Four Generations Share
a Love of Fort Myers Beach
Caption: Jean, Harry and their 6 children on
Harry’s 95th birthday. Photo courtesy J. Sailian
Serendipity is a beautiful and unpredictable force in every life. Sometimes it sheds its radiance most kindly after a period of darkness. Serendipity brought Fort Myers Beach into the lives of the Gottlieb family of Chicago in 1955, and the ripples from that discovery have spread across 4 grateful generations, touching dozens of relatives, partners and friends.
Recently, all 6 Gottlieb children - and one grandchild with his wife and 2 children - gathered at the beachside house that has been in the family since 1955, to celebrate the 95th birthday of patriarch Harry Gottlieb on January 7, 2013. Harry and Jean now reside in that home for 8 months of every year.
As the 4th of 6 Gottlieb offspring, the author of this article was given the happy assignment of collecting memories of our family’s early days on Fort Myers Beach. Here is a sampling of treasured early times in a place that still has many features of paradise:
Second-generation Chicagoans Harry and Jean Gottlieb had 4 children - all daughters - when they began searching in early 1955 for a place of respite from the northern winters. Jean had contracted polio in the summer of 1952 while pregnant with youngest daughter Janet, and had lost some muscle and nerve connections in her right leg and hip. Doctors advised that she get to a warm, sunny climate for a few weeks each winter, to recharge, maintain circulation and stay active.
Harry and Jean, who had enjoyed fishing trips in the Florida Keys, wrote to Chambers of Commerce in various communities on the west coast of Florida, seeking a beach that would be friendly to a family with small children. A letter of reply from Fort Myers Beach Realtor, Ethel Reda Harby, stood out for its warm, understanding tone.
In February 1955, Jean and her 4 daughters arrived in the dark of night at the house they would rent for 2 weeks, on the Gulf of Mexico side of Aberdeen Avenue. (Harry, who had a busy job in a real estate firm, stayed behind in Chicago.) Daylight brought the dazzling sight of sparkling green Gulf waters, a pristine white sand beach, and shore birds galore.
Soon the 4 girls were frolicking in the water, scooping up some of the plentiful beach shells, and enjoying their warm, gentle new playground. The Gottliebs decided they had found their family’s second home. When the property next door, at 50 Aberdeen, came up for sale in the spring of1955, they bought it.
Paradise Found: Fort Myers Beach in the ‘50s
A sleepy stretch of sand with a narrow macadam road, Crescent Beach (the original name of Fort Myers Beach) was covered in jungle-like growth south of the current site of The Outrigger Motel. (In the ‘50s it was called Rancho del Mar.) One of the only buildings south of there was Rod & Reel, a pink-painted restaurant and bait shop at the southern tip. In those days there was no bridge across San Carlos Pass. When we took a boat ride across to Lovers’ Key for a picnic, we found sawfish lying in the clear shallows.
"We used to catch everything off the south tip of the island,” Harry recalls, "including tarpon. My biggest battle was a 17-pound snook that took me all the way around the point and tried to head out into the Gulf.”
Cars had few reasons to venture south of the main hub of activity on the island’s north end. So quiet was the road past our house that our dog used to go lie on the warm road surface to take a nap.
Row upon row of wooden pilings from old fishing and boat piers stretched along the beach, including a set of posts in front of our house. Those pilings, and rock groins later installed perpendicular to shore (now buried under the sand), attracted fish that seemed to bite at almost anything. More than one 16-pound snook was caught in front of our house by casting from shore.
One of the last surviving pier structures can still be seen just south of the Holiday Inn on Little Estero, where a double row of tall posts marks what we knew as Santini’s Pier. Over the years the sand has alternately buried all the posts or exposed them, as now. Santini’s Pier is a graphic reminder of how the contours of this barrier island keep shifting.
In the’50s, live shells of every description were abundant at low tide, on the beach and on sand bars. We found huge, live angel wings on the mud flats that still exist behind Little Estero, along with massive conch shells and dozens of varieties of crabs. Before the Causeway, we took a ferry to Sanibel and found an even greater trove of shells on that still-isolated shore.
When we swam at high tide we often encountered tiny seahorses, puffer fish and needle fish. At night the water glowed with the phosphorescence of thousands of tiny creatures that illuminated our night swims.
Then as now, the beauty and abundance of nature on a tidal beach created the ideal playground and classroom for our family, which had expanded to six kids by 1959.
True Fishing Tales
The fishing until the late ‘60s was ridiculously good, and we are sad to see how it has declined in the decades since. Before the San Carlos Pass Bridge and Sanibel Causeway were built, the waters of Estero Bay were crystal clear, with abundant sea-grass beds. Fish teemed around mangroves, along the shoreline, on the flats and by oyster bars.
On their first fishing trip in a rented rowboat from Sanders’ Boat Yard (later Mid-Island Marina, now Snook Bight), Jean and Harry saw fish leaping out of the water all around them, and frantically cast their lines to no avail. Later they learned that the acrobatic fish were mullets – vegetarians that rarely strike at lures, but as a net-caught species, formed the backbone of the island’s early economy.
With no high-rise buildings as visual signposts, it was easy to get lost amid the hundreds of mangrove islands in the Back Bay. Harry and Jean learned to navigate the unmarked channels thanks to next-door neighbor Bob Creech, an old Southern gentleman, skilled fisherman and avid gardener.
Fishing guides introduced our family to spinning tackle and various lures, though as kids we were usually handed a pole with live shrimp and a bobber. One of Harry and Jean’s great discoveries was the charter fishing team of Clarence and Nancy Trowbridge, who could take our entire family plus a few friends out on their inboard motorboat, The Pels. Clarence was a true Florida Cracker whose father had been a fishing guide for Thomas Edison.
Leaving out of Sanders’ Boat Yard, a trip on The Pels cost $35 per person for a day of fishing, lunch included. Says Jean: "They gave us a guarantee that if we left by 8 or 9 in the morning, we’d catch enough fish to feed everyone for lunch. It might be trout, redfish, flounder or even pompano. Never failed. We anchored, and Nan usually cooked aboard. One time we caught a big king mackerel, beached the boat at New Pass, and Nan cooked the fish ashore in a pit that Clarence dug. Was that ever delicious!”
Clarence had a rusty old rifle that he used to dispatch any sharks or large manta rays we caught. In those days the concept of catch and release had not taken hold, and species such as sharks and rays were regarded as nasty, disposable creatures.
At the end of the fishing day, returning boats hung their catches on display boards for all to see and for photo opportunities. Later, Fish Tale Marina launched a monthly fishing competition in season. Jean once won the award for the largest trout caught in April – a 32-incher.
One day the family headed out on The Pels, and Harry decided to fish alone from his new outboard motorboat, the Blue Moose. As he recalls: "I had a great time. Using shrimp, I caught sheepshead, redfish, mangrove snapper – a whole stringer full of fish. When The Pels went by, I untied the stringer and waved it in the air to display my fishing prowess. Everybody cheered. Then I put the stringer back in the water and forgot to tie it to the boat! I never saw the stringer or those 8 fish again.”
A newspaper clipping from 1963 tells of a Gottlieb fishing trip to celebrate the 7th birthday of Alan, the 5th child. Fifty-seven fish were landed that day aboard The Pels, a sufficient number to be newsworthy.
Harry and Jean were charter members of the Fort Myers Beach Tarpon Hunters Club, and Harry enjoyed several night fishing expeditions. "One time I went tarpon fishing at night in Pine Island Sound with my friend Grant Adams, and our pal, local Realtor Dick Bergwyn,” Harry remembers. "I hooked into a big fish somewhere near Chino, and that fish towed us about 3 miles north in Pine Island Sound. We never saw it. We got tired of having it haul us around, so I finally cut the line. It was huge and slow moving – probably a Goliath grouper.”
But the greatest family fishing tales were Jean’s tarpon battles. In 1959, while pregnant with her 6th child, David, she landed a 105-pound tarpon aboard The Pels on heavy tackle. That 40-minute exertion paled in comparison to her most epic battle, when she tied into a 90-pound (estimated) tarpon while fishing in Estero Bay with guide Luke Gates.
"I was using light tackle, and 8-pound test line,” Jean says. "I fought that fish for 4 and ¾ hours. It was exhausting, but I could not give up. Finally I got the tarpon near the boat. By then the line was draped in sheets of seaweed and I thought my arms were going to break. Just as Luke was getting ready to gaff the fish – the line broke! The tarpon swam away.”
Harry recalls this adventure happened in 1963, just after astronaut Scott Carpenter had orbited the Earth. "It took Jean more time to fight that tarpon than it took Carpenter to go around our planet 3 times!”
Wildlife and Other Adventures
As city people, my family was unprepared for the wild creatures we encountered in this sandy sub-tropic. Some were beautiful, such as the birds of every description, ashore and on the water. Others inspired loathing and fear: spiders, some as large
as coffee saucers, with huge hairy legs. Even the dog was scared of them. Lizards and chameleons, which we loved to hunt. Possums and smart, dexterous raccoons that could unlock any garbage container. Hellish swarms of mosquitoes and no-see-ums. And snakes: mostly black, but also coral and cottonmouth.
Annie, the eldest, had one close encounter. "I used to hunt for chameleons in the crotch of palm trees. Sometimes I’d look first, and sometimes I just reached in to grab them. Once I looked first, fortunately, and there was a cottonmouth snake curled up at the base of a palm frond. So I ran to our next-door neighbor, Bob Creech, and he came over. He teased the snake out with the open blade of a pen-knife, and when it struck he cut its head off in mid-air!”
One day an inexplicable yearning to ice-skate overcame the 3 eldest girls. Some say Annie instigated the impromptu indoor skating party, achieved by pouring jars of water on the kitchen floor and sliding around barefoot. It was all good fun until second daughter Sara cut her foot on a piece of broken jar, and the skating rink took on a red hue.
Foot-related injuries were quite common among a family that ran around barefoot whenever possible. At age 7, third daughter Martha tore off her toenail on a large coral rock behind the house. While our mother soaked the sore toe in warm water, Janet (yours truly) got restless waiting for her sisters to come out and play in the water. I was just planning to float in the shallows on that slightly leaky rubber raft. My misadventure on the Gulf was our family’s closest brush with danger. As I lay on my back gazing at the sky, I didn’t account for the offshore breeze. Waves and wind picked up, and soon my scrawny 5-year-old frame was over half a mile offshore and still sailing away. I flipped over and clung desperately to the raft. I remember seeing fish in the depths below me, and screaming uselessly at the shore. After a half-hour, I was finally spotted. The uncle of neighbor Judy FitzSimon rowed out in his dory to retrieve me, shivering and terrified but unharmed.
Donna Comes Calling
We were at home in Chicago when dad got a phone call in September 1960 telling him he had best come down to check out the damage to our place from Hurricane Donna. Ken Lewis, a Fort Myers Beach contractor and owner of Lewis’s Store on the corner of Sterling and Estero Blvd., looked after our beach property in our absence. His tone of voice was not comforting, so Dad got on a plane as quickly as he could.
Several days after Donna’s departure, Estero Blvd. was drifted up with sand dunes, debris clogged the beach and the mangroves, and houses just a few doors down from ours had been torn apart.
My parents’ property had a main house on the Gulf and a small guest cottage at the edge of Estero Blvd. Wastebaskets in the guest cottage, perched just 3 feet off the sand, were full of seawater and the floors were warped from being submerged.
The main house had lost both external sets of stairs, all the latticework that covered the space under the house (elevation about 7 feet), a number of the asbestos tiles that covered the outside walls, and the free-standing mailbox. There was no interior water damage. We were very lucky, considering the devastation nearby and all over the island.
Tooling along in his rental car, Dad picked up a hitch-hiker on Estero Blvd. (In those days hitching was safe and not uncommon, just as doors and cars were left unlocked.) After introductions, the passenger said: "Gottlieb, Gottlieb – I know that name from somewhere. Oh, yes! I have your mailbox in my backyard.” Donna had pulled up and then neatly deposited the item a half-mile south of its home.
Our other casualty from Donna was Dad’s beloved boat, Blue Moose. He had left it chained up under the house, but all that remained was the chain wrapped around the steering wheel attached to one boat plank.
Subsequent hurricanes and storms have pushed sand under the house, damaged external stairs and caused other minor problems. The large picture window in the dining room has withstood every storm, unprotected.
The Gottlieb Family Saga Continues
As residents of Fort Myers Beach for the past 15 years, Jean and Harry have always been involved in the community’s life and issues. Harry served 3 continuous terms on the Beach Civic Association in the 1960s, is still on the Association for Bay Management, and is officially the Fort Myers Beach Director of Sunsets. Jean has served on the Library Board and the Estero Island Historic Society.
While Janet is the only resident of Fort Myers Beach, the other Gottlieb children and their kids visit regularly. Harry and Jean’s granddaughter Paloma (Janet’s child) will be wed on the beach in front of the family home on May 4, 2013. Other family celebrations and gatherings are sure to follow in this lovely corner of the world that has smiled on 4 of our generations, and counting.