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9 Oct 2018
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Sanibel History

This wonderful place we call paradise has been here for centuries.

Sure Sanibel looked different than it does now, but it was home to a few other folks before it was “settled” in the 1800’s. The Calusa Indians (Calusa means “fierce people”) were the first documented inhabitants of the Island and their influence can be found all over Southwest Florida, including the Mound Key Historic Site near Fort Myers Beach and the community of Pineland on Pine Island. The Calusa that survived diseases such as yellow fever and measles carried by the European settlers eventually left the area for Cuba and other points south. The tribe ceased to exist by the late 1700’s. Legend says that Sanibel and its surrounding islands then became a haven for pirates, most notably Jose Gaspar. Who knows what pirate bounty is buried beneath our shell-strewn beaches.

The island was not “officially” settled until the 1870’s but, as early as 1833, pioneer settlers were on Sanibel. They petitioned the U.S. Government to build a lighthouse at Point Ybel, known today as Old Town on the East end of the island. The Lighthouse wouldn’t be built until after the Civil War. The decades in between the Seminole Indians make their home on and around the island; keeping fisherman and would-be settlers from putting down roots. In 1870, Sanibel Island was deemed a lighthouse reservation by the federal government. In 1884, the Sanibel Lighthouse began to light the way for ships sailing the Gulf of Mexico. It has remained in continuous operation since then and still provides direction for maritime travelers around the island.

A little later in history:

Imagine driving along Sanibel-Captiva Road or East Gulf Drive and seeing acre upon acre of citrus groves and fields of tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, watermelons and radishes. You wouldn’t know it by driving around the island today, but Sanibel was a thriving farm community in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The fertile soil and lure of living on an island “paradise” was quite appealing to many people. Many of the island’s pioneer families were farmers who became quite successful in their endeavors. Homes were built from lumber milled from native trees and even from palmetto fronds. Several of these historic structures are still standing today at the Sanibel Historical Museum.

One of Sanibel’s most notable families, the Bailey’s, arrived in the mid-1890s. Harry, Frank and Ernest Bailey began farming soon after they settled on the Island with their mother. They started the Sanibel Packing House in 1899 where they packed and loaded island produce onto steamboats bound for other parts of the country and points beyond. The packing house became Bailey’s General Store and it is still in operation today, located at the corner of Periwinkle Way and Tarpon Bay Road.

As people settled on Sanibel to farm, other entrepreneurial spirits saw the island as a mecca for travelers who longed to escape the harsh winters of the Northeast. Several lodging establishments were built to cater to visitors who arrived by ferry to enjoy the warm temperatures and clear blue Gulf waters.

The Matthews, now the Island Inn, opened in 1895 and is the oldest continually operating hotel on the Island. They celebrated their centennial in 1995. Other early lodging establishments include the Tarpon House, Palm Lodge, Reed’s Landing and The Sisters, which is known today as Casa Ybel Resort.

The hurricane of 1926 flooded the island with tons of saltwater, putting an end to the agriculture industry. Farmers turned to other professions including inn keeping, commercial fishing, building trades and charter boat services as they began a new era on Sanibel.

As the popularity of wintering on Sanibel grew, condominiums were built for "snowbirds" and vacation rental agencies like Sanibel Holiday were born, providing travelers an "all-inclusive" way to find the perfect accommodation to meet their needs.