Bonita Springs History
Bonita Springs has long been inhabited; in fact, since the days of prehistoric man. Recent discoveries place humans in Bonita Springs some 8,000 years ago. Here are just a few milestones in our history:
Thousands of Calusa Indians were here when the Spanish came in 1539 looking for the Fountain of Youth. Within a couple of centuries, the once mighty Calusa Chiefdom was decimated by European diseases and slave trading. The few survivors moved to the Florida Keys and on to Cuba. Some may have been assimilated into Seminole tribes that had taken refuge in South Florida.
In the 1870’s, government surveyors in a remote part of Southwest Florida pitched camp along the waterway now known as the Imperial River. After the crew left, the site became know as Survey. The waterway became known as Surveyor’s Creek.
During the next decade only a few homesteaders moved into the area.In the late 1880’s the population of the area more than doubled when Braxton B. Comer bought 6000 acres of land around Survey and imported 50 Negro families from Alabama with mules and equipment to work his large plantation growing pineapples, bananas, coconuts and other kinds of fruit.
The next ten years saw a boom in the planting of citrus groves, and within a few years, Survey developed from a scattering of homesteaders into a community. In 1897, the pioneers built a small, thatched-roof, log-walled public school. In 1901, a Post Office was opened in the town of Survey, and by 1910 the frame two-story, Eagle Hotel was in business catering to visitors attracted to the unspoiled area’s bounty of hunting and fishing. By 1912, there were 70 students from 20 families enrolled in public school.
Also in 1912, Tennessean J.H. Ragsdale along with a fellow investors from Fort Myers purchased 2400 acres around Survey. He and associate, Dan Farnsworth, surveyed the area and laid out a small town with streets and avenues named after the investors. The developers decided that the name, Survey, lacked sales appeal, so the town was renamed Bonita Springs; Indian Spring Branch became the Oak Creek; and Surveyor’s Creek was renamed, the Imperial River.
When the newly-named town of Bonita Springs was being developed, transportation was still mainly by boat. In 1917, a barely passable road was completed between Fort Myers and Bonita Springs. Barron Collier, the wealthy landowner and developer, wanting to expand his empire, had extended his Fort Myers-Southern Railroad south to include Bonita Springs in 1925. This along with the completion of the new Tamiami Trail in 1928, brought another land boom to the area. Still basically unpopulated, the nearby beaches were called Fiddlerville, so called for its millions of tiny fiddler crabs. From 1925 to 1934, Bonita Springs continued to grow and was briefly incorporated, churches were built, saw mills flourished, there were two hotels and the Banyan tree on old 41 was planted.
Man-made ttractions also helped bring more visitors to Bonita Springs. In 1936, the Piper brothers, Bill and Lester, built a roadside attraction displaying alligators, cougars, other wild animals and native plants, called the Everglades Reptile Gardens. Later named the Everglades Wonder Gardens, the gardens are still operating. A Canadian, Harold Crant, saw the millions of shells lying, free for the taking, knee-deep in brilliantly colored windrows along the beaches and opened the Shell Factory in 1938. After the factory burned down on New Year’s Eve in 1952, it was later rebuilt in North Fort Myers.
Bonita remained a quiet small town for the next three decades. But, as the years passed, the rush to build was about to start. With the development of air conditioning and the opening of “new” US41 and I-75, the increased population brought shopping malls, modern office facilities and golf courses into the area. Today, Bonita Springs is an attractive, affluent area with beautiful beaches, fine restaurants, excellent recreational facilities and beautiful homes. It’s hard to realize that, a little more than three generations ago, the roots of this thriving community were a scattering of homesteaders’ shacks by a creek in the back of nowhere – a place called Survey.
In Early Estero, author Quentin Quesnell wrote that when the Spanish came to Mound Key near the mouth of the Estero River in 1567, they found the thriving capitol of the native Calusa Indians. By the 1700’s, the dwindling Calusa had fled to Key West, then Cuba, leaving the area to Cuban fisherman, outlaws and pirates.
Around 1850, Army records show that most of the coastal mainland was under 3 to 12 inches of water. Once the water table was lowered, the first homesteaders arrived. In 1882, German born Gustave Damkoehler after living in Australia and Missouri brought his young family to the banks of the Estero River to grow silk worms and raise honey bees. The 1885 census showed nine families in the area. Frank and Mary (Whitten) Johnson officially registered Mound Key as their homestead in 1891. Archeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing described the shell mounds there and on the mainland near the river in 1895.
In 1894, Damkoehler transferred his land to Dr. Cyrus R. Teed, the charismatic leader of The Koreshan Unity, a utopian society which offered complex religious, social and economic solutions for problems of the time. Often highly educated, they valued celibacy, temperance, equality of men and women, racial equality, education, the arts and industry. Formerly centered in Chicago, the Koreshans moved their commune to Estero, including grand pianos and printing equipment. One product of their first rate Guiding Star Publishing House was The American Eagle which evolved from a widely read regional newspaper to a respected far-reaching horticultural journal that often featured the works of botanist Henry Nehrling. The history of this group, which survived until the early 60s, is interpreted at the Koreshan State Historic Site, a national historic district.
After the big freezes of 1894-95, citrus growers rushed to buy land along the river. The largest of these was Daniel A. G. Floweree, a wealthy cattleman from Montana. Over the years, the Horne family of Estero provided three managers to the extensive Floweree Groves. John Horne’s 1916 home is still on Sandy Lane. Portuguese and Spanish fishermen settled on Mound Key in the 1890’s and later built homes on Highlands Avenue, circa 1919, so their children could attend school. The early homes of the Fernandez, Alvarez, and Soto families remain.
The Estero Creek School (ca. 1904-1927), on today’s Highlands Ave, has been donated to the Historical Society along with the neighboring ‘Collier House’ (ca.1906). Both buildings will be moved to the Estero Community Park as museum and Society headquarters.
The Mediterranean styled Estero Grammar School (1927-1949) survives today as a handsome private residence next to the post office on Broadway. More hidden are the substantial two story Boomer and Campbell Houses, both Koreshan built in 1917.
The 1920’s saw the building of the Tamiami Trail (now U.S. 41) and the construction of two railroad lines, shifting travel and shipping from the river to road and rail. The 40’s brought mosquito control and added motor home parks to the older trailer camps in the area. The first subdivisions arrived in the 50’s and 60’s. The 70’s brought the first condos and gated communities. Florida Gulf Coast University, Germain (formerly Teco) Arena and Miromar Outlets came in the 90’s, paving the way for the astounding growth we see around us today.
Bits of Old Estero are found on Highlands Ave, Sandy Lane, Broadway and the River. We wish to inform and involve others in finding ways to preserve our natural and historic heritage.
- Bonita Springs was originally called “Survey”, named for the surveyors that set up camp there in the 1870s. The Imperial River was known as Surveyor’s Creek.
- There is a Calusa shell mound in Estero Bay that rises to over 30 feet above sea level and is believed to have been the capital of the Calusa empire which spanned from Tampa to the Ten Thousand Islands.
- The Gulf Coast portion of the Everglades is the only place on earth where alligators and crocodiles cohabitate and is also home to North America’s largest continuous mangrove forest.
- Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is regarded as one of the top bird watching spots in the United States.
- The name “Everglades” was first used on a map of the area dated 1832. Derived from an old English word “glaed”, meaning an open, green grassy place in the forest. Seminole Indians called the Everglades the Pahayokee, meaning grassy water.
- The teddy bears of the marine world, manatees, are fleshy, docile, and loveable. The endangered mammals – relatives of the elephant – average 10 feet in length and weigh up to 3,500 pounds as adults. Voracious vegetarians, they eat 80 to 500 pounds of seagrass, hydrilla, water hyacinth, and water lettuce a day.
- Adult loggerhead sea turtles, which are believed to swim thousands of miles from feeding grounds to nesting beaches, can grow to a length of 3 feet and weigh from 200 to 350 pounds. Females return to the beach where they hatched to lay their eggs.
- Bottlenose dolphins can travel at speeds of over 21mph. Only one half of their brain sleeps at a time. This is because dolphins need to surface often to breathe and must be conscious to do so. A mother bottlenose dolphin may take care of her calf for up to six years.