The Making of Fort Myers
May 9, 2023
By Alexandria Edwards, Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator
On October 19, 1841, a major hurricane hit Fort Harvie and Fort Dulaney on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River. General David E. Twigs sent Major Ridgely to investigate a new site for a fort. He saw the Harvie area as the most promising with its high, dry ground, towering palms and pines, and a little creek with pure water. His troops set up a camp and marked it with an American flag on Wednesday, February 20, 1850. General Twiggs named this location Fort Myers after the gallant officer that his daughter Marion fell in love with, Abraham C. Myers.
Once the town was established, a series of major developments took place that would transform it into a flourishing city. A fort with a wharf to unload building materials from schooners and steamers was constructed. It had 57 buildings, including officer quarters, barracks, warehouses, a guard house, bakery, blacksmith, laundry room, stables, gardener’s house, commissary, hospital, and even a bowling alley that were all built with heavy yellow pine timbers. After the Seminole Wars, the fort sat idle and was recommissioned for Federal soldiers during the Civil War.
In 1856, the town gained one of its most famous residents, Winfield Scott Hancock, who served as the garrison quartermaster in charge of supplying the troops at the fort during the Third Seminole War. Hancock’s wife, Almira and their young son traveled with him and took residence at the fort. Though provisions were limited, she served meals every day to as many officers that could fit at the table. The meals were so popular that the men drew lots for the privilege of eating with the Hancocks.
After the war ended, Manuel A. Gonzalez was Fort Myers’ official post-fort settler in 1866. Born in Spain in 1832, Gonzalez immigrated to Cuba, then moved to Key West, where he became a citizen in 1859. During the war years, he ran a mail boat between Key West and Tampa and the fort in Fort Myers caught his attention. Gonzalez brought his young son, Manuel S. Gonzalez, his brother- in-law, John Weatherford, and family friend, Joseph Vivas to Fort Myers in 1866 when his imagination was caught by the abandoned fort. Many buildings had been damaged during the war, so Manuel S. and his father secured materials to rebuild the town.
A couple of decades later, in 1887, after Edison purchased property in Fort Myers, Joseph Vivas built a pier on the property to load and store materials for the homes that were shipped to Fort Myers by boat. When the Gonzalez family arrived, they chose the site of the current Sidney Berne Davis Art Center (SBDAC) as their home. Later, the family moved a couple miles south to an area that is now known as Manuels Branch, located on historic McGregor Boulevard. While Manuel was in the area, he left a lasting legacy, including the two houses that today are known as The Veranda restaurant.
Throughout those decades, the cattle industry dominated the local economy – a town with only 349 residents. Cattle ranchers drove steers from inland towns, such as Kissimmee, Bartow, Fort Meade, and Arcadia to the coast. Once at Punta Rassa, they were shipped aboard schooners to booming markets in Key West and Cuba. Some of the most well-known cattlemen were Captain Francis Ashbury Hendry, his brother William, cousin Charley, and brother- in-law John Jeu Blount. Captain Francis became known as “The Father of Fort Myers” and visited in 1854 and 1865, describing the area as a tropical paradise with beautiful buildings surrounded by shell-lined paths where people could enjoy the fresh air.
Jake Summerlin, referred to as the “king of the cattlemen,” had the causeway built that connected the mainland to the island of Punta Rassa in 1868, and it became a thriving shipping center. Thomas Edison bought a piece of property from Samuel Summerlin (Jake’s son), when he arrived in Fort Myers in 1885 for $2,750. The cattlemen and early settlers were soon joined by other families who became well-known, such as the Powells, the Clays, the Wilsons and more. In the 1880s, James E. Hendry, the oldest son of Francis Asbury Hendry, lived at the site of the old fort that was referred to as “the old officers’ quarters” and “the old Gonzalez house.” Hendry redesigned the home while leaving some of its prominent characteristics that distinguished it from other places, like the original army cistern in front of the home. He sold the property to Englishman R.I.O. Travers, who married Lady Julia Hendry (F.A. Hendry’s niece). They moved to Ezra Gilliland’s former home adjacent to Thomas Edison’s house, and then sold it to Edison for $4,850, who turned it into his guest home.
The world-famous inventor, Thomas Edison, arrived in Fort Myers with his best friend and business partner, Ezra Gilliland, in 1885 in search of warmer weather. He and Gilliland originally traveled to northern Florida, a popular destination for wealthy industrialists and inventors during the Gilded Age. They landed in St. Augustine and to their surprise, they encountered unseasonably cold weather. Edison traveled further south by railroad down the west coast until he reached Cedar Key, located just North of Tampa, which is where the railroad ended. They took an excursion on a boat for the remainder of the trip and landed in Punta Rassa. George Shultz told the inventor about Fort Myers, so Gilliland and Edison went there and Edison bought his estate within 24 hours of arriving.
The City of Fort Myers was officially incorporated on August 12, 1885. When its only school, the Fort Myers Academy, burned down in May 1886, civic leaders reached out to Monroe County city officials for funds; however, they could not do anything for the town. Since the county seat was located hundreds of miles south in Key West, Fort Myers seceded from Monroe County on May 13, 1887 and named the new county Lee. By this time, Fort Myers had a livery stable, cigar factory, jeweler, sawmill, fruit company, barber shop, repair shop, post office and an attorney.
Harvie Heitman, who came to town in 1888 to work at his uncle’s store, was responsible for developing a lot of the Downtown area. By 1894, he started his own grocery business on the northwest corner of First and Jackson Street, across from the old officers’ quarters. He built the town’s first brick buildings, including a bank, livery stable and the Arcade Theatre. Beyond contributing to the infrastructure of the community, Heitman served on the town council and as the Bank of Fort Myers’ director, which opened in 1906. While he sat on the council, he was hired by Thomas Edison to direct the caretakers, coordinate shipments, and renovations.
In late 1890, Ambrose McGregor of the Standard Oil Company, Tootie (his wife), and son Bradford arrived in Fort Myers. They were lured to the area for the region’s excellent tarpon fishing opportunities and to help Bradford regain his health. The family made lots of investments in the region, including buying more than $150,000 worth of business and agricultural land. The McGregor family stayed at the Shultz Hotel when they arrived and bought the Gilliland home adjacent to Edison’s estate in 1892 for $4,000.
Tootie McGregor admired Harvie Heitman’s efforts to turn the town into a vibrant city and helped him construct the Bradford Hotel in 1905, which was named in memory of her son. The three-story building had a lobby, stores, and hotel rooms on the upper two floors. She also paid to have Riverside Drive, the dirt cattle trail that went from downtown Fort Myers to Punta Rassa, paved to honor Ambrose, and it was renamed McGregor Boulevard on July 15, 1914.
Real estate and construction booms occurred throughout Fort Myers in the early 20th century until the Great Depression hit in 1929. At the time, Harvie Heitman and his brother owned the home where the former army barracks was located and gifted it to the city; later, it was converted into a public library. By the summer of 1933, the government purchased the property and built a neoclassical-style post office with funds obtained through President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).
The post office was designed by Nat Gaillard Walker, a resident from South Carolina who built a firm in Fort Myers. He was recognized for his skills as an architect and was the president of the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Nat Walker also designed the simple trellis work for the Moonlight Garden, the Edison Botanic Research Laboratory, and made modifications to the swimming pool area. Several of the well-known architect’s buildings both in South Carolina and Florida are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The two-story building had eight columns that were made of Florida limestone, etched with coral. The inside contained many marble structures throughout the lobby and staircases with touches of whimsical details added by WPA-sponsored artists. The building was dedicated on December 9, 1933, and Walker was awarded the title of honorary postmaster. For many years, the post office was the center of city life. The town organized fundraisers for war bonds at this location during World War II and residents with every make and model of shiny new cars would park in front of the building. In 1965, the City of Fort Myers closed the building.
In 1967, the building re-opened as a federal courthouse and was the center of legal proceedings led by the late Fort Myers justice, George W. Whitehurst. The front of the building with post office boxes was sealed and the main entrance was removed from West First Street. A lot of the artwork on the ceilings and the iconic interior features were covered up to create a judge’s chambers, a gallery, meeting rooms, and other components of a courthouse. In 1983, Congress dedicated the building as the “George W. Whitehurst” Federal Building. 16 years later, the United States General Services Administration sold the building back to the city for $185,000.
By 2001, the old building was in disrepair with chips on the outside and many leaks on the inside. The roof also needed some updates and many windows needed to be replaced. A group of art enthusiasts were determined to save the building and Florida Arts, Inc. leased the building from the city. The organization received grants to repair many of the historic elements and remove ones that were not part of the buildings’ history. The efforts were supported by a host of benefactors, including John and Ellen Shepard, the Fox family, Pamela Templeton and many others. Berne Davis pledged $1 million to restore the building in 2007 and it was renamed the Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center in her and her husband’s honor.
Today, this unique structure features classrooms, a greenroom, performance spaces, exhibit spaces, a roof top garden and more. The old post office boxes were also restored and the grand entrance was reopened. When Berne died in March of 2016, the steps of the center were filled with bouquets of flowers in memory of her.
Fort Myers is much more than a beautiful place with warm temperatures; it is a vibrant cultural center with a rich history. Be sure to connect with all that the town has to offer during your next visit!