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Columnist muses about 35 years ago and counting

By Staff | Nov 5, 2009

Sanibel is currently celebrating the 35th anniversary of incorporation and is conducting a search for founding residents. These individuals will be recognized for the pioneer spirit they brought to their new community. Unfortunately, there are very few left because most of them moved to Bangladesh and Monaco to avoid property taxes.

On November 4, 1974, the exact date that Sanibel incorporated, the community was a far different place than it is today. In fact, legend has it that Sanibel was the last hurrah for lawlessness and chaos. Cowboys and Indians roamed the wetlands that would become Ding Darling and stage coaches were the primary means of transportation.

The old timers who remember those days tell us that Sanibel residents used to take the law into their own hands. There were gun fights at the old Timbers coral and cattle round ups each fall. The residents voted to incorporate in order to avoid the Florida National Guard from coming in and creating a militarized zone.

The year 1974 doesn’t seem like so long ago to some but to others you might as well be talking about the Middle Ages. In 1974 there were still dinosaurs roaming the wooded areas. And it wasn’t uncommon for drifters to arrive in their row boats from the main land to purchase black market blackened fish.

Bartney Stowe, who worked for the Sanibel Bar T Ranch on what is now Sanibel-Captiva Road reminisces about the good old days from his present perch as a manatee curator. Smoking his Cuban cigar and spitting out some good old fashioned chewing tobacco all at the same time he finds humor in the transition from then to now.

“You’d a thought that Sanibel would have caught up with the rest of the country in 1974. But no one here paid attention to anything outside Sanibel in those days. We were so caught up with hunting down outlaws that we didn’t even know who was president of the United States.

“We were all outcasts from other places and came to Sanibel to just get away from normal living. For example, I got caught passing bad checks and before the law caught up with me I escaped to Sanibel. Here I found lots of other bad apples who had come here to blend into a town that had no laws. Not too many people today remember that. It’s as though the current town leaders want to brush all that away and paint a picture of things being all proper and nice. What a laugh,” Bartney said as he spit out a wad of chewing tobacco halfway across the room.

I asked him why all the original residents left. He said that once Sanibel was incorporated no one could get used to the change it created. He said that law and order was a foreign concept to the rugged pioneers who lived here in 1974 and they couldn’t cope with real police, courts of law, elected officials and rules and regulations.

He told me that when the first automobile was introduced to Sanibel in 1975 that was the beginning of the end. He said that in 1974 it took two days to travel from one end of Sanibel to the other by horse and when the automobile came along it so upset all the original residents that they decided to move to areas that were similar to Sanibel.

Bartney talked about the old Sanibel saloons and the gun fights that would often erupt for the most insignificant reasons. He chuckled when he told me about the time that a long time resident went drinking in a Sanibel saloon one time after a day at the silver mines and started shooting up the saloon because it had run out of pretzels.

“Those were the days,” he said. “Today all they fight about is how big a house should be. Back then we lived in straw huts and drank water from the wells. We didn’t need any laws. We made them up as we went along.”

And that was when I woke up in a cold sweat. This was just a dream a dream of wishful thinking that Sanibel was really far different from what it is today. I knew I needed to consult with a Freudian textbook to figure out the symbolism of this dream. In reality, everyone knows that in 1974 Sanibel was pretty much the way it is today. Or was it?