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Issue 631

03/14/2013 at 3:20pm

Mound House Bayview LodgeLocal Lore: The Mound House Ghost

Half an hour before dawn, the pale-gray eastern sky is reflected in the second-story windows of a stately house perched atop a hill, facing Estero Bay. The windows stare blankly, like vacant eyes, as a gentle, rosy blush tints the horizon. Gradually, daylight illumines the sky. A figure flickers past one of the windows, pauses facing the bay for a few moments, and then vanishes.

The Mound House ghost has been lore for decades, ever since rumors flew of Native spirits angry at the disturbance to the site that had been a Calusa shell mound. Sightings have been reported, as recently as the past few weeks, of a female figure pacing the floors when workers arrive before dawn. Objects and projects within the locked structure have been moved and disrupted, puzzling Director of Parks and Recreation, Patti Evans, workers and volunteers.

Is the greatest archeological treasure of Fort Myers Beach haunted?

I paid a pre-dawn visit on March 10, 2013, and looking into the Mound House from outside, saw no evidence of spirits. Perhaps they are camera-shy. I enjoyed the twittering and calls of dozens of birds, saw pelicans and finches winging by, and watched a spectacular sunrise unfold, casting its glow on the windows. It was a peaceful and lovely scene, one that has been witnessed by humans on the same spot for 2,000 years.

The Mound House property today encompasses the 2-story William H. Case House, the oldest structure on the island; sloping grounds atop the original mound, planted with native plants used for food and medicine by the Calusa and later settlers; and an interpretive "underground” exhibit that displays the levels of the mound as an archeological layer cake of fascinating historic importance.

The ghost, or ghosts, that haunt the house on the property are reminders of the lengthy human attachment to this site on Connecticut Street, and its ongoing allure.

Historic Site of Beauty

Estero Island – formerly called Crescent Beach, now known as Fort Myers Beach – was formed some 3,000 years ago, once sea levels stabilized after the end of the last great Ice Age. Within 1,000 years of this barrier island’s emergence, Estero Bay and environs had become home to the Calusa Indians, who built a massive ceremonial center on Mound Key (now a state historic site, accessible only by boat).

Skilled fishermen, builders and woodworkers, the Calusa apparently thrived on these sunny shores as much as do we modern folk. They trapped and caught fish (the Horseshoe formation in Estero Bay is said to be a Calusa fish-trapping structure), built massive mounds and ceremonial buildings large enough to hold 2,000 people, and became renowned as the most powerful tribe in south Florida.

Archeological evidence hints that the Mound House site was a sizable village occupied by the Calusa for over 1500 years. Calusa mounds in southwest Florida – created over centuries from layers of shells, fish bones, earth, and pottery shards – were built as foundations for temples and elite residences, and as burial sites.

By the mid-1750s the native people of this region had been captured and enslaved by raiders, killed by European-introduced diseases, or run off by rival tribes. Other than occasional visits by Cuban fishermen, the Mound House site probably sat vacant for over 130 years, like its 2 companion mounds on the island: one at Bowditch Point (northern tip of the island) and another south of the Church of the Ascension. The latter 2 mounds were bulldozed to create the first roads on Fort Myers Beach. As was typical at the time, no consideration was given to the historical significance of the mounds or to archeological exploration of their contents.

The first non-Calusa settlers on the Mound House site were Robert B. Gilbert and family, members of the Koreshans. The Gilberts filed the first homestead claim on the island, totaling 171.85 acres, and farmed it for 5 years, living in a small cabbage-palm-thatched dwelling. In 1906, William Harrison Case and his wife Milia arrived from St. Petersburg, Florida. They had just experienced the tragic death of their 16-year-old daughter, Beulah, and Milia was said to have found peace on the elevated site, with its view of the bay and mangrove islands.

The Cases put up a small Tudor-style building in 1909 – the "Bungalow by the Banyan” – that served as their kitchen and dining area while they continued to live in a tent and on a houseboat anchored off the site. The Cases moved to Fort Myers in 1921; according to their great-grandson, Bill Grace, "they considered that property an albatross around their necks and were glad to get rid of it.”

The new owner in 1921 was Captain Jack DeLysle, a flamboyant entrepreneur (and rum runner) who had visions of creating a resort and casino on this island paradise. DeLysle expanded the home to a grand 2-story residence, while he also built and operated the Seminole Sands Casino and hotel on the Gulf side of Connecticut Street.

The devastating hurricanes of 1921 and 1926 brought Fort Myers Beach’s first land boom to a crashing bust. The Mound House was vacated, and the Seminole Sands Casino mysteriously burned down in 1924, as DeLysle defaulted on payments and disappeared. Was it accident, arson, or vengeful spirits at work?

The property changed hands and uses several times. Starting in 1947, it served as an experimental station and laboratory: the Shell Mound Experiment Station, which was run by a group of scientists and scholars affiliated with the James Foundation. The property was sold in 1951 to William and Florence Long, who dug into the shell mound to build a swimming pool. Says the Mound House website at www.moundhouse.org: "Between 1953 and 1959 Mr. Long bulldozed much of the shell mound and dug a series of canals, developing Shell Mound Park Subdivision. Mr. Long died in 1966 while Mrs. Long lived on the property until her death in 1994.”

Mischievous Apparitions

It’s unclear when the first ghost sightings occurred, but in the 1980s Shawn Holiday, Director of the Mound House, contracted with members of the local Creek Indian tribe to perform a purification ritual, designed to placate the spirits of native people said to frequent the site. The Creeks said the spirits were angry that their former home was being desecrated.

The Town of Fort Myers Beach acquired the Mound House site, with funds from Florida Communities Trust, in 2000, and an ambitious program of reconstruction and educational programs began. As workers spent time on the site, they reported seeing the apparition of an elderly woman pacing in front of the upstairs windows in predawn hours. At times they heard crashing sounds, as if objects were being thrown – yet the house remained locked and vacant.

"Whenever a new project got started, things seemed to go wrong,” recounts Ceel Spuhler, a docent and the first Mound House volunteer after the site became part of the Town of Fort Myers Beach. Items went missing, were found broken, or were moved about. Adds Patti Evans: "It has become part of our lore. Now we have someone on whom to blame all the oddities!”

The Cases’ great-grandson, Bill Grace, and Ceel Spuhler speculate that the ghost is the spirit of Milia Case. She was very attached to the site, and the apparition "tends to wander in front of windows, gazing out over the bay”, according to Patti Evans.

In June 2012, staff and volunteers prepared the Mound House site for the approach of Tropical Storm Debbie. They secured all windows with plywood and zip-tie wraps. Returning after the storm, they found the plywood removed. All the tie wraps were undone and piled in a corner, appearing to have been singed or burned. Yet there was no sign of forced entry into the house, or of anyone occupying it.

Reconstruction: Will the Ghost be Displaced?

The William H. Case House is currently being restored to its 1921 glory. The meticulously restored dwelling is expected to open within a year.

What will become of the resident spirit, or spirits, when the house is reopened to the public? Will sightings cease and the apparition find a new haunt – or will visitors witness paranormal phenomena?

Stay tuned. Or, better yet, visit this beautiful, historic site yourself.

Public tours of the grounds and underground exhibit are available, free of charge, every Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (Meet at the picnic tables atop the mound.) Sign up for a guided kayak tour, bring a picnic, or just enjoy the view from the house site or the dock as you soak up history and nature. For more information, visit the Mound House website, moundhouse.org.

Over 200 volunteers have assisted in the archaeological research that brought this archeological jewel to its current state. Join them as a volunteer or a visitor. Whatever you do, don’t miss a chance to view 2,000 years of history on Fort Myers Beach!

Janet Sailian