The history of Fort Myers, Florida, has been woven into the narrative thread of many a novel. The story of the evolution of Fort Myers from a military fort to an international destination for sun seekers is as astonishing, amusing and deeply moving as the ongoing pageant of human endeavor anywhere and everywhere in our world. But fully half the story of Fort Myers is generally omitted from written histories, and that is the part that women have played in building this city.
The men in early Fort Myers history were powerful and visionary men. They were cattlemen, merchants, railroad men, bankers, industrialists and inventors, and like all good capitalists, they invested their time and money in enterprises that would increase their wealth and comfort, and in doing so, they have built us a fine city.
But their wives and the independent women of early Fort Myers were neither idle nor ineffectual. Some of their names are legendary in our history because their legacy is the cultural enrichment of the city; it is the slow alchemy that civic-minded and philanthropic women can perform to turn buildings into schools and libraries, hospitals and performing art centers.
It is a woman who first girded the riverbank with concrete and laid the first infrastructure for the expansion of Fort Myers from a cattle station on the river to a city advancing to the Gulf of Mexico. It is women who built some of the boarding houses and hotels that drew the first tourists, like Thomas Edison. It is women who opened the first school and the first library, who fought for our first hospital. It is a woman who led the way in turning the economy of Fort Myers from one based on cattle and citrus, to one based on tourism. Many of our streets, buildings, gardens and art centers bear the names of these remarkable women, whose achievements are all the more impressive because most of them lived in an era in which women were not even allowed to vote.
Nine women, in particular, have played pivotal roles in the development of Fort Myers from a rude frontier settlement in the post-Civil War period to its current status as the commercial and cultural center of Lee County.
The first of these women is Evalina Gonzales, one of the two women who first stepped onto the site of the abandoned federal fort in 1866 to begin the brutal labor of building a home here. Evalina gave this raw settlement a future by beginning the greater labor of educating its children.
Olive Stout, publisher with her husband Frank of the Fort Myers Press, founded the first women’s club in Fort Myers, which began the serious work of cleaning up this town as it prepared to trade its cowboy hats for bowlers. Olive, with other women of courage and long-range vision, gave us our first public reading room, precursor to the first Fort Myers library, and fought for our first hospital. Thomas Edison brought electric lights to Fort Myers, but Olive Stout, with other like-minded and vigorous women, put some elbow grease into the brawling cow town that Fort Myers was in her day and truly made it shine.
At the turn of the new, twentieth century, Tootie McGregor gave us two world-class hotels that astonished wealthy visitors and elevated considerably their perception of the potential of Fort Myers for investment; she lifted the face of Fort Myers out of its own sewage with the construction of a sea wall along its river edge; and, with McGregor Boulevard, she laid the infrastructure of Fort Myers for the building boom of the 1920s.
Mina Edison leveraged her wealth and position to support and promote beautification, conservation, education and cultural programs in the developing city, helped immeasurably in grooming and elevating Fort Myers to its next level of civic and social development.
In 1905, Mary Flossie Hill opened the first store in Fort Myers catering exclusively to the needs of women. M. Flossie Hill’s Department Store would become one of the most prominent retail establishments in Fort Myers for the next 60 years, and Flossie Hill would sit on civic committees and boards and councils as one of the town’s leading progressive civic leaders all of her life. Flossie Hill helped in very large measure to guide and encourage the growth and development of Fort Myers for the first 50 years of the twentieth century.
Barbara Balch Mann, as co-founder of Fort Myers’ first community choir and first community concert association, of the Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra, of the Lee County Alliance for the Arts, and as the catalyst for southwest Florida’s first performing arts center—the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall—gave the gift of music, theater, dance and opera to countless generations to come, elevating Fort Myers to pre-eminent status in southwest Florida for the performing arts.
Bernese (Berne) Barfield Davis’s massive contributions to this city include the endowment of a professorship of horticulture and landscape design at Florida Gulf Coast University, the restoration of the Edison-Ford Estate, and the rescue and resurrection of the neoclassic treasure that was the former post-office and federal building in downtown Fort Myers, and that now bears her name—The Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center—making it the crown jewel of Fort Myers and turning the river district into a continuing celebration of the fine arts.
One of the greatest legends in Fort Myers history is Dr. Ella Mae Piper, whose business, philanthropic and civic achievements for a woman of color in the Jim Crow era are astounding. While the great white women in early Fort Myers history were working for social and civic improvement on their side of the tracks, Dr. Ella Mae Piper was working almost single-handedly for the same thing on her side of the tracks. Among her legacies are the first high school for black children in Fort Myers, the first black hospital, and the first black chapter of the American Red Cross. The benefit to the Dunbar community and to the larger community of Fort Myers in aiding and educating the impoverished children of her time and place are incalculable.
In their home in West Orange, NJ, Thomas and Mina Edison each had a desk and the desks stood side by side. This side-by-side arrangement represents so well the yin-yang balance that is typical of the male-female influence upon the building of a city, or a nation. We have two forces that often seem to be in opposition, but which are actually complementary and interdependent— the men generally on the commercial or business side of the equation, and the women engaged in the aesthetic, social and cultural pursuits that both grow and groom the city, or the nation.
Just as mothers used to (and probably still do) spit into a handkerchief (or tissue) to wipe a smudge of dirt from their children’s faces, so women will spit and polish a town. Women make a town stand up straight and be respectable and responsible. They dress it in nice clothes and make it go to school and take music lessons. They don’t just build a town, they love it, and in so doing, they give it pride and value—and potential.
A wilderness may be tamed less by the hand that holds the gun and the axe, than by the hand that gently, but firmly, sets the china cup upon the table.