Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Punta Gorda’s Zoo - Everglades Wildlife Park

From its earliest days as a destination, Florida promoters employed the myths and legends of Florida, such as the Fountain of Youth, to lure visitors to the state and its attractions.  After World War II this exploded with roadside attractions throughout the state.  Many of these involved wild animals – alligators, snakes, and other creatures.  Punta Gorda had its own such attraction – Everglades Wildlife Park which opened right outside the city limits (near where the Dunkin Donuts is today).

Owned by John R. Jack (who was also a county commissioner) and his wife Edna, the park was an immediate hit.   One of its major draws was a tank with manatees, one 1200 pound, 10 feet long.  Another was a deadly, bright red coral snack.  There was also a panther that pointed like a bird dog that Seminole Indian friends of Jack’s captured for the zoo. 

Elephants Little Sheba and Lulu outside the park 

 Controversies about the park arose when Jack, a former circus manager himself,  began to bring wintering circus animals to the park.  Swede Johnson, a famous animal circus trainer of the day who resided in Punta Gorda during the winter kept several of his animals at the zoo during the winter including elephants, lions and bears.  The park had been incorporated into the city by that time and an ordinance forbad such residence.  John Jack and later Edna ended up in jail for continuing to house them.  It was finally resolved after John Jack’s death.

( Photos from the Vernon Peeples collection are  a postcard from the park and newspaper clippings from the Fort Myers News-Press)

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Hector House -- The Birthplace of Punta Gorda

The Hector House:  Birthplace of Punta Gorda

Punta Gorda was incorporated in October 1887 in a modest two-story commercial building located at the corner of Taylor Road and Olympia Avenue, across from the old courthouse. The two-story “Hector House”, named after owner Tom Hector, was occupied at the time by a ground floor drug store and a billiard parlor on the second floor.

The 34 founders of the town, who included Mr. Hector and Albert W. Gilchrist (a future
Florida governor) were all registered voters. The group included four African American men.
However, the group did not include Isaac Trabue, who had bought the original acreage on which the town was located, and had named the town “Trabue” after his family. Due to personal and political disputes with a number of the men meeting to incorporate the town Trabue was not permitted to vote.  
The voting members changed the town's name to the original Spanish designation of Punta Gorda (“Fat Point”), drew up a town seal and minutes of the meeting, and recorded the results of the vote to incorporate. These documents were filed in the then-county seat of Pine Level, 30 miles from Punta Gorda, by 21 of the incorporating group who walked the whole distance that night.

Tom Hector was elected the first City Clerk of the new town and a member of the City
Council. He passed away two years later, in 1889 but the pool hall he owned served as the City Council's meeting chambers for many years. Over time the building's condition
deteriorated badly due to termites and rot. In 1988 the Punta Gorda Historical Society planned
to obtain Hector House from the developer who owned it. The developer was willing to donate
the building to anyone who would move it from the Taylor and Olympia site.

The Historical Society (at the time Old Punta Gorda, Inc.) planned to move the building to a new location on public land, renovate the structure and preserve it as a historical site. Although the developer remained willing and funds were raised for the renovation it proved impossible to find an architect or inspector willing to certify that the building would not collapse if it was moved. The structure was just too weak.

Ultimately, the Hector House was torn down. A city park at Olympia and Taylor with a plaque detailing the role of Hector House in the founding of Punta Gorda now marks the site of the building. 

.. Mark Surrusco

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The First Sacred Heart Church

On Sunday, January 5, 1930 while light streamed through its windows onto the altar and the violin solo of Harry Goldstein played, the first Sacred Heart Church sanctuary was dedicated. Largely funded by members of the Fort Myers Catholic Church through loans and donations including a prominent Catholic, Richmond Dean, who wintered in Fort Myers, the church was only 50 x 50 feet.

Bishop Barry of St. Augustine presided over the dedication with the assistance of other priests including Father Carroll who was the rector in Arcadia and also in charge of the new church in Punta Gorda.  

The small church served as the parish church until 1964 when it was replaced by a larger church, mostly destroyed in 2004 by Hurricane Charley.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Gilchrist Bridge

The Gilchrist Bridge was built over Charlotte Harbor Bay in 1976 and opened to southbound traffic on August 31 of that year.  In the aerial you can see the old Charlotte County Memorial auditorium to the right of the bridge being constructed with its parking lot right in the harbor next to the bridge. In the left,  you can see the first Holiday Inn built there in 1967 (now the PG Waterfront Hotel).  Further to the right past the old event center was the Howard Johnson.

The bridge was built to alleviate the congestion on the old Barron Collier bridge which at times could back up for hours. When the new bridge was built the Barron Collier bridge became northbound only.   That bridge was later replaced in 1983.

The bridge was named for Governor Albert W, Gilchrist, a pioneer Punta Gorda’s who became a governor of. Florida.  Albert W. Gilchrist was not the only name considered for the southbound bridge at the time of its construction. Also on the running were Juan Ponce de Leon was suggested as well as Phil Laishley, a former Punta Gorda mayor. "Bicentennial Bridge" was another suggested name due to the bridge opening in 1976.

The plan had been for dignitaries to parade across the bridge at 7 a.m. on August 31, but some locals anxious to be the first to cross removed the barricades and cars starting streaming across before dawn.
More on the history of Punta Gorda’s bridges.