Lighthouse Project: SWFL always a draw

Future quality of life is ours to determine

Sunset at the Naples Pier.

Photo by ERIC STRACHAN // Buy this photo

Sunset at the Naples Pier.

NewsMakers: Lighthouse Project

Daily News looks back and ahead.

Our slice of paradise was always going to be a popular place to live. It was inevitable.

Indeed, people have called Southwest Florida home for millennia. Archeologists tell us the earliest indigenous people hunted mastodon here during the last Ice Age.

Although here, meaning the Greater Naples area, was 50 miles inland at the time. The oceans being lower, a consequence of Global Cooling.

The Calusa, numbering some 10,000 strong, headquartered their civilization on what is today Mound Key. They were a warlike force to be reckoned with when the earliest Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s.

The flat-bottomed boat Kokomis, shown docked at the old Keewaydin Club in 1989 when still operational, ferried guests across Gordon Pass from the tip of Port Royal to Key Island. Launched in 1934, the Kokomis made the five-minute crossing between Naples and Keewaydin until 1999. A ceremony Friday at the Collier County Museum dedicated the refurbished vessel which will be an exhibit at the museum.

Photo by ERIC STRACHAN // Buy this photo

The flat-bottomed boat Kokomis, shown docked at the old Keewaydin Club in 1989 when still operational, ferried guests across Gordon Pass from the tip of Port Royal to Key Island. Launched in 1934, the Kokomis made the five-minute crossing between Naples and Keewaydin until 1999. A ceremony Friday at the Collier County Museum dedicated the refurbished vessel which will be an exhibit at the museum.

Ask Juan Ponce de Leon. His apocryphal search for the Fountain of Youth died, along with him, at the point of a poisoned arrow.

But the Calusa were no match for the two gifts the European interlopers bestowed upon them: disease and gunpowder.

And the Seminoles — really a conglomeration of Creek tribes driven out of Alabama and Georgia by white intruders, ultimately were forced to give ground here, too.

Their departure cleared the way for the next round of settlers: snowbirds.

They arrived by boat, a handful at first, from places such as Kentucky and Ohio. They came to visit. And some decided this would be a great place to live, to set up the tourist trade.

They founded the cities and towns we live in today. And what began as a trickle became a flood in the latter half of the 20th century as people poured into the Sun Belt.

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Consider: Fewer than 16,000 people lived in Collier County in 1960. Today it is north of 300,000. A 20-fold increase in 50-odd years. And that number does not reflect the annual population bulge during what we fondly call "the season."

All of Florida was going through a stunning growth spurt during those years, flocking to the coasts, swelling established towns and starting new ones.

There is only so much waterfront property, after all, and it was destined to be snapped up.

Inevitable.

What was not inevitable, though, was the character and the culture of these rapidly growing cities.

God may have made the sun and sand and sea, but men and women made the decisions that defined how we live.

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Lower the top on the family jalopy and take a tour of the peninsula's perimeter, all 1,197 miles of Florida coastline.

Key West at the southernmost tip, laid-back, Parrothead country, could hardly be more different than button-downed, military-creased Pensacola.

Jacksonville really is South Georgia; Miami is North Havana. Panama City Beach is cheap motels, beach bars and tattoo parlors. Naples is

Well, Naples is different.

Naples is dinner cruises sailing out of Gordon Pass into the Gulf, and fishing charters in search of trophies and catch-and-release.

It's the multi-million dollar homes of Port Royal. It's the Phil and Fifth Avenue South. And the Naples Beach Hotel, and the Waldorf Astoria and the Ritz — and the other Ritz. And the Naples Winter Wine Festival.

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And golf courses. Is it ever. More golf courses per capita than anywhere else in the world, reportedly.

But Naples and environs isn't all glitz and glamour. Sure, it's dancing after dark at Handsome Harry's, but it's also doin' the Buzzard Lope, mixing it up with Harley drivers and Queen Mary, down at Stan's Idle Hour in Goodland.

It's airboat tours through the sawgrass of the 'Glades and checking out the skinks and scat on the boardwalk at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

It's Nordstrom and Saks and Gucci, sure, but it's also Tin City and Master Bait and Tackle.

It's Norman Love chocolate and Dairy Queen. Bentleys and swamp buggies.

It's gated communities up and down the southwestern coast. And it's farms and farm workers east of I-75.

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The Naples area is easy beach access, and all the beaches are public, unlike other less hospitable stretches of shoreline in the Sunshine State. You may not own a mansion on the beach, but the beach is just as much yours as anyone's. As are the spectacular sunsets.

Yes, Naples is a playground for the Jet Set, and that's what it's famous for. But it is so much more. What it is, is unique. And it got that way deliberately.

Greater Naples, Southwest Florida, the Paradise Coast — whatever moniker you want to use — is no accident, it's not random.

It is the result of pioneering and visionary people who gambled on taming a wilderness. People who had the audacity to build roadways through swamps to link the coasts. Who named counties and towns after themselves. People who built grand hotels drawing the likes of the Edisons, Fords and Lindberghs in the early years and presidents and princes today. People who rebuilt after hurricanes. And rebuilt again. People who constructed homes, schools and universities. And hospitals. And marinas. And restaurants—lots of them.It's the consequence of people who have loved this place. Who have given of their lives and treasure so that we can enjoy the communities we have today.

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Did they pave paradise to put up parking lots? Yep. But that pavement leads to the beach, and to the Pier, and the galleries, and the theaters, and the opera, and the never-ending succession of arts festivals — all the things that make this place popular. Why, in part, we call this place paradise.

That said, we've learned. Vast acreage has been set aside and wetlands restoration efforts are underway. People have literally laid down their lives to protect the environment here. Still, the tension between growth and preservation is destined to be an ongoing struggle.

So, our stretch of coast may no longer be an untamed natural wonder, but by any reasonable standard it is unquestionably a wonderful place to live.

And that's no accident.

On purpose. That's what Naples and its surrounding communities are. Cities and a region whose character has been defined by the people who have lived here. A place that is still evolving. A work in progress.

How will that work in progress unfold? What will the future hold? We will provide the answers to those questions through the choices we make.

To make the best decisions, it is useful to understand how we got here in the first place.

Which is what this special edition of the Naples Daily News is all about: a look at our yesterdays to help us shape our tomorrows.

Chapter One: Ancient to 1873

Before we came, they were here. They were the Calusa, a centuries-old chiefdom with a reign stretching between Florida’s coasts. They were the Spanish, who brought disease that decimated the natives. They were the Creeks and Yamasee, who toted guns and chased the Calusa to Cuba. They were the Seminoles, who sought refuge from a vengeful military. They were the early settlers, searching for a rural, tropical paradise. In Southwest Florida’s earliest days, they all came. Almost all went. And they left behind a fascinating legacy. They all fought for a piece of this valuable land, the place we call home.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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