Three years ago, I embarked on an unexpected journey. In the course of investigating Fort Myers’ public art collection, I discovered that the vast majority of these artworks told stories about Fort Myers’ early history. Along my odyssey, I learned a great deal about Vagabonds Edison, Ford and Firestone, early developers like William H. Towles, Harvie Heitman, Walter Langford and Peter Tonnelier, and a ton about the fort from which our town derives its name. But until I met archaeologist Theresa Schober and attended ArtCalusa last November, what I knew about Southwest Florida’s original residents could be figuratively packed into an antique thimble with about 2 cc’s of volume left over.
While Schober is indeed an archaeologist, she doesn’t wear a fedora, I’ve never seen her sport a bullwhip, and she wouldn’t remove an artifact from an archaeological site for love or money (although I’m pretty sure she could outrun a big rolling rock if the need arose). But she knows more about the ancient Calusa Indians than anyone else in Southwest Florida, if not beyond.
Originally from the Calgary area (yep, that’s in Canada), Schober showed up in Fort Myers in 1998 to direct the restoration and exhibit development at Mound House and Newton Park on Fort Myers Beach. During her nine year tenure, she not only secured $4 million for educational, exhibit and historic preservation initiatives as well as two awards from the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, she amassed a prodigious amount of information and understanding about the life and times of the Native Americans who reigned over this area of the country from roughly 100 B.C. to 1704.
Schober translated her knowledge and national contacts into a Viva Florida 500 exhibition that was designed to introduce Southwest Florida residents and visitors to this once mighty, ever proud, never bowed race. ArtCalusa: Reflections on Representation included paintings of the Calusa and their cities and settlements rendered by leading historical artists, including Charles Dauray of Estero, Christopher Kreider of Loma Rica, California, David Meo of Fort Myers, Theodore Morris of St. Augustine, Daytona Beach’s Dean Quigley, Hermann Trappman of Gulfport and Jackson Walker of Orlando (along with glass artist Lucas Century of Sanibel). The exhibition incorporated lectures and panel discussions that included former State Archaeologist Ryan Wheeler, local archaeologist Steven Koski, Jerald T. Milanich, American Indian literature scholar Gretchen Bataille, and noted UF wet site archaeologist Barbara Purdy. It also featured a one-man play based on the life of shipwreck survivor Hernando d’ Escalante Fontaneda.
The information presented sent me packing for the library to learn more about Fontaneda, Juan Ponce de Leon, Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his treacherous nephew Menendez Marquez, as well as the great Calusa chiefs forced to contend with the Spaniards attempts to convert, if not enslave their people. But it was hard to concentrate on the accounts of 400-500 year old events with Harrison Ford’s gravely voice echoing in my ears: “If you want to be a good archaeologist, you gotta get out of the library.”
The advice pertains as well to anyone who possesses an interest in or passion for Southwest Florida history.
So on Monday, my fiancee and I boarded a Banana Bay tour boat with 26 other curiosity seekers to take a Schober-guided tour to Mound Key, a tiny island in the middle of Estero Bay which served as site of the Calusa empire from roughly 100 B.C. to 1,000 A.D.
[For the next installment of this story, please click here.]