Reminiscing About Old Fort Myers

Shell Point Resident Witnessed Area History Firsthand

This homestead house was built by Silas Kelly, Margie Johnson’s father, on his 160-acre spread at Fort Denaud, east of Fort Myers.

by Jean Downes

Shell Point resident Margie Johnson represents a rare breed – she is a native Floridian! In 1926, at age six months, she was brought to this area by her mother to join her father, Silas Kelly, who had claimed a 160-acre homestead at Fort Denaud, between Alva and LaBelle. Silas had come earlier from northern Florida to build a house for his wife and infant daughter.

Later that year, the young family was nearly wiped out by a devastating hurricane that caused Lake Okeechobee to overflow, sending torrents of water down the Caloosahatchee and cascading overland. Wind blew the roof off their house, and as floodwaters rose, Kelly carried young Margie, while leading his pregnant wife into the woods for safety. When they returned two weeks later, they found the mule and chickens dead and their crops destroyed.

Silas repaired and rebuilt as best he could, and in 1927, Margie’s brother James was born. The family stayed long enough to prove title to own the land and then moved to Fort Myers. Kelly managed a hotel, service station and fish market, while the family lived on a houseboat tied to the foot of the old wooden Caloosahatchee bridge at Fremont and Riverside.

In this photo, taken in 1929, the family sits by the old wooden Caloosahatchee Bridge. In the foreground are Margie¹s mother, brother, Margie, and their pet pelican, Bill.

About this time Margie remembers that a Cuban hand-rolled cigar factory was still in business, and the city library was housed in what had been the log home of the commander of the old fort, built in 1850. That same year she watched the Yacht Basin come into being. Bulkheads were constructed a distance offshore, then the water was pumped out behind them and replaced with fill. Margie and her cohorts used the mounds of fill material for sliding, adapting flattened cardboard cartons as sleds. Also in ’36, the old Federal Building and post office went up downtown, just across from her father’s store, by then known as Kelly Seafood. A clear childhood memory of Margie’s is of colorfully clad Seminole Indians coming into town each Saturday. The men congregated at Silas’ store, while the women invaded McCrory’s, buying materials for their sewing. Another familiar sight on Saturday was cowboys riding in from nearby ranches.

By 1942 World War II was underway. Fighter squadrons trained at Page Field, and Buckingham Gunnery School was in full swing. During this time, Margie’s father secured the seafood supply contract for both military bases.

Famous people? Margie remembers the Edison family being driven to the store by a chauffeur in their Ford town car. Due to Mr. Edison’s deafness, her dad dealt only with the chauffeur, while the family waited curbside for their order to be wrapped. Miss Jettie Burroughs lived alone in the yellow mansion on First Street. On one occasion Margie, with several other girls her age, was enlisted to serve lemonade and cookies to a gathering in Miss Jettie’s beautiful gardens. Margie’s youngest brother, Patrick, was friendly with children of the Kingston family, who resided in a large brick home recently moved and now awaiting restoration. Rex Beach, who wrote books set in the South Seas Islands, and Clarence Chadwick of Captiva lime grove fame, were familiar figures, as was Ted Williams, then a young baseball player who came to town for the tarpon fishing.

Margie went to elementary school at the old Andrew D. Gwynne Institute, Fort Myers Junior High and on to Fort Myers High School, then located at Fowler and Anderson (now Martin Luther King Boulevard). Following high school Margie moved to Miami, where she had a career with the Miami Police and Fire Departments as training supervisor of computers, radio dispatch, and 911. Just after her retirement in 1986, she met Willie Johnson. Both had lost their first spouse, and after they married, Margie and Willie lived aboard his 30-foot sailboat in Marathon, cruising some of the waters in that area.

Of the move to Shell Point, she sums it up aptly with the words, “Four years ago I came back home to within nine miles of where I grew up on the river.” Margie is an active docent at the Southwest Florida Historical Museum, located in the old railroad depot in downtown Fort Myers. She is also a proctor at the Genealogy/Computer Lab at Shell Point.

Margie has been kind enough to share some of her experiences and a vast array of photo slides with others through a course in the Shell Point Academy, the community’s lifelong learning program for residents.

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