Visitors meandered through the Pioneer Room, Calusa Room and Modern Marco Room of the new Marco Island History Museum, 180 Heathwood Drive, speaking in hushed voices as they gazed in awe at world-class exhibits on view in buildings so beautiful, they are themselves part of Marco Island’s story.
Work by Carlton Ward, an eighth generation Floridian from a pioneering, ranching family, is on display at the museum.
“This is an outstanding exhibit, that we have an opportunity to see before anyone else, before it travels across the country, from here,” said museum boardmember Alan Sandlin. “It’s a world-class exhibit, that starts right here on Marco Island.”
Ward will speak in the museum’s Rose History Auditorium at 7 p.m., Wednesday, to commemorate the museum’s opening. The event is free, and open to the public.
“It’s so macho, yet tender and soft,” said museum docent Jack Dickson, of Marco Island, referring to a photograph of a cowboy holding a calf, that is part of the exhibit currently on display.
“That’s the headwaters of Fisheating Creek,” said Jackson, gesturing toward another image, showing cows being herded through water.
“When I was a kid, we used to camp along the shores of this river, and these are the things we saw. We used to chase the cows when we were kids, because that’s what kids did.”
Sandlin, who served as director of the Building Committee and Contract Administrator during the museum’s construction, said the museum is a wonderful addition to the area.
“It’s been a two-year building project, from beginning to end. When you consider that we have 15,000 square feet here, that’s not too bad,” said Sandlin.
“The great thing about it, is that the entire Island was involved; thousands of people gave their time and resources, so that we could preserve the history of the Calusa, who created a huge society here, 2,500 years before anyone else did. We have the first civilized community in North America.”
A commanding, giant bronze sculpture of the Key Marco Cat, created by Naples artist Carl Wagner, and donated by Emil and Gail Fischer of Marco Island, is visible from all directions at the entrance to the museum, where a beautiful, larger-than-life tile mural depicting Calusa Indians in daily life, by Naples artist Paul Arsenault, is permanently displayed on the exterior wall. A picturesque estuary, complete with Pickerel Weed, Bald Cypress trees, black lagoon with a replica of a Calusa Weir Dam, and everything found naturally in the Everglades, surrounds the museum.
“Shells are ground into the stucco on all outside walls, and even the sidewalks, so they don’t just look like concrete surfaces,” said Sandlin.
“There’s a Calusa pond, with a natural Weir Dam, where they caught fish. It’s blackwater, like you would find in any of the Everglade rivers, because the tanic acid from palm trees colors the water.
“Everything, every tree, every plant, even the coral rock and shell, is native to this area,” said Sandlin. “All wood is Florida Mahogany. The wood guiderails are made by hand. The bridge to the gazebo, when finished, will be rope netting, like bridges built by the Calusa. There are no aluminum railings on this property.
“We started to build this complex with about $700,000.00, which wasn’t enough to finish the project. Jon Laidig thought so much of the museum, he put $1,500,000 of his own money into it. So, the whole museum complex that we see now is named after Jon Laidig. But, he wanted it to be called the Marco Island Historical Museum. That’s the kind of person he is.”
Jon and Sonya Laidig are longtime members of the Marco Island Historical Society, and Historical Museum Boardmembers.
Richard and Joyce Reynolds, of Marco Island, were among the first visitors to the museum. “It’s just so beautiful,” said Reynolds. “This is wonderful for the community, and the Rose Auditorium will be a great place for parties.”
The Historical Museum’s Rose Auditorium has a kitchen for catering, and will be available for private events.
Marco Island residents can play a role in the Historical Museum’s opening, by purchasing one of the 720 solar tiles that make up the largest original art ceramic tile exterior mural in North America, and will last 100 years without fading. The mural is based on the extraordinary original artwork of Paul Arsenault, and depicts a Calusa Indian Village scene.
Each tile is $100. Proceeds go directly to the Marco Island Historical Museum Fund. All designated names will be placed on a plaque next to the mural, to acknowledge donations.
“One look at the beautiful surroundings and Paul Arsenault mural, and you realize, the Calusa people came to Marco Island for the same reasons we did,” said Sandlin. “Like we do today, they lived a wonderful life here.”
To find out more about the Marco Island Historical Museum, make a donation, or volunteer, contact the Marco Island Historical Society at P.O. Box 2282, Marco Island, 34146. The Society meets the first Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at Mackle Park.