Before we share thoughts on our time here, how about a little history? Fort Myers lies along the southern bank of the Caloosahatchee river in Southwest Florida. Local natives, the Calusa, knew about this place for a few millennia, earning them not only the naming rights to the river, but squatters rights to the best real estate. Places you’ve heard of like Fort Myers, Naples, Sanibel, Bonita Springs, Marco Island – all were Calusa territory, until Ponce de Leon started poking around in the sixteenth century. Spanish missionaries tried to save the Calusa from themselves, offering salvation through slavery and Jesus. Having survived happily for 5000 years fishing, boating, and partying on the local beaches, the Calusa had little interest. Sick of the mosquitoes and being killed by these natives for two centuries, the Spanish traded Florida to the British in exchange for Havana, which ironically, they had just lost to the British during the French and Indian War. The British, sick of shoveling snow and worsening colonist attitudes up in Boston and New York, needed a place to retire and play golf. The Calusa were not much interested in the British either, but the British had guns and preferred the more agrarian Seminoles, so they gathered up the Calusa not already killed by the Spanish or COVID-1, and shipped them to Havana.
Colonists were so sick of the British, they started a war to kick them out of America. While the British were distracted, and perhaps owing to nostalgia, or to flee the Calusa that the Brits sent to Havana, the Spaniards invaded Southwest Florida, winning back the entire territory from Britain. Like a Risk player with only one army per territory, the Spaniards were overstretched. They also apparently forgot about hurricanes, alligators, mosquitoes, and the heat, so they sold the entire Florida territory to the new United States for five million bucks and a chunk of Texas. Within 6 months, they lost Texas to the Mexicans, but kept the money. Florida just didn’t work out so well for the Spanish.
Florida thus became a US Territory in 1821. New settlers and the first wave of American retirees began to descend upon this new territory. Native Floridians, mainly the Seminoles at this point, worked hard make the new arrivals feel unwelcome. The army built an outpost along the Caloosahatchee to protect these early settlers, creatively named Fort Myers after the son-in-law of the commander of a bigger fort in Tampa. Hopefully, there will never be a town named Fort Kuschner.
Florida achieved statehood in 1845, and a decade later, after herding the remaining natives to Oklahoma, Fort Myers was abandoned. It was reoccupied by the Union army briefly during the civil war, in an effort to disrupt the supply of beef heading North to the Confederate Army. It was the Union Army’s southernmost outpost. After the war, ten families living nearby disassembled the fort, and used its wood to build a new town, first platted in 1876. Then, in 1885, a 38 year-old inventor from New Jersey, escaping the winter doldrums, came upon the town when steaming up the Caloosahatchee, chasing tarpon. He bought a small house and fourteen acres along the river, where he would spend the next 50 winters. His name was Thomas Edison.
Edison, who grew up in Port Huron, became friends with another Michigan guy named Henry Ford. Once Henry’s new factories started spitting out Model T’s, he built a vacation home next to Edison’s. They hosted the rich, the famous, the titans of the burgeoning industrial age. They could not have imagined then how much their inventions would change life on earth – or that their side effects would change the earth itself. These were the first Snowbirds, and unwittingly, the captains of climate change.
Like Edison, we arrived by boat and took an immediate liking to Fort Myers. The Municipal Yacht Basin was built as a public works project during the Great Depression, and is a shining example of a well run City marina. Though the facilities are a bit worn, the staff is competent and friendly. The ship’s store is stocked better than some West Marine’s, and priced better. Best of all, the marina is a short two blocks from a vibrant and charming downtown. The spot Edison picked for his winter home 135 years ago is just down the street.
We enjoyed the downtown immensely the first ten days of our stay. That first night, after our long cruising day, we had dinner at the Downtown Social House, and met Jim and Mary there, our friends on Pegasus. It was early March and CoronaVirus was still a Wuhon phenomenon. On the 8th, we met Dawn’s childhood friend, Bridgett Darnell, and went to see the local pro hockey team, the EverBlades (yes, what a great name). It was great fun, and though the team was playoff bound, it would be the last game they played before shutting down the season.
The following Monday, we went to the Edison-Ford Museum with Jim and Mary. The place was definitely worth the visit – in fact I want to go back. The following day, we drove to the beach on Sanibel Island, widely known for its fantastic shelling. Because parking at the beach is a gaudy $5.00/hr, we didn’t stay long. We then drove up island and stopped by the historical museum, a well-executed depiction of life on Sanibel before the bridge was built and word got out.
By that week, Coronavirus was killing a lot of Italians and Spain was thinking about another shot at Florida. Major League baseball cancelled spring training the next day, the week before our planned visit to Lakeland with Dawn’s brother Gary and their folks. We had a nice AirB&B reserved and great seats to see the Tiger’s play the Blue Jays, Yankees and Marlins.
Coronavirus was getting scarier, and social distancing had begun – out of fear not mandate. You may recall, Spring breakers were still infecting each other in Fort Lauderdale. We continued to enjoy downtown, testing our budget over oysters and mojitos at Izzy’s, burgers and beer at Ford’s Garage, crab and margarita’s at Pinchers, and Pizza at Capone’s. We were able to cancel our rental house in Lakeland, and Dawn’s parent’s cancelled their trip to Florida. Both the Tigers and our AirBnB host refunded us fully.
Gary, still in need of a vacation, flew down to Tampa anyway, staying the week with us aboard Cirila. That first night, we ate dinner on the balcony at Patio 33, listening to live music played in the courtyard below. Business had already started to slow, so the bouncers let us on the rooftop lounge the Firestone Grill and Martini Lounge, despite our boaters attire – tee shirts, shorts and flip flops. The next evening, Bridgette joined us for BBQ at The Lodge, and afterwards, we walked the thinning streets, sipping road cocktails with folks trying to get in one last St. Patty’s week drunk. It was March 22 – Fort Myers closed up shop next day.
We made the best of things the rest of our week with Gary, – eating well on board, listening to music and drinking beer all day. Reading the news was hard – the virus was spreading fast in the US, and we were not yet desensitized or hardened by it. Our friends John and Ruta Kalnins were in Florida and had planned to visit, but called a wise audible and drove home to Michigan instead. Gary also made travel adjustments, rebooking his flights on a nonstop from Tampa to Detroit in order to avoid potential exposure during an Atlanta lay-over.
Our plans to spend April in Marathon, down in the Keys, were dashed when the whole archipelago shut down for non-residents. Then, marina’s up and down the East and Gulf coast began to shut down to transient boaters. Tucked in our secure slip in a nice place, we extended our stay in Fort Myers. We’ve been hunkered down ever since. The few restaurants downtown that did offer take-out have since closed, so our galley has been a busy place. Because there is no urgency to anything but safe isolation, I’ve been more motivated to paint, read, and write than to work on boat projects. Dawn sewed masks for us, made more for our boating friends, and is working to replace that cushion that blew off the boat in New Orleans. Screen time on our devices is way up; the Apple Store seems to be the only economic beneficiary of our quarantine. The liquor store hasn’t done bad either! We count our blessings to be here, together, in our self-contained little world, unstressed by lost jobs or overwhelming bills. We pray for those not so lucky.