Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Looking back in the New Year: Sanibel History

There probably is no better time to examine history than at the start of a new year.

And though most come to Sanibel Island for shelling, birding, biking, fishing and swimming; there is history to the island that can be as engrossing.

Historians believe that Sanibel and Captiva were formed as one island about six thousand years ago, as sediment that rose from the sea after being shaped by centuries of storm activity. Dating as far back as 2,500 years, the native Calusa Indians were the first-known residents of the island.

Traces of the Calusa can be found on the island.  One of the best known and often walked is the Shell Mound Trail.  The last of the nature trails you’ll find while following Wildlife Drive through Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the Shell Mound Trail provides a peek into the ancient history of Sanibel Island, with a boardwalk circling around mounds left behind by the Calusa who once populated these barrier islands. This 0.4-mile loop is entirely wheelchair accessible.

Follow the boardwalk from the trailhead into a tropical hardwood hammock and behold the magic. Snake plants thrive under the gumbo-limbo trees. Tall sea grapes shade the trail. At the trail junction, keep left. Long, thin barbed-wire cactus clambers up and over the saw palmettos, displaying showy yellow blooms in late summer. A giant Poinciana drips with huge bean pods like overgrown mimosa seeds, its lacy leaves creating a delicate green screen against the blue sky. Wild coffee sags under the weight of its dark red beans.

The boardwalk continues up and over a shell mound covered in dense tropical vegetation. A citrus aroma pervades the air, coming from a grove of lime trees planted by an early settler. Dropping down off the shell mound, the trail loops into a mangrove forest with enormous trees, white mangroves towering more than 30 feet tall. Sluggish tannic water glows with an orange hue, reflecting the tangled jungle of mangrove roots. Special flowers like Bromeliads flourish in the canopy. The boardwalk rises up to complete the loop. Turn left at the T intersection, emerging at the parking area after 0.4 mile.

But if you seek a concentrated dose of Sanibel history, your first stop might be the Sanibel Historical Museum.  Sanibel Historical Museum and Village was founded in 1984 with a mission to preserve and share Sanibel history. The story of Sanibel is told from the Calusa and Spanish eras to the early pioneer families who settled on the island in the 1800s. It tells of warriors, adventures, fishermen, farmers and proprietors.

Seven historic buildings were moved from their original island sites to the Historical Village. Each building has been restored to its original state. Volunteer docents share the stories of Sanibel with almost 10,000 visitors a year in these unique spaces.

All 7 buildings are restored and  steeped in history spanning many decades.  The oldest of the grouping is the Sanibel School House, and the name officially, is indicative of the times. In 1896, the East Sanibel School for White Children was built on the corner of Bailey Road and Periwinkle Way and then moved farther up Periwinkle in 1903 where it sat for over 100 years. The building, a classic one-room schoolhouse, had a platform in the front where different grades took turns doing lessons with the teacher. In the center was a wood stove used to warm the room in winter as well as to heat soup and cocoa. In 1932, a second room was added, more windows installed, and the schoolhouse was able to house grades one through eight. In the 1960s, after a new school house was built, the building became a theater. In December of 2004, the building was moved to the Historical Village.

So while it is difficult, we know, to turn away from the abundant flora and fauna on Sanibel to dive into history instead of our alluring Gulf, the experience of researching the Island does enhance every other aspect of being here.  Happy New Year, everyone!

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