley Hanson, the White Medicine Man, died in his Fort Myers home in 1945. He was 62.

DEION SANDERS

THE MULTI-TALENTED DEION SANDERS WAS a transcendent athlete blessed with startling speed and the ability to play two professional sports at their highest levels.

Mr. Sanders, a North Fort Myers High School graduate, is the only man to ever play in a Super Bowl and a World Series. Just reaching the top level of any sport is extraordinarily difficult but Sanders pulled it off during his career in the 1980s and 1990s.

He’s best known for football. Sanders was inducted into both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2011. He was a two-time consensus All-America cornerback at Florida State, where he also played baseball and ran track.

Although he never focused on track Sanders had blistering speed. At the 1989 NFL Combine, an athletic meat market where teams grade the raw ability of players, he ran a 4.27 40-yard dash. The Atlanta Falcons made him the fifth overall pick in that year’s NFL Draft.

He went on to play 14 years in the NFL, mainly as one of the best cornerbacks in history. But he also returned kicks and punts and even played a little wide receiver.

But in a tribute to his athleticism, he was able to juggle a career as a big-league outfielder while he was also playing in the NFL.


Historic Arcade Theatre in Fort Myers. The Bay Street entrance. Historic Arcade Theatre in Fort Myers. The Bay Street entrance. From 1989 through 2001 he played parts of nine big-league seasons, hitting .263 with 39 homers. He played in a World Series with the Atlanta Braves.

He was on Super Bowl winning teams with the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas.

Sanders, born in Fort Myers, is the only man to homer in the majors and score a touchdown in the NFL in the same week.

BILLY NALLE

WALK THROUGH ANY SOUTHWEST FLORIDA mall or along one of our beaches and mention the name Billy Nalle.

You’ll most likely get a blank stare in response, except perhaps from local oldtimers. Nalle, who died in 2005, may have had the most illustrious musical career of anybody who grew up here.

The 1939 Fort Myers High School graduate earned a full piano and organ scholarship to the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York City. After serving in the Navy during World War II. Nalle carved out a career in TV and movies as a composer and performer.


Lester and Bill Piper. 
COURTESY PHOTO Lester and Bill Piper. COURTESY PHOTO During TV’s formative years he worked on shows such as “The Gloria Swanson Show,” and “Studio One” and “Kraft Theater” and “Lux Video Theater.” He played the organ for one of the most famous hosts in TV history — Ed Sullivan.

In 1975, he left the bright lights of the big city behind for a new gig in America’s heartland — Wichita, Kan. Nalle was the artist-in-residence at the Century II Center.

But he never forgot his hometown. Nalle often returned for visits during his years when he hobnobbed with celebrities during a 26-year TV career..

When he left in 1939, Fort Myers was then a little town in a remote corner of Florida. He was a local boy who made good.


HENDRY HENDRY As Fort Myers author and historian Gerri Reaves pointed out in her 2012 book, “Legendary Locals of Fort Myers,” “He often doubled for screen stars whose roles required them to play the piano expertly. … Nalle would play in the background, and the television camera would film the star’s hands gracefully tickling the keys.”

But it was Nalle who played the piano like an expert, heck, like, a legend.

NELSON TILLIS

NOBODY KNOWS FOR SURE WHAT HAPpened to Nelson Tillis, Fort Myers’ first black settler, a man who came to town when there really wasn’t yet a town.

Tillis arrived in 1867 on Christmas Day, only two years after the Civil War ended. At the time, Fort Myers was an abandoned Army fort. Tillis arrived only about 22 months after Manuel Gonzalez and Jose Vivas, who are considered the town’s first settlers, started creating a new community.


MURPHY-BURROUGHSffi HOME MURPHY-BURROUGHSffi HOME The “town” consisted of a few hardy settlers scratching out a living. Tillis and his wife, Zilpha Ellen Summerall, were pioneers who had 11 children. Tillis hired a Key West teacher named Wesley Roberts as a tutor and built a little schoolhouse that has been described as little more than a shack. But it was an improvement on nothing.

Tillis and his family were highly regarded even by most white people of the time.

From the Aug. 19, 1897 issue of the weekly Fort Myers Press: “The citizens of Ft. Myers are thoroughly aroused over the shooting into the colored people by a party of white men. On Sunday night those parties fired into the colored church at a colored man, but missed him.

“This aroused great indignation in the town and Mayor Harn and the council took steps to discover the guilty parties.”

Another shooting soon followed, The Press reported: “This time they (white people) succeeded in shooting two persons. They were the wife and son of Nelson Tillis, a quiet inoffensive colored family who have lived in Ft. Myers since its first settlement, and who have never given the whites the least trouble.”

The paper reported Mrs. Tillis and son, Eli, were wounded.

Some believe Tillis left for the Bahamas in 1910 and may have died there.

FLORENCE FRITZ

HOWELL A. PARKER WAS FORT MYERS’ FIRST mayor, elected in 1885. In the 132 years since then, every mayor except one had something in common. They were all men.

Well, except for Florence Fritz, who was briefly mayor in the middle of the 20th century. Ms. Fritz was elected in 1949 and recalled in 1950.

She didn’t run in a quest to further women’s rights.

From a campaign ad: “am not running as a woman against men. I do not even like to see women in politics. But I feel the time has come for those who no longer dare to raise their voices. If it takes a woman to rise up and speak for the American Government and decency in politics and bring Forward Action to this city, then, gentlemen, I am with you all the way.”

The 1949 race was a three-way battle. Fritz ran second in the initial race but in a run-off against soft-drink bottler Earl Bobbitt, she won by 46 votes, 1,492 to 1,446.

Her administration was a contentious time for the city. A News-Press editorial at the time noted, “The division at City Hall virtually paralyzed city administration.” Fritz wasn’t long for the mayor’s office. Nine months and 27 days after her election, Fritz was recalled from office by a vote of 1,956 to 1,260. All five councilmen were also recalled.

The political circus made statewide news, even all the way up the east coast where the Daytona Beach Journal carried this headline: “Everybody Recalled In Ft. Myers.”

Fritz was elected 64 years after Howell A. Parker became the city’s first mayor. It has been 67 years since her recall and the city has yet to see its second female mayor.

WILD BILL TOWLES

GOOD THING FOR WILD BILL TOWLES THAT the internet and YouTube weren’t around in 1914. If they were his antics that October might have gone viral within seconds and made the shotgun toting Lee County Commission chairman a brief national celebrity and perhaps a punch line on late-night TV.

Let’s set the scene: In 1914 there was a debate in the county seat of Fort Myers. Did Lee County, which then also included all the land is now Collier and Hendry counties, need a new courthouse?

Some believed the old courthouse, which was built about 20 years earlier, was outdated and needed to be replaced. Heck, it didn’t have restrooms. Others believed the county needed something more modern.

Towles was in the majority when the commission voted 3-2 to build a new courthouse. The minority on the issue sent a group to Arcadia to seek a court injunction to stop the project. By the way, the courthouse opponents included Harvie Heitman, another Florida Weekly Legend from the early days. Towles didn’t take any chances while the other side was traveling to Arcadia. He gathered 150 men and by the light of a bonfire had the old courthouse dismantled, piece-by-piece. The lumber was set aside. As the work progressed, Mr. Towles sat or stood nearby cradling a shotgun.

Towles was a force of nature in the early days of Lee County. He arrived as a 32-year-old widower 1884 and soon became one of the community’s leading figures, a successful merchant, cattleman and member of both the city council and county commission.

By the way, the lumber from the first courthouse wasn’t burned in that bonfire. Towles and other community leaders had a better idea. The lumber was used to build the first Lee Memorial Hospital, which opened in 1916.

So, in a sense, Towles helped build a courthouse, which still stands and a hospital that is now 101 years old.

ARCADE THEATER

THE ARCADE THEATER ON FIRST STREET in downtown Fort Myers is either 109 years old or 102 years old. It depends on which historical source one consults.

But either way, the home of Florida Repertory Theatre is a treasure, a historic icon that is more than a dusty place for memories, far more than a curiosity hanging on from yesteryear.

It as alive now if not more so than it ever has been in more than a century, the home of a respected professional theater organization. It vibrates and hums with the sounds of live theater performed before hundreds of fans.

It is as special as when it opened in 1908. Or 1915.

Part of what makes the Arcade special is what happened earlier this year when after 40 years of being dark the neon sign out front was re-lit, adding yet another alluring element to the theater.

Once, a very long time ago, it was a place for vaudeville performers and silent movies. Its patrons included titans of American history such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone.

It was a very short drive to the theater from the homes of Mr. Edison and Mr. Ford on McGregor Boulevard.

With the coming of talkies the Arcade remained a movie house for decades. By the 1970s local community troupes were using it but by the 1980s it was a relic, a place falling into disrepair.

But it was and is such a gem that many people, including Fort Myers businessman Bill Smith, wanted it saved. One of the theater’s benefactors was legendary Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who took an interest in the theater.

Now, 109 or 102 years after it opened, the Arcade Theater remains what it once was — a theater, a treasure from the past that remains a treasure.

It now houses the History Park Art Gallery and Gift Shop.

LESTER AND BILL PIPER

ON THE FLORIDA MEMORY WEBSITE, A service of the State Library & Archives of Florida, one can find a photo of Lester and Bill Piper and Queenie.

The photo is dated sometime in the 1940s and the brothers are squatted down beside a cage at their Bonita Springs tourist attraction, the Everglades Wonder Gardens. And Queenie? Queenie is identified as a “full-grown Florida panther.”

This is how the Pipers are described: “The Piper brothers, who know their panthers, will have no truck with Queenie outside her cage as they sometimes do with younger cubs raised in captivity. Queenie, who was captured alive when full-grown, apparently resents confinement and discourages fraternization.”

By the 1940s, the Pipers were already Southwest Florida legends.

A page was devoted to them in a 1986 booklet titled “The Beginnings of Bonita Springs Florida.”

Author E. P. Nutting noted that the brothers were born in Ohio and that their attraction was initially called the Everglades Reptile Gardens when it opened in 1936 because at first concrete tanks were filled with alligators, crocodiles and snake cages. They then started adding other critters, even mammals such as bears, deer and, well, panthers.

What they started more than 80 years ago still stands in Bonita Springs, a touch of old Florida, a reminder of the wilderness this area once was a long time ago.

Although Lester and Bill are long gone, their vision of a tourist attraction devoted to wild animals remains. The Everglades Wonder Gardens is now a nonprofit 501(c) (3).

But for more than 80 years what Lester and Bill created has amazed and entertained generations of residents and tourists.

FRANCIS ASBURY HENDRY

A STRIKING PHOTO OF CAPTAIN FRANCIS A. Hendry astride a horse reveals a great deal about the titan of Southwest Florida history.

It’s clear the captain was comfortable on horseback, as one would expect of a 19th century Florida cattleman. But the enduring nearly iconic image of the captain displays other things — he appeared the epitome of a successful man of his time, one who matured in the rough and tumble of what was then very much the wilderness.

He lived until 1917, witnessing the cow-town settlement of Fort Myers blossoming first into a town and then a small city .

Hendry County is named after Captain Hendry. He had 11 children and the town of LaBelle is named for two of his daughters — Laura and Carrie Belle.

He first visited here in 1854, seven years before the Civil War began. This was not a metaphorical wilderness at the time. It was the real deal — an untamed region teeming with wildlife, some Seminoles and very few other human beings. The only sign of “civilization” might have been an Army fort on the banks of the Caloosahatchee.

This is what Hendry wrote, as quoted Karl Grismer’s 1949 book “The Story of Fort Myers:” “… there was not a single settler or trace of civilization in the surrounding country. The fort presented a beautiful appearance. The grounds were tastefully laid out with shell walks and dress parade grounds and beautifully adorned with many kinds of palms. The velvety lawn was carefully tended.”

After the Civil War the Georgia native started driving cattle past where the fort stood and to Punta Rassa. He moved to Fort Myers in 1873. The captain was a key figure in creating Lee County in 1887. What became Lee County had once been part of Monroe County, which has its county seat in Key West, a long boat ride away from Fort Myers in 1887.

MURPHY-BURROUGHS HOME

BEFORE RAILROAD SERVICE REACHED FORT Myers in 1904, a Montana cattleman named John T. Murphy heard about the place. He read that it was a promising cow-town on the shores of a river called the Caloosahatchee. At least that was the Tampa Tribune reported and he read when he was in that city.

It wasn’t fake news. Thousands of head of cattle were being loaded on ships down the river from Fort Myers at Punta Rassa. Mr. Murphy arrived in 1899 in what was, indeed, a small town. The 1900 census reported that Fort Myers had a population of 940.

He came. He saw. He was smitten.

Mr. Murphy liked the place so much he had a $15,000 three-story home built in the little town far from his other home in Helena, Mont. The home was completed in 1901 and he died in 1914 with a net worth of $2 million.

The home was purchased in 1919 by Nelson Burroughs, which led to the second part of the home’s name. Three years later he transferred ownership to his daughters Mona and Jettie. Mona then left the property to the city of Fort Myers in 1978. It was added to the U. S. National Register of Historic Places in 1984. The architectural style is Georgian Revival, according to the home’s website.

It’s as much a gem in 2017 as it was when it opened in 1901. The house sits near the southbound foot of the Edison Bridge, at the corner of Fowler and First Streets.

Much has changed in Fort Myers and the world since 1901 but this beautiful home remains beautiful. ¦

CYRUS TEED

SINCE NORTHERNERS STARTED FLOCKING TO SOUTHWEST FLORIDA IN THE LATE 19TH century there has likely never been anybody else like Cyrus Teed, who moved to Estero in 1893. He didn’t come for golf.

Here is how author Lyn Millner began the preface of her 2015 book, “The Allure of Immortality, An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet.”

“In New York State in 1869 lived a charismatic man named Cyrus Teed, who believed he was a prophet. He was 30 when an angel came to him in a vision and told him he was chosen to redeem humanity.”

Mr. Teed’s visions eventually brought him and devoted followers of a cult he founded called the Koreshan Unity to a chunk of land beside the Estero River. He had 123 followers in 1893 when they arrived in Lee County, which didn’t yet have rail service to the outside world.

The group eventually grew to about 250 members and Mr. Teed had plans to build a city of 10 million people on the Estero River. And you think traffic is bad now in season?

Anyhow, things didn’t exactly work out the way this prophet predicted. The cult shriveled in size after his death in 1908 at the age of 69.

The last member died in 1982. But what Mr. Teed and his followers built remains. The Koreshan State Historic Site preserves the memory of one of Southwest Florida’s most unusual transplants as well as many of the group’s buildings.

As Ms. Millner, a Florida Gulf Coast University associate professor of journalism, also wrote in her book: “Cyrus Teed believed he was the prophet Cyrus from the Old Testament, and he called himself Koresh, the Hebrew transliteration of Cyrus. …”

We can also call him a Southwest Florida legend. ¦

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