Everglades City and Chokoloskee: outposts in the Everglades
Everglades City and nearby Chokoloskee (pronounced chuk-uh-lus-kee) were island communities only reachable by boat that were finally connected to the mainland by Rte. 29. Everglades City got its road in the late 1920s but the road didn’t continue across the water to Chokoloskee until 1956.
Back at the beginning of the 1900s Chokoloskee was made up Indians, traders and a few farming settlers that were strung out far and wide in the 10,000 islands. The town never got very big and its simple design of streets (all seeming to dead end at Chokoloskee Bay) remains much as it always was. Its early attraction may have come from the fact it is 20 feet above sea level, which is relatively high compared to nearby islands. Or, potentially, based on new archaeological information, it may be 20 feet high because archaic Indians lived there and their use built up the land.
Regardless, the two Santini brothers arrived in 1874 and by 1880 claimed most of the island. The island got a post office in 1891 and in 1897 Ted Smallwood arrived. He bought out the Santinis and was the largest landowner. He opened his Smallwood Store in 1906 and the store ran until 1982. It is currently a museum.
Everglades National Park has a visitor center here with boat tours.
The 2010 census claimed 359 residents. Most of what is there now are simple homes including weekend getaways for those who come for the fishing.
Although Everglades City had a population of only 479 in the 2000 census it came to that similar population number in a very different way. It, too, had its share of Native Americans including those from the Glades Culture and the Calusa. The first permanent white settler was William Smith Allen in 1873 but within 15 years he relocated to Key West leaving only his name behind on the former Potato Creek that became known as the Allen River and now as Barron River. After Allen, George Storter Jr. arrived. He raised sugar cane and opened a trading post. His own home housed guests and eventually turned into the Rod and Gun Club. Storter entertained a lot of sports, rich northerners who came down on their yachts to enjoy the waterways and abundance of fish. Five presidents have visited the Rod and Gun Club.
The Club is still in existence and is definitely a throwback. Inside, the walls are paneled in dark Dade County pine and filled with stuffed animals and mounted fish. Their glass eyes peer down timelessly over a billiards table, a restaurant, a cozy bar (with a life-sized pirate mannequin climbing a rope in the corner), an antique phone booth and a staircase leading up to rooms. There are some cottages for rent on the property and though it is quite impressive from the street, what you see is actually the back because the club fronted on the river, the only access when it was built.
The town got its first school in 1893. The school has since been destroyed by tornadoes and hurricanes and rebuilt. It still operates, serving 178 students in 2015. It has classes for K-12 that include Chokoloskee’s high school students.
In 1922, seeking to get the Florida legislature to carve out part of Lee County and turn it into Collier County, Barron Gift Collier bought the town from the Storter family. He needed a county seat for his proposed county and Everglades City was right about the middle. It had been called Everglade before Collier arrived. It then got an “s” and became Everglades, soon the Collier County seat.
Collier was a self-made millionaire from Memphis who got rich selling ads on streetcars. He fell for Florida and by the early ‘20s bought up quite a chunk of the southwest portion of the state. It only seemed right to him that part of the state bear his name, which it still does.
The Tamiami Trail, an ambitious road-building project to join Tampa and Miami was completed in 1929 but only because of Collier. To build the road workers had to blast out the limestone, dig it and the muck up and make a raised roadbed and then put a road on it. It was a slow, dangerous and hellish undertaking. Work on the road had started and stopped and changed its route and finally just ran out of construction funds. Collier agreed to bankroll the completion and in return he got his county. The Trail was laid out a scant five miles north of Everglades and Collier got the state to build State Road 29 from Everglades, past the Trail and on to the farming community of Immokalee, more than 40 miles to the north. Now Collier had his county seat connected to the rest of the state.
Collier had lived in New York City and when he came to town he opened the Manhattan Merchantile plus a pharmacy, laundry (now home of the local museum), restaurant, inn and County Court House. He laid out the streets of town with Broadway running east and west on either side of a palm-planted median. Copeland Avenue, named after his road engineer) runs north toward the Trail and south to Chokoloskee. Collier built a monkey house and a goldfish pond to amuse the kids. He also built a big bank (now a spa and a B&B).
The town grew though not hugely but fear of that growth caused much of the Storter family to move to the smaller and quieter (at the time) Naples. Like other south Florida towns, Everglades was hit hard by a couple of hurricanes including Donna in 1960. After that storm the bank put out clotheslines to hang and dry the cash that had been in the flooded vault. Following the population and building growth on the coast, the county seat was moved to East Naples and in 1965 Everglades’ name was changed to Everglades City.
Like much of remote South Florida, the town went through its time as a drug smuggling center. Locals will tell you it was strictly business. To understand how widespread the practice was, raids in the War on Drugs in 1984-85 arrested 80% of the men in town. Despite that alarming number, there is very little crime today beyond the occasional pilfering of someone’s fishing tackle or GPS off a boat.
The sports continue to come go fishing but it still feels like a small town where the locals are in charge. People don’t lock their doors. They drive golf carts or walk as often as they get in the car. There is a local paper, The Mullet Rapper, put out by Patty Huff who is also in charge of the historical society. According to the newspaper there are seven churches and over a dozen places serving food. The paper has news, a fishing column, history, tide chart, school news and more. There is a skating rink on Friday and Saturday nights and on a recent visit in April the high school awards dinner had been set for mid May.
Over the years the town has not changed that much. There are several places for day trippers to take an airboat tour or buy stone crab legs, rent a kayak or book a backcountry boat tour. You can get fancy coffee and gelato but it is served in a tin roofed house with a wraparound porch.
Most of the houses remain modest. Unfortunately the money battle is on as those with plenty of cash who want their own little piece of unspoiled Florida are driving home prices up and — despite great opposition by the local historical society — are tearing the older places down and building fancier and bigger. So far it’s not bad but it may only be a matter of time before the sleepy streets of Everglades City turn into something quite different. For now, if you come see it you will forget not only what year you are living in but maybe even what century.
Special thanks to Patty Huff and her walking tour of Everglades City, one of many events sponsored by the Museum of the Everglades located on Broadway. Check the museum website for ongoing events and local history and check Patty’s website (www.evergladesmulletrapper.com) to get a subscription to The Mullet Wrapper.
© Copyright 2015: text Sue Harrison; photos Sue Harrison and Lee Brock for MyOldFlorida.com.