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Living in Paradise: Before the Sanibel secret was out

By Staff | Nov 12, 2014

The Bailey home was originally built in 1896 on Sanibel Island. It's been a mainstay on the island, as well as the family. PHOTO PROVIDED

Before the Sanibel Causeway was constructed in the 1970s, the island paradise of Sanibel was a secret enjoyed by the original homesteaders, as well as the permanent residents who enjoyed the island life year round.

The City of Sanibel celebrated its 40th anniversary of being incorporated last Tuesday, Nov. 4, at City Hall, reminding people there was an entire different kind of life on the island during the early to mid 1900s.

One of those who has experienced the wide range of change on Sanibel is Jim Pickens, who shared a couple of stories during his speech to the audience on that Tuesday morning at City Hall. Pickens moved to Sanibel with his parents on Aug. 31, 1952, a date which is easy to remember for the 78-year-old.

“It was my 16th birthday, so it was pretty easy to remember,” Pickens said. “Then, I started my junior year at Fort Myers High School three days later.”

Life certainly was much different than it is now, with much of the island cleared of any houses and used as agriculture. Plains and palm trees dotted Sanibel, along with some meandering shell roads winding through the island, providing the transportation arteries.

The Shell Fair has been a popular event on Sanibel Island. This is a photo of the event, taken in the 1950's. PHOTO PROVIDED

Don Bass (his name dons Bass Road in Fort Myers) was the main farmer at the time, as he harvested peppers and tomatoes. Pickens’ family purchased property on what is now Periwinkle Way, and signs of farming were still very prevalent when they started building.

“There were still furrows from when Don Bass was farming when we started construction,” Pickens said.

Another current Sanibel resident, Ty Symroski, wasn’t a permanent fixture on the island, but his mother’s family was, after they built their homestead on the bay of the island in the 1920’s. Of course, living on an island with ocean-front property, vacations to grandma’s was something Symroski looked forward to when he was a kid.

“My mother’s family came to Sanibel and built in the 1920s and my father was in the Air Force, so we lived around the country when I was growing up,” Symroski said. “Fortunately, we happened to be stationed in Georgia when I was about 10 years old, so we could come down easily for vacations. It was such a great place to visit.”

Symroski uses a story his mother told him when asked to describe Sanibel when he was able to visit as a kid.

"The Best" ferry hauls cars from Sanibel Island back to the mainland. The ferries was the main transportation back and forth from the island to the mainland, until the Sanibel Causeway was constructed. PHOTO PROVIDED

“She was in the community church, which was a one-room church back then, on a nice, cool day,” Symroski recalled. “The doors and windows were open and the Minister was giving a sermon. A dog walked through the door during this time and stopped at every pew and was petted at every stop. He then went up to the minister and he petted him. The dog curled up in front of minister and went to sleep.

“It was that kind of (environment) on Sanibel.”

With the modern process of mosquito control not in existence back then, the little skeeters made their big presence felt to everyone who ventured outside past sunset on the island, especially during the wet season.

“We called it the Sanibel Dance,” Symroski said. “You would be sitting in one spot and elbows and hands flailing and swatting at the mosquitos.”

But there were processes which started to be put in place to control the pest, with most of them consisting of insecticide. The first weapon of choice was actually a fish. Minnows, known as Kill Fish, were transplanted into the ponds and rivers and during the flooding season, they would eat the mosquito larvae at the rate of 10 times their own weight.

Jim Pickens speaks at the City of Sanibel 40th Anniversary gathering in front of City Hall Nov. 4. Brian Wierima

Another tool were sea shells.

“In the summer, you would build a four to six-foot wide barrier made of shells around your house,” Pickens said. “Since the barrier and shells were bright and warm, mosquitoes wouldn’t come around during the day because of the heat and the brightness.”

Sea shells also provided the Sanibel population with much joy, which accumulated into the Shell Fair, an event which allowed people to share their beach findings.

“We’d have the Shell Fair and a group of us would be on the beach dredging up shells,” Pickens said. “Back then, we knew of 406 variety of shells on Sanibel and we could name most of them. Most of us entered the Shell Fair and we’d usually win our division because we’d be here all the time.

“You can’t believe how many shells were on the beach when there was no one to pick them up. They were two to three feet deep. When they were able to bring asphalt paving material by barge, they went to the beach and picked up shells, then mixed shells into asphalt to help pave the roads.”

Ty Symroski stands in front of his grandmother's house, which was built in the 1920's on the coast of Sanibel Island. It now resides at the Historic Village museum on Periwinkle Way. Brian Wierima

With the only way off the island being ferries, the commute to Fort Myers High School became a long trek. With Sanibel Junior High going up to just eighth grade, freshmen through seniors had to be ferried and bused to the high school in Fort Myers.

The day would start at 6 a.m. with the students climbing aboard the ferry, which brought them to the mainland. From there, they loaded a bus by 6:30 a.m. There would be many stops on the way to the high school, which arrived at 8:15 a.m., thus making it over a two-hour commute from the island.

“We’d get back home around 5:30 p.m., so we had a 12-hour day,” Pickens said.

But things certainly changed when the Sanibel Causeway was built which, in essence, opened the island up to the outside world.

“It was an inevitable change and everyone on the island saw it coming,” Pickens said. “Many didn’t like the idea, either. A lady resident who lived at the end of Donax Street, put her house up for sale and moved off the island when the causeway was passed.”

Towards the end of the 1950s, the community association met and called in a land planner. One of questions asked of him was how many people, if fully developed, could fit on the island.

“He answered, ‘If you put up sea walls, pump in mangroves and flat out the land, you’d have an area the size of Memphis, Tennessee,'” said Pickens, whose father was on the committee. “‘Basically, you could fit 120,000 to 150,000 people on the island.’

“There were faces as white as a sheet when they were told that.”

But there have been steps taken to preserve the island’s unique natural environment and ambiance over the years, which drew Symroski to move permanently to Sanibel from his home in the Keys in 2013, after traveling to and from Sanibel for the better part of the last three decades.

While working on the planning committee with the City of Sanibel four years after it was incorporated in 1978, Symroski bought the old Maggie and Mary Fitzhugh house for $1,000, after it was being threatened to be torn down due to the construction of a new shopping center project.

“I’ve been fixing up the house ever since,” said Symroski, who now serves on the Sanibel Historical Preservation Committee. “We always liked the ability to step outside and see nature when you were on Sanibel. Part of growing up here on Sanibel, you never had to drive to nature, because nature was all around you.”

The days of a relaxed atmosphere which could put a dog asleep at the feet of a preaching minister maybe in days past, replaced by the hustle and bustle of a busy Sanibel Island, but the memories are still preserved of a time gone – a time which a few were able to experience and remember fondly.