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Bailey Fest set for this weekend on Sanibel

By Staff | Oct 23, 2014

It was billed in 1985 as Sam Bailey’s way of giving back to the community.

The 29th annual Bailey Fest returns Oct. 26. The event at the shopping complex at the corner of Periwinkle and Tarpon Bay will feature live entertainment under a bigtop tent, games, food, vendor/sponsor booths, crowning of the Bailey Fest king and queen, other goodies that in past years have attracted several thousand visitors.

The event runs from noon through 4 p.m. Parking will be directed away from Bailey’s, as the lot will be roped off to accommodate Florida’s version of a fall festival. Bailey’s General Manager Richard Johnson said Bailey Fest in 1985 was the former co-owner’s opportunity to thank Sanibel, its customers, friends and merchants in the island.

“It was something special for Sam,” Johnson said of what was first spelled Baileyfest.

Sam Bailey was one of three sons of Frank Bailey and Annie Mead Matthews. Other brothers were John and Francis. Frank Bailey founded the store in 1899 that still carries the family name. The story was that Frank and Annie had anticipated their third child to be a girl, quickly renaming the husky infant “Samantha” as Sam, a youngster running freely amongst the alligators and farmers in an isolated paradise. A strapping Sam Bailey played football with the University of Georgia, where he was nicknamed “Seaweed Sam” due to a dark Florida complexion and his rural roots. He left college before graduating, drafted to play professionally with the Boston Yanks, which later became the New England Patriots. His player salary in the 1940s allowed Sam Bailey to send his father a check for $2,000 and “a really good suit and a Victrola,” Sam Bailey wrote in his 2008 autobiography “A Sanibel Son Looks Back.”

“For a man who owned a general store, he couldn’t believe I made this much money to play a game,” Sam Bailey wrote. He later coached and held other positions with the University of Tampa. He joined his brother, Francis, at the Sanibel store in the late 1970s.

In his book, Sam Bailey described his early childhood in Sanibel as mostly idyllic in an island paradise with a few hundred residents, but with a few setbacks.

“My earliest memory of the island?” he wrote. “It’s crystal clear. It was the fall of 1926 and a brutal hurricane had just devastated the place. I had just come back from North Carolina where I spent the summer with my family. Although I was just knee-high to a duck and not quite three years old, that day sticks in my mind.”

Sam Bailey was recalling a September storm that ripped through southwest Florida, the so-called Great Miami Hurricane of 1926. The storm flooded Sanibel, changed the topography of the region and forced the displacement of many islanders. Its 100-plus mile-per-hour winds also shredded the Bailey’s store, a wooden structure at the foot of San Carlos Bay, which was an emotional event lasting throughout Sam Bailey’s life. The store at its current location was relocated in the 1960s.

“My daddy drove me in his Studebaker down to the wharf to check on the family store,” Sam Bailey wrote of the hurricane’s aftermath. “When we got there, I just stared at all the trees and debris on the ground. It didn’t make any sense. I said, ‘Daddy, where’s the store?’ He just scratched his head. Then I realized that the store was gone. Gone, and nothing left of it.”

Ultimately in a small town like Sanibel, a storm brings survivors together. The lasting impression of community rebounding, of merchants, farmers and workers coalescing around misfortune, shaped young Sam Bailey, perhaps one of the drivers behind his community-mindedness; Sam Bailey also founded Islands Night and other Island events to honor his hometown, Richard Johnson said.

One of the reasons for the success of Bailey Fest, Richard Johnson said, is that Sam Bailey drilled workers on planning. The store has preserved on a second-floor chalkboard the event’s diagramed layout, in pretty close detail, of Sam Bailey’s final festival four years ago. The chalkboard is covered by a sheet of paper to prevent accidental erasure of Sam Bailey’s chalk drawing. The drawing is also a reminder of the deep impact of the Bailey family, the store’s central role in Sanibel’s colorful history. Henry Ford’s reported bottling of Thomas Edison’s last breath has a similar sensation, at least for those immersed in living artifacts. Francis, John and Sam Bailey are now deceased.

Sam Bailey preached “practice, practice, practice,” Richard Johnson said of Bailey Fest rehearsals.

“It was Sam’s team, and we’d huddle and go over the ‘plays.’ He was very passionate and organized, from one special event to the next. It must of been from his football days.”