The Calusa Indians, native to this land for over 2,000 years ago, constructed the oldest surviving structure in Estero: the mound on which the Calusa Mound House now stands. Set in the Estero Bay, the Calusa claimed a majority of south west Florida as home, and constructed smaller villages, as well as fishing stations, as the first inhabitants of our local barrier islands. Today, it is believed that one of the original tribe chiefs was referred to as Carlos, the name from which many areas in this region acquire their title.
As opposed to the more common hunter- gatherer style of food gathering, the Calusa adapted to the coastal environment, becoming more of fisher- gatherers, perfecting the sport of fishing. The environment, less tarnished by mans footprint those many years ago as opposed to today, provided rich enough environment to satisfactorily sustain the tribes. Relying on the patterns of tide and current, the Calusa constructed canoes, impressive by standards even of their day. Aware of the lower sea level, the Calusa built their more important structures on higher ground, building mounds for areas such as their water court, food storage, and, of course, burial mounds. The Calusa relied on their liquid highways, transporting them mainly by canoe, and submersing themselves into the aquatic environment they claimed for home.
Juan Ponce de Leon, a figure positioned in the history books as the Spanish conquistador who explored and named Florida, supposedly first came in contact with these natives in 1513 while on the search for gold. This was one of the first documented interactions between the Calusa’s and any other demographic. Two centuries later, by 1750 the Calusa were upset from their barrier islands, a haven for them up until this point. Between the rumrunners, fisher folk, and even the occasional pirate, their home was becoming vastly populated by, at the time, non natives. Like the rest of Native Americans, the Calusa were pushed off the barrier islands and sought undeveloped land for the tribe to resettle on.
By 1862, a Homestead Act was passed in an effort to encourage further settlement of the region. By 1875, Florida was plotted and enabled to offer property deeds. Had you occupied unsettled land for five years, and made improvements to the land either in constructional facets or agricultural, the land deed was granted. The ability to offer property deeds attracted many who sought land for settlement, and the tropical environment offered a different land for growth.
By 1889, the Gilbert family had occupied the land where the Mound House now resides. They erected three structures, and in 1895 were granted the deed for 170 acres of property by then President Harrison. Though the exact association is unclear, it is known that the Gilbert family was connected with the Koreshan Unity faith, a sect that owned land in the Estero Bay area. By 1900, the Gilbert’s eldest son, Robert Burnhardt, had initially intended the land for his wife, son, and himself. After the divorce of Burnhardt and his wife, the Mound grounds were deeded to the Koreshan’s for a sum of $1,000 in 1909; Burnhardts wife was a known Koreshan, and settled with the Koreshan’s in Estero bay after their divorce. The same year, the property was deeded over to William Harrison Case, and his wife.
The Cases had already been occupying the land for some time, and had added a Tudor style living area to the mound house, complete with dining room and kitchen, while using a house boat for the majority of living needs docked in Matanzas pass. Later that year, the Mound House front area was expanded to include a sitting room, complete with a fire place and sleeping loft. At the time, this structure was locally known as the “Bungalow by the Banyan” and today represents the older aspects of the Mound house. Even though the Calusa’s home was being occupied by strangers, the new population relied on the land much the same as the original Natives, with aquatic waterways and an emphasis on utilizing the natural coastal environment for food and resources. From 1914-1916, the structure took on the name “Bayview Post Office,” as mail was delivered by boat to the station.
By the 1920s, Florida had begun to boom, attracting the rich and famous to the tropical paradise. In an effort to continue the tourist draw, gambling houses and dance pavilions started popping up around the Estero Bay area. At this point, the need for a bridge connecting the islands to the then dirt roads of Fort Myers was pertinent; a decision made in the midst of railway construction to the south. The boom of population and vacationing tourists spurred the re-roofing and garage addition to the mound house in 1921, as cars had started arriving over the dirt toll bridge. The remodeling and addition prompted the structure to be renamed to the Bayview Lodge, a more coaxing label for newcomers passing by.
The same year, Captain Jack DeLysle was arrested on the Naples coast, accused of smuggling rum, as was typical. After being acquitted four months later, the entrepreneur took up residence in the Mound House, constructing the Seminole Sands Casino on what was then referred to as Seminole Sands Beach, and today merely known as Fort Myers Beach. A Koreshan periodical of the time, Flaming Sword, wrote, “Like the fable of the early bird, DeLysle surely seized his opportunities while others were dreaming.”
After devastating hurricanes in 1921 and 1926, many of the barrier islands were abandoned by the newer settlers. By this point, the paradise that had been considered idyllic by many, was starting to out itself as dangerous.
During World War II, the Mound House served as an R&R station for soldiers, utilizing the Tudor and front addition. It was not until after the Second World War that air conditioning started to become commonplace in the South. Some two decades and numerous owners later, the Mound House officially became the Shell Mound Experiment Station. Implicit of its name, the land was now operated by a group of retired scientists, officially claiming the land and building as theirs in 1947. The earlier career for many of these scientists was spent experimenting and enquiring alongside Ford and Edison themselves. By the forties, Ding Darling served as the groups’ ornithologist. Among many discoveries and inventions, the groups’ most notable work was the realization of the utilization of many natural species in the area.
A few years later, by the mid fifties, owners would be changing hand again. William and Florence Long, the last official Mound House residents, added a pool to the property, and by 1957 it was a popular club for luncheons, fashion shows, and meetings for the locals and elite. Mr. Long, a retired developer, was attracted to the landscape and history of the Mound. Known simply as the “Long Estate,” the Longs catalyzed the Mound as one of the more popular hang outs. By the 1960s, air conditioning had made its way to Florida, only further encouraging non-locals to claim homes. Long additionally bulldozed a portion of other structures on the property, and dug canals, today known as the Shell Mound Park Subdivision. At this point, air conditioning was extremely common in hotels and motels, offering the chance to visit the tropical surroundings in a more comfortable manner. This increased Florida’s tourism industry significantly, catering to the wealthier hoping to escape the colder northern winters, and to families looking to vacation somewhere that offered numerous attractions.
In the later 1960s, the ground became a battleground as corporations fought to develop the property. Concerned about the land, the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection partnered with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Focused on wetlands understanding and conservation, the Estero Bay Buffer preserve was passed in 1973, prohibiting the bids of corporate developers.
Decades later, the town of Fort Myers Beach officially incorporated in 1995, though talks of incorporation had started back in the thirties. Merely a year prior, Florence long had still been residing in the Mound House until her death. The passage of high rise construction on Estero Island helped to push the town into incorporation. In its first conservation effort, the Mound property was obtained by the new Town. This prevented the demolition of such a historical structure, as well as the prohibiting the construction of residence condominiums and houses.
Twenty years after incorporating, the Mound House has been restored to offer educational tours, a park like picnic environment, and historical insight imperative not just for the locals, but for the tourists as well. On Saturday, November 14th, the Mound House will be holding its Grand Opening, displaying new additions such as the kayak trail connecting water excursionists to the Great Calusa Blueway, a series of kayak and canoe trails. The Mound House today stands as a semblance of Old Florida Life, commemorating our ancestors with an underground museum tour and classes. All are encouraged to visit the Mound House during its grand opening, located at 451 Connecticut Street on Fort Myers Beach. For more information on the property and for guided tours, call 239-765-0865.
BY EMILY MORAUSKI