Old Punta Rassa

Passing through Punta Rassa on the way to or from Sanibel Island on Florida’s Gulf coast, you just don’t see many cows these days. It’s mostly condos, marinas, and businesses. That’s a big leap from how things used to be, as anyone familiar with the history of Florida’s cattle industry can tell you. For a good portion of the 19th century, Punta Rassa was a favored port for shipping cattle to Cuba.

Excerpt of an 1882 Rand McNally map of Florida showing Punta Rassa and Fort Dulany (Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

Excerpt of an 1882 Rand McNally map of Florida showing Punta Rassa and Fort Dulany (Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

The port had already been an important spot for some time before Florida cattlemen began using it as a trading center. A U.S. Navy schooner reported in the 1820s that a group of Spaniards and Native Americans were using the area as a fishery. The U.S. Army established a supply depot (Fort Dulany) in the vicinity during the Second Seminole War. It wasn’t until the 1850s that the cattle shipping business began to really take hold.

One of Florida’s most famous cattlemen, Jacob Summerlin, helped establish Punta Rassa as a port. He and his brother Clarence came to the area in 1858 and began shipping cattle to Cuba. When the American Civil War struck shortly thereafter, the U.S. Army reactivated Fort Dulany and used the port to ship cattle down to Union-controlled Key West. Not long after the war ended, the port and Army barracks passed into the hands of the International Ocean and Telegraph Company, which extended an underwater telegraph cable from Punta Rassa to Havana, Cuba, 110 miles away.

Jacob Summerlin, sometimes referred to as the

Jacob Summerlin, sometimes referred to as the “king of the Crackers” (circa 1870s).

Throughout this period, cattlemen from all over Central and South Florida would drive their cows to Punta Rassa to be sold. The telegraph company, the Summerlins, and later the Hendry family owned pens where cattle could be kept during price negotiations (for a fee, of course), and the port featured a number of places for the cattlemen to buy supplies, tools, and other goods not widely available in the interior of the state.

Range cattle in pens at Punta Rassa (circa 1900s).

Range cattle in pens at Punta Rassa (circa 1900s).

Punta Rassa could get a little wild when there were lots of cowhands about. The cattlemen were generally paid for their cows in gold coins, and the hands typically received their cut while still in town. Contemporaries recalled that some of this money often went toward having a good time drinking Cuban rum and playing poker. Longtime resident C.T. Tooke didn’t recall fights being all too common, but he did remember that the younger men liked to shoot when they got a bit “liquored up.” The walls and floors of the old barracks were riddled with bullet holes, he explained.

The barracks seen here were originally built by the United States Army during the Second Seminole War. Over time the building was expanded to accommodate a cable station and an increasing number of weary cattle drivers (circa 1890s).

The barracks seen here were originally built by the United States Army during the Second Seminole War. Over time the building was expanded to accommodate a cable station and an increasing number of weary cattle drivers (circa 1890s).

Toward the end of the 19th century, Punta Rassa began to transform yet again. Florida’s cattle trade was still significant, but competition from Texas and Central America was taking its toll on demand. Meanwhile, another group had discovered Punta Rassa and the surrounding area: wealthy sport fishermen.

In 1885, New York sportsman W.H. Wood reputedly caught the first tarpon ever to be landed using a rod and reel. Chain lines and harpoons had previously been the favored methods for catching these large fish. As Wood’s catch became famous through sports pages across the country, sport fishermen began flocking to Punta Rassa to try their hand at fishing for tarpon, Spanish mackerel, and kingfish. The Summerlins, Shultzes, and other families that had previously catered mostly to Florida’s Cracker cattlemen, now turned their attention toward building inns and other amenities to serve these new customers.

Punta Rassa Hotel (1913).

Punta Rassa Hotel (1913).

The port’s good fortune began to wane in the early years of the 20th century. In 1906, the Tarpon House, one of the elite lodges for sport fishermen, was destroyed by fire. Some of the hotel’s regular guests chipped in and helped finance the rebuilding, but the new structure burned in 1913. It was never rebuilt. Punta Rassa never quite came back from these losses, at least as a major business center. These days, most folks know it to be nothing more than a quaint section of roadway linking Sanibel Island with the greater Fort Myers area.

For more on Punta Rassa and its ties to Florida’s cattle industry, we recommend these books:

Joe Akerman, Florida Cowman: A History of Florida Cattle Raising. 6th ed. Madison: Jimbob Printing, 1989.

Prudy Taylor Board, Remembering Lee County: Where Winter Spends the Summer. Charleston: History Press, 2006.

A Grand Florida Friendship

Florida has a peculiar way of bringing people together. Families come here for vacations, businesses come to set up shop, and sometimes Florida is even the setting for reunions between friends both new and old. One of the most iconic examples of this is the friendship between inventors Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. The two men came from different generations and lived in different places, but they spent many a winter living next door to one another in sunny Fort Myers of Florida’s Gulf coast.

Henry Ford (left) and Thomas Edison (right) sitting on a pier at Punta Rassa (1925).

Henry Ford (left) and Thomas Edison (right) sitting on a pier at Punta Rassa (1925).

Ford and Edison met for the first time in 1886 at the annual convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies in New York City. At a banquet held at the Oriental Hotel on Long Island, someone pointed the young Henry Ford out to Edison and explained that Ford had developed a gasoline engine. Edison immediately began asking Ford questions about the design. As the young man described his creation, Edison excitedly banged his fist on the table and exclaimed that Ford had the right idea. Steam and electric cars (at that time) had too many insurmountable drawbacks, but gasoline-powered engines could make the automobile a feasible sell for the average consumer. Ford later explained that up to that time no one had given him any encouragement. To hear this enthusiastic approval from one of the world’s greatest inventors was invaluable.

Edison was first attracted to Florida a year before this chance meeting with Ford. While vacationing at St. Augustine, he was encouraged to visit the southwestern portion of the state, which at that time was generally reached by traveling to Cedar Key by rail, and then to Punta Rassa by steamer. Edison made the journey, with some difficulty, and was delighted with the area. Even better, he learned that giant bamboo grew naturally around Fort Myers. Edison had been using bamboo filaments for his early incandescent bulbs, but so far only fibers from specific Japanese bamboo species had been good enough to use. Perhaps the bamboo around Fort Myers, which was originally introduced to Florida from Japan, would make a good substitute. In a matter of days, Edison made the decision to buy up land in the area and set up a home and laboratory.

Man stands in front of giant bamboo plant (circa 1890s).

Man stands in front of giant bamboo plant (circa 1890s).

Meanwhile, Edison maintained his friendship with Henry Ford. In 1913, the Fords and Thomas Edison spent a vacation at the home of naturalist John Burroughs. The group had such a wonderful time that Edison decided to invite the Fords and Burroughs down to Fort Myers. The arrival of this party was a grand event for the small, sleepy town, as you might imagine. Every single automobile owner in town (all 31 of them) escorted the visitors to Edison’s winter home.

Pictured (L to R) are Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Henry Ford in Fort Myers (1913).

Pictured (left to right) are Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Henry Ford in Fort Myers (1913).

Henry Ford enjoyed himself so much at Fort Myers that he decided to purchase a winter home there as well. In 1916, the property adjoining the Edison home came up for sale, and he purchased it for $20,000. Ford called this property “the Mangoes” after all of the mango trees growing there. These had been brought from Key West by Dr. William Hanson in the 1880s.

Henry Ford's winter home, called

Henry Ford’s winter home, called “The Mangoes” (1991).

The Fords and the Edisons began enjoying most of their winters together at Fort Myers. They spent their days exploring the barrier islands, including Sanibel, Captiva, and Pine islands, camping in the Everglades or along the Caloosahatchee River, and even square dancing on the pier to phonographic records. The two inventors also spent time doing what inventors do best – tinkering. Improving America’s source of natural rubber was one joint project – Ford experimented with planting rubber trees on his property, while Edison attempted to make rubber from goldenrod plants.

Thomas Edison's laboratory at his home in Fort Myers (circa 1950s).

Thomas Edison’s laboratory at his home in Fort Myers (circa 1950s).

Thomas Edison died in 1931, and Henry Ford’s trips to Florida became less frequent. The legacy of the friendship these two men shared has, however, been enshrined by historians and preservationists. The Edison and Ford homes are now open to the public as museums, including Edison’s laboratory and gardens. One popular feature is Edison’s vast collection of phonographs, pictured below.

Visitors to the Ford-Edison Museum view Thomas Edison's vast collection of phonographs (1966).

Visitors to the Ford-Edison Museum view Thomas Edison’s vast collection of phonographs (1966).

How has Florida helped bring people together in your own life or community? Share with us by leaving a comment below or by posting this blog to Facebook!

The Honeymooners

The peaceful solitude of Sanibel Island is ideal for a honeymoon. Follow the adventures of honeymooners Lyn and Jim Agramonte, as photographed by the Florida Department of Commerce in January 1957.

Picnic on the beach

Picnic on the beach

Visit to an abandoned house

Visit to an abandoned house

Jim, who was born in London, shows Lyn the art of exploring abandoned seaman’s homes – he explored abandoned houses in England when a boy.

Visit to the Sanibel Island Lighthouse

Visit to the Sanibel Island Lighthouse

Bidding farewell to Sanibel Island

Bidding farewell to Sanibel Island