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Long time resident shares early Sanibel memories

By Staff | Jan 27, 2016

Bob Sabatino. MEGHAN MCCOY

When Bob Sabatino moved to Sanibel in 1957, it was a true island.

“When I was on the ferry you only saw the Lighthouse and then way over to the right were two houses,” he said. “One of those two houses was Bailey’s store.”

While Sabatino was in the Coast Guard, he visited Craig Key where he met a girl, who he eventually married, from Sanibel. That first trip to Sanibel ended up becoming an adventure.

“I had a flat tire on Alligator Alley midway and it was kind of scary because I was a New York City kid. Here I am in the Everglades next to a canal where I hear there were alligators and snakes and I’m trying to hurry up and repair the tire,” he said.

After arriving in Southwest Florida, Sabatino said they came to Miner’s Corner, a two-lane road with very large pot holes, which took them to the Ferry Landing.

“You couldn’t go over five miles per hour,” he said.

After they arrived to Ferry Landing they were waved onboard. He said he quickly found out when you enter the boat first you get all the waves.

“My car was pristine at the time, and in one year it was a rust bucket because back then they didn’t have the paint jobs they had today,” Sabatino said.

When driving onto the island he noticed a telephone booth, the only telephone on both islands, and a little building that was like an outhouse for the post office.

“You wouldn’t believe it today, but there was a reason they called it Periwinkle Way,” he said. “On both sides of the road under this canopy of Australian Pines, it was like driving through a tunnel, were all periwinkles, all different colors the length of Periwinkle Way.”

In the 1950s, Sanibel only had one power line with barely any electricity because it was out more than on due to sailboats hitting the lines on the bayside. Sabatino said it was hard to have good electrical appliances because the power fluctuated too much.

The water, he said was atrocious and smelled like rotten eggs.

“The good thing about it was everyone stunk,” he said laughing.

They traveled to the beach for the first time and Sabatino was pleasantly surprised of what he found, especially after being used to Coney Island and having to step over people.

“We get down to the beach and I look to my left and I look to my right, no one, not a soul, not one person on that beautiful beach,” he said. “And then we walk down to the edge of the water and there were piles of beautiful shells. This was a pile about three feet high. You picked out beautiful shells like they came out of a museum. It was the first time I had seen a shell.”

Captiva had a few houses, Sabatino said, as well as a few cottages for ‘Tween Waters Inn. The island also had Gulf View Cottages, he said, a bed and breakfast run by a German woman. Timmy’s Nook, a little square building, was a sandwich shop, that also graced Captiva.

Sabatino grew vegetables and his father-in-law (Dewey Miller) had chickens, rabbits and pigs, and they caught everything else.

“We had sufficient food. If it wasn’t wild, we had it because of Dewey,” he said. “The only thing basically we would buy from Bailey’s was bread and milk and condiments.”

The hardest thing about living on Sanibel in the late 50s was finding work. His first job was with Nave’s Plumbing, which did not last long. Sabatino then started helping a painter on the island, who taught him a lot about the trade.

When he was not working, he volunteered his time at Dewey’s Fish Camp, his father-in-law’s business, on Tarpon Bay.

“He rented a house and a dock and a little building that he used to clean fish and sell fish,” Sabatino said. “Believe it or not, he rented this house and the waterfront and that little building for $50 a month.”

A turning point came after a couple of guys from Miami visited the island who wanted to go fishing.

“We don’t know the waters out here, can you come out and show us around. I asked Dewey and he said ‘I don’t care.’ I go out with them. They knew how to fish and I didn’t know squat. When we get back they give me a tip, which was more than I made in a day,” he said smiling.

After he was tipped a few more times, he got to thinking and asked Miller to let him be a guide by using one of his boats in the early ’60s. Sabatino said he would give him half of his day’s pay, $15.

Sabatino then began to research how much it would cost to purchase a boat, cushions, motor and an anchor, so he could be a guide for the three-month season. He asked his father-in-law for a $950 loan and was quickly turned down.

A woman, named Mrs. Glass, owned a little 14-foot boat, which Sabatino took care of.

“Robert if you ever need any financial help, or anything, you come and see me,” he said of Mrs. Glass. “I thanked her. I felt embarrassed to ask her for money.”

At that time, the causeway was being built and local help was being sought. Sabatino was hired as a laborer for $1.25 an hour. He worked on the seawall around the lower portion of the bridge where the entrances were located, as well as the concrete barriers.

After the bridge was built, Sabatino said instead of paying $1.50 one way for the ferry, plus 50 cents a person, he now had to pay $3 to come onto Sanibel. Before the bridge was built, he traveled into Fort Myers once a month, if not every two months.

“The last ferry coming to island was at 5. The last ferry off the island was at 5:30. If for some reason you got held up in Fort Myers, you had to pay a $20 charter fee to get back over to Sanibel, which happened a few times,” Sabatino said.

Shortly after working on the bridge for the first time, Sabatino decided to go and talk to Mrs. Glass.

“I want to become a guide,” he told her. “But I don’t have the money to buy the boat, cushions and motor and anchor. She asked how much does it cost. I said $950. She said ‘oh shoot Robert, I thought you were talking about a lot of money.’ She writes me out a check for $950 and she says, ‘I don’t want you to pay me back until you can afford to pay me back. I don’t care how long it takes.'”

Sabatino paid her back in nine months. He soon learned that he had to get a Coast Guard license to be a guide, which he passed with flying colors since he was in the Coast Guard.

He remained a licensed guide for 50 years on the island because of the freedom.

“You open up the textbooks and you look at Dick and Jane and where they lived and what do you see, this cute little house, trees, everything is green. I turn and look out the dirty window and see gray skies. I want to be in that book. One day when I was out on the bay, all of a sudden it dawned on me. Blue skies, mangroves that were a beautiful green, looking at the water, aqua. I said ‘Bob, you are in the book.'”

Sabatino spent the majority of his career on Captiva as a fishing guide because the fishing was phenomenal back then.

“Back in the ’60s, we had a policy with the three of us and back then we only took out two people on the boat,” he said. “The limit of snook, or four hours, whichever came first. The average trip, remember back then it was four fish per person, and we counted ourselves until a certain period of time, that’s 12 snook. It took us two hours to get 12 snook because we left at daylight, we were back at the dock before 8:00.”

On three trips, Sabatino said they caught 36 snook a day. Unfortunately those numbers plummeted when the mosquito control started spraying the area.

“I was in Redfish Pass and after the planes came over we noticed all these glass minnows surfacing on top of the water. What we find out is that snook larvae goes to the surface. What was happening was whatever they were using was killing the snook larvae,” he said. “I started a campaign to close snook season for five years to restock. Sure enough they made a semi comeback.”

The number of snook they caught lowered to eight for two on the boat, then two and then to one.

Now retired he makes fishing ID cards with a tape measure, shelling ID card, plastic lures and led heads for the lures, as well as selling his book “Every Day is Saturday.”

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.