Herstory: Marco’s past told through historical women

Lance Shearer

History has a great future on Marco Island, judging by the crowd that turned out Tuesday evening.

The Marco Island Historical Society’s “History Comes Alive with Marco Island Pioneers” presentation packed the Rose History Auditorium at the historical museum, with volunteers including Ron Rutledge busily pulling out more chairs to accommodate the sellout crowd of over 200.

The audience was there for what amounted to a history lesson, presented by four women in period costumes. It wasn’t ancient history, as the premise was the four were meeting and interacting just after the day in 1947 when President Harry Truman dedicated the new Everglades National Park.

Cindi Kramer as Molly Hamilton, left, with Betsy Perdichizzi and Marion Nicolay. The Marco Island Historical Society presented "History Comes Alive with Marco Island Pioneers," Tuesday evening at the Rose History Auditorium.

The ladies told their stories to each other, who would certainly have known them, and in doing so told the audience what life was like on Marco Island, from that day 70 years ago and back through the Great Depression to the early years of the 20th century.

In order of appearance, the cast included Cindi Kramer as Molly Hamilton, the mail-order bride who came to the area in 1917, Evelyn Case as Nurse Hazel Pettit Griffin, who was born in 1910 and arrived five years later on the island, Betsy Perdichizzi as Tommie Barfield, the “queen of Marco Island” and namesake of the elementary school, and Marion Nicolay as Deaconess Harriet Bedell, born in 1875, who ministered to Native Americans in Alaska and Oklahoma before coming to South Florida.

The evening was set in Hamilton’s boarding house, with simple props including old chairs and a washtub. There was also a straw basket, which served to obscure that Nurse Griffin’s right foot wore a modern sneaker rather than a period shoe. For clarity and convenience, each lady is referred to by the historical character’s name, not the portrayer’s.

Hamilton, barefoot, took the stage alone to begin the presentation, telling her story of coming from Georgia to meet a prospective husband sight unseen, opening a laundry and a general store, and then a house used as a hotel for island workers – “and that house had indoor plumbing,” she bragged, also claiming, “I make the best banana cream pie on the island.”

Then who should show up but Nurse Hazel, intent on tracking down children including Molly’s to inoculate them against the diphtheria epidemic plaguing the island. The nurse told stories of her youth, and her family.

“My daddy built the road into Goodland Point, with a wheelbarrow and a shovel,” she said. “My mom and dad invented the salt tablet” to serve as birth control. “At the proper time, you insert it in the proper place, and – no more children.” She also took credit for the invention of clam chowder, but then cast doubts on all of it with her story the little boy caught lying by his mother, who “started spanking him till his pants caught on fire. I had to put liniment on his bum.” Presumably, the origin of the “liar, liar, pants on fire” saying, unless she was pulling our legs.

Deaconess Bedell had just come from the park dedication ceremony, where she delivered the invocation. President Truman, she allowed, was “a pretty nice man – for a Baptist.” Bedell was Episcopalian, although her outfit said “nun” at a glance, and according to Wikipedia, is remembered on the calendar of saints “with a minor feast day on January 8,” one day before the MIHS presentation.

She spoke of adapting the 23rd Psalm to serve as the funeral message at a Seminole burial ceremony, and of jumping from a salary of $50 per year to a princely $100 a year when she attained full deaconess status. Bedell became involved with the Seminoles when she became incensed seeing them sell the chance to take their photograph for 25 cents along the Tamiami Trail.

“I said ‘that’s terrible – like animals in a zoo.” She paddled solo deep into the Everglades to reach more Native Americans, and became their champion in Congress, persuading the government to bar foreign manufacturers from mass-producing supposed Indian crafts and selling them as genuine local goods.

Evelyn Case, left, and Cindy Kramer catch up. The Marco Island Historical Society presented "History Comes Alive with Marco Island Pioneers," Tuesday evening at the Rose History Auditorium.

Tommie Barfield spoke last, batting cleanup as it were, in the role Perdichizzi has honed over 20-plus years of performing, and written several books on the subject. She has made a second career of transforming herself into Barfield, and her work inspired the creation of the Marco Island Historical Re-enactors in 1998.

“It took our family six years to come from Cordele, Georgia. It was 1901 when I got to Marco. I was 13 years old,” she said. “Mama had 14 children, but only seven survived. We lived in a chickee hut, and planted sweet potatoes.”

Tommie and her husband Jim Barfield worked to modernize Marco, after seeing the more technologically advanced Fort Myers, with churches and electric lights. Both of them served as postmaster on the island, and she initiated a car ferry before there were bridges. In 1927, she reported, “we sold 60,000 lbs. of honey.”

MIHS executive director Pat Rutledge conducted a brief bit of Historical Society business before the presentation. She promoted upcoming musical presentations, sort of “musical history,” as the shows will include tribute acts channeling performers including the Platters, Elton John and Tom Jones, the Bee Gees, and Frankie Valli.

Also in the “coming soon” category, the Key Marco Cat – Rutledge confirmed that before the end of the year, she expects to see the ancient wooden carving and additional pieces back on the island.

“To have these artifacts back on Marco Island is a dream come true,” she said. For more information on upcoming programs at Rose History Auditorium and the Marco Island Historical Museum, located at 180 South Heathwood Drive, call 239-389-6447.