Perspective: The iconic Shell Factory

The landmark sign with modern updates for a Subway and lounge in North Fort Myers.

The landmark sign with modern updates for a Subway and lounge in North Fort Myers.

Water fun.

Water fun.

SHELL FACTORY (7) 
 What was left of the original Shell Factory in Bonita Springs after the fire on Old U.S. 41.

SHELL FACTORY (7) What was left of the original Shell Factory in Bonita Springs after the fire on Old U.S. 41.

As the sign at left said, "Here it is!''  the original Shell Factory in Bonita in 1952. Another former icon, the Orange Dome, a citrus stand that became a bar, was across the street.

As the sign at left said, "Here it is!'' the original Shell Factory in Bonita in 1952. Another former icon, the Orange Dome, a citrus stand that became a bar, was across the street.

A raccoon is among the animals featured at the Shell Factory's new Nature Park.

A raccoon is among the animals featured at the Shell Factory's new Nature Park.

There is a little bit of Christmas year-round at today's gift shop.

There is a little bit of Christmas year-round at today's gift shop.

There was no mistaking or ignoring the Shell Factory when it opened in North Fort Myers in 1954.

There was no mistaking or ignoring the Shell Factory when it opened in North Fort Myers in 1954.

One is the iconic Shell Factory — and Nature Park — in North Fort Myers on 18 acres on U.S. 41 four miles north of the Caloosahatchee River.

It's much more than a shell shop now.

This is some of the history, told with the help of Shell Factory management.

Enjoy.

— Jeff Lytle

Perspective editor

******

Since 1937 when Harold and Mildred Crant first began selling sea shells by the seashore in Bonita Springs until today, The Shell Factory has seen hundreds of changes and overcome nearly as many obstacles.

Fire destroyed the original Bonita site and in 1954 the attraction moved to its current home.

Then ... in 1960 Hurricane Donna destroyed the retail store, in 1981 the warehouse caught fire and in 1983 the opening of Interstate 75 took the constant flow of traffic far away from the roadside attraction landmark.

By 1997 the problems seemed insurmountable and one of the oldest tourist venues in Southwest Florida was about to become nothing more than a paragraph in history books and photos pasted in visitors' personal scrapbooks.

It was in foreclosure and bankruptcy — a badly declining tourist trap in a deteriorating building — until developer, banker, entrepreneur and philanthropist Thomas R. Cronin Sr., now 73, lended his vision, creativity and financial support.

He is still at the helm.

There was a total physical renovation — over 4,000 ceiling tiles, 200 gallons of paint, 34 air conditioners, the addition of 15,000 square feet to the burned warehouse, thousands of hours of planning and labor, and a lot of money.

The result: new life.

Now The Shell Factory boasts what Cronin calls of the world's largest collection — more than 5 million — of rare shells, sponges, coral, fossils and other sea life specimens.

There's more — including one of the country's largest collections of taxidermy animals, birds, fish and reptiles.

Both collections can be enjoyed by the public at no charge.

And, of course, there is lots of gift-shopping.

"With 60,000 square feet of retail space,'' Cronin says, "each visit is like a treasure hunt.''

That gives The Shell Factory another "largest'' claim — the largest independent gift store under one roof in the United States.

There is a post office for gift-shipping, a kitchen for fudge, jams, jellies, candies, pretzels and ice cream.

There is a Christmas store — the largest in Southwest Florida, of course.

Food services range from a Subway to an outdoor cafe and a full restaurant with seafood, steaks and drinks, with nightly entertainment in the Dolphin Room.

Outside there is a water park with bumper boats and water balloons, miniature golf and a nature park with over 300 animals, birds, reptiles and fish amid aviaries, a gator slough, ecological laboratory, petting farm, native plants and a rainforest trail.

Dogs are welcome everywhere but the nature park and have their own space that includes a swimming pool.

This is not The Shell Factory of the old days.

That is why its full name is The Shell Factory and Nature Park.

P.S.: The Shell Factory is very much a part of the future at one of the area's newest, largest and busiest venues — Southwest Florida International Airport.

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

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