You can’t exactly stumble across the Smallwood Store. It’s on a small island in Chokoloskee Bay on Florida’s southwest coast. But its remote location was the attraction of Chokoloskee Island and nearby Everglades City back in the 19th century, when the area drew men who hunted animals for their hides and birds for their plumes, farmers who liked the isolation, and the occasional fugitive.
It’s not hard to get to Chokoloskee today: Drive south from Interstate 75, through Everglades City, and three miles farther, the island is connected to the mainland by a causeway. This hidden part of the coast is a launching point for fishing boats and paddling trips through the Ten Thousand Islands.
At the end of the 19th century, the island was accessible only by boat. Ted Smallwood delivered the mail, then built a home there, and in 1906, opened a small trading post in his home. In 1917, he built the larger Smallwood Store and later raised it on stilts so that the waters of Chokoloskee Bay could run under it during storms.
There, he traded in furs and hides, sold food and dry goods, and ran a small post office. You can still see his early Coke machine and vintage soda bottles, a butter churn and a sewing machine, phonograph, canoes, dry goods and shelves stocked with the tonics and medicines of the day — and a fiberglass figure of Ted Smallwood, who died in 1952.
The Smallwood Store opened in 1906 and was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
The store operated until 1982 — it was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 — and reopened as a museum by Smallwood’s family in 1990. His granddaughter, Lynn Smallwood McMillin, runs it. In addition to the aged goods on the shelves and a separate section where hides and furs are displayed, there’s a small selection of souvenirs for sale.
What Chokoloskee is known for, though, is the shooting of Edgar Watson, a story made famous in Killing Mister Watson by Peter Matthiessen, a novel based on the true story. Watson was reputed to have killed the outlaw Belle Starr before he came to that corner of Southwest Florida, where he farmed vegetables, and there he was suspected of killing some of his workers rather than paying them. One day in 1910 he was confronted by members of the community by the Smallwood Store and shot to death.
Smallwood Store sells the books and has some photos and news clippings about Watson on display, as well as a copy of the arrest warrant issued against him by the Western District of Arkansas for the killing of Belle Starr.
Tip: Several captains operate boat tours from the store. Tours usually run one to two hours and can be customized to include wildlife, history, mangroves or a combination. www.smallwoodstoreboattour.com. Also on the island, Smallwood McMillin recommends lunch at Havana Cafe, http://myhavanacafe.com.
▪ Smallwood Store, 360 Mamie St., Chokoloskee; 239-695-2989; www.smallwoodstore.com. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., shorter hours in summer. Admission $5.