Standing on the corner of Second and Jackson Streets in Fort Myers, in a weedy yard enclosed by a low stone wall with a metal railing, is an old red brick building with air-conditioning units protruding from its windows. The building is not particularly interesting. It’s just old. One hundred and five years old, to be exact. The enigmatic name on the façade—Andrew D. Gwynne Institute—suggests a movie version of an asylum for the howling insane. The thing is an eyesore, really.
It was not always. If Hollywood were making a movie about the occasion of this building’s opening, on the morning of October 20, 1911, the scene would open with the shrill whistle of a drum major, the flash of a silver baton, a cymbal clash and…
“Seventy-six trombones caught the morning sun
With a hundred and ten cornets right behind…”
The event was not as rousing as the famous marching band scene in “The Music Man,” but there was a parade, and the children of Fort Myers awoke that morning with eager hearts, for on this shimmering October morning, they would file for the first time into their brand new school, Andrew D. Gwynne Institute. The children were as awed by the grandeur of this building as they might have been upon entering the halls of Harvard.
The school was, indeed, a triumph. After nearly 50 years of haphazard education in makeshift accommodations, the children of Fort Myers had a bona fide school. With Andrew D. Gwynne Institute, they stepped into the 20th century of education.
Barefoot Boys and Girls
Ten years earlier, in 1901, the Fort Myers Press had published an appeal from a professor Allison: “Fellow teachers, awake from your seeming indifference, organize institutes, broaden your educational field. God bless our common schools and educate our barefoot boys and girls.”
The task of educating Fort Myers’ children had been assumed initially by the settlement’s first mother, Evalina Gonzalez, who homeschooled the 4 children of Fort Myers’ first homesteaders. By 1874, the settlement’s 10 school-age children were taking lessons in a log cabin on the riverbank. Their teacher was an Englishman by the name of Robert Bell. Bell was short on arithmetic and long on wind; he could not solve the arithmetic problems he put to his students, but he could quote Shakespeare by the hour. His students, with their sooty chins cupped in their palms and the ankle bones of their bare feet knocking gently, listened enraptured to the British elocution of mellifluous words that they could not hope to understand. “Professor” Bell’s portrayal of the ghost of Hamlet’s father was particularly mesmerizing as his performance was wonderfully enhanced by the oily smoke and stench of the smudge pots smoldering in each of the four corners of the school room.
Out of the Ashes
Over the next five years, the population of Fort Myers grew to number about 300 people, and the number of students increased to 50. Finally, the board of public instruction of Monroe County (of which Fort Myers was still a part) financed the construction of a wood-frame, 2-story (1 room up and 1 down) school house in Fort Myers. The townspeople were so proud of it they named it, rather grandiosely, the Fort Myers Academy.
Eight years later, whether by accident or intention, the Academy burned to the ground. The students may have received the news with fervent thanksgiving, but their parents were dismayed. Sixty students and no school with which to corral them for their lessons. A delegation of citizens, headed by the school principal and the local member of the school board, urgently booked steamship passage to the county seat in Key West to make an emergency request for a new school.
They were met with impatience and scorn. The MBPI informed them that there was no money available for at least a year for another school. “You let a $1000 school burn to the ground and now you expect the county to build you another one—just like that?” or words to that effect were leveled at them with humiliating sarcasm. The men returned to Fort Myers in a hot fury. Meetings were held. Voice raised. Righteous anger swept the town. Even the women clenched their fists. The children clenched their fists, too—exuberantly. Sober-faced in front of their parents, they jumped up and down, pigtails and sailor collars flapping, in a perfect delirium of joy at the prospect of life without school.
Nevertheless, classes opened in the autumn in “Mrs. Cleveland’s tenement” down by the river. During recess, the kids happily went crabbing. Apparently the kids were getting a bit out of hand, for in January of 1887, the Press reported that the MBPI had authorized corporate punishment in the case of willful disobedience, warning that “the youngsters better be on their good behavior in the future.”
Their parents, in the meantime, were set on a bold course of action. Cattleman F.A. Hendry and other community leaders leveraged their friendship with certain legislators in Tallahassee to carve a new county out of Monroe. They had put up with about all the attitude from Monroe County officials they intended to. In May, 1887, a year after Fort Myers Academy collapsed into charred lumber and ash, the bill to form Lee County passed, and Fort Myers became the county seat.
Fort Myers built a new school, essentially duplicating the old one, that was inadequate to their needs from day one. Not only was the school too small for the town’s growing population, the fledgling Lee County could not afford to keep the school open for more than 5 months in the year.
It took the LBPI 15 years to add a one-room wing to the Academy. Two years later, in 1903, the Press insisted: “We need more blackboards, wall maps, globes, curtains, chairs and desks. There are broken lights. The fence is rapidly giving away, and there is need of a gate instead of a stile. An asphalt pavement to the building would save much sweeping in the hall. Bicycles help in transportation, but they need protection…”
By 1908, enrollment in the town’s only school had reached nearly 300. The Press commented satirically, “We need to borrow the Japanese method of sitting on the floor.”
“The ladies…have been aroused…”
At the start of the 1909/1910 school year, the youngest students were attending classes in a rented room in a church, and grades 7 and 8 in the county storage barn. The students’ mothers, if not their pre-occupied fathers, were outraged. The Press declared in October: “When the ladies of Fort Myers get up, there is something done. They have been aroused and it now looks like we will have to build them a new schoolhouse or leave town. It is an undisputed fact, that we have a schoolhouse that is a disgrace to any community.”
Apparently the time had come, for by January of 1910, a whopping $8000 had been raised for a new school. The incentive for this burst of generosity may have been the promise of matching funds from the widow of a former winter visitor from Tennessee, a wealthy cotton broker and wholesale grocer from Memphis by the name of Andrew D. Gwynne.
“Our hearts are filled with gratitude…”
Mr. Gwynne had observed the children in Fort Myers trooping into a barn for classes. He told his wife that if the town ever took a notion to build a real school, he’d contribute. Mr. Gwynne died months later, but his widow and son made good on his promise. They matched the $8000, whereupon the city raised another $10,000.
The following October, Superintendent Sumner proudly reported to the state superintendent of education that the newly constructed school “contains 10 classrooms, principal’s office, library and auditorium and will accommodate about 400 pupils. There are 4 toilet rooms…equipped with the most up-to-date features…We also have…sanitary drinking fountains. The building is supplied with heat by radiation…”
In addition to these ultra-modern features, the Press reported that each classroom was equipped with ACME Plate blackboards, a far cry from the pine boards painted with blackboard liquid that teachers had had to make do with in the old days.
The construction and furnishing of Gwynne Institute cost $45,000 (well over $1M today). “Our hearts are filled with gratitude,” the Press stated. “Colonel Andrew D. Gwynne was a grand friend to Fort Myers.”
In one year, Fort Myers outgrew its new school. In 3 years, it was a grade school only. In 50 years, the neighborhoods it had served were gone and the school closed.
For the next 20 years, the building served as a temporary campus first for Edison Community College (now Florida Southwestern State College) and then for the Fort Myers extension of the University of South Florida. Today, the old building serves as an annex for the School Board of Lee County.
The interior has been renovated into offices that serve an admirable purpose indeed, but the building seems strangely empty, estranged from its busy surroundings. Some say it’s haunted. Maybe. Maybe the old building holds the memory of children singing, their voices drifting faintly from upstairs where the school auditorium used to be, echoing down the empty corridors…
Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandmother’s house we go…o…o…o…