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Fort Myers generally celebrated holidays and milestone events, like the coming of the railway, as if they were the 4th of July, that is, with incendiaries of one kind of another. Guns. Cannons. Anything with projectiles. They liked to launch things into the sky. Here’s a perfect example.

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In 1885, Grover Cleveland was elected to the presidency of the United States. In the 19-year history of this Southern, solidly Democratic little town, he was the first Democrat to win that office. It was only to be expected that on the day of his inauguration, Wednesday, March 4, the whole town of 349 people were going to celebrate. Big time.

Thomas González, grandson of Fort Myers’ founder, Manuel A. González, tells us in his book, The Caloosahatchee, that Sam Summerlin (son of cattle king, Jacob Summerlin) helped “the boys” organize the event, collecting fireworks and balloons and oysters for a feast, along with some, uh… gunpowder and kerosene. In this rip-roaring 1880s little town, the trouble always begins with gunpowder.

On March 4, the festivities began when “the boys” set up 2 anvils in the middle of First Street. They charged the smaller of the two with gunpowder, heaved the second, heavier anvil on top of the first, and lit the fuse.

old-time-anvil-shoot-photo-bmpWe may presume that a large number of spectators were present. The wholesale slaughter that might have ensued, however, did not. The detonation made little girls scream and throw their hands over their ears, little boys whoop in savage exultation, mothers jerk their children to the shelter of their bodies, and grown men duck and cover. The explosion rattled the window glass of every building in town, set peas dancing across dinner plates and staggered china figurines off parlor tables. No accounting has ever been made of the landing place of the larger projectile. The smaller anvil was instantly reconstructed as shrapnel hurled at up to 5 miles per second in a general, all-round direction, one chunk collapsing the front steps of Evans’ store and a second, a six-pounder, traveling through the front wall of the store and continuing on through one of the counters and a barrel of meal, touching off a whirlwind of flour, before slamming into the back wall of the store. Another missile of iron shot through Parker & Blount’s store, another took out the support post for a shade tree, and another took out the top rail of William Hendry’s fence before plowing into his front yard. “Other pieces,” Thomas Gonzalez tells us, “were scattered about miscellaneously.”

Apparently unperturbed, our artillerymen now proceeded to the river with their barrel of kerosene. “With the design of having it explode on the water to make a grand sheet of fire,” they put it on a float of some sort, ignited the fuse to the barrel and shoved it into the river. Everybody stood out on the city dock and waited.

Nothing much happened. The kerosene ignited and burned “with steady brilliancy, but did not afford the grand flash and flare of flame that was expected.” It sort of just rocked about out there on the river like a big, smoking barrel of burning kerosene.

Undeterred, the boys went on to launch the next event in the day’s inaugural spectacular–a balloon ascension. It was successful, Gonzalez tells us, “but the darkness was such that the balloon itself could not be seen.” Whatever kind of balloon it was, its “fire alone” was visible as it “ascended handsomely and floated off to the eastward.”adventure-air-balloon-art-arty-favim-com-974929

Night Flight by Mikko Lagerstedt 2013

The celebration’s pyrotechnics concluded, those faithful to these entertainments now turned their attention to the oyster roast. However, many of the townspeople had already wandered off in that direction and “enjoyed the oysters fully” for some time before the others joined them. The latecomers found nothing much left but oyster shells. The big day of celebration, so long anticipated, had turned out to be, Gonzalez tells us, “a little depressing.”

Nevertheless, he reminds us, “Those who participated most fully in the active glories of the celebration had reason to be thankful for escaping all the dangers incident to it.”

In other words, they should just be glad they got out of it alive.

But the week’s exciting events were not over. It just so happens that 2 days later, on Friday, March 6, a yacht named “Jeannette” put in to the city dock and three men in suits, Homburgs and gold watch chains stepped off. Probably by this time the flour and splintered wood in Evans store had been swept up, but they may have still been trying to work the 6-pound slug of iron out of the back wall with a crowbar. At any rate, the 3 traveling gentlemen may have politely refrained from asking any questions.

They walked around, looking things over, and stayed the night at the Keystone Hotel. On Saturday morning they walked into the land sales office of Huelsenkamp and Cranford and inquired about riverfront availability. Huelsenkamp knew who the interested party was, of course. Who had not heard of the famous electrician, Thomas Edison? Scarcely able to manfully control his excitement, he showed Mr. Edison the 13-acre Summerlin tract on the river. He was fairly certain, he assured his client, that he could talk Sam into selling it. “Let me know,” Mr. Edison said, and he and his friends sailed back out to the Shultz Hotel at Punta Rassa where they were enjoying a fishing holiday.

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Overall, 1885 was a big year for Fort Myers. Events rattled people almost as much as detonations danced peas across a dinner plate. The town incorporated, the most famous inventor in the world built a winter home here, and travel by steamer all the way from Fort Myers to Kissimmee City was now possible. The growth and prosperity of Fort Myers was assured.

Overall, hopes drifted as high in 1885 as the balloon they had launched on the night of the inaugural celebration in March. And although they had not been able to discern the shape of the balloon in the darkness, their eyes had followed its light, drifting up river like a golden moon until it was lost from sight.

 

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