As June is traditionally the month for weddings, it seems an appropriate time to point out that Fort Myers may have the most romantic history of any city in Florida. The military fort from which Fort Myers takes its name was established on Valentine’s Day and was named after the betrothed of the commanding officer’s daughter; two of the town’s first settlers were honeymooners; and the most famous couple in Fort Myers history came here together for the first time on their honeymoon.
A Father’s Gift
Imagine Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1850: From army headquarters on Tampa Bay, Major General David C. Twiggs orders the establishment of a post on the Caloosa River to defend the territory against Indian attack, further ordering that “The post will be called Fort Myers.” General Twiggs then pens a letter to his only daughter, Marion, informing her that, as a Valentine’s Day gift to her, he has named his new post for her betrothed, Colonel Abraham C. Myers, chief quartermaster of the Department of Florida. We can only imagine that the delighted little girl (she was not quite 12 years old) threw her hands to her cheeks and squealed, twirling round and round in a swirl of petticoat and pantaloon frills.
P.S. Though much of his military career was spent in Florida, neither Colonel Myers nor Marion ever visited Fort Myers or the town that grew out of it.
A New Beginning
Imagine March 13, 1866: Placing her hands in the palms of her 21-year-old bridegroom, 16-year-old Christiana Vivas steps off a sail boat onto the army wharf that was built the year she was born. Though her bonnet is tied firmly under her chin, a wind off the river tugs at it and Christiana holds it down with a hand on top of her head as she shakes down her skirt and petticoats. Christiana and Joe Vivas were married 5 days earlier in Key West and have spent their honeymoon at sea. Arriving now at the site of the former military post of “Fort Myers,” they are greeted by Joe’s friend, Manuel Gonzales. Manuel has persuaded Joe to begin his life with Christiana here. Manuel and his wife, Evalina, know the spot well, as they had run a supply and mail boat between Fort Myers and Tampa throughout the Seminole and Civil wars.
For Christiana, the move is a happy one. Manuel and Evalina have been her guardians since she was orphaned as a child; she is merely following her family from their home in Key West to their new home at Fort Myers.
Joe and Christiana choose a place on the river (just east of present-day Lee Street, extending south from the river to Second Street) for a small log cabin. Seventeen years and 9 children later, Joe will replace the cabin with a spacious, 2-story home. A fine carpenter and later, contractor, Joe Vivas will build many of Fort Myers’ first houses, as well as the first bridges over Billy’s and Whiskey Creek.
Today, only the little street named Vivas Court, on the site of their former property, remains to tell the story of Fort Myers’ first honeymooners, who were also one of the two first families of Fort Myers.
Here Comes the Bride
Imagine a day in early March, 1886: Twenty years to the month after Christiana Vivas arrived at the site of this former fort, another young bride arrives by steamboat. She is beautiful and cultivated and probably unprepared for the frontier cow town to which her husband has brought her for their honeymoon. As they steam past the riverfront of Fort Myers, she sees a team of oxen pulling a train of creaking covered wagons down the dirt road between the ramshackle, unpainted, wood-frame buildings that straggle along either side of the road. She sees Seminole Indians with alligator hides and bird plumes, and cattle wandering along the riverfront. As they dock at the Keystone Hotel, the odor of rotting garbage and sewage washes up from the waterfront and it takes all of this young lady’s Boston finishing-school poise to conceal her nausea.
Let us imagine, however, that behind the white netting of her bonnet, 20-year-old Mina Edison smiles bravely. Mina’s husband is proud of his purchase of riverfront acreage here and of the houses he has designed and built on them. He pointed them out to Mina from the boat as they steamed upriver, turning to her with a grin as wide as a boy’s. Remembering his eager innocence, Mina’s eyes, and her smile, warm. But, “Oh dear,” she thinks.
The newlyweds wait out the days until their new home is ready for them. Lifting her bustled skirt just above the toes of her kid boots, Mina steps carefully around the leavings of dogs and cows as she and Thomas stroll through “town.” Shouts and laughter burst from the saloons, and from a billiard room drifts cigar smoke and the clicking of billiard balls. Iron rings on iron at the blacksmith shop. The breeze that cools Mina’s cheeks carries with it the aromas of fresh-cut pine, and of horses in the livery stable.
The couple is warmly greeted by former editor Stafford Cleveland’s widow as they step into the office of the Fort Myers Press. Eyes follow them as they peruse the fly-covered tropical fruits at Blount’s General Store. The town jeweler is ecstatic and embarrassed as they feign interest in his meager display.
In the evenings after dinner, Mina steps with her famous and immensely wealthy husband onto the veranda of the Keystone hotel for a breath of fresh air. They gaze at a starlit sky. Mina listens, chin lifted, to the distant howling of wolves and watches someone walking across the hotel grounds with a lantern. Mosquitoes whine in her ears. Resting her hand lightly upon the arm of her husband, Mina smiles and suggests that they retire for the evening.
Though Fort Myers in 1886 has not even the standard amenity of graded streets, they have a newly minted town band. The band has been banished from practicing in town because of the “hideous noise” they make, but they continue to build their repertoire out at the end of the city dock. On the auspicious occasion of the move of the town’s famous newlyweds into their new home on the river, the 14 band members trudge all the way out to Seminole Lodge, form up in the yard and begin to play. The Edisons walk out onto the veranda to listen. Smiling serenely, young Mina pronounces the music “ethereal,” and love blossoms in the hearts of the musicians.
Love for this woman, who will devote her energy to the cultivation of a more civilized and infinitely more beautiful Fort Myers, will continue to flourish in the hearts of its citizens even as her husband’s inventions transform the town with electric lights, gramophones and moving picture palaces.
Conceived in war, but reborn in the hopes and dreams of newlyweds, Fort Myers is loved perhaps not unreasonably by those who have, for better or worse, been captivated by its stumbling and bumbling, tragi-comic and impossibly romantic history.