Earlier this year I took a few days leave from my spot on Florida’s east coast to drive across state to the Everglades along the southwest coast. The post below first appeared in February, but was deleted several days later. One or two readers suggested recently that the story was interesting, and one I should consider re-posting. I am doing that today.
Along Florida’s southwest coast at the lower end of Collier County is an area on the outer fringe of the Everglades known as the Ten Thousand Islands. At the time Florida became a state, this area was unexplored, unmapped and unknown, home to native American Indians and almost impenetrable to white explorers. Settlers began drifting down to the Chokoloskee country in the latter part of the nineteenth-century. Among those early pioneers were the memorable names of Ed Watson and Ted Smallwood, the first an outlaw on the run, the second a man who opened the first trading post in the area, serving the remote area buying hides, furs and farm produce, and providing goods in returns.
Several years ago I read a novel called Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen. The National Book Award winner for 2008, it is a re-worked single volume edition of an earlier trilogy telling the semi-fictional story of Edgar Watson, a Florida sugar cane planter and alleged murderer/outlaw who was killed in the remote Ten Thousand Islands region of southwest Florida in 1910. He was killed by a group of Chokoloskee locals in front of Ted Smallwood’s store. A large part of Matthiessen’s story is set around the Ted Smallwood store. Today the store is run by Smallwood’s granddaughter and is a museum describing the history of southwest Florida.
A part of my goal in visiting Florida’s southwest coast was getting down to the Everglades to see however briefly what the area looks like. In thinking about a visit there it never occurred to me that I might have an opportunity to see the Ted Smallwood store, a sort of gateway to the whole world of Ed Watson and Matthiessen’s novel, but happily the opportunity presented itself.
Turning south off US Highway 41, the road leads through Everglades City toward Chokoloskee Bay, passing through an unexceptional community with little notice of the historical Smallwood Store site at the end of a dusty road. It appears out of nowhere looking more like a fishing camp than anything else, a rutted parking lot of dirt and shells with room for not more than eight or nine cars and a flight of wooden steps leading up to the old cocoa brown store set on stilts rising above the bay. It was established in 1906, placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1974 and active until 1982. Thelma Smallwood reopened her grandfather’s store as a museum in 1989.
Everything has been left exactly as the store looked during its active days as a trading post in the early years of the twentieth century. Shelves are stocked with the goods people needed to make life in a primitive swamp setting at least marginally comfortable. Tools and knives and hardware share space with Clorox, Coca Cola and Maxwell House coffee tins and dozens of name brand remedies from the past. Walking into the dim interior the impression of having walked through a time portal is immediate with the store’s dusty surfaces and close-stacked shelves colorful with goods from another time. A Hollywood set designer couldn’t have made it any more believable, any more redolent of a time past in Florida history.
It was comforting to see the number of visitors, but I only hope the Smallwood Store continues to be a place of interest and not bulldozed any time soon for another Papa John’s Pizza or hair & nails shop. Sadly, there is a danger of future development in the area. In April of 2011 a developer with plans to build condos and a marina illegally disrupted access to the Smallwood site. The access road remained closed for six months, reopening after a battle with local residents and Thelma Smallwood. The development plans are currently on hold and assurances have been made that the road leading to the old store will remain open and be paved as well.
Seeing and walking through this small remnant of Florida’s history was a memorable treat.