Saturday, April 29, 2017

Outpost, outlaw, island a unique mix

Early 20th century photo of Ernest Coe and Ted Smallwood from Man in the Everglades book
Ted Smallwood, seated, talks with Ernest Coe in Smallwood
store in this undated photo that appears in the 1968 book,
Man in the Everglades. Coe was a driving forced behind
establishment of  Everglades National Park.
You have to want to go to Chokoloskee Island. It's not on the way to anywhere else. South of Everglades City, it's in the part of Southwest Florida known as the Ten Thousand Islands.

It's remote now. Imagine one hundred years ago. Chokoloskee Island is one of those places that lend credence to the idea of frontier Florida as a slice of the Old West, albeit with a different climate. Renegades really did hide out, shoot it out, and in general slink around. White settlers and Native Americans stepped warily around one another after fighting three wars between the 1830s and 1850s.

One famous outlaw story is associated with Chokoloskee Island and in particular with the waterfront trading post known as Smallwood store. My post isn't focused on the outlaw. His name was Edgar Watson and his story is overall scary. You can read about him in the island's Wikipedia page and in the novel Killing Mr. Watson mentioned in the embedded video, below.

The post is more about the store, which I visited with my husband some years ago. It's a historic site and museum now.

Ted Smallwood opened the general store/post office in 1906. History says he was known for having a mutually respectful relationship with the Seminoles in the area. You have to remember, the 19-aughts were only 50 years after the end of the Third Seminole War. In modern perspective, it would be like something that happened in the 1960s. Plenty of folk were still around who remembered the previous era. Seminoles and white Americans weren't on the most casual of terms.

The trading post both was and wasn't a Little House on the Prairie-type store. For one thing, the back porch extends right out over Chokoloskee Bay. The place was extremely isolated. Only about ten families lived on the island. Homesteaders could pick up their mail and find goods like lanterns, fabric, and farm and fishing equipment. But the store also hosted Indians who glided up on the waterfront side in canoes and traded furs and hides.

The store remained open until the 1980s and still retains its original look. I was amazed when I walked through. Soon as I dig out (I mean find) our photos from that trip I'll post some of them. In the meantime, you can see a great virtual tour on the Smallwood website.

Life on Chokoloskee Island in the early 1900s was unlike anywhere else. In some ways, it still is today.

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