Legends of the Beach
Roxie Smith and A.J. Bassett
In our inimitable Gulfside community, loosely comprised of two little islands linked by Matanzas Pass and 'the Back Bay', some families have roots that first sprouted here decades ago. For two, often three, and perhaps even four generations, they have helped establish and shape the way we function as a community. The example they set for others, in terms of taking personal responsibility for the greater good especially with regard to the environment, the children who live and play here, the health and safety of all islanders, and the pursuit of happiness, is stellar. Fireworks, parades, great shrimp, a wonderful historic cottage, a well-supported neighborhood school, our own library, a thriving Little League, accommodations for our tourists, preserved environments for our flora and fauna, popular eateries... the list goes on - these things have been accomplished in no small way through monumental and very successful voluntary efforts sustained generation after generation.
In last week's Sand Paper, you read about Fran Santini and Jean Matthew. This week, we chatted with Roxie Smith and AJ Bassett, whose families - like Fran's and Jean's - are part of the brick and mortar of our town, and who are still very active in community service and personal pursuits, in spite of some very daunting health issues that have cropped up from time to time in recent years.
Many articles have been written about Roxie's family and the history of the Pink Shell Resort and how the north end of the island was developed over the years. Likewise AJ, an award-winning competitive swimmer and beloved coach and teacher, whose family is brimming with athletes, teachers, artists and community service champs, and whom we've read about in the local papers over the years. If you want the full breadth of their stories, search the archives of the local papers, or better yet, pay a visit to the Estero Island Historic Cottage and chances are, one of these ladies will be there to tell you about the island's history, so much of which is their own personal history as well. Here, instead of telling those stories, we asked these fine women to share their very earliest memories of coming to the island with their families for the first time.
Roxie (Davis) Smith
Roxie Smith first visited Fort Myers Beach with her family when she was fifteen years old. On a bright afternoon this week, sitting in one of her family's vacation rental cottages a stone's throw from the Pink Shell Resort, while her daughter Gini went about cleaning and prepping the cottage in anticipation of the next vacationers, Roxie shared with us the defining moments of her first encounter with the island.
The story goes that Smith's dad, Bob Davis, closed his eyes and picked a spot on the map where the family would take a holiday vacation. "It was just a spot on the map," Roxie says with a chuckle. So the Sioux Falls, South Dakota Davis tribe packed up the family car and spent the next few days driving across the country and nearly all the way down the West Coast of the Florida Peninsula.
"I was attending a boarding school at the time, and all my friends were going to Florida for Christmas vacation. They were all going to Miami, and in my mind, that was what Florida was. So I went home for the holiday break, and I couldn't believe my good luck when my parents asked me, 'How would you like to go to Florida for your vacation?' and, well, of course I wanted to go. Again, I thought it would be Miami.
"When we got here, I thought my parents had brought me to the end of the world." When she heard her mother's take on her first gander at the island, Gini quipped, "I think she was a little disappointed." Roxie said she was at first, but the island eventually won her over.
"Anyway,” Roxie continued, "we went down to the old Commodore Hotel, about mid-island, where we planned to stay on our vacation. Well, old Mrs. Shawcross came out and leaned into the car window to get a good look at us. Remember, my dad and my brother were kind of scruffy-looking because they hadn't shaved and we had been in the car for a few days.” Apparently, Mrs. Shawcross felt that the Davis family "wouldn't be comfortable at the Commodore,” Roxie relates with her characteristic wry humor. "I think those were her exact words, and when my father said he thought they would be fine accommodations, she said the exact same thing again. So off we went, down to the Pelican, where Junkanoo is now. It was built to look like a ship, and they had four or five little cottages, I think. Well, they thought we were okay, so they rented a place to us.
"My dad had to have his coffee every morning, so we had a coffee pot that we traveled with. Well, we kept blowing fuses." This repeated offense did not endear the Davis family to the Pelican management. "They wondered if the conveniences of another place would be better for us.
"So we left the island and went into Fort Myers and checked into the Biltmore Hotel. It was called that, but it wasn't THE Biltmore. It was an open-courtyard, one-story motel with little rooms arranged all around it. There was a lovely lady staying there by the name of Mrs. McAn. Turns out she was Thom McAn's (the shoes) widow." Roxie's eyes light up like the fireworks she remembers being set off at a New Year's Eve party Mrs. McAn hosted poolside at the motel. "My brother and I were so impressed by those fireworks. Being from South Dakota, that was the first time we had ever heard of setting off fireworks other than the Fourth of July."
Every day during that first family trip to Southwest Florida, Bob and Johnavieve, Roxie's mom, would take the kids down to Fort Myers Beach. "We'd come out here to the island. We would always go to Time Square and get a shrimp cocktail at the Tip Top Restaurant, where Dairy Queen is now. Again, being from South Dakota, we were bowled over by the idea of being able to walk up to a take-out window and order a shrimp cocktail. Then my mom and I would walk down here (about where the Pink Shell resort is now) and we would spend the day. But my dad would disappear. He never said where he was going, He'd be gone most of the day, but he'd come back to pick us up, and we'd drive back to the motel in Fort Myers and get ready for dinner with Mrs. McAn.”
It turns out, when Roxie's dad disappeared on those daily beach trips, he was out buying property on the island. He waited until the end of the vacation to tell his wife what he had been doing. Roxie remembers that conversation and the look on her mother's face when he told her. "She just looked at him and said, 'Bob Davis!' I think she thought he had lost his mind.” But he was a visionary. And it all started with a swath of empty beach land that ran from the road to the water's edge, including the stretch of sand Roxie and her mother would often choose to lay out their towels for some sunbathing and quiet time by the water.
"It was my first experience on the island, and I fell in love with it. Mom and I had the most marvelous time walking up and down the beach. There was nobody else around. We'd look for shells – there were tons of shells then. It was a very special time for my mom and me because it was just the two of us, out wandering the beach. It was a wind-swept beach. It went on forever. It was huge.”
As the conversation wound down, both Roxie and Gini were reminded of many funny – and sometimes not so funny – things that had happened through the years when the family owned, managed and maintained the original Pink Shell 'cottage colony' and subsequently acquired condo and apartment units. Three generations of Roxie's family worked side by side to develop what has become a world-known vacation destination, Her family has left an indelible mark on our community. And in spite of the life-threatening illnesses that have dogged her off and on for the past fifteen years, and difficult personal losses, Roxie maintains all of her voluntary memberships and responsibilities in addition to all of her familial and business obligations. "I couldn't do it without my daughter's help, or my friends, or my church.”
Hot tip: If you run in to Roxie, ask her to tell you the story about the acceptance letter from Stanford University.
AJ first came to the island with her family when she was 6 years old. Her father had died when she was very little, but her mother Mildred and her grandmother piled AJ, her twin sister Connie and their brother Frandy (Francis Andrew) into the old woody station wagon, and drove for about four days from their home in Pennsylvania to Fort Myers Beach. It was during WWII, but AJ says that they were children without a care, and they hardly thought too much about it.
"When we first arrived, we rented a cottage across from Chapel by the Sea,” AJ recalls. "We got out of the car and ran down this little dirt path, where Cottage Street is now. We got to the beach and we saw the pier and ran out onto it. The beach was so beautiful; it was so pristine. The water was so clear and so full of phosphorous; it was incredible to see at night. We went back to the cottage and watched our first Fort Myers Beach sunset, and then we got permission to go back to the pier. But that first night on the island, we couldn't find the path we had taken to the beach earlier because it was so dark and thick with sea oats taller than we were.”
For two years, the snowbirders would fly between their grandmother's "big old huge cottage in Seaside Park in New Jersey, and a rented cottage on Fort Myers Beach in the winter. But in 1943, the family bought a beachfront house on Dakota Street, The very next year, a hurricane swept over the island, and the little house sustained damage. The family rallied, and repairs were made, but only three years later, yet another hurricane blew into town, and again the little house sustained much damage. At
that point, AJ's grandmother had had enough of tropical storms. "She said we had to get out of there and that it was a wilderness. But when she said we had to go back to Pennsylvania to live, Connie and I burst into tears.” Mildred didn't really want to go back to winters in Pennsylvania either, so arrangements were made for Frandy to accompany their grandmother back up north, and he stayed on to run the family business in Canada, where he still lives today. "But Mother was still worried about the hurricanes. We lived at the end of the island and Frandy was no longer there to help. I mean, there was nothing out there. It was a wilderness.” So AJ's mother had the house moved from Dakota Street to Mandalay Road. AJ and her nephew Keith still live in the very same house.
Those early years were spent mainly on the south end of the island. "The mangroves wrapped around the south end of the island. All of that area was so pristine - that's where all the baby birds were. You couldn't walk anywhere without baby birds on the ground - all those baby birds. The whole front was the beach for swimming and shelling, and the whole back of the island was woods with trails. Nobody lived back there. There was moss and oaks. Then when they started knocking down all the trees we had all these baby birds to raise – mockingbirds, screech owls. They would lose their habitat as the bulldozers began clearing those trees. Everyone would bring injured or orphaned birds and animals to us.”
Of all the birds and animals brought to Connie and AJ for fixing up, one particularly memorable orphan was a Louisiana heron. "He couldn't even lift his head up when I found him,” AJ remembers. "My grandmother would catch minnows, and put them in the meat grinder to make mush so we could feed him. He eventually sat on my shoulder all the time. It was funny because if I walked by a mirror while he was perched there, he would see the reflection and screech his head off. He copied everything I did; if I walked in a figure-eight, he would. He was wonderful.”
AJ's family is brimming with athletes, teachers, artists and artisans, all who have given of their time and talents in various community service projects and business endeavors here, including the founding of the first Beach Elementary School and the first Beach Library. In addition to her many personal and professional triumphs and successes, and her active church life, AJ has volunteered thousands of hours in her capacity as a member of the Estero Island Historic Society, putting her passion for preservation of the island's history and environment to work for the benefit of all who would live, work and play here.
For every story retold here, there are dozens and dozens more in books, in pictures and in the memories of those around us. This time though, we have been invited into the private thoughts of two young girls and their first impressions of Fort Myers Beach as remembered by their older, wiser selves - living legends.