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Shared path founders feted at Sanibel Bike Club event

By Staff | Mar 23, 2011

Three of the four founders of Sanibel's shared use path system, from left, Starr Thomas, Mariel Goss and Sharon Vartdal gathered last week at the Sanibel Bicycle Club's potluck dinner and meeting.

They stood up to Lee County, and they stood in the way of commercial trucks. But there was nothing that was going to get in the way of four island women who wanted the City of Sanibel to create a system of shared use paths.

Nearly four decades later, those pioneers were finally celebrated for their efforts that has resulted in more than 23 miles of pathways, connecting the islands’ main thoroughfares with side streets and high-volume points of interest used by residents, seasonal visitors and day-trippers.

Back in the early 1970’s, in the days prior to the incorporation of the city, these ladies — Grace Whitehead, Mariel Goss, Starr Thomas and Sharon Vartdal — began looking for a way to establish pathways which could be enjoyed by pedestrians and bicyclists alike.

“We used to go around and collect coins,” recalled Starr Thomas. “We placed collection jars all over the island, in restaurants and clothing stores.”

Not too long after a bank account was established to support the concept of creating a shared use path, Thomas, named the project’s treasurer, helped establish the first Sanibel Captiva Directory. She remembers having to comb through the Fort Myers Area phone book, searching for the names and addresses of island residents to include in their publication.

Starr Thomas holds two copies of the Sanibel Captiva Directory, which were sold in order to raise funds for the shared use paths.

“The Girl Scouts used to sell them as a fundraiser,” Starr added. “And as the project grew year after year, we built up advertising in the directory. That kind of stepped things up. I’d say it was a very successful project.”

Whitehead, who along with her husband, Don, helped establish the Island Reporter in late 1973, was responsible for much of the early progress in having the pathway project supported by islanders and approved by city leaders. She passed away on Jan. 11, 2011.

“We were four little housewives going up against the county,” said Vartdal, who recalled Whitehead as the “leader” of their cause. “We tried to do things nicely at first, but they (county officials) just laughed at us.”

Vartdal remembered one incident, after failing to have the speed limit on Periwinkle Way lowered, which resulted in the pathway promoters nearly being arrested.

“We decided to stage a protest to stop traffic,” said Vartdal. “We did it on a Monday morning, because that’s when most of the construction vehicles would be heading onto the island. Mariel (Goss) told us how to stop them… and we did! There were no vehicles on Periwinkle from the causeway all the way up to Bailey’s.”

“We were fighting the good fight,” she added.

Once the group had collected more than $50,000 in donations, construction on the shared use paths began.

“What I remember most about the ‘Bike Path Movement’ was that it took an entire community effort to get it done — both the year-rounders and the snowbirds,” said Goss. “We were a bunch of 30-something women going up against these good ol’ boys. And the county thought Sanibel only had the elite out here, so why should they give us any money?”

Patti Sousa, of the Sanibel Bicycle Club, stated that as the unofficial historian of the organization, she was always curious about how the paths started.

“Since I live here year round, I also keep notebooks of all the news articles when the Bike Club is in the paper and have organized the club’s records since its inception in 1994,” said Sousa. “I met Grace Whitehead when I moved here in the summer of 2001 and when I joined the club then, she told me she was involved back in the ’70s and told me a few things. I met Starr Thomas at an SCCF event last November and asked her if she would gather the other women, so we could get a first hand account. Sadly, but ironically, when I attended Grace Whitehead’s memorial service on Jan. 17, I met Sherry and Mariel.”

Since then, Sousa has compiled a collection of documents and stories about the club and the establishment of the city’s shared use paths that is over 50 pages long.

“I’d like to say it was a simple project, but there were so many people involved with it,” said Thomas, who has lived on the island since 1972. “The timing was just right for the bike paths. It was a nice thing to be a part of.”

Goss, who is surprised — and happy — to see how popular and well-used the pathway is today, added, “It really helped make the character of the islands more family-friendly.”