Historical Connection: Ella Mae Piper
March 10, 2022
By Marketing Coordinator, Alexandria Edwards
March is Women’s History Month in the United States, which encourages the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women in American history. An extraordinary example is Dr. Ella Mae Piper. Dr. Piper was a prominent businesswoman and philanthropist who worked with many influential individuals on community projects throughout Fort Myers, including Mina Edison.
She was born on March 8, 1884, in Brunswick, Georgia, and developed a passion for service as she was growing up, inspired by her mom, Sarah Williams. As a young woman, she attended Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia and studied chiropody at Professor Roherer’s World Famous Institute of Beauty Culture in New York City. After she graduated in 1915, she worked as a hairdresser and masseuse at the Twilight Inn in New York. According to a ledger found in her records, the young entrepreneur did scalp treatments for 75 cents, a shampoo for $1.25, and a manicure and pedicure for 60 cents.
In 1916, Ella moved to Fort Myers to be closer to her mom and opened her first beauty shop across from Englehart’s Mortuary on Jackson Street. When the City of Fort Myers made the decision to extend Main Street, Piper and her husband Frank purchased land from Richard and Julia Barker on Evans Avenue for $500, where she built her own parlor. In addition, she owned the Big 4 Bottle Company on Mango and Evans, where customers could enjoy soft drinks for just 5 cents a bottle. Some of her long-time, loyal customers were Thomas and Mina Edison and it was the one place they never failed to stop during their visits to Fort Myers.
While Mrs. Edison had her nails manicured or hair cut, Mr. Edison would wait in the shop and enjoyed ordering refreshing sodas. An acquaintance of Mrs. Piper, Geraldine Bostelman, recalled that “Ella would go over to Mrs. Edison’s to work on her feet and every now and then, she’d stop by and ask my children, Linda and Ernie, if they’d like to go see Mrs. Edison today, and she’d take them with her.”
Outside of her business endeavors, Ella wanted to make a difference in the lives of those around her and started volunteering in the Dunbar community with Sarah Williams – Ella’s mom. They started the first Christmas celebration for the residents in 1915, which is now an annual tradition. After Mrs. Williams passed away in 1926, Ella continued this large party with the help of many churches, businesses, and friends who provided generous donations. Reportedly, 15 girls attended the first gathering and today, nearly 600 boys and girls attend this event, held on the lawn at the Dr. Piper Center.
In addition, she helped build the Dunbar Community School, an adult education and lifelong learning center. When a new building was added to the school’s auditorium in 1937, Mina Edison was the guest of honor. Mina also had a special interest in the Dunbar community – commonly known as Safety Hill – and served as chairman of the Safety Hill Garden Club. She coordinated a group to clean up the sandy roads and plant trees, shrubs, and flowers to make the schools and churches look more visually appealing.
Mrs. Piper commended Mina’s work with the Plant and Flower Guild and shared how generous she was for taking time to improve the school grounds, stating in a speech, “much of the work done in this section was led by Mrs. Hughes (formerly Edison), and we want to thank her for the many things she has done for us.” In response, Mina praised the work of the teachers and Mrs. Piper for dedicating countless hours to ensure the students received a quality education, something that Mrs. Edison highly valued. Mina urged that nature study be included as one of major courses offered at the school as it covers everything from “the heavens to under the seas, with all the sciences of the air and earth.” In her closing remarks, Mina shared one of her late husband’s famous quotes, “everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.”
Piper was also active in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded the Tranquillo Temple, and served as an executive board member at the Elks Lodge for 26 years. A newspaper clipping from the Fort Myers Historical Museum shared that Mrs. Piper was re-elected Grand Assistant DT. Ruler of the World at the Elks Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.
Through all of her work, she developed very close and intimate relationships with many people, especially young children who needed support and guidance, which earned her the nickname “fairy godmother.” She helped them earn scholarships to Tuskegee College, funded in part by her own money. She had no children; however, one young woman, Anna Heard, became very special to her and it was speculated that she might have legally adopted her, although there is no record of that in Lee County. Ella put the young lady through beauty school, and they worked together for many years at the beauty shop.
Another prominent person in Ella’s life was C.B. Earle, a retired head redcap from the Grand Central or Penn Station in New York City. Both lived at Ella’s home at the corner of Evans and Mango Street and she requested that her home and belongings be transferred to them when she passed away. The beauty shop was also rented to Heard at a reasonable rate. Ella also made sure that any remaining principle and income be paid to charities that provide for children and the elderly, selected by her trustee, Ernest Bostelmann, the Mayor of Fort Myers and President of the Lee County Chamber of Commerce.
The Piper residence was torn down in the mid-1970s due to the high costs of renovating it for public use. Adjacent to the former location of the home, the Dr. Ella Piper Center was built and dedicated in June of 1976. This center seeks to enhance the social and economic well-being of the frail elderly who reside in Southwest Florida, at-risk youth, special needs children, and the community at large. Nearly 50 years later, the Dr. Piper Center continues to carry out the philosophies and visions that Ella had for the Fort Myers community. Today, the Center has five major programs, including training low-income senior citizens, a foster grandparent system, and resources for adults who do not have access to safe, reliable transportation. To learn more about the Center, visit drpipercenter.org.
Visitors can also enjoy a nice meal at Ella Mae’s Diner, located at the Luminary Hotel in historic downtown Fort Myers. They provide a twist to a classic southern diner, inspired by traditional neighborhood favorites. The mission of the restaurant is to celebrate Piper’s legacy, and it serves as a hub for the community to come together and share stories as they enjoy a nice meal surrounded by vintage décor.
Similar to the Dr. Piper Center, Edison and Ford Winter Estates serves to continue the legacy of many pioneer figures, including Mina Edison. Education programs teach young kids the importance of challenging your mind, stepping out of your comfort zone, and being innovative. The variety of botanicals on the site are a reminder that caring for plants and the environment are great ways to encourage sustainability, inspired by Mina Edison’s love for gardening and use of plants to improve many areas in Fort Myers.
We hope you take time to visit Edison and Ford Winter Estates, as well as many of the cultural institutions in Fort Myers soon and gain some inspiration to foster positive change in your community!