Whether it’s the long history of the Calusa in the area, the Spanish landing on Mound Key in the late 1500s, or Cuban fisherman settling into the area when the Calusa started dwindling in the 18th century, Estero’s past is varied and older than the United States itself.
In the face of the development that the newly-incorporated Township is about to see, several groups are working hard to preserve, celebrate, and educate people about this rich past. They include the Estero Historic Preservation Citizens Committee, a group that includes the College of Life Foundation, the Estero Historical Society, Koreshan State Park, Happehatchee Center and Estero Councilmember Katy Errington.
Acting as chairman for the College of Life and the Estero Historic Preservation Citizens Committee and President of the Estero Historical Society, Charles Dauray is there in the thick of it, with his goal being to ensure that there is a place for this history in Estero’s future.
Dauray himself has quite a history himself. Originally from Rhode Island with a BA in Political Science from Providence College, he moved down to Florida with his family nearly 60 years ago. Among his accomplishments are being a founder of the Southwest Florida Holocaust Museum and Education Center, a six term chair with the Collier County Historical Society, a vice-chair with Habitat for Humanity back in the ‘90s, and a vice-chair with Lee County Republican Party Executive Committee. The list goes on, but these days, he concentrates much of his effort on local history.
“The Village Council is very much aware of the importance of the Estero River and its environment,” Dauray said. “That’s why they formed the Estero Historic Preservation Citizen’s Committee. They asked me to chair it, and I agreed. There are three things that we do: environment, history and culture.”
“Now our goal is not necessarily to preserve the status quo,” Dauray continued. “My job is to improve community awareness of the assets that we have. This includes Koreshan State Park and so on, and promote environmental treasures like the Estero River as well as culture through the Estero Historical Society.”
Dauray described the Koreshan State Park as a “wonderful gem that is underutilized.”
“I bet 80 percent of the people in Estero have not been to the Koreshan State Park,” Dauray stated. “It’s a wonderful place with walking paths along the river, nature trails, and we need to make people more aware of this history.”
A good portion of this promotion happens through the College of Life Foundation, where he was appointed as chairman back in 2000. While the Foundation is dedicated to numerous aspects of history that exist here in Southwest Florida, it has a particular focus on the Koreshans. Through hiking tours and kayaking, they offer visitors opportunities year-round to explore the remaining areas that remind us of the Estero that was, whether its walks through historic Koreshan sites, or trips out to Mound Key, where Ponce de Leon landed from Spain in the 1500s and the Calusa called home long before that.
“The Village isn’t even a year old,” Dauray said. “Yet we go back to 1894, when 250 people settled here in Estero, in the Koreshan Commune. There were only 20 people in Naples at the time.”
The Commune was then known as Koreshan Unity, where Cyrus Reed Teed led the followers of new religion called Koreshanity in hopes of building a ‘New Jerusalem.’
“The Koreshans, coming down here out of Chicago, weren’t seen as intruding by those who had already settled here,” Dauray said. “But they were viewed with a great deal of skepticism. Cyrus Teed had some very interesting ideas.”
“It was tough to live here back in the 1890s,” Dauray said. “You had the dry season with the fires and the wet season with the hurricanes. You had all kinds of critters, some venomous. This was not a pleasant place, and here comes a guy from Chicago calling himself Koresh, and he wants a city here for 10 million people. People thought he was whacked.”
For over a decade Teed tended to this vision, but in 1906, he ran afoul of some people in Downtown Fort Myers, getting into a fight. He later died of his injuries in 1908, and his following dissipated shortly after. By the 1960s, only four Koreshans remained in the area, deeding their land to the State.
“I can understand why it happened,” Dauray said. “Downtown Fort Myers back then was an agrarian and fishermen’s community. These are rough and tough people. Teed was coming in and telling them the Women should have the right to vote and full equality and equity in marriage. These things were the antithesis of what the community sought down here.”
“He was not looked at fondly back in those days,” Dauray said. “But what he left behind is a unique treasure in Florida, and I want to do everything I can to see to it that people will appreciate it. All these people shared the difficulty in living here in those early days.”
This past provides a great contrast with the area in modern times, which attracts people from all over the world for both leisurely vacationing and permanent residence. However, it is vital to preserve, as it gives us insight into how challenging our relationship with our local environment can be at times, and Dauray and many, many others in these various groups see great worth in its preservation.
“Planning is the key,” Dauray concluded. “Growth is inevitable, but it does not have to be synonymous with destruction. It’s an aspect of change. This is one of the most desirable areas of the country to live, and change is going to happen. Positive change is predicated on an appreciation of the community and the sustainability of its history and its culture.”
By Trent Townsend