Foundation gives new life to tales of Collier's history

The work of 88-year-old Maria Stone, chronicling Collier’s past, will be preserved by nonprofit group

Eighty-eight-year-old Maria Stone has spent two decades chronicling Collier County’s past, detailing the lives of Naples’ early black families, the migrant farmworkers in Immokalee, and how the Tamiami Trail was built. But as her health worsens, friends feared all her hard work would be lost after her death.

So two days after her birthday two weeks ago, a nonprofit foundation was initiated to preserve her books and hundreds of tapes, allowing Immokalee Child Care Center and Fun Time Early Childhood Academy to sell her books — some of which sell for $20 to $30 — and benefit from the profits.

“Today, we are celebrating the biggest heart in Collier County,” Lois Selfon told about 20 children gathered for an indoor picnic in Stone’s honor on June 27 at Community School of Naples, where she announced the alliance between the schools. “This will get the history and folklore of Collier County out and give the proceeds to the children.”

Selfon, who was instrumental in setting up the foundation, called Stone’s work misunderstood. It was Selfon, a former director of Naples’ Community Services Ambassador Volunteer Program, who suggested Stone tell her historic chronicles during a storytelling series a few years ago.

“It’s viewed as writings, when in fact, it’s folklore,” Selfon said. “It’s absolutely priceless and it really needs to be preserved. This is really about getting the history out. These children and the new people coming into town need to understand what this place was like.”

Selfon hopes Stone’s tapes can be turned into CDs so more people can hear the tales from the mouths of settlers and Crackers, as well as read the books, which are written in colloquial English to preserve the storytellers’ colorful language. There’s “We Also Came,” which chronicles Naples’ black history, “Naples Past and Naples Present,” “Swamp Buggy Fever,” and other books Stone and her late husband, Peter, published about tales of Florida’s past.

Naples historian and childrens author Maria Stone is surrounded by youngsters from Fun Time Early Learning Academy and Immokalee Child Care Center during a picnic June 27 to thank Stone for donating her audiotapes documenting the history of Naples to both organizations.

Photo by Anthony Souffle, Daily News

Naples historian and childrens author Maria Stone is surrounded by youngsters from Fun Time Early Learning Academy and Immokalee Child Care Center during a picnic June 27 to thank Stone for donating her audiotapes documenting the history of Naples to both organizations.

Stone, clad in her trademark butterfly dress and earrings, told the children she was ill and had to stay in bed, so she couldn’t visit more often. She urged them to do well.

“Going to school as much as you can is the secret of getting along in this world,” said Stone, whom the children know as “The Butterfly Lady.”

School officials praised the idea of a foundation. “History is so important to the future,” said Kim Long, executive director of Fun Time Early Childhood Academy. “We want to make sure we infuse the kids’ learning environment with the history of their own environments.”

Long and Selfon, Naples’ Community Services Advisory Board chairwoman, came up with the idea of the foundation and enlisted Valarie Bostic, executive director of the Immokalee Child Care Center. Bostic, who pointed out her school began in an old wash house, believes the tapes and books are just as important for parents to read.

“When people move in, they need to know what’s happened before them,” she said, calling Immokalee close-knit. “Maria Stone has been a big supporter of the Immokalee community. She brings history to life. It’s not just words on a page. It’s alive.”

Bill Robinson, a board member of Immokalee Child Care Center, added, “Her work in her art and child care will leave a legacy to the future generations.”

Willie Anthony, who was instrumental in the civil rights movement in Naples, was more cautious in his hopes for Stone’s works. She chronicled Anthony’s story growing up in the infamous McDonald’s Quarters, the dilapidated shanty-town slum where blacks were forced to live, in “We Also Came,” stories of Naples’ black settlers.

“I see it as being very valuable, provided it’s disseminated in some sort of fashion people have access to,” Anthony said.

For 4-year-old Aalihah Sainz, an Immokalee Child Care student, it was the butterflies, Stone’s “Butterfly Song,” and her colorful dress that enthralled her. “I could make a butterfly with it,” she said, gazing longingly at Stone’s dress.

Stone’s love of history had its beginnings in childhood. Growing up in Texas, her mother used to write poetry, while her father, an entomologist, wrote about his research for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She was given a pen and paper — and she was hooked.

From an early age, she knew she’d teach. She played teacher with other children and, at 15, began her career, later earning her college degree in education and music. She came to Naples in the late 1940s, but hated it. “I wanted artistic things and it had nothing at all,” she explained. So she and her first husband settled in Punta Gorda, where she taught.

Years after his death, she met Peter Stone, a retired GM mechanical engineer who developed a marble-like floor tile popular in Florida homes. A year later, in 1977, they were married. They settled in Naples and, like a butterfly, her dislike of Naples was transformed into love for its early beginnings.

She began teaching in Immokalee, earning accolades and awards. But health problems led to her retirement in 1984, when she learned she had thalassemia major, which led doctors to replace her upper leg bones with titanium. That led to heart disease, and a bypass.

Bedridden for weeks, she was heartbroken she couldn’t teach “her babies.” It was her husband who suggested she chronicle the lives of the colorful historic characters and native Florida Crackers she often invited to her classes to give the children with a first-hand account.

So she and her husband self-published the histories. Six years ago, Stone was named one of the “100 most influential Southwest Floridians in the 20th Century” for her work. But in the three years since her husband died, Stone’s health has worsened. A friend, Lila Zuck, agreed to continue transcribing and archiving tapes of hundreds of hours of interviews.

Now Stone is confined to her bed several days a week, breathing oxygen through a tank, moving about in a motorized chair or rolling walker, and being cared for by a nurse and friends who help with errands and chores.

“They have taken away everything historic in this town,” Stone, wearing a colorful muumuu, said while lounging on a plush couch in her Park Shore Drive condominium. “The only thing that shows what it was like here is my books.”

Around her are souvenirs of her worldwide travels with her husband, as well as clowns and butterflies, a tribute to her and her husband, a Shriner clown. As a copper butterfly fluttered while hanging from her ceiling fan, she reminisced about old Naples and the importance of never changing a storyteller’s language or tale.

“Because I stayed true to them, they told me stories no one ever knew,” she said, adding that she’ll take many secrets to her grave. “I want the stories of the old natives to be saved because that’s the true history. These are natives, not people who have come here with their fortunes.”

“I want the children to profit from it in the future,” she said of her work. “I’m very, very honored that they’re making a foundation. It means more to me than anyone can ever know.”

© 2006 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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