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Twenty-five years later History Museum and Village thrives with growth, change

By Staff | Mar 13, 2009

It took a lot of steps, manpower and time to create a place that would represent Sanibel’s history and ultimately its legacy.

But the Sanibel History Museum and Village is doing just that. The museum opened in 1984 as a testament to the island’s early pioneers and farming. It had been city run before becoming a non-profit organization.

Smart planning and the wisdom of a group of dedicated board members is helping create a popular destination for tourists as well as a historical landmark for the community to learn its roots.

And at $5 admission, the family-oriented experience won’t break most budgets.

For the past couple of years – since The Sanibel History Museum and Village became a non-profit group separate from the City of Sanibel – the group’s members have been working to cut costs and be financially independent of the city, said history museum president Alex Werner. The buildings remain on city owned land. It used to cost the city $210,000 to run the museum. Now they only give the museum a grant of $83,000 to operate the museum and $53,000 for maintenance and insurance. The museum actually turned a net profit of over $12,000 it’s first year incorporated, exclusive of city money.

A combination of donations, memberships and admission fees have helped keep costs to the city down.

City manager Judi Zimomra is pleased with the History Museum and Village’s efforts.

“I think the spin-off of the non-profits are one of the real successes of Sanibel,” Zimomra said. “It’s truly a partnership (referring to city and non-profit groups working together).”

Aside from the resources, the museum attracts volunteers to act as docents and fill other positions. The volunteers are about 80 strong. Dennis Simon, the museum’s coordinator is the only paid employee. He makes $21,000 a year, Werner said.

Volunteers are drawn to the museum’s positive, well organized program as well as the people who come to learn about the island’s history.

“I love talking to the people,” said Mickie Kaplan, a docent. “I love learning what things in here (museum) connect with them.”

Inside the almost 10 historic buildings placed in the museum are relics from the past including, an Edison phonograph, wooden ice box and coal stove. The museum started with the early 1920’s Rutland home donated by Clarence Rutland. The home was moved to the museum’s current site on Dunlop Road. Sam Bailey often lovingly dubbed the patriarch of Sanibel kick-started the museum when he led the effort of getting the village component into the museum. Because of the island historian’s efforts, Charlotta’s Tea Room, Bailey’s General Store and an array of other homes and buildings are now part of the museum.

Visitors delight in learning about the museum and getting tours from the volunteers and board members.

“It’s layed out nicely,” said Jane Falby, a Toronto resident. “It’s very personal.”

Foot traffic into the museum has increased 50 percent in the 2006-07 fiscal year.

Expansion is on the horizon for the museum.

Werner said the museum is in the process of working with other museums in outreach programs and exchanging exhibits. Right now Werner is in talks with the Southwest Florida Museum in Fort Myers. And in the next year or so Werner is hoping to obtain the Sanibel Lighthouse as part of the museum. He is also looking to work with the city to get the two nearby cottages for use. If the museum gets the two cottages, one would be used as a rental unit to raise funds for the museum. The museum members are also hoping to get another historic home donated to be used as an office for staff and exhibits.

To Werner preserving the lives and work of the once rich farming community is vital. The once tiny museum and staff is evolving just as the once tiny less than 500 people island community is growing.

“The museum has come along way,” Werner said.