In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Historic trading post in battle for survival

The Smallwood Store and Museum, built 100 years ago as a trading post, sits on the shore of Chokoloskee Bay and is chock full of items from the past.
The Smallwood Store and Museum, built 100 years ago as a trading post, sits on the shore of Chokoloskee Bay and is chock full of items from the past.
Naples Marco Island Everglades C

Stand on the worn plank veranda behind Ted Smallwood’s Store. Look out across Chokoloskee Bay toward the stipple of mangrove islets that explain why the southwest coast of Florida is known as the Ten Thousand Islands.

Survey the same watery vista those islanders saw that day in 1910, standing around this same old trading post, staring at that same bay, clutching their rifles, waiting to kill Mr. Watson.

You can see the history of the place. You can feel it. You can imagine Edgar Watson’s boat motoring through Rabbit Key Pass, across Chokoloskee Bay, heading toward Smallwood’s landing, en route to his own lynching.

And not a condominium in sight.

Not yet.

Ted Smallwood built his wooden trading post on the great Calusa Indian shell mound that defines Chokoloskee Island back in 1906. It served as the only store, the only post office on an untamed frontier that nurtured the kind of rugged mavericks usually associated with the Wild West, so many trappers and smugglers and gator hunters and characters who needed refuge in the Ten Thousand Islands from their nefarious pasts. (Watson, for instance, had been accused of murdering the notorious Belle Starr back in Oklahoma, not to mention a killing or two back in north Florida before he settled in the Everglades in 1882.) In 1974, for pretty obvious reasons, Smallwood’s became the first structure in Collier County added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The store remained in business until 1982. Eight years later, it was reopened as a historical museum, furnished with Ted Smallwood’s original fixtures — grinding machines, butter churns, barrels, spittoons, fly swatters, rocking chairs, canning machines; shelves stocked with patent medicines, school supplies, animal skins, lace tablecloths, dishes, tools, knives, sweets. Antique metal advertising signs decorate the walls.

“This is no Disney World. This is the real thing. This is where history happened,” Gary McMillin tells visitors, who pay $5 a head for a sense of what Old Florida was. What it really was. Gary, a longtime stone crab fisherman in these parts, is married to Lynn Smallwood McMillin, granddaughter of Ted.

Of course, much of the allure of Smallwood’s has to do with the killing of Ed Watson, the ruthless and occasionally murderous sugarcane planter, syrup maker and smuggler with a plantation down on Chatham’s Bend, south of Chokoloskee, a man of such fearsome regard that his own neighbors, in a burst of vigilantism, gunned him down. Shot him 33 times on Oct. 24, 1910, as he brought his boat up to Smallwood’s landing.

Peter Matthiessen, in his Ed Watson trilogy (beginning with Killing Mr. Watson, later combined into a single volume, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Shadow Country), described the moment: The wind-stripped trees are hushed, the last birds mute. A razorback grunts abruptly, once. Mosquitoes keen, drawing the silence tight. Behind the rusted screen of Smallwood’s door, pale figures loom. Surely, the post-master thinks, the boatman feels so much suspense, so much hard pounding of so many hearts. The day is late. A life runs swiftly to its end.

The novel, product of five years of research by Matthiessen and, to me, one of the great books of our time, tells not just the story of a historic figure but gets at the very essence of Florida and the obstinate, often lawless characters who made this wild place into what it is. And Smallwood’s is not just some clapboard antique structure on stilts, revered for just being old. The store represents real history. As Gary McMillin says, this is not some Disneyfied reproduction.

Of course, this being Florida, great historic significance doesn’t count for much.

You live here. You know how the story goes.

In 2004, an investment outfit out of Sebring bought up some adjacent tracts on Chokoloskee, figuring to clear it off to sell or develop. A company lawyer, discovering some quirk in the county’s land records, decided that Mamie Street, the only road into Smallwood’s, was actually a private driveway.

In 2011, the company bulldozed Mamie Street, cutting off access to the historic site — an act so audacious that it would be hard to imagine anyone but a gang of Florida developers would even consider such a thing.

Mamie Street, after all, had been the first road built on the island. It led island folks to their post office. It was maintained by the county for 70 years. It was named for old Ted’s wife, Mamie Smallwood, for gracious sakes. And since the museum opened, it has been the only route in and out for cars and tour buses that bring about 150 visitors a day to Smallwood’s during the winter tourist season.

McMillin remembers his helpless anger, finding his way to the store blocked that day in 2011. He said the company had hired uniformed deputies to block his way. “I felt like going Mr. Watson on them.”

The road stayed closed for six months, until the Collier County Commission, spurred by civic outrage, finally intervened, joining in a lawsuit with the McMillins. A county judge issued an order requiring the company to repair the road and keep it open until the legalities are settled.

But Gary said he and his wife owe about $130,000 in legal fees and are plain beat down. Winning the lawsuit, at this point, may be irrelevant. “We’re up against people with billions,” he said. Probably he meant millions, not that it makes much difference. They’re outspent, stressed-out, ready to settle. Except the terms the company offered, involving the construction of an alternative access road, seem beyond their means. He’s not sure Smallwood’s will survive.

Even if it does, the historic store will likely be surrounded by not-very-historic development. Probably condos. To McMillin, it’s the end of a portal to Florida history. End of the real thing.

So you stand on the back veranda and know that the stunning panorama out there is a fragile thing. This glimpse of Old Florida won’t last. It won’t, for long, match the setting described by Peter Matthiessen: From the small settlement on the Indian shell mound called Chokoloskee, a baleful sky out toward the Gulf looks ragged as a ghost, unsettled, wandering. The sky is low, withholding rain. Vultures on black-fingered wings tilt back and forth over the broken trees.

Lately, the shadowy apparitions circling historic Chokoloskee are vultures of a different kind.

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