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fort_myers_palm1Ft. Myers, Florida, was not always a paradise of palms. In 1850, when US Army Major Ridgely sailed with 2 companies of artillery up the Caloosahatchee to scout out the site for a fort, he discovered the ruins of Fort Harvie, abandoned at the end of the last Seminole War and subsequently burned to the ground by the Indians. Over the ruins towered slender pines, moss-draped oaks and raggedy cabbage palms.

Old Cemetary Ft. Myers (9)With its slight elevation, its fresh-water stream, and deep port for naval vessels, the spot was perfect for a new fort. Major Ridgely ordered his men ashore. They cut the branches off the top of a pine tree, rigged up a halyard and ran up the flag. Then they all went fishing.

As a Valentine’s Day gift to his daughter, the post commander, General David E. Twiggs, named the fort after her fiancé, Col. Abraham C. Myers.

Maj. Abraham C. MyersAbraham C. Myers

In keeping with the sentiment with which it was named, Fort Myers became a picture-postcard fort, with buildings of sturdy, yellow pine, well-groomed lawns, shelled walkways, and vegetable gardens. Encompassing approximately the area between present-day Fowler and Monroe Streets, from Second Street to the river, the fort, with its white-plastered hospital, bakery, and sutler’s store (offering the finest whiskies and wines), with its little orange grove, bowling alley and bathing pier, was more like a place for R & R leave than military duty.

The FortSketch of fort circa 1864

However, after the Civil War, when the troops were withdrawn, Confederate sympathizers drove their bawling herds of cattle into the fort and one of them, Captain Francis Asbury Hendry, moved into the officers’ quarters.

Old man HendryEx-Confederate Captain F. A. Hendry (posing in his later years for the photo)

Fort Myers became a cow town. Over time, the fort structures were recycled into the settlers’ houses and stores and, well, saloons. Had anybody suggested city beautification at this time, the cattle drovers would have snorted whiskey through their noses.

1900 Ft. MyersBut gradually, over the next 25 years, this stinking, brawling little cow town began to clean itself up. By the end of the 19th century, it had assumed an air of permanence and respectability with its first brick building, a courthouse and a newspaper. It began to attract the attention, once more, of the damnyankees. Only now the Yankees had exchanged their uniforms for the garb of sports fishermen.

One of these sports fishermen was a jovial Irishman named Hugh O’Neill, the owner of a department store in NYC.

655_Sixth_Avenue_from_northHugh O’Neill Department Store in NYC

O’Neill came every winter to go tarpon fishing out of Punta Rassa and often steamed up river to Fort Myers. He thought it a pretty little town that, with a first-rate hotel, could be the number one winter resort in Florida. So he built one. In 1898, he bought the former home of Confederate cattleman, Captain F.A. Hendry, tore it down, and built the magnificent Fort Myers Hotel. Ultra-modern, with electric lights, flush toilets and porcelain bathtubs, it was a showplace.

Interior, Royal Palm HotleThe townspeople who hadn’t the price of admission stood out on the street and stared, their eyes traveling up and up to the swaying fronds of the majestic royal palms with which O’Neill had landscaped the property. They had never seen anything like these trees in their lives. Imported from Cuba, the royals dominated the hotel grounds and O’Neill, with well-developed marketing savvy, changed the name of his resort to the Royal Palm Hotel.

imagesAnother Yankee tarpon fisherman had come to Fort Myers more than 10 years earlier and built himself a very fine winter lodge on the river, and when he returned to Fort Myers after an absence of 14 winters and saw the new hotel with its stately royal palms, his jaw dropped.

TAE FishingT. Edison fishing in Ft. Myers with his son

Thomas Edison’s first, extravagant thought was these trees should be planted all over town, that such imperial beauty was an aesthetic to which Fort Myers should aspire. Six years later, in 1907, he offered to plant royal palms along both sides of Riverside Avenue (today’s McGregor Boulevard) from Monroe Street to Manuel’s Branch (the fresh-water stream that had delighted Major Ridgely a half century earlier). Edison offered not only to finance their importation from Cuba, but also to pay for the planting and maintenance of the palms for 2 years.

Cuban royalsRoyal palms in Cuba

Eleven hundred palms were purchased in Cuba, but before they could be shipped, a yellow fever scare put the island in quarantine and most of the uprooted trees died.

Royals in Big CypressRoyal palms in Big Cypress Swamp

Seven hundred royals, subsequently hauled out of the Big Cypress, also died. The contractors for the project turned back to Cuba and bought 1300 more trees, which were successfully shipped to Fort Myers and planted. The palms lived for the 2 years that Edison had agreed to pay for their maintenance, and then, for lack of care, many of them died.

Edison sighed heavily and, in 1913 and 1914, financed the purchase of hundreds more. Perhaps he leveled a finger at the city, for the following year, Fort Myers organized its first park commission and appointed as its first commissioners 3 of the townsmen who had been most vociferous in urging the city to take proper care of these cherished and expensive (see Edison wearily wagging his head) palm trees.

With the unfailing irony of history, one of the city’s first park commissioners was the grandson of Captain F.A. Hendry, the ex-Confederate whose cattle had trampled the gardens of the original Fort Myers after the Civil War.

JEHendryJames E. Hendry, Jr. could hardly wait to have the surviving royals sprayed and fertilized. The new park commission also immediately got a city appropriation of $1000 for “city beautification,” planting more royals from Jackson Street eastward all the way to Billy Bowlegs Creek. The cattle drovers employed by Hendry’s granddaddy would have choked on their whiskey, but they and their saloons were scarcely a memory.

By 1917, naturalist Henry Nehrling would describe Fort Myers as the “horticultural gem” of Florida. The aforementioned cattle drovers’ response to this description would be unprintable. And yet, cattleman Captain F.A. Hendry himself had described the military Fort Myers as “beautiful.” Francis Hendry had first walked into the fort in 1854, during the last of the Seminole Indian Wars. Then a twenty-one-year-old dispatch carrier for the army, young Francis Hendry later described the lawns of the fort as “velvety” and the grounds as “tastefully laid out” and “beautifully adorned.” Little could he know that his grandson would be the gardener for the city that would replace the fort.

In 1908, a year after Edison proposed to line Riverside Avenue with royal palms, Hendry started his own nursery, specializing in semi-tropical plants, trees and shrubs. James Hendry’s nursery evolved, over the next 24 years of his life, into the Everglades Nursery, one of the largest of its kind in the world, annually selling hundreds of thousands of palms, plants and shrubs. In his eagerness to turn Fort Myers into a garden, Mr. Hendry once gave bougainvillea vines to all homeowners in Fort Myers who would plant them.

Then, in 1928, the city awarded Hendry a contract to plant nearly 7000 trees along 37 miles of city streets.

First St, FT Myers, City of Palms SKMBT_22311042010540McGregor Boulevard, Ft. Myers, 1930

With the apparently inexhaustible irony of history, James Hendry, who had married the daughter of Olive Stout, who had fought 20 years earlier to beautify Fort Myers by lining its streets with trees (over the absolute dumbfounded opposition of the cattlemen), now had responsibility for the largest street beautification program in southwest Florida.

And thus, in the tidal ebb and flow of history, in time-lapse motion, out of Florida wilderness evolved a fort that dissolved into a ramshackle town from which emerged a city of stone, graced with palms that rose in waves along its streets.

McGregor Blvd. vintage postcardVintage postcard depiction of First Street in Ft. Myers circa 1920s

The final irony of the story, the sheer comic genius of history, is that the grandson of the “Father of Fort Myers,” would be the Johnny Appleseed of the City of Palms.

James E. and Florence S. Hendry

James E. and Florence S. Hendry with Johnny Appleseed Award