How Collier County Got Its Name

Several Florida counties bear the names of great leaders in state or national politics, such as Jefferson, Washington, Pasco, and Duval counties. Others are named for fallen soldiers, such as Bradford and (Miami-)Dade counties. Barron Gift Collier, for whom Collier County in Southwest Florida is named, was neither a war hero nor a great statesman. He did, however, have an inspiring vision for Florida’s southern Gulf coast, which he worked to make into a reality.

Barron Gift Collier (1873-1939), for whom Collier County is named (photo circa 1920s).

Barron Gift Collier (1873-1939), for whom Collier County is named (photo circa 1920s).

Barron Gift Collier was born March 23, 1873 in Memphis, Tennessee. He quit school at the age of 16 to go to work, and in ten years’ time had made his first million. Advertising was Collier’s specialty. He started out convincing freight shippers to use the Illinois Central Railroad between Chicago and New Orleans. Before long, he had moved on to producing advertisements for the interior and exterior of streetcars. He made his money by obtaining franchises from the streetcar companies to do all of their advertising. At the zenith of his career, Barron Collier had 70 offices in cities across the United States managing these franchises.

It was one of these deals that helped introduce Collier to South Florida. After the advertising mogul signed a new contract with a streetcar company president in Chicago named John Roach, Roach invited Collier down to Florida to visit his vacation home on Useppa Island. Collier was instantly smitten with the island, and ended up buying it from John Roach for $100,000 in 1911. Roach had developed a tarpon fishing resort on the island called the Useppa Inn; Collier expanded the facilities and made the inn into the anchor point of a new chain of luxury resorts on Florida’s Gulf coast.

Useppa Inn on Useppa Island off the coast of present-day Collier County. The inn was developed originally by John M. Roach of Chicago, and later bought by Barron G. Collier (photo circa 1910).

Useppa Inn on Useppa Island off the coast of present-day Lee County. The inn was developed originally by John M. Roach of Chicago, and later bought by Barron G. Collier (photo circa 1910).

Collier envisioned much more than coastal luxury for Southwest Florida. He began buying up the holdings of several large land companies, and by 1924 he owned more than a million acres. He turned his attention to the Tamiami Trail, which had been under construction for several years by 1922 when the State of Florida ran out of funds to finish the section crossing the Everglades. Collier offered to finance the road’s completion, so long as the State Legislature would move forward with plans to divide the vast territory of Lee County and create a new county for the Naples area. The Legislature complied, and named the new county Collier in honor of Barron Collier’s contributions to the development of the region.

Workers busy constructing a section of the Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami across the Everglades. Pictured in the background is a

Workers busy constructing a section of the Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami across the Everglades. Pictured in the background is a “walking dredge” used to lift limestone fill onto the roadbed. This dredge is now on display at Collier-Seminole State Park (photo circa 1920s).

When the Great Depression arrived, Barron Collier’s fortunes took a dive like so many others, although he still believed in the growth potential of Southwest Florida. In the 1930s, Collier struck oil at Sunniland, 12 miles south of Immokalee. In a few years Sunniland and neighboring oil fields were producing millions of barrels of oil annually.

Experts inspect oil well #1 at Sunniland near Immokalee (1943).

Experts inspect oil well #1 at Sunniland near Immokalee (1943).

Barron Collier died in New York in 1939 following an illness. His legacy in Southwest Florida is captured in the stretch of Tamiami Trail (now U.S. 41) that still uses the same path to cross the Everglades, as well as in the many developments he initiated in Naples and other nearby communities.

This is just one of many local Florida stories extracted from the collections of the State Library & Archives of Florida. If you’re interested in local history, consider searching our catalogs for relevant information, and then plan a visit! Go to info.florida.gov to learn more.

The City of Destiny

If you’ve ever looked at a map of Charlotte County in print or online, you’ve probably noticed something a little unusual on the northeast bank of the Myakka River near Port Charlotte. State Road 776, which crosses the Myakka River at that location, appears to run right through a series of concentric hexagons, with a circle at the middle. At first glance, it might appear to simply be a creatively designed neighborhood development. When this area was first laid out in the 1920s, however, its developers had much bigger, even utopian visions in mind.

Map showing parts of Charlotte County, including the location of El Jobe-An, indicated with a purple arrow (2014).

Map showing parts of Charlotte County, including the location of El Jobe-An, indicated with a purple arrow (2014).

Map showing El Jobe-An and the surrounding area (1990).

Map showing El Jobe-An and the surrounding area (1990).

This is El Jobe-An, once billed as the “City of Destiny” by the Boston and Florida Realty Trust, a group of investors who planned to turn the land in between the forks of the Myakka into “a cosmopolitan world port city of the first rank.” This ambitious vision might seem a bit over the top, but you must keep in mind that this was the 1920s, the era of the Florida Boom. Too often we think of the land boom as being something that happened only around Miami and Palm Beach, when in reality Florida real estate was being sold and developed all over the entire state.

El Jobe-An’s founders were caught up in this wave of real estate enthusiasm. Joel Bean, trustee of the Boston and Florida Realty Trust, acquired the property in 1923 when it was foreclosed upon. The land had previously belonged to a turpentine operation, during which time it was called “Southland.” Bean named his new possession by rearranging the letters of his own name, so that JOEL BEAN became EL JOBE-AN. These days, most folks just spell it “El Jobean.”

Plan of the El Jobe-An community, included in a promotional pamphlet (crica 1923).

Plan of the El Jobe-An community, included in a promotional brochure (circa 1923).

Cover of a promotional brochure on El Jobe-An (circa 1923).

Cover of a promotional brochure on El Jobe-An, part of the Florida Collection at the State Library of Florida (circa 1923).

Southland had already been platted out as a town, but Bean had the old plat invalidated in favor of his new plan, which featured the unique series of interlocking hexagonal wards. There were six such wards in the original plan. Each had its own civic center bordering on a circular plaza surrounded by a 100-foot boulevard from which additional roads radiated, so as to connect the plaza with the rest of the ward and the neighboring wards. The lots fronting the civic center in the middle of each ward would be for business; the remaining lots would be for residential purposes.

Bean planned for both public and private buildings in the new community to be built as much as possible in the “attractive Spanish type of architecture.” This policy and Bean’s choice of name for the place demonstrate his desire to tap into the exoticism that pervaded many real estate developments during this period.

 

El Jobe-An’s investors rested their hopes on the community’s proximity to excellent South Florida farmland. An early promotional brochure noted that the territory between the Gulf Coast and Lake Okeechobee was some of the best in the nation for growing profitable food crops. Moreover, the land north of the planned community had been set aside for farming operations. El Jobe-An was located near the Tamiami Trail, the Seaboard Air Line railroad, and an outlet to the Gulf of Mexico. The promoters were certain this was going to be the next major Florida port.

Developers looking out over the Myakka River, with plans in hand (from a promotional pamphlet, circa 1920s).

Developers looking out over the Myakka River, with plans in hand (from a promotional pamphlet, circa 1920s).

El Jobe-An never became Florida’s next great port, but it did become a busy community. El Jobe-An Farms produced bell peppers, lettuce, and celery, which were shipped north for distribution. A number of northerners purchased lots in the new community. Mrs. Elizabeth Adams, owner of the Adams chewing gum and chiclet empire, was perhaps the most famous among them. Bean also opened the El Jobe-An Hotel, which offered lodging to visitors considering buying a lot or just looking to escape the winter cold.

The decline of the Florida Boom and the arrival of the Great Depression put a damper on construction at El Jobe-An. Commercial fishing and farming became the primary sources of income, although the hotel did a little business now and then. When RKO Pictures began shooting the film Prestige (starring Ann Harding and Adolphe Menjou) nearby at Warm Mineral Springs, El Jobe-An and the hotel were so full of people the restaurant kitchens and fishing guides could barely keep up.

Joel Bean eventually retired from guiding his investment, and El Jobe-An grew into a more traditional Florida coastal community. A few relics of the original public buildings and fishing lodges appear to still be around, as photos surface from time to time online. The striking pattern of the street grid in El Jobe-An is perhaps the best reminder we have now of Joel Bean’s higher vision, yet another seldom-told story of Florida’s peculiar past.

The State Archives of Florida does not currently hold any photos of buildings or people at El Jobe-An. If you or someone you know has photos and would be interested in donating them to the Archives for preservation, we would be honored to use those images to help promote the study of Florida’s unique history. Contact us for details.

Ochopee, Home of the Nation’s Smallest Post Office

Florida’s unique history owes some of its splendor to great people and great visions. In many cases, however, the most interesting tidbits have happened when no one was expecting it. That’s certainly the case with Ochopee, home of the smallest post office building in Florida, and most likely the smallest in the United States. The people of Ochopee hadn’t planned to have such a cramped space for handling mail. If it hadn’t been for a serious tragedy, the tiny settlement might never have had such a distinction.

Map of Southwest Florida showing Ochopee and the nearby Gulf Coast. Naples is located northwest of Ochopee along U.S. 41 (1953 map - Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

Map of Southwest Florida showing Ochopee and the nearby Gulf Coast. Naples is located northwest of Ochopee along U.S. 41 (1953 highway map – Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

Ochopee got its start in 1928 when the James T. Gaunt family purchased a few hundred acres in Collier County on either side of what was to become the Tamiami Trail. The Gaunts were farmers, and they intended to set up a major tomato-growing operation. Farming on the edge of the Everglades was no easy task, of course. The family and their workers lived in surplus Army tents when they first arrived, which made the heat and mosquitoes a daily torture.

A view of the terrain near Ochopee, mostly marshes with a few heads of palmetto (1942).

A view of the terrain near Ochopee, mostly marshes with a few heads of palmetto (1942).

In the first year, the Gaunts and their business partners wrestled a real settlement out of the muck. They hired a large workforce to tend and harvest their tomatoes, mostly African-Americans from Miami and Georgia, with a few local Seminole families as well. The Seminoles lived in their own chickees near the company property, while the African-Americans typically lived in houses on the site. One of the workers’ quarters was called “Boardwalk” because for much of the year the only way to get between the houses was by boardwalk. Wages ranged between $1.00 and $2.50 per day, plus free utilities and health insurance.

Seminole workers in the tomato fields of the J.T. Gaunt Company - Ochopee (circa 1930s).

Seminole workers in the tomato fields of the J.T. Gaunt Company – Ochopee (circa 1930s).

By 1932, the Gaunt Company had a substantial village to serve their tomato farm, but it didn’t have a name. That year, the family decided to establish a post office, but they wanted something a little more special than “Gaunt” or “Gaunt Farms” for a name. According to one of the family members, Someone asked Charley Tommie, a local Seminole, what the native word for “farm” was. Charley replied “O-chopp-ee,” and the Gaunts decided that would be the name of their growing settlement. The post office was established in August of that year, and postal business was carried out in a corner of the company store.

One night in 1953, a fire broke out in the boarding house at Ochopee. It spread quickly to other buildings, and with the nearest fire department being miles away at Everglades City, residents were forced to fight the blaze with buckets of water from a nearby canal. Postmaster Sidney Brown was able to get his records out of the general store, but when the flames were finally extinguished, the building was a total loss. The next day, when the mail arrived, Postmaster Brown needed someplace to conduct business. A member of the Gaunt family pointed out a nearby shed used to store irrigation pipes and hoses, and with that the nation’s smallest post office building was adopted. Gaunt Company workers moved the building to a more convenient location, installed a counter and work space, and it was ready for service.

Ochopee Post Office (circa 1940s).

Ochopee Post Office (circa 1940s).

Since then, the Ochopee post office has been as much a tourist attraction as it has a place of business. The Florida Photographic Collection contains a number of photos of the building from various angles and at different times. Some visitors assumed the locals built the post office that size originally as a novelty, but Ochopee residents knew better. Their post office, like so many curiosities in Florida’s past, was an accident of history.

Postmaster Sidney H. Brown in front of the Ochopee Post Office. Brown managed to save the records of the post office from the fire that destroyed this building's predecessor in 1953 (photo circa 1960s).

Postmaster Sidney H. Brown in front of the Ochopee Post Office. Brown managed to save the records of the post office from the fire that destroyed this building’s predecessor in 1953 (photo circa 1960s).

Does a landmark in your community have a story like that of the Ochopee post office? Tell us about it by leaving a comment or sharing on our Facebook page!

 

Allen H. Andrews, Trailblazer

The cross-peninsular stretch of the Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami officially opened on April 25, 1928. Area residents welcomed the road and predicted a boost to the local economy from the increased traffic. Perfectly positioned to profit from the road were the Koreshans, whose property ran adjacent to the Tamiami Trail as it passed through the small, rural community of Estero, Florida.

Koreshan service station on the Tamiami Trail, late 1920s

Koreshan service station on the Tamiami Trail, late 1920s

Allen H. Andrews, a member of the Koreshan Unity, wrote about his experience during the “blazing” stage of the Tamiami Trail. Andrews was among the group known as the “Trailblazers” who completed the first successful motorcade crossing of the route that later became the Tamiami Trail.

Tamiami Trailblazers, April 1923

On April 4, 1923, the Trailblazers set out from Fort Myers towards Miami across the vastness of South Florida. The motorcade consisted of ten vehicles and 28 men, including two Seminole guides. Andrews described this place as a land where “[l]aw and order are practically unknown,” home only to the Seminoles and assorted moonshiners, bootleggers, and other outlaws. Read more »

Tamiami Trail, A.K.A. U.S. 41 (Officially Opened April 25, 1928)

Before the completion of the Tamiami Trail (U.S 41), few travelers successfully navigated the 108 miles between Miami and Naples. Wetlands, mosquitos, alligators and cypress swamps made travel across southern Florida difficult at best.

Advertisement for real estate on the Tamiami Trail (1924)

Advertisement for real estate on the Tamiami Trail (1924)

Until the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the interior of the Florida peninsula south of Lake Okeechobee was largely unknown, except to the Seminoles themselves. Through repeated attempts to expel the Seminoles from Florida in the 19th century, the United States government slowly learned about the region known today as the Everglades. Greater knowledge of the vast swampland hatched various schemes to exploit its resources.

Boosters envisioned agricultural enterprises converting wetlands into farms producing sugarcane, livestock and copious vegetables—enough to feed the frozen north in winter. Massive drainage efforts in order to “reclaim” the rich Everglades soil began in the early 20th century.

Surveyors on the highest spot in the road (1920s)

Surveyors on the highest spot in the road (1920s)

Roads suitable for cars followed closely behind drainage infrastructure. On April 25, 1928, the Tamiami Trail opened to travelers. Construction on the east-west section of the road lasted for 12 years. Once completed, cars could travel east from Naples to Miami for the first time.

Nellie Tommie and her son in the Tamiami Canal (1956)

Nellie Tommie and her son in the Tamiami Canal (1956)

The southernmost Seminoles, known today as the Miccosukee, took up residence alongside the Tamiami Trail in the 1920s. Many Miccosukee Seminoles worked on the construction of the road and enjoyed greater access to Miami after its completion. The Miccosukee living on the Tamiami Trail built businesses specializing in crafts and animal demonstrations and led hunting expeditions into the Everglades.

Tamiami Trail blazers (1923)

Tamiami Trail blazers (1923)