Concerns mount with time as access to Smallwood museum remains blocked

Greg Griffin of Florida-Georgia Grove LLP and Doug Hendley, chief of security for Collier County, stand outside a locked fence to the Ted Smallwood's Store on Friday. Griffin's company tore up the street leading to the property and put up the locked fence as access to the store was through the company's property. The action was taken to force approval of a permit request to develop a marina river basin on the property. The company had learned that a permit request recommendation by the Army Corps of Engineers was to deny the permit because access to the store would become a problem. The permit sought another access on Smallwood property.

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Greg Griffin of Florida-Georgia Grove LLP and Doug Hendley, chief of security for Collier County, stand outside a locked fence to the Ted Smallwood's Store on Friday. Griffin's company tore up the street leading to the property and put up the locked fence as access to the store was through the company's property. The action was taken to force approval of a permit request to develop a marina river basin on the property. The company had learned that a permit request recommendation by the Army Corps of Engineers was to deny the permit because access to the store would become a problem. The permit sought another access on Smallwood property.

Chokoloskee residents say developers installed a chain-link fence and bulldozed a portion of Mamie Street in April, effectively cutting off access to both the Ted Smallwood Store and several private residences.

And now, questions are emerging whether work was done at an unmarked burial site.

CHOKOLOSKEE _ The weathered red building has been at the end of Mamie Street for nearly a century.

It was a trading post, a post office and a general store. It served Chokoloskee, a small fishing community, until 1982, and for more than 20 years, Lynn Smallwood-McMillin has kept the doors of the historic Ted Smallwood Store open as a museum.

That all changed in April. That’s when Chokoloskee residents say developers installed a chain-link fence and bulldozed a portion of Mamie Street, effectively cutting off access to both the Ted Smallwood Store and several private residences.

And now, questions are emerging whether work was done at an unmarked burial site.

Collier County commissioners last week authorized county staff to sue Florida-Georgia Grove LLP on behalf of the county and the Ted Smallwood Store in hopes of restoring access to Mamie Street.

The decision comes just two weeks after Bill and Patricia Vaughn, who live in the 300 block of Mamie Street, filed a lawsuit looking for the same access.

Collier County officials believe Mamie Street is a county road, and developers bulldozed the road without permission.

Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta said that while transportation officials haven’t yet been able to verify the ownership, dozens of residents have come forward saying the county has always maintained the street.

Also, a former county engineer, George Archibald, who now works for the city of Naples, has stepped forward to say he recalls county crews working on that street dating to decades ago.

“The truth of the matter is that county records go back 60 years or so and the search for facts is still ongoing,” Coletta said. “But the Smallwood Store remains isolated.”

* * * * * * * * * *

The Ted Smallwood Store was established in 1906 as a trading post out of Ted Smallwood’s home.

In 1917, Smallwood moved the store and post office to the current location, 360 Mamie St., said Smallwood-McMillin, his granddaughter.

Last year at this time, 75 people a day were passing through the museum’s doors. That number more than doubles during season, and Smallwood-McMillian said during the last two weeks of season, 200 people would come through the old wooden doors each day.

Now the building is locked up and dust is beginning to gather on the decades-old exhibits that fill the museum.

The store has been closed since the middle of April, but not because of lack of interest.

Smallwood-McMillin said she hears from dozens of people each day asking how to get to the museum. But the only way to get there is to drive down Calusa Drive — a private gravel road — find a place to park, and follow a dirt path through the mangroves. And that isn’t much of an option, especially since Calusa Drive residents don’t want the vehicle traffic.

Smallwood-McMillin said she’s concerned about vandalism — there’s already been reports of neighborhood children sneaking onto the property at night to jump off the roof into the water — or what would happen if a fire were to break out at the store.

Jim Stoner, a Chokoloskee resident, said while someone on the island has keys to get past the fence, emergency vehicles still would need to open two gates before they could get to the museum in case of an emergency.

The vehicle also would have to navigate piles of crumbled asphalt and debris, since the once-paved road is now not much more than rubble.

* * * * * * * * * *

Getting to the Vaughn residence is even trickier.

The couple live at the end of a long dirt road that spills out to Mamie Street.

Bill Vaughn’s father bought the property in 1969, and his family has been using Mamie Street for the past 51 years to gain access to their property.

Now the couple — who live in St. Augustine but spend much of their time at their home overlooking Everglades National Park — must drive on the private gravel road in order to reach their property line.

A representative for the company told the Daily News in April that company officials made the decision to rip up the road after they learned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to recommend denial of a permit to put in an alternate access road.

Once there, they drive in the grass, next to where Mamie Drive once stood, until they get to their driveway.

“It’s terrible,” she said. “I didn’t really know what to picture, but I didn’t picture the devastation.”

Gary Blackman, the managing partner at Florida-Georgia Grove, couldn’t be reached for comment about the project despite repeated attempts. Neither could Jim Kelly, the Lakeland-based attorney representing the company.

But a representative for the company told the Daily News in April that company officials made the decision to rip up the road after they learned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to recommend denial of a permit to put in an alternate access road.

The representative at the time said the company had “no other choice but to take out Mamie Street so that it could not be considered an access source.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Access isn’t the only issue at hand, now.

Chokoloskee residents and history buffs are questioning whether the demolition is occurring at an unmarked human burial site.

The state Division of Historical Resources recognizes Chokoloskee as an archaeological site, division spokesman Chris Cate said.

Robert Carr, director of the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, monitored the work when utility trenches were installed in 1995.

Carr said he was able to visit the entire island, and while he hasn’t “looked at every square inch” of property he did find two types of archaeological artifacts on the island.

He didn’t, however, find human remains. But Carr is quick to point out that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

“Who knows?” Ron Jamro, director of the Collier County Museum, said when asked about human burial sites in that area of Chokoloskee.

“The island is pretty much man-made, or Calusa-made if you will. Some of those mounds are burial grounds,” he said.

Coletta said the rumors of burial grounds aren’t new, but there’s been no sign of human remains on the site.

“It’s my understanding they haven’t been able to document that there’s human remains there,” he said.

An unmarked cemetery near the demolition site doesn’t appear to be disturbed in the demolition, Coletta said.

Patricia Huff, a member of Collier County’s historical preservation board, said residents had hoped to bring Carr back to investigate the work site, but developers instead wanted to hire their own archaeologist to assess the work, something the county’s land development code allows for.

Huff said she’s hopeful someone will be out to check the work site soon.

“We’re just sort of waiting to see,” she said. “I’m disappointed it hasn’t happened yet.”

Huff isn’t the only person disappointed things haven’t happened yet.

Smallwood-McMillin said she had to lay off all of her employees because she couldn’t stay open. And as summer gets closer, the prospect of making up for lost time seems to be disappearing.

Collier County commissioners recently said they hoped filing a lawsuit would push developers to resolve the issue, before it gets to court. But commissioners also said they are willing to do whatever it takes to get the store — and Mamie Street — back open.

“There is the issue of sustainability of the Smallwood Store through a lengthy lawsuit,” Coletta said. “But I want to make sure the Smallwood Store is open for generations to come.”

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ajm3s writes:

Is this a good time to ask if anyone has title insurance?

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