In May, we honor and celebrate our mothers. For those of us who call Fort Myers our home, May is an appropriate time to remember the woman who justifiably might be called the mother of Fort Myers. Her name was Julia Allen Hanson.
Julia of London
Julia was born to George Allen, a renowned London architect, and Maria Day Allen in 1843. Like all young ladies of her social status, she was tutored at home through her fifteenth year, but then her aristocratic and presumably progressive-minded parents gave their daughter a college education, a privilege granted to few women at the time. Not only was Julia intelligent and accomplished, she was reputedly one of the “most beautiful titian-haired girls in all England” whose portrait was painted by Sir John Millais and Sir Edward Burne-Jones, the great, Victorian, pre-Raphaelite artists. Julia was a bright spirit, her brilliantly blue eyes sparkling to the end of her life with a lively sense of humor.
At the age of 26, Julia wed Dr. William Hanson, newly graduated from the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons in Edinburgh, Scotland. Ten years later, this well-born young couple, at ease in the society of the titled peerage and literary nobility of England, left Wales with their 2 young sons and, for some inscrutable reason, moved to Texas.
Out of Nowhere
They remained in Paris, Texas, only 3 years, and then sailed to Cuba, purportedly as a tonic for the doctor’s asthma, but Julia went into labor aboard ship, and they put into Key West for the delivery of their third son, William Stanley Hanson. Six months later, in 1884, they sailed north to the frontier, riverside town of Fort Myers and, with two boys clinging to her skirts and the baby slung on her hip, Julia walked into the town that would be her home for the rest of her life.
Out of nowhere, it seemed, a doctor had come to Fort Myers. Not only a doctor, but a surgeon out of one of the finest medical academies in the world. And with him, a woman whose arrival the ship’s captain should have announced with ringing bells and whistle blasts.
In 1884, Fort Myers was still rather raw. The river’s edge was apparently the town dump. The “town” consisted of two rows of wood-frame buildings straggling along either side of a littered, unpaved street. Julia saw a few houses with fenced gardens. Cows standing about. A pig loping flop-eared down a side street. Angry shouts erupted from a saloon on the main street and flies buzzed a basket of fruit in front of a sort of general mercantile displaying alligator and panther hides and a tortoise shell the side of a bathtub.
The place stank.
Julia Allen Hanson was a pedigreed English woman. It may be safe to assume, therefore, that her first impression of Fort Myers was that it could use a bit of tidying up.
A Proper Home
First, a proper, civilized town needs a proper church. Fort Myers had a Methodist church, but it needed an Anglican, or as the Americans called it, an Episcopal church. Accordingly, Julia organized an Episcopal women’s organization to raise funds for the construction of a proper English church. How they did it is still a bit of a puzzle, given the town’s fiscal conservatism, but they did it and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, not surprisingly the first of its kind in southwest Florida, was established in 1885.
To be a proper home, a town also requires pleasant and edifying social activities and some means of stimulating the intellect. To that end, within months of her arrival, Julia organized the Fort Myers Debating and Literary Society. At the very first meeting, she introduced for debate the delicate issue, “Are Women Intelligent Enough to Vote?” The U.S. Congress was still sitting on a women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution, so the lively discussion that ensued among the men and women in the Fort Myers debating society that night was a portent of things to come.
Like a mother who takes an unruly child in hand, scrubbing its dirty face, jerking on clean clothes, fitting respectable shoes to its bare feet, and taking it by the hand to Sunday School, Mrs. Julia Hanson continued to organize and civilize and stimulate drowsy Fort Myers, giving the ruffian town a Friday Musicale, a Needlework Guild and its first women’s club. Initially, the club met only to study current events and music.
Eight months after the club was formed, Julia became its president, and it was then, perhaps, that the club became more actively engaged in civic affairs. Under her leadership as its president for 29 years, the Fort Myers Women’s Club became one of the strongest progressive organizations in Fort Myers, advancing such civic improvements as keeping the cows corralled and the streets cleaned up, lining the streets with trees and benches, closing the saloons, creating a pretty little city park, and establishing Fort Myers’ first public library.
In her tidying up of Fort Myers, Mrs. Hanson did not overlook the city cemetery; she also formed the Cemetery Improvement Association.
Of course, her husband was doing his best to keep people out of the cemetery. For years, he was Fort Myers’ only doctor, but by the time his own grave was dug, Fort Myers had 3 more physicians and they were his pall bearers.
Dr. Hanson’s death, 10 days before Christmas in 1911, shocked Fort Myers. His obituary reads, in part:
“The manner of Dr. Hanson’s passing is so illustrative of the beautiful spirit of comradeship which existed between him and his wife that it is worthy of mention. During the day Mrs. Hanson had written some versus [sic] with the purpose in view of inspiring the citizens of Fort Myers to take some immediate action toward establishing a hospital to meet local needs. As was their custom Dr. and Mrs. Hanson were exchanging ideas on the subject manner and style of wording for the poem. When his heart began to fail he bowed his head silently. His heart beat stilled and his hand fell just as he finished the following lines:
Bring your nickels, bring your dollars,
Bring your bills and bring your checks.
The end came painlessly, and her husband’s long and useful career was closed almost before Mrs. Hanson had time to realize the blow which had fallen upon her.”
Six days after his father died, the Hanson’s ailing son, Newton, a former attorney and wounded veteran of the Spanish-American War, confined to a wheelchair and suffering from malaria, also died.
And yet, less than 2 weeks later, on January 2, 1912, a pale-faced Julia Hanson sat down in a meeting with the town’s leading citizens to discuss plans for building Fort Myers’ first hospital. Her presence alone served as mute and compelling testimony to the need for improved medical care in the community. The Lee Memorial Hospital opened in 1916, with Julia Hanson sitting on the board of directors.
In 1915, Julia was listed among the Women’s Who’s Who of America. Modestly, she returned to the qualifying committee little more than the following: “Leader in social activities and philanthropic enterprises, particularly those which tend to the betterment of Fort Myers.”
In the last decades of her life, Julia tended a garden larger than Fort Myers.
Dr. Hanson had been friend and physician to the Seminole and Miccosukee. Having no other facilities available to them when they came to town to see the doctor, they had camped in the Hanson’s back yard. When Dr. Hanson made “house calls” on his patients, Julia often accompanied him into the Big Cypress and the Everglades. She thus became a champion of the Seminole all of her life, at one time serving as chairman of the Seminole Welfare Committee of the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs. The mother who had groomed Fort Myers now nurtured the children whom white society had relegated to the “back yard”—the seemingly uninhabitable swamps of Florida.
Julia’s concern for the well-being of the Seminole became inseparable from her concern for the natural resources of the land. Lauded as a writer and artist about Florida bird life, she would be appointed Deputy Commissioner of the Florida Game and Fish Department, advocating the passage of laws to protect Florida wildlife.
A Tireless Mother
In the youth of our city’s life, Julia Allen Hanson gave us purpose and direction in shaping the city in which we would raise our children. Like a fond and tireless mother, she gave us a pat on the fanny to get us going in the right direction. And yet, the circumstances that brought her to us are mysterious. All we know for certain is that her life began in London, England, in the early reign of Queen Victoria and ended in a house on Monroe Street in Fort Myers, Florida, in the first presidential term of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In her memories of childhood echoed the clatter of horses’ hooves on cobblestone, but her mourners came quietly to the cemetery in automobiles, parking them under oaks trailing Spanish moss, bowing their heads to the casket of one known to them as “the most beloved woman in Florida.”