When Maureen Sullivan-Hartung first came to Naples in 1981, she drove across U.S. 41, through the Everglades.
Near Ochopee, she saw a sign that read “BEER WORMS.”
The words baffled — and delighted — her for years. She had no idea what it meant: Was the sign’s creator the purveyor of a can’t-miss kind of fishing lure or just someone who liked to give the vapors to passing grammar fanatics?
“It never said beer and worms. It said beer worms,” she recalls. “Sadly, it is no longer.”
The sign may be gone, but anyone who wants to feel the same charmed confusion as Sullivan-Hartung can see a photograph of it in her book, “Hidden History of Everglades City & Points Nearby.” Readers can also discover the details behind the sign, as well as its late owners Sam and Clara McKay, who established a rental trailer camp in Ochopee in the 1950s after moving there from Miami.
Documenting these tales is what led Sullivan-Hartung, a former freelance reporter for the now-defunct Everglades Echo newspaper, to pen the book.
As she researched the book, Sullivan-Hartung quickly realized that, even though she spent time in Everglades City as part of her reporting gig, there was still much she didn’t know about the area. She reveled in learning about the early, wild-and-woolly days of the Tamiami Trail — not just the challenges of its construction, but also how law and order was maintained on this once-lonely stretch of road.
In the book, there are historical photos of the tiny way stations that were used to help keep the peace. That task was a big one: Just six stations existed to patrol the whopping 1,276,160 Collier County acres that reached from Immokalee to the Miami-Dade County line.
Each station was staffed by a husband-and-wife team. The wife would stay behind to tend the station, and the husband, deputized and riding a Harley-Davidson, would patrol the road. Generally, he rode no more than 5 miles in any direction, leaving whatever happened in between to the whims of fate.
Sullivan-Hartung’s eyes widen when she thinks of what life must have been like then. Wild and woolly indeed.
“We’re not talking hundreds of years ago,” Sullivan-Hartung says. “This is like 80 years ago.”
Of the six stations, only Monroe Station still exists in something close to its original state; it’s owned by the Big Cypress National Preserve and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The others have been deliberately razed, destroyed by hurricanes or purchased for private use.
That’s something Sullivan-Hartung saw often in the writing of her book. Like the sign proclaiming “BEER WORMS” and Weaver Station, interesting Everglades-area sites have been washed away, repurposed and torn down, and often, no one seems to mind. Another one of the sites in Sullivan-Hartung’s book, Copeland’s Bula Baptist Mission church, has recently been in the news as it tries to evade potential demolition.
While such revelations distressed the author, they also gave Sullivan-Hartung further cause to keep writing.
“I just hate to see some of these stories lost,” she says.
She also believes that many who live in modern-day Collier County are like she once was - they have no clue about what historical treasures exist right under their noses. Or maybe people don’t care about local history because they hail from somewhere else and don’t consider it to be “their history.”
Sullivan-Hartung was in that spot once, too. When she first came to Everglades City to write for the Echo, she figured she would slug it out for six months, max.
Instead, she stayed for a year. To this day, she’s still a regular visitor to the town, traveling there to attend festivals and other events. Most recently, she’s made it a frequent stop for her book signings.
Sullivan-Hartung credits the change in attitude to an encounter that happened early in her time in Everglades City. Shortly after she started working at the Echo, the late local legend Loren G. “Totch” Brown called the paper and announced she needed to interview him.
When she arrived at his Chokoloskee home, Brown finished his peanut butter sandwich, whistled for his dog, intriguingly named Troubles, and told her he was going to take her on a boat ride through the 10,000 Islands.
That trip is still fresh in her memory.
She remembers how beautiful everything was, how simple and serene. Brown navigated the boat through the mangrove islands and, although she felt instantly lost in the backwaters, her captain never lost his way. Suddenly, Sullivan-Hartung recalls, she felt very stupid: She had lived in Naples for 10 years, and never seen this side of Collier County.
She lost her heart to the Everglades that day, she explains.
“I wrote the book because I fell in love with it,” Sullivan-Hartung says. “I just want everyone else to fall in love with it.”