A short history of Little Hickory Island

The older I get, the more history means to me.

Funny how I remember people I thought “old” saying something like that when I was “young.” Now I find myself saying it!

I always loved history. I was lucky that I had some great teachers when I was young, teachers who wove together the politics, arts, social histories, geography, economics — everything so that history seemed a living thing, not just wars, dates and times of troubles/change/peace vs. chaos. History was a full picture of how human beings lived in a certain place for a certain time.

Now that I’m retired I think about that as I take my morning beach walks after listening to the radio’s harangues and pontifications and — sometimes — informative conversation. Somehow the sound of the waves crashing helps take it all in with some equanimity.

And on my walks over the years I’ve often smiled a greeting at a woman I sensed was much older than me, a longtime resident of the beach, a person I was sure had a real sense of history and change on Little Hickory Island. Last weekend I interviewed her for a couple hours on Sunday afternoon. And oh, did I learn a lot! Let me tell you just a little, please, since I think none of this is in the books I’ve read about our area.

Barbara Judson is 90 years old now as she sits looking out on the Gulf of Mexico, telling me how her husband Harry did a successful vision-restoring eye surgery on Dennis Noonan, Sr. in the 1950’s when they all lived full-time in Massachusetts. In gratitude, Noonan invited them to stay at a guest house in extensive holdings he had along the Gulf, and they crossed the small wooden bridge to the island sometime in the late 50’s for the first time.

There was no bridge then to Fort Myers Beach, she recalled, and the Koreshans owned much of the property along the bay’s edge, but Noonan owned long tracts of the middle of the island on both the Gulf and bay sides. Just after Hurricane Donna in 1960, Barbara decided to take two options for adjoining lots on the Gulf, and in 1961 the Judsons bought two 50-foot lots at the now-astounding price of $10,000 each, and in 1962 started building the stilt house where we talked local history together. When it was finished a year later there were only eight houses along Bonita Beach, imagine!

“And who were those few people who were your neighbors out here?” I wondered.

“Well...,” she paused a bit to recollect. “Besides the big Noonan family of course, there were Bud and Jeanette Matteson. They built here early, across from the beach on what became Bay Road. He was a retired dentist...and the Kelseys who built first on the beach, then right across the road on the bay who were absolutely focused on horticulture and raised tropical fruit. They had lots of papaya trees and even put a couple in my yard, too...and Peter Peltz who had the small yellow house that was so damaged by Donna that it floated all over for a while, and then he finally put it up on stilts, and I think it’s again for sale right now...there weren’t a lot of us but as things started to grow we formed the Bonita Bay Improvement Association and used to meet once a month for dinner in each family’s home. Really gave us a chance to talk and know each other!”

I laughed and shook my head, thinking of the large BBIA membership now and the meeting room where the formal organization gathers to talk about our common challenges. “It went on like that, really informally for a long time?”

“Oh yes, decades I think. We came down twice a year usually, at least a full month in the fall, mostly November, and then again in the spring for at least a month, March or April. And of course the house was also used by our children and grandchildren.”

Barbara rose and took me to see pictures of her three children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren whose families are located in Connecticut, Virginia and Colorado. She described how they spent time every year traveling to see their childrens’ families since the 1970’s. And then when her husband finally fully retired in 1975, they moved full-time to Florida but also soon bought a home near the national park above Asheville, N.C., where they spent several months each year.

“And it was then — end of the 70’s and into the 80’s — that condos started to be built at each end of the island. A couple of them went bankrupt and stood empty for a long time, but then different people came in and took over and they just filled up. But that was a long time ago now too, I guess, and no more have gone up since so I guess that’s good,” she said. “And of course the bridge going over to Lovers Key and Fort Myers Beach, that was good when it was finally built, and reducing the speed limit here from 40 to 35...yes, I think we managed pretty well through all these years.”

Then the conversation flowed into talking about our lives, families, times of struggle and change again. I told Barbara I would summarize what I’d learned from her and bring a copy over for her review in a few days. Walking down what most people call Bonita Beach Road even though it changes to “Little Hickory” out here to my street, I remembered how I’d learned 15 years ago that the name of my street was invented by my next door neighbor (Mary) and “the judge’s wife” (Minnie) across the street who together named it “Marimin Drive.” And though I get tired of spelling it out time after time, I still love to tell that story!

And then I thought of the house on the beach across the road from my street, one I had been told was the oldest on the beach, built sometime in the 1940’s. I used to love walking by it in the wintertime dark when the lights inside showed dark wood walls throughout the modest structure. So I stopped by the home now on my street where that house now sits high up on pilings, transported over and built all around by entrepreneurs about a decade ago who then put up what I call two “castles” there on the beach in its place. Sure enough, my neighbors George and Terri Siefert took me through the upstairs wood-walled rooms--such beautiful cypress!

“Do you know the name of the people who first built that house on the beach?” I asked.

They didn’t but the following day I saw Barbara on my morning walk and asked her.

“Oh yes, Colonel and Gartha Fuller, they put the house up and lived there quite a time.”

“And did the colonel have a first name, Barbara?”

“Well, he must have but we all called him ‘the colonel’ and used that for his first name. Never heard anything else, even from his wife,” she replied.

So the bits and pieces of Little Hickory Island history keep coming together for me, a continuing mosaic that I hope someday will coalesce into a coherent on-the-page record. But these bits ’n’ pieces are good enough for this sunny day!

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Victoria Jean Terre, Ph.D., holds graduate degrees in child development and counselor education from the University of Pittsburgh, taught at universities in Pennsylvania and Florida for 35 years with the last name “Dimidjian,” and has written four books and many articles.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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