Friday, February 15, 2013

Historic Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee Island

Exit 80 is the exit ramp you'll need if headed to historic Smallwood Store from I-75 in Southwest Florida. 

Whether proceeding east to Miami from Tampa, or Gulf-bound from the Atlantic coast, the exit is toward the west end of the Florida tollway known as Alligator Alley.

We arrived at the Smallwood Store, and the charming little Ten Thousand Islands gateway of Chokoloskee Island, by way of another route. 

We were traveling US 41, locally called Tamiami Trail, on a trip to poke around and explore the edges of the Everglades.   

After a stop at Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, and a walk along the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk to the old alligator hole, with eagle sightings along the way, and a gorgeous spiderweb strung between trees with morning sunlight making irridescent lacework out of it, we advanced to Everglades City. 

The requisite stop there was the Everglades National Park north gateway welcome center. 

It was a visit full of interest and learning. The park ranger program gave us new insights into this area which is complex and so amazingly simple at the same time. 

The simplicity is the wonder that surrounds you. All you have to do is open your senses to it to take in the grandeur. It's before you and hopefully it will be for years to come. 

We'd heard about the historic trading post that Charles "Ted" Smallwood started on Chokoloskee Island in 1906. The Smallwood store was our next destination. 

Chokoloskee was the name once applied to the entire Ten Thousand Island region. 

This is information I came upon later as I researched the store. The name is from its earliest days. Chokoloskee means "Old House" and is an old Seminole name.

The Smallwood store followed eleven years after George W. Storter Jr. began his trading post and general store in Everglade on the mainland four miles to the north. 

Both stores traded in alligator hides, deer skins, plumes, pelts and produce from land and sea. The stores, serving the half-wild Everglades region, were vitally important to the customers and communities they served.

Chokoloskee Island was serviced by boat or ferry until 1956 when a causeway was built connecting it to the mainland. 

With the causeway it became instantly accessible by car although  for many it remained a far distant dot on the Florida map. 

As we crossed the causeway we were struck by the lush plantings on the Chokoloskee side. It was late December when we visited and not exactly blooming time. 

Any major brightness of display was in holiday decorations. The explosion of color from flowering trees and shrubs that beautify wintertime Florida typically comes later. 

 Chokoloskee, however, greeted us immediately with vivid stretches of of bougainvillea on both sides of the highway. 

 We think it was bougainvillea but our expertise as such is limited to the Midwest. Much, therefore, gets to be a guess after that.

The flowers were definitely tropical and splendid in their crimson appeal. We felt as if we had been delivered to one of the Carribbean countries.

Color makes Chokoloskee, about a third of a square mile in circumference, a botanist's perpetual paradise.

The island rises into hills as much as twenty feet above sea level. The hills were an unexpected feature to us. 

Much of Southwest Florida is flat scrub and swampland which makes hilly Chokoloskee a pleasant change. The gentle crests and dips were like a ride on the roller coaster after a pleasant day at the fair.

We knew the hills didn't come from a natural process. We believed we were driving upon an ancient Calusa shell mound.

We had learned about the Calusa Indians of South Florida. They were a large and powerful culture which flourished before the arrival of the Spanish explorers 500 years ago. 

The Calusas were a mound building people. Where they camped and lived along the low coastline land was built up over time. 

These man-made elevations provided  protection from animals and some safety at times of hurricanes. Oysters and clams, in abundance in the shallow Gulf waters, served as both food and building materials. 

As a native group the Calusas are extinct but their former habitations are identified by shell mounds such as comprise Chokoloskee's pretty green hillocks. 

The Smallwood store is at the end of the island road. It perches on stilts above Chokoloskee Bay. 

The bay, about two miles wide and ten miles long, is separated from the Gulf of Mexico by the Ten Thousand Islands of which Chokoloskee counts as one. 

Except by sailboat or other watercraft tiny Chokoloskee Island got the remote end of the stick when Florida was put together. It was settled long after other areas of the state. 

The years following the Civil War (1861-65) was a period when the nation was on the move. The 1862 Homestead Act was instrumental in this and there were other factors. 

The War with its fraternal strife and huge loss of life on the battlefields was a game changer. It brought soldiers into contact with places they otherwise would not have seen.

Some liked what they saw and had a hankering to light out and make these places their home after the war was over. It was a seismic shift as the country adjusted to peace and the many wounds from division began to heal.

There was much up and moving as new opportunities were sought and then word would go out of some place even better. 

Families barely had time to unpack their few essential household goods before the itch or the necessity came along to move somewhere else. 

 Immigrants were coming to the country in large numbers for a variety of reasons. 

Folks in the East also had a restless spirit. They were spurred to try their fortunes in the golden West and anywhere where the talk of land was promising.

Land to claim for your own was the real gold at the end of the rainbow for many. 

The first settlers in Chokoloskee's permanent population arrived in the 1870s. There were five families by 1882. The island remained sparsely populated. Neighbors were important because there were so few. 

Fishing and farming, and other pursuits related to the abundant natural resources, were primary means of making a living. 

Ted Smallwood, a North Florida native, settled in Chokoloskee after previous visits to the area. He's a very good example of the American mood in the late 1890s. 

An era of prosperity was building after some rough times. People were seeking out places to put down roots, raise their families and make a go of it in places suited to them.

The Seminole and Miccosukee Indians were among customers at the Chokoloskee trading post which he established in the family's two-room residence.

Until the Tamiami Trail opened in 1928, and other shopping options became available, many from this area of the Everglades relied on the Smallwood store, especially after the Storter store closed with the advent of the building of the Tamiami Trail.

Smallwood learned the Indian language. His store and his linguist abilities were a cultural bridge to the benefit of all. I later read that Smallwood was so trusted by the Indians that he kept their money for them at his store.

He was a friend of Chief Tigertail, a name kept alive with Tigertail Beach on Marco Island, as well as the memory of friendship between these two men of different cultures. 

The present store, which Smallwood built in 1917, is located on the mangrove margins of Chokoloskee Bay. It went up at at a time when the island community was growing. 

The Smallwood family was part of the growth. Five children came to be born to Ted and Mamie Smallwood. The last child, a son, was born in 1917. 

For a long time the post office was at the Smallwood store. Ted Smallwood was Chokoloskee postmaster for 25 years. 

Mail arrived by boat from Everglade, which was renamed Everglades after Barron Collier bought the townsite in 1922.

Customers coming to the store for staples and their mail used the store as a central gathering spot. 

It was a place of welcome, business and hospitality. Neighbors and friends could meet, giving the transactions at the big store counter a friendly touch. 

The Smallwood store weathered more than one hurricane. In 1924 a hurricane blew in the front door bringing in four feet of water.

Smallwood prepared accordingly for the next big blow. He moved the store foundation over a few inches, raised the store eight feet and put in the pilings on which the store still rests. 

When the strong hurricane of September 1926 came through, with widespread devastation,  the Smallwood store remained intact.

Mamie Smallwood, key in her own right as a Chokoloskee Island pioneer, died in 1943. Ted, who retired as storekeeper in 1941, passed away in 1951. 

The store continued operations. It was run by oldest daughter Emma Thelma Smallwood, known as Thelma. 

She kept the store going for another four decades. During this time, in 1974, the store was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Thelma died December 19, 1982 at which time the store was closed. 

Each generation has its heroes and those whose vision includes the past. 

Family members of the next generation of Smallwoods, realizing the historic value of the store, and the story it has to impart to the future, have been at the forefront of its preservation efforts. 

Restoration efforts begun in 1990 have had their snags as do all labors of love. 

The store took a hit from Hurricane Wilma in 2005. It sustained roof damage. The hurricane also blew away the front steps. Replacement and repairs put the old store to rights again. 

The store remains open as a historical landmark and museum with small gift shop. 

A modest $5.00 admission lets you have your time to look at the displays and appreciate the cool air off Chokoloskee Bay as it comes through the open windows and doors. 

You can imagine customers waving palmetto fans in the heat of a summer day and catching the breeze as they pass the open door overlooking the wharf.

You catch their sighs of appreciation of this raised vantage point at water's edge where bay breezes easily reach.

It is interesting and educational to spend time in the neighborly and hard-working world the store portrays. 

As a a taste of the ends of the world it may explain why  visitors to Southwest Florida seek out this site. The Smallwood store, as it turns back the clock and time, is refreshment away from the busy workings of our lives.

Ro Giencke - February 15, 2013


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