Ted Smallwood's store/museum calls out for a visit in the 10,000 Islands
Down the end of the road on Chokoloskee Island, as far as you can go before wading out among the Ten Thousand Islands and the edges of Florida Bay, is a modest red building on stilts. This is the legendary Smallwood Store. Climb up the wooden stairs and step back in time. This store now is all about what was and the history of the tough people that carved out a life at the literal end of the road.
It is also famous as the site of where Edgar Watson, a planter and rumored murderer, met his sudden and violent end in 1910 as told so well in Peter Matthiessen’s books “Killing Mr. Watson” and “The Shadow Country.” People who worked for Watson turned up missing, never seen again except one of his unfortunate employees, his housekeeper Hannah, floated to the surface and was found. She was a big woman and the weights used to hold her body down were not enough.
After that the townspeople had had enough. Most of the men in town met Watson at the beach by Smallwood’s as he drove his boat in from his homestead after a hurricane had just passed over. Ted Smallwood did not join them. The men on the beach were all armed. Watson saw what was happening and tried to fire at them but his gun jammed and the men raised their guns and shot together. As he fell his wife cried out from inside the store, “Oh Lord, they have killed Mr. Watson.”
We will never know whose shot killed Edgar Watson — a fact that caused a lot of head scratching by lawmen in that day — and we will never know if he was for sure the murderer he was supposed to be, or if the killings were done by a dangerous overseer he had hired.
Regardless, he died right outside of Smallwood’s and passed into the many legends of the Ten Thousand Islands.
But long before that dramatic event on the beach people walked the shore and hunted the swamps. Native Americans had lived in the area for at least 2,000 years before white men began to hunt for hides and bird plumes around the end of the 19th century. The early Calusa built mounds and dug canals for their fishing and trading routes. Later other groups including the Seminoles hunted, fished and farmed.
As a small community of non-native fishermen, hunters and farmers started to grow Ted Smallwood decided what was needed was a general store and a post office. In 1906 he opened the Smallwood Store in part of his house. The store also served as a trading post taking in furs and hides in return for dry goods and other needed supplies. It was the only place between Key West and Ft. Myers to get anything.
Ted delivered the mail, taking it as far as Marco Island three times a week by sailboat. He kept a Sears catalog on the store’s counter and whatever he didn’t carry could be ordered and would arrive some time later at the post office.
He moved the store into a new building made out of good Dade County pine in 1917 and after being flooded out several times by hurricanes and bad storms he put it up on stilts and expanded out to its current size in 1925. The store continued to operate until 1982 when it closed for the last time. It was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and in 1990 Ted’s granddaughter reopened the store as a museum.
Inside, the shelves are lined with the actual goods sold throughout its history, especially the earlier times when a general store had to have everything from liniment for tired muscles and cures for all kids of ailments to tools and parts to fix the boat or supply the home with luxuries like a wringer washing machine.
The light is dim inside, reflected off the surrounding water as it passes through the big doors on the back that face bay. Dust has piled up here and there. Magazines announcing women getting the right to vote and a profile of the Ku Klux Klan sit dog-eared on the counter.
There are hides and furs and implements that were used by the Native Americans when they were there. A video loop plays in one room introducing Totch Brown, one of the best known and best loved of the old Gladesmen who died in 1996.
A steady stream of visitors find the museum and come in for a look-see. They wander and take pictures and listen to the history doled out by whoever is working the counter. There’s a lot to hear and see.
Ted and his wife Mamie had six children and their granddaughter Lynn Smallwood McMillan now runs the museum/store. On a recent visit her husband Gary was manning the counter and dishing out history. He also gives boat tours.
You can get a soft drink or choose from a really good selection of Florida history-related books, especially about the Everglades and all of Southwest Florida. There are Native American souvenirs, stuffed alligator heads, post cards and donations are always welcome. It costs $5 to get in and it is money well spent if you’d like to stand in the middle of some Old Florida history.
For fifty years, from 1906 until 1956 the only way to get to Smallwood’s was by boat. There was a road but it only went back in to Chokoloskee not on to the mainland. That little bit of access road became a legal battle when an out of town developer bought the surrounding land and wanted to get rid of the road where it crossed part of their land. The developers tore up part of the road and then petitioned the court to have it moved altogether. The family ran out of money to continue to court battle and knew if they lost the road, they lost it all.
This past Wednesday (3/24/15) when I last visited, Gary McMillen, Lynn’s husband, and I talked about the road trouble. Later as I was leaving I wished them luck with the road. He broke into a big smile and told me he had just gotten off the phone and had been told that the judge ruled that not only will there be a road but it will be right where it always has been. Maybe that was just the law’s way of smiling down on Ted Smallwood, the only man who definitely did not take part in the killing of Edgar Watson over a century ago.
360 Mamie St.
Open 7 Days a Week
A big thanks to WLRN public radio and TV video featuring Theresa McMillen and a 7/5/14 NYT article by Lizette Alvarez about the road case for additional information.
© Copyright 2015: text Sue Harrison; photos Sue Harrison for MyOldFlorida.com.