Living Legends of Fort Myers Beach
What is a legend? According to the New World Dictionary of the American Language, a legend is "a notable person whose deeds or exploits are much talked about in his (or her) own time” and "the stories told about the exploits of such a person”.
In this summer series, the Island Sand Paper will seek out some of our island's living legends, and have them talk a bit about themselves and their "exploits”. This week: Jean (Foster) Matthew and Fran Santini, arguably claiming some of the earliest ties to Fort Myers Beach among these notable islanders.
Fran was born at the family farm in the Iona area of South Fort Myers in 1931. "Dad was farming and fishing at the time – his land went all the way to the river. But he liked fishing best, so we moved to Crescent Street here on the island in 1934 or '35 in a little house that is still standing (and is visible from the house in which Fran lives now).” Fran points out that Crescent Street didn't run in its current path in those early years, but actually ran on the canal side of the houses. There was a pond between Crescent and Old San Carlos that got filled in, and then the road got moved out to the other side of the houses. "My sister Blanche was born in 1929 on a houseboat anchored in the canal” near the Crescent Street home to which her family would eventually move.
"While we were living on Crescent, my father and many of the fishermen he worked with built the house on Primo Drive where I still live to this day. They started building the house in 1935 and we moved in here in 1936, when I was five years old.”
"I went to first grade at the Mayhew Page School on Cottage Street on 1937. Jo Canady (Hughes) and Robley Geddes were good friends.” But in 1938, a parochial school was started in Fort Myers - St Francis – and being from a devout Catholic family, Fran and her cousins were picked up by the school bus and brought to Fort Myers for school every day. "I went from 2nd to 9th grade there, so I missed out on a lot of the day-to-day adventures the island kids were having. But on the weekends, we would get together.”
There have been many articles written and stories told about the Santini family and the imprints they have left on this community, as well as San Carlos Island and Fort Myers. When asked why she thought she was considered a local legend, Fran said, "I think the reason my name keeps coming up is because when you try to learn about Fort Myers Beach, my family's name pops up. The Santini's are a part of the history of this town.” Such a well-documented family history may yet have untold stories. We asked Fran to tell us something that might not have been previously recounted for public consumption.
Hitching a Ride
"A few years after I graduated from high school, six of us on the island who were all friends (Betty Canady and AJ Bassett were among the six) bought a boat together. It was sort of a stripped-down Tarpon Springs sponge boat. This boat had a deep keel, so we had to watch the tides when we took it into the bay. We kept it at my dock sometimes, but mostly in the next canal over because it was deeper and a friend of ours let us keep it there. So it was there for all of us to use. We did got out on it a lot. We had a great time with it.
"One time, we were out in the Back Bay, and with Connie (AJ's twin sister) at the helm, we got hung up on a sand bar. I jumped out and I said "Everybody get in the bow" and then I started shoving. They caught the wind, got off the sand bar, and here I am standing on the sand bar waving my arms, but they just kept on going,” Fran recalls with a chuckle. "There was another boater coming my way. I can't recall now who it was, but I knew him - he was in a little putt-putt, and he swung by and picked me up. So, you could say, I hitched a ride in the Back Bay.”
"Well, my parents came to the island in 1941 from Freesboro, North Carolina. We lived on the island when I was born in 1945 in Lee Memorial Hospital. We lived in the little yellow house on the corner of School Street and Estero Boulevard - right across from where the library is now. It was a white house with black trim when we lived there. We lived there until I was two, then we moved about five houses down next to what later became the Reef Restaurant. It was a tall house. You could see above the roofs in the area. That house is long gone. We rented that until I was 7, and then my father built the house on Estero Boulevard that I live in now.”
Living on Fort Myers Beach instilled in Jean a love for boating and exploring the Back Bay, as it does for so many who grow up here.
Back Bay Stroll
"When I was fifteen, my dad asked me "do you want a boat or a car?”. With a bit of mischief sparking in her eyes, Jean says, "Of course I said I wanted a boat, because I knew I could use his car if I needed to.
"So, he got me an outboard motorboat. It only had a 35 HP motor on it, which at that time was decent sized boat. I was just going to go float around on the Back Bay with it, so it was plenty of power, but the motor would conk out on me every time I went out. The water pump wouldn't work, and the engine would get hot and that would bubble the shank, and it was just really awful. I had oars in it, so my friends would help me get it home. But often I would go out alone. I would go down to the dock that was behind the St. Peters Lutheran Church. My father owned all that land from St. Peter's Lutheran down to the bay. And so, at the end of St. Peters Drive was a dock. I would come home from school, and more often than not, take my kayak and put it in the boat. I'd take the boat as far as I could up the river, anchor it, and take the kayak the rest of the way up the river. I would do that by myself quite frequently - it was a way I could work out all the stuff I had dealt with in school, the kids telling me this and that, and the social pressures - it was a way of calming down.
"One day, it conked out at the mouth of the Estero River and I didn't have my kayak that day. There was no way to get the boat home except to get in the water, tie the rope around my waist, and swim pulling the boat.”
Being short in stature, at the tender age of fifteen, Jean began the long haul of several miles.
"It took hours - I was so tired. I was really used up. My parents were at the dock at the end of St. Peters, but the current was so strong I couldn't pull the boat in, so I headed for the nearest point, which was Shell Mound, where the Mound House is. Mrs. Long came out, and was standing down there with a flashlight, waving me in. The current finally took me in, and I just crawled up on the rocks and collapsed. I couldn't get any further up. My dad had to come down and carry me up the rocks. It was so terrible, but that's life on the island.”
And, it's a great story to tell, like the one about Jean's high school shenanigans. Betty Canady (Jo Canady Hughes' sister) was the school secretary at Fort Myers High School when Jean was a student there, and, as Jean recalls, "she got me out of a lot of trouble. I was a mischief maker. I brought my skates to school because they shortened the time allowed to get from class to class. They gave us only four minutes to get all the way across the campus which I thought was ridiculous. So I managed to skate to two or three classes before I got sent to the office, and they took my skates. Betty saved all the stuff they took from me during those years, and then gave it all back to me when I graduated - squirt guns, pea shooters, skates, rubber bands - it was all there in a box.”
As Jean remembers it, AJ Bassett, her twin Connie, Betty Canady and Fran Santini were a big part of her life since she can remember. "AJ and Connie were basically my babysitters. They were young teenagers then, and they just took me wherever they went when they were asked to. They took me along when they went to the woods to chop down a Christmas tree for Lynn Hall Park. They took me out on the bay in their boats. They were so good to let me tag along.”
Jean believes the reason she might be considered a legend has a lot to do with some of those older girls who took the younger Jean under their wings. "When I think about legends, I think about stories. So if a person has a lot of stories told about them, they become a legend. There are a lot of stories told about the old days of Fort Myers Beach, and because I was always tagging along, when Jo or AJ tell their stories, they often include me in them.”
Both Jean and Fran are on the Board of Directors of the Estero Island Historic Society, the group that oversees the Historic Cottage. They, along with Jo Hughes, AJ Bassett, Penny Brown and many other long-time islanders have created programs and displays that tell all the stories and history of Fort Myers Beach with a wonderful, personal touch.
Making the historic cottage a reality was a difficult ordeal, but Fran and Jo Hughes both say that Jean was instrumental in bringing it to fruition. Says Fran, "I would like to compliment Jean for all the history that she has written and preserved for Fort Myers Beach. Also, I thank her for the help she gave the Estero Island Historic Society. Even though she wasn't here all the time, if we needed help she was willing to see what she could do and assist us in any way."
Fran Santini and Jean Matthew – two living legends of Fort Myers Beach.