Prior to the construction of Tommy Barfield Elementary and Marco Island Charter Middle School, in a time before bridges, concrete and electricity, public education for residents of Marco Island and Goodland consisted mostly of stopgap classrooms in thatched-roofed, one-room buildings, or in the kitchen of someone’s home.
The earliest schools on record at various times in the late 1800s, included one near today’s Port of the Islands, in Chokoloskee, one in Everglades City at the home of G.W. Storter (now the Rod and Gun Club), one at Henderson Creek, in Belle Meade and on Pig Key. Although no one lived on Pig Key, it was centrally located for the villages of Caxambas, Marco and Goodland Point, and was an easy rowboat ride for students.
Marco and Naples were still part of Lee County then, and commissioners didn’t provide a teacher unless there were at least seven students enrolled, so school locations moved as populations shifted between the three villages.
By 1892, the village of Caxambas (now the Estates area of Marco) had its own schoolhouse, while earlier schools were makeshift. Betsy Perdichizzi, of the Marco Historical Society, wrote in “A Girl Called Tommie: Queen of Marco Island,” a book she co-authored with Katherine Stephens Kirk, “Yet the early settlers always managed to find a way to educate their youngsters.”
Tommie Barfield, a pioneer of the Island communities, emigrated to the area by wagon, train and then sailboat in 1901, at the age of 13, with just a third-grade education. She, like most 13-year-olds in the early 1900s, dropped out of school at a young age to help her family survive. “She was instrumental in helping with everything. A lot of the policies and the good education we have is influenced by Tommie Barfield and her family,” says Perdichizzi.
In “Island Voices: They Came to Marco Island,” another book co-authored with Kirk (who was related to Barfield), Perdichizzi details Barfield’s work in setting the public education foundation for Islanders.
Barfield was appointed superintendent of Collier County Public Schools after she went head-to-head with Lee County commissioners to lobby for better roads and helped Barron Gift Collier lobby the Florida State Legislature to break off and form a new county in 1923. She served on the school board until 1949, when she fell ill.
In 1928, the Scripps School opened its doors, combining students from Marco and Caxambas, with an enrollment of 73. Barfield’s grandson, Jim Dyches, now 73, attended that school. He describes it as a two-story building with four classrooms, serving grades one through 12. The school had a water tank and a well, further down Robert’s Hill. “One of the seniors was assigned the task of keeping the tank filled,” says Dyches.
“Outside the school, there was virtually no grass on the schoolyard, just sand and sandspurs. We all went barefoot back in those days,” Dyches recalls.
Fellow classmate Henry Lowe, 70, remembers pulling the girls pigtails, and then dashing across the barren schoolyard to the sandspurs, so the girls couldn’t come after him. Only a handful of girls had feet tough enough to chase him through the prickly mess. “Even when you did wear shoes to school, you usually took them off,” Lowe says.
In 1945, the school board moved half of an army barracks to the school grounds so that students could have a lunchroom. “The teachers, with the help of parents, put on card parties, spaghetti dinners and the students made a friendship quilt to raffle off to purchase dishes, silverware and cooking equipment,” Perdichizzi chronicled in her book, “Island Voices.”
“Prior to the lunchroom, we all brown-bagged it,” Dyches says, adding his lunch almost always consisted of peanut butter and homemade guava jelly. He and the rest of the boys spent a lot of time gazing outside the classroom windows at a mango tree to watch for the first fruit of the season. “We ate them green with salt,” he said. “We never did let them get ripe.” The students also snacked off citrus trees and wild grapes.
Because of the small size of the student body, there weren’t enough kids for any organized sports, but the highlight for students was the addition of a maypole that they used during a celebration of the incorporation of the entire Island as Collier City. “That was a big deal, because we had very little entertainment,” says Dyches.
Lowe, who only attended school in Marco for a few years before his family moved to Naples, took a small school bus to Caxambas that broke down quite often. He remembered times when the bus couldn’t make it up the hill, so they’d all pile out, get up the hill, and then pile back in. “Every road on Marco was shell, and all our houses were wood,” he said. “For such modern times, we were very primitive.”