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Sanibel’s historical village offers a free day June 20

By Staff | Jun 17, 2015

Take another look at an island treasure June 20 at the Sanibel Historical Museum & Village’s second annual free visitor day. The village offers examples of early island living. CRAIG GARRETT

The Sanibel Historical Museum will offer free admission for all visitors on Saturday, June 20. It’s the second year for the event.

The goal of free admission is to open the historical grounds to those who otherwise may not visit, museum manager Emilie Alfino said, but to also re-acquaint islanders with local customs and chronology.

Other Sanibel attractions offer a similar program, including the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum’s free admission day last November.

But the Sanibel historical village is unique, offering a compelling mix of structures and goods from the island’s past. It’s also instructional, allowing visitors to peek at the island’s early history dating to the 19th century, when farming was largely the staple for most islanders.

“We decided to hold Free Admission Days because sometimes Sanibel residents tell us they have never been to the village,” Alfino said. “I suppose it’s the same syndrome that causes New Yorkers to ignore the Empire State Building. With our goal share and celebrate Sanibel’s history, we wanted to do something to entice more locals to explore the village. Once they do, we know they’ll love it and return many times and bring family and friends.”

The Sanibel Historical Museum & Village tells the story of Sanibel from the Calusa and Spanish eras to the early pioneer families who settled on the island in the 1800s. It tells of warriors, adventurers, fishermen, farmers and proprietors. The island’s way of life is recreated in a village of 11 structures that have been relocated from their original sites, restored and preserved. Visitors trace the footsteps of the island’s past as they meander along a handicapped-accessible boardwalk lined with buildings that represent “old Sanibel,” as Sam Bailey used to say. Visitors can tour a pioneer home, fishing cottage, post office, schoolhouse, tea room, general store, and more.

The village that closes Aug. 1-Oct. 20 is so popular that guide maps are printed in seven languages. It’s uniqueness includes a seashell collection of Thomas Edison’s son, Charles.

The village opened in 1984. Supporters over three decades have acquired buildings representing south Florida character and history, including a general store, a tea parlor, a packing house, a schoolhouse, a post office, others of significance and relevance. Within the buildings are goods, clothing and tableware that represent each structure. The circular village grounds next to the BIG ARTS cultural complex are connected by a walkway bordered with wildflowers, a garden, a quiet corner of a quiet island.

The museum in 2014 saw some 10,000 visitors pass through its turnstiles. It opened this season with a new reception center, a facelift that heat, visitors and time necessitated.

“I’ve never heard anyone say but they loved it, that they felt like they were going back in time,” said Barbara Broadhurst, a village docent. “And (they) can touch things. Nothing is locked behind glass. It is a very special place.”

The idea for the museum was fostered in the early 1980s by a committee largely directed by the city. Members wanted to time-freeze structures, lifestyle and collectibles from a time pre-dating mosquito control and causeways. The initial plan was to move a Sanibel home owned by Clarence Rutland, said Ty Symroski, an original committee member piecing together the project. Rutland’s home is a vintage cracker-style building of hard pine. Clarence Rutland’s family arrived in Sanibel in 1896. He was six. In the 1920s young Rutland earned seven cents per crate packing tomatoes and peppers for farmers and resided in the house until his death in 1982. Docents like to show visitors in the Rutland home a board of hard pine, demonstrating its heft and durability.

The Rutland home until this season had been the village’s visitor center. While the home is wonderful, its entryway was cramped, causing some difficulties in pace of service, museum officials concede. A new welcome center opened in November. The former Shore Haven home is larger and modernized, yet the character of the exterior is intact. It is better suited to handling the continuing growth in visitors. The Rutland home was restored to its original luster.

Symroski lived in one of the homes later moved to the village — a Sears & Roebuck cottage that cost an uncle $2,200 in 1925. The blue home, named the Morning Glories Cottage, was first moved by boat to Sanibel in 30,000 pieces.

As a boy, Symroski was a regular at the Bailey’s General Store that was also later moved to the village. The store’s character endures with period items on the wood shelves, a pair of gravity gas pumps outside the front doors. Symroski recalls purchasing jawbreaker candy at the Bailey’s that had been located at the foot of the San Carlos Bay, that one of the Bailey brothers was more stern than the other. He also recalls the excitement of a cousin given $5 as a birthday gift. The boy decided to purchase a section of rope from Bailey’s that he used for tree swinging and building a raft. Bailey’s carried nearly anything an islander required, he said: Clothing, tools, fish nets, groceries. The alternative was a long ferry ride to Fort Myers, he said.

His family’s blue cottage was later donated to the village.

“Look at the fireplace mantels,” Symroski said of homes moved to the village over 30 years, “and you’ll see the thumbtack holes” that held Christmas stockings. “I remember those times for getting my first fishing rod, my first wristwatch. They have done a great job at the museum.”

Symroski’s aunt, Elinore Dormer, led an effort in having the Rutland home saved and moved to museum grounds owned by the city, he said. At that time, Symroski sat on the Sanibel Planning Commission, the body that formed plans to erect the village and save historic island structures from the wrecking ball. Although many island structures were destroyed or fell into disrepair, enough were saved to create a village of character, he said.

The museum, Symroski said, “is very representative of Sanibel and the diversity of lifestyles of the island. I just wouldn’t have dreamed (then) that it has turned out as well as it has today. I’m in awe of what they have done.”

Although tour groups herd the grounds, a charm today of the Sanibel Historical Museum & Village is for the lone visitor to drift. A key is that the buildings are open to inspection, nothing like its counterparts at the Edison estate. Miss Charlotta’s Tea Room, for instance, is pretty much intact from the 1920s through 1935, the fare and charms frozen in time: Table settings, an icebox and tongs, children’s things, the quiet magic of a throwback, when cell phones weren’t glued to a patron’s face. It’s also clear that air-conditioning is an amenity few today could live without. Museum visitors literally stand at the center of a timeframe.

“We have pioneer cabins in the Smokies (mountains), and they’re nice,” said David Hartman, a Nashville man visiting the village. “But it’s nothing like this. (You) can tell the people running this place have a passion.”

Details, times, admission and village structure studies are available at sanibelmuseum.org.