Trio looks back on Historical Society’s beginnings

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Marion Nicolay, Betsy Perdichizzi, and T. J. Brown, three of the Marco Island Historical Society’s original founding members, recently reflected on the group’s start more than 20 years ago.

“It started out as a luncheon for people interested in playing bridge and dabbling in history,” said Nicolay, referring to the beginnings of the Historical Society. “But we turned it around and it became a historical group that gave an occasional bridge party.”

Nicolay, Perdichizzi and Brown reflected on what brought them together.

The luncheon’s guest speaker was Doug Waitley, author of the book “The Last Paradise – The Building of Marco Island.” He urged the audience to start recording Marco’s history before it was too late.

Eventually, the serious bridge players dropped away, leaving a core group of amateur historians who set about to do just that.

“Our goal was to preserve our history, the history of the pioneers,” said Brown. “People were moving in, tearing things down. We realized we had to get together and save what we could.”

In May 1994, the Historical Society was organized as a chapter of the Collier County Historical Society. A few months later, the chapter had its own constitution, bylaws, officers, and more than 60 members.

Independence from the Naples group occurred in 1996.

First challenge

And none too soon, as the group’s first significant challenge came the following year, when an archaeological dig was started almost 100 years after the Frank Hamilton Cushing expedition in 1896. During that original dig, more than 2,500 Calusa artifacts were found, including the Key Marco Cat.

Quentin Quesnell, a professor of humanities at Smith College and member of the society, is largely credited with recognizing the potential dig site in a sewer excavation, while taking a walk along Bald Eagle Drive, a stone’s throw from Cushing’s earlier success. He saw what looked like the edge of a shell mound, realized its significance, and alerted the appropriate authorities.

Especially troubling to him was a sign advertising the area as the site of a future condo, which would end any possibility of recovering artifacts.

The fledgling society, along with the Southwest Florida Archaeologic Society, mounted a campaign to stop the sewer construction and were successful in convincing the property’s owner to wait a year before starting to build.

Few of the society’s members had experience with archaeological basics – much less running a dig.

“It was a laborious task,” said Brown. “The project snowballed and we assigned jobs to everyone.”

Perdichizzi was asked to get a dumpy level.

“I didn’t even know what a dumpy level was,” said Perdichizzi.

Fortunately, Marco architect Herb Savage just happened to have one of the surveying devices.

Help showed up

The Marco Island Area Chamber of Commerce supplied the fencing; the Boy Scouts provided a canopy. Another islander donated the backhoe and its operator. Others set about obtaining permits and insurance; soliciting donations; finding a team of archeologists; building the sifting trays; rounding up volunteers to man, as well as dig the site, and getting tables, chairs, water and other supplies.

“The community really embraced the cause and rose up to support us,” said Nicolay. “We ended up spending $1,700 for a dig that would normally have been $260,000.”

To help cover costs, a T-shirt with “I Dig Marco” printed on the back was sold on site. Nicolay likes to tell the story of the disgruntled tourist who confronted her when she was wearing the shirt and asked if she had something to do with the condition of the streets.

When the dig team got down several feet, they uncovered floors or streets of giant whelks laid head to toe at different levels, in different directions. Nicolay likened it to the seven cities of Troy.

“I wasn’t allowed to dig because they thought I would fall in the trenches,” said Nicolay, who has been legally blind for the past 20 years. “But after everyone else had gone home, I could look down at all these levels once occupied by different families or tribes. It was the eeriest feeling.”

Now on display

Many of the artifacts recovered from that dig – a graduated necklace of shells, pieces of pottery, net weights and gauges, shell tools and more – are on display at the Marco Island Historical Museum or in storage.

In 1995, the Key Marco Cat made its appearance back on Marco Island, the first of two such visits. On its second visit in 2000, the Cat was on display at the Citizens Community Bank on Marco.

Perdichizzi and her husband, Bill, went to see the Cat and other Cushing artifacts at a Smithsonian warehouse in Maryland.

“They [the Smithsonian] sent me a catalog of items and I marked off what I wanted to see,” said Perdichizzi. “When they brought out the Cat, we were able to hold and photograph it.”

Could the Cat be loaned to the Collier County Museum? Sure.

Everything in the warehouse is available for loan after the proper procedures are taken and the Smithsonian is convinced a priceless artifact can be safely displayed. It would be a first, however, as the Cat had rarely been seen in a Smithsonian exhibit and had never been loaned out.

Nicolay bet Ron Jamro, director of the Collier County Museum, a $100 bill that the Historical Society would get the Cat. Jamro was initially skeptical.

“He has yet to pay up ... plus, he really owes me another $100 for the Cat’s return visit ... I remind him of that every time I see him,” she said.

Refurbished

The Naples Museum had to be refurbished before the Smithsonian gave its approval. A temperature and humidity controlled case—a printout transmitted to the Smithsonian weekly—had to be constructed, as well as a room without windows to control light. A grant covered these expenses but others, like the cost of insurance, were also incurred.

Once again, the Historical Society went into overdrive, soliciting donations with the catchphrase “Bring the Cat Home,” holding fundraisers, selling Cat keepsakes, and recruiting a large number of volunteers to “babysit the Cat.”

Perdichizzi still laughs at the conversation she had with one woman, who in all seriousness refused to volunteer because “she was allergic.”

The Cat finally arrived at the Museum in December 1995, after hurricane season—chained to the arm of a Smithsonian courier—and went on display for six weeks. The exhibit attracted thousands of visitors.

Nicolay, Perdichizzi and Brown are still actively involved in a number of the society’s activities. They have all served on the board, and both Nicolay and Perdichizzi are members of the society’s group of re-enactors.

Nicolay and Brown are also docents at Marco’s Historical Museum. These three women have elevated their volunteerism to a whole new level.

More information

The Marco Island Historical Museum is at 180 S. Heathwood Drive, phone 642-1440 or 389-6447, or go to the mihs.org.

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