History reexamined: Museum curator Austin Bell explores Marco's past in new book

Lance Shearer

Austin J. Bell wrote the book on Marco Island – literally. Bell, the curator of collections at the Marco Island Historical Museum, is the author of “Marco Island,” a pictorial chronicle of Marco’s history, focusing on the Pioneer Era, which is being released on Oct. 9. The Marco Island Historical Society (MIHS) will hold a book signing reception on Oct. 18 in the museum’s gift shop.

Author and MIHS Curator of Collections Austin J. Bell with an advance copy of "Marco Island," the newest addition to the popular Images of America series by Arcadia Publishing.

The book is a literary counterpart to the museum itself, “sort of like the museum to go,” said Bell, covering much of the same material as exhibits in the historical museum’s exhibit galleries and heavy on images from the early days of Marco Island’s western settlers.

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“Marco Island” explores the island’s history as sourced from the photographic collections of many sources in addition to those of MIHS, including the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, Collier County Museums and private collections. The Historical Society is listed as co-author, and their primary contribution was funding the acquisition of licensing rights to images from those outside sources, said MIHS executive director Pat Rutledge.

“The book was published in keeping with the MIHS mission to preserve the history and heritage of Marco Island,” said Bell. “It captures and presents the island’s fascinating history from the arrival of its intrepid early pioneer families in the 1870s to its dramatic transformation by modern day ‘settlers’ in the 1960s.”  

“Marco Island” is the newest in the “Images of America” series published by Arcadia Press, which thousands of titles each highlighting a different location, including two on Naples and one on the Everglades, said Bell.

Author and MIHS Curator of Collections Austin J. Bell with his wife Erin, and an advance copy of "Marco Island," the newest addition to the popular Images of America series by Arcadia Publishing.

“I’m excited and grateful for all those who helped put this together, particularly the pioneer families who shared their historical images with us,” he said. “Putting the book together was a lot of work, but it was intertwined with the research to create the museum exhibits.”

The book version allowed him to offer more detail and context than “The Pioneer Era: A Tale of Two Villages” exhibit at the museum, which also covers the rustic time of early Western settlers.

“We got to elaborate on the book, and present more depth,” with 221 images in the book, he said. Some of the images, including the tarpon fishing photograph on the cover, came from the Dimock collection at the American Museum of Natural History.

“Austin did a fabulous job. We are so proud of this book,” said Rutledge. “The Historical Society is here to capture and share (sort of like catch and release) our history, and we think this book does a beautiful job of that.”

The last two chapters cover Hurricane Donna in 1960, and the transition to modern Marco that commenced with Deltona’s real estate development. Hurricanes have been much on the mind of islanders recently, and Rutledge was happy to report the museum came through just fine.

“That’s important for the artifact acquisition we’re working on,” with the Marco Cat, among others, scheduled to return to the island by the end of next year. MIHS, said Rutledge, would be donating a portion of proceeds from the sale of “Marco Island” during the month of October at their gift shop to hurricane relief. The book is also available on Amazon and Google Books, as well as local retailers.

Austin Bell was honored in June as the Marco Island Foundation for the Arts 2017 Artist of the Year, despite protesting he does not think of himself as an artist. He married his girlfriend Erin Wolf in May, with a ceremony at the historic Church of God and a reception at Bistro Soleil at the Olde Marco Inn, about as island history-rich as you could imagine.

Bell said he has a couple of books gestating, including a modern counterpart to “Marco Island,” and is concentrating his efforts at the museum to readying it to receive the Smithsonian artifacts, as that institution will not permit any major construction at the Marco Island Historical Museum once the cat and others are in residence.