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Markedly Unique: New Sanibel Heritage Trail conveys island's heritage

March 2, 2018
By TIFFANY REPECKI ( , Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

The history of Sanibel Island is a unique one, from its pioneer settlers and the construction of the causeway, to leading desegregation in Lee County and supporting conservation as a priority.

Now, the community and its visitors can learn about the aspects that set the island apart with the unveiling of the new Sanibel Heritage Trail. On March 1, a short ceremony was held at City Hall to announce the completion of the project, which consists of 22 panels located throughout Sanibel.

Don Adams, Heritage Trail coordinator and former member of the city's Historical Preservation Committee, explained that the concept started as an "outdoor museum" or "museum without walls."

Article Photos

Former Sanibel Mayor Porter Goss, left, and project manager Craig Chandler, right, pull the cover off of one of 22 panels unveiled on March 1 as part of the Heritage Trail as attendees applaud.

While the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village had covered much of the early history, there were subjects of importance to the island's heritage that had been left out, like the fight for home rule.

In late 2014, project manager Craig Chandler with the city's Planning Department was tasked with working with the committee to replace the original 37 markers, which were worn with their placards falling off. The team had to develop a trail panel, decide on locations and organize the information.

"That was the turning point from concept to planning," he said.

Fact Box

Topics covered on the new Sanibel Heritage Trail

- Agriculture: In the late 1860s, land was cleared and tilled for commercial farming. Flooding and cheaper shipping from the mainland ended most farming on Sanibel in the 1920s.

- Architecture: Clarence Rutland's home is characteristic of Sanibel architecture from the late 1800s through the next few decades. The Walker Guest House and St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church are notable architectural examples from later years.

- Causeway: Completion of the causeway in 1963 led to unprecedented population growth on Sanibel.

- Commerce: Commercial farming thrived until major hurricanes and a new causeway transformed island trade. Sanibel commerce has since been driven by tourism and building construction.

- Community: The Community House was built by island volunteers in the late 1920s. It hosts Sanibel's annual shell fair and island civic and social events.

- Conservation: Named in honor of its principal advocate, the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge protects one of the country's largest mangrove ecosystems. The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation was organized after Darling's death to carry on his conservation work.

- Education: The first tax-supported school was built in 1892. A segregated school for black children opened in 1927. In 1964, the current Sanibel School became the first in Lee County to be racially integrated.

- Environment: The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum presents extensive shell collections and addresses the many ways mollusks and their shells are important in nature and to mankind.

- Fishing: By the 1920s, there were massive commercial catches off Sanibel. Visiting sport fishermen launched Sanibel's hospitality industry.

- Governance: In 1974, islanders voted to incorporate. As a new city, Sanibel adopted a land use plan that has become a landmark for conservation-oriented city planning.

- Hospitality: For many years, beginning in the late 1890s, Sanibel's hotels and boarding houses were destinations for visitors who sometimes would stay the whole winter.

- Navigation: The Sanibel Lighthouse began operation in 1884 to warn ships of a sandbar that had damaged many vessels. In 1942, a detachment of Coast guardsmen was stationed here to watch for enemy landings.

- Pioneers: Early homesteaders are buried at the Sanibel Cemetery. These pioneers prevailed over hurricanes, mosquitoes, heat and humidity. Gavin and Walker families were among Sanibel's first people of color to settle.

- Preservation: In 1982, the Rutland House was moved to city property. It opened as Sanibel's first historical museum.

- Racial integration: In 1962, St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church became the first church in the region to be racially integrated.

- Recreation: Saturday night socials, shared meals, fishing, beach walks, shell collecting and playing baseball were popular recreational pursuits for early settlers.

- Wildlife: In 1968, Shirley Walters asked a veterinarian to help her treat an injured bird. The establishment of CROW, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, would soon follow. Sanibel is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including the American alligator, West Indian manatee, bottlenose dolphin, gopher tortoise and nearly 300 bird species.

- Worship: In 1917, the Sanibel Community Church was built by island volunteers. Organized as an independent congregation, it served as a center for island get-togethers.

Those involved realized is was an opportunity to do something more, and they seized it.

"The idea was to have an educational amenity along the shared use path, where we would be able to convey information about Sanibel's heritage to residents of Sanibel and guests," Chandler said.

The new panels contain text and historic photos that address the topics of Sanibel's history left unspoken for, including: agriculture architecture, causeway, commerce, community, conservation, education, environment, fishing, governance, hospitality, navigation, pioneers, preservation, racial integration, recreation, wildlife and worship.

"You can learn about some of Sanibel's first families on the island, what we call pioneers or homesteaders, and how the island functioned back then. You can learn about the causeway," he said. "Desegregation was a major thing here and the Sanibel community was the leader on that front, certainly in the county."

Chandler pointed to the island's conservation-minded approach or ethics.

"It's been a major part of our community identity - institutions like SCCF, shell museum, 'Ding' Darling and CROW," he said. "Those organizations have their own history, and their history is tied to the city and we acknowledge those organizations and the role they've had in forming our community identity."

Determining the locations of the new panels was a bit tricky in some of the cases.

"Some of the old markers were on private property," Chandler said.

Some were set up relatively close to their originals, like the one at The Community House.

"That one is, literally, in the exact spot at the old one," he said.

The panel talking about the original Sanibel School would have sat at a vacant lot since the building had been removed. So the team decided is was more appropriate to place is at the current school.

"We decided to go with locations that were historically representative," Chandler said.

At the unveiling ceremony, City Manager Judie Zimomra explained that the project was funded through grants from the Lee County Tourist Development Council and Florida Humanities Council.

"Ninety-five percent was off-island funds," she said. "No cost to the city."

Saving additional money, public works staffers installed the panels.

"They actually went around and did all the installation," Zimomra said.

Chandler noted that some may question where to start on the new Sanibel Heritage Trail.

"There's no order or sequence," he said. "It's not intended to be followed in any specific order."

While the project is done, one part of it is still under construction. The city is building a smartphone application to serve as a digital map guide to the trail. It is expected to the ready in a few months.

Officials and the team urged the public to stop and take a look.

"We encourage people to read them if they see them," Chandler said of the new panels. "Maybe they'll learn something new and appreciate a different aspect of Sanibel's history."



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