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Sanibel women talk of early island days

By Staff | Jan 28, 2015

(L to R sitting) Eleanor Kinzie, Betty Anholt and Sarita Van Vleck are introduced Friday, Jan. 16, before the Historical Women of Sanibel Panel begins at the Community House. BRIAN WIERIMA

There was a flow of history coming out of the Sanibel Community House Friday, Jan. 16, as a trio of Sanibel women talked of the earlier days of living on the island.

The Historical Women of Sanibel panel was the featured event at the Community House Jan. 16, as 92-year-old Eleanor Kinzie recalled her days of her family owning the ferry business on the island, while Betty Anholt told the story of early settler, John Purifoy, and the challenges he and his wife overcame.

The panel was capped off by Sarita Van Vleck, who is a staunch conservationist and was on the first Sanibel Planning Board, and helped bring Sanibel as an incorporated city.

Eleanor Kinzie, with help from her daughter Betty, went over the family’s history leading up to their running of the island ferry between Sanibel and Fort Myers.

The Kinzie family of brothers of George, Andrew and Eric arrived from Germany to Fort Myers in 1886. Eventually, the Kinzie Brothers Steamship Line was created in Fort Myers in 1904, where they started to build a fleet of steamships.

Betty Anholt shares memories of John Purifoy, who was one of Sanibel's early settlers. BRIAN WIERIMA

The business started blooming when the government awarded the company the mail delivery contract, to bring all the mail to the different islands off of Fort Myers.

In 1928, the first auto ferry started, with the first dock at the old Bailey’s Store and eventually moving near Lighthouse Point.

“‘The Best’ was a wooden ferry and hauled six to seven cars at a time,” Betty Kinzie said. “As kids, we came over to Sanibel many times and we loved to fish off the ferry. Taking the ferry was always a treat.”

“The Islander” ferry eventually became a part of the Kinzie fleet and it was a steel ferry, 20-car, 100 passenger vessel, which was bought by the Army and used in Pensacola.

The last run of the ferry came May 26, 1963, the day the Causeway opened.

Sarita Van Vleck recalled her days helping Sanibel become incorporated as a city. BRIAN WIERIMA

“It was a bitter-sweet moment for us,” Betty Kinzie said.

Eleanor Kinzie recalled an event when a hurricane was blowing in.

“Back then, hurricanes were not forecasted,” Eleanor said. “We were on the ferry and a big puff of wind came in and blew the top off a car and landed on one of the trucks.”

She also told of a story of the family swimming off the docks near the ferry landing. The men came in with a boatful of fish and an alligator perched in the water decided it was hungry.

“The alligator wanted his share of the fish and it was a while before we would go swimming back there,” Eleanor said to a laughing crowd inside the Community House.

Anholt gave the journey of John Purifoy, who moved to Sanibel with his wife, Fern, in the early 1930’s. Purifoy was interviewed by one of the librarians 35 years ago, telling his story.

“When John moved here, he said he had a boat, a kitten, two fishing poles, a week’s groceries and not enough money to go back home,” Anholt said. “So he spent the rest of his life here.”

He and his wife struck a tent on Silver Key on a patch of land his grandfather farmed.

“A little later, he found wood washed off a boat and built a house/hut the size of 16X16,” Anholt said. “They eventually saved up for a barge with a room up top of the wheelhouse, where they lived up to 1950. They went through the 1944 storm on that barge. Clam Bayou was emptied by the storm, then flooded back. The high water took barge to the top of the trees and then it crashed back down. There were scratches on the bottom of the boat from the branches.”

In 1950, the couple bought property on Dixie Beach Boulevard, where they both lived out their lives. Fern passed away the day before Hurricane Donna hit the island in 1960, and getting her body back to the mainland became a challenge.

They did find a boat to get her across in time before the hurricane slammed into Sanibel.

Purifoy worked many jobs on the island including as a cook and sheller. He would sell a bushel of shells for $1, but had to travel to Miami to sell them.

“That wasn’t terribly effective,” Anholt added.

Van Vleck was called for duty to Sanibel to help save the island from over development. Her city planning experience was an important aspect to the incorporation of Sanibel as a city and her conservation beliefs was a perfect match.

“It was a time where conservation began coming into the consciousness of the people,” Van Vleck said.

The spark erupted the effort to save Sanibel from over-development in 1967, when an army of bulldozers and dredgers arrived to start clearing land where Periwinkle Way runs into Tarpon Bay.

“This flood of instruments of destruction came in and it was so upsetting, but it congealed everybody,” Van Vleck said “This corporation to save Sanibel took place that winter. Tarpon Bay Road was all wrecked, but the city got together and saved it. That was very important.”

A small committee was formed, including Van Vleck and former CIA Director Porter Goss, who ultimately became Sanibel’s first mayor. The committee met in an office in St. Michel’s Church, where the plans were laid to keep Sanibel special and incorporate as a city.

Van Vleck recalled the communication process which took place on the island back then.

“We went down to the ferry landing by the lighthouse and there was a telephone and it was patrolled by legions of mosquitoes,” Van Vleck said. “Usually, there were 20-30 people lined up to make phone calls and just be standing victims to these mosquitoes. You really had to be committed to this phone call.”

Van Vleck also talked about Harold Bixby, who was one of the high officials of Pan-Am Air Company, which was an integral backer of Charles A. Lindbergh’s famous “Spirit of St. Louis” flight.

Bixby had connections to Sanibel and Captiva and Mrs. Lindbergh would stay at ‘Tween Waters Inn.

“Mrs. Lindberg would stay at ‘Tween Waters and Dottie Price (owner) would be her protector and not allow anyone to bother her,” Van Vleck added.

Sanibel history was being told at its finest, as a full Community House found out Jan. 16.