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Record attendance at Pioneer Club’s picnic

By Staff | May 1, 2018

The Pioneer Club of Lee County hosted a record 700 people for its 69th annual picnic at the Lee Civic Center featuring lots of food, prizes and people who remember when Daniels Parkway was just a dirt road and parts of Cape Coral was a ranch owned by the Mann family.

The Pioneer Club, which was formed in 1949 for people who have lived in Lee County for 50 years ? or at least lived here 50 years ago . The event gets long-timers together once a year and it’s often the only time many of them get to see each other.

“We’re feeding more than 500 people, and some people bring their own food. Some are allergic to barbecue and they bring whatever they need to have,” said George Mann, president of the Pioneer Club. “This may be the largest crowd we’ve ever had, and we were looking at how the tables were set up and can get another row in here.”

Among the things attendees talked about is how the area has changed from a rural area to a metropolis of more than 700,000 people.

“They just want to see each other, talk and visit,” said Pioneer Club director Jim Johnson, who was born in Lee County in 1937. “The area has changed so much. My company transferred me to California in the early ’80s. When I came back, there was an explosion. I didn’t know where anything was.”

Dora Miller, Fort Myers High Class of 1962, said Lee County is nothing like it was when she was younger.

“In the ’50s and ’60s it was a small town. Downtown was the best place to go in the world. On Saturday morning everyone was there with Sears and Penney’s on First Street,” Miller said. “When you got to Colonial, it became rural and the Black Diamond Ranch was there.”

“If you went to Bonita, you were out in the country. But we knew then it was coming. The entire west coast would become a metropolis, which is what we see now,” said Art Johnson, who worked at the city Drive-In. “We had two high schools, Fort Myers and Dunbar (which was segregated), which was unfortunate, but it was a sign of the time.”

Robert Parker, Pioneer Club director, said when they decided to build a mall in South Fort Myers in the mid-1960s, everyone thought they were crazy.

“It was one of the craziest things we ever thought would happen. It was the Edison Mall, which is now considered mid-town,” Parker said. “We would go out on Daniels and ride horses and motorcycles and get into the country.”

Doug Dailey, president of the North Fort Myers Civic Association, was there for the first time, as signified by his writing “rookie” on his name tag. He moved to town in 1968.

“I wanted to see some familiar faces from the past and talk about what we used to be,” Dailey said. “I came before Hancock Bridge Parkway was built and there were a lot of two-lane roads. We’ve seen a lot of expansion. When the interstate came, the boom happened.”

The guests of honor were the high school classes of 1968 from Fort Myers, North Fort Myers, Cypress Lake and Bishop Verot high schools. David Sims spoke to everyone on their behalf.

But many other classes came, such as the Fort Myers High Class of 1978, which had held its reunion last week and decided to extend it, complete with a Mardi Gras theme.

Beverly Bowen-Cox said there was a lot for kids to do in the ’70s as Lee County started to grow.

“We would go to Biff-Burger across from the mall, Tropical Hardware, Pugliese’s Restaurant and Nino’s Pizza, and Pizza Inn,” Bowen-Cox said, with her friends chiming in. “We would go there on Friday nights after football games, and the Southside Drive-In.”

Mann said he finds himself reminiscing all the time, even when he’s busy trying to keep things together with the event, the only thing the group truly exists for.

“It’s all about getting together and shooting the breeze,” Mann said. “There were 17,000 people in Lee County when I was born and there are 700,000, so there’s been a little change.”