The two old ladies sat in their rockers on the front veranda of their home, jaws locked, the thick toes of their leather shoes pushing off with quick, angry stabs at the floor boards. Drifting with the smell of fried chicken from the White Swan drive-in over on the corner of Lee and Bay Streets was the sound of Hank Williams wailing his everlasting “Lovesick Blues,” which was the number one country hit for 1949, and which, if they had to hear one more time, they were going to call the police.
For years, especially on Friday and Saturday nights and especially during the war years, when the town was overrun with young men in uniform from the Page and Buckingham airfields, sisters Nora and Rosa had had to put up with the caterwauling of that juke box at the White Swan, not to mention horns honking and tires squealing up and down the streets ‘til all hours of the night.
Nora and Rosa had lived in the old house on Lee Street since their papa built it in 1883, the same year Nora was born. Nora was so mad when she finally did call the police that she hysterically claimed they’d been paying taxes on the house for more than a hundred years. Rosa had lifted her brows at that, knowing that a hundred years ago, Fort Myers, itself, hadn’t been started yet.
Anyway, the police never did come out until Nora brought charges. Said she’d put up with the noise for years and she couldn’t stand “the blood-curdling whoops from that place any longer.” Then she went on about how there was “so much noise from jukeboxes, swearing, and cars going around corners on two wheels that you would think it was an airplane in a tailspin.” Rosa’s brows went up in surprise. If Nora knew what an airplane in a tailspin sounded like, she probably got it from Movietone News reels.
The owner of the White Swan was a former policeman, so his friends in the police department came out and sat on the front steps of the old ladies’ house a few nights and claimed the sounds coming from the White Swan could hardly be heard. Nora and Rosa’s friend, Mrs. McCabe, on the other hand, testified that when she came to visit, the noise was unbearable. Anyway, nothing ever came of the complaint.
Nora and Rosa were spinsters, who earned their living as dressmakers. The year after Nora’s complaint, their widowed sister, Amelia, whom they called “Mollie,” joined them and Josephine, who had never married, came back, too. But they were not together again for long. Mollie died in 1951 and Rosa in 1955. Too feeble to live in Papa’s big old house alone, Nora and Josephine sold the house in 1959, and within months, it was demolished.
The four old ladies were forgotten. Except by some old timers who knew who they were. Knew the name, “Vivas.” Knew that their papa, José Delores Vivas, together with his friend, Manuel Antonia González, had founded the city of Fort Myers.
José Vivas and Manuel González came to the abandoned army post of Fort Myers in 1866. González had had his eye on it as a perfect place to homestead for years. During the last of the Seminole Wars in Florida (1850-1858), Key West sea captain González had contracted with the U.S. Army to run supplies from Key West to Fort Brooke at Tampa and to Fort Myers on the Caloosahatchee. The fort was reactivated during the Civil War, but when the troops were withdrawn in 1865, González and his wife, Evalina, prepared to leave Key West and make a home for their family among the gardens and expensively finished buildings of the deserted fort.
Naturally, their adopted daughter, Anna, and her future husband, Joe Vivas, would join them.
In February 1866, Captain González set sail for Fort Myers with Joe Vivas, his brother-in-law, John Weatherford, and his 5-year-old son, Manny. When they arrived, the men were dismayed to find the gardens trampled and houses and other buildings of the fort dismantled and hauled away by scavengers. Nevertheless, González sent his companions back to Key West for his family and household goods, and he and his boy stayed to fix up the only house left standing. Its floors, doors and windows had been axed out, but the essentials—the fireplace and the roof—were intact.
In Key West, Joe Vivas and his darling, 16-year-old Anna (neé Cristiana Stirrup) married quickly, on March 6, and set sail with Evalina and 2-year-old Mary for Fort Myers, arriving on March 13.
Young Vivas claimed the land just east of the González claim; his property (officially deeded to him in 1877 for a payment of $400) was 100 feet wide and stretched from the river to present-day Second Street.
Joe and Manuel axed down pines and built a small log house for the newlyweds and a one-room trading post. Indians came with animal hides and furs to trade for the supplies that Joe and Manuel brought from Key West. The women planted corn and melons, sugar cane and green vegetables. They managed.
Within 2 years, 2 more families with children had joined them. The González and Vivas couples, intentionally or not, had started a settlement.
In 10 years, the settlement had 10 families and a one-room, log school house. Joe and Anna had 3 children; the youngest, Santiago, was a year old.
Cattlemen had moved in and Joe worked cattle some, acting as a translator out at Punta Rassa where the cattle were driven for shipment to Cuba. Principally, however, he was a carpenter. In Key West, Joe had become an able seaman; in frontier Fort Myers, he had, of necessity, become an expert woodworker.
In the summer of 1883, Anna gave birth to Leonora, their 7th child, and Joe completed their commodious new home at First and Lee Streets. It was a grand occasion when Papa led his 5 children, in stairstep order— 4-year-old Rosa trailing and followed by her mother, who cradled newborn Nora in her arms—across the sun-dappled porch and through the front door into the cool interior of the excellently crafted house. A broad, central hallway ran from the front door, which opened onto First Street, to the back door, which opened onto the river. Down this hallway flowed the cool, flower-fragrant breezes that swayed the Spanish moss draping the limbs of the massive old oaks outside, and drifted Anna’s sheer curtains across the broad windowsills.
In 1885, the settlement that Papa Vivas and Grandpa González had started only 19 years before was incorporated as the town of Fort Myers. Papa was now a building contractor. He built the Hendry-Towles wharf at the end of Hendry Street and in 1886, he built the town’s first 2 bridges: one across Billy’s Creek and the other across Whiskey Creek on the cattle trail to Punta Rassa. Then, he began to build houses, because Fort Myers was filling up.
In 1888, Papa Vivas stepped out the front door of his fine home, settled his hat firmly on his head, and set off for town. He had been elected to the town council.
Joe Vivas died in his home, surrounded by his family, in 1909. The funeral was held in his house. It was late October, so it’s possible that a breeze played down the broad central hallway, past the front parlor where the casket stood, banked with gardenias, and that taking Joe’s spirit with it, the breeze wandered out across the back veranda to the bright river that had brought the good-looking 22-year-old youth into the wilderness of 43 years past.
Vivas house (lower center) circa 1925, below Edison Bridge and across from Royal Palm Hotel.
Papa’s house changed with the town growing up around it. In 1914, during Fort Myers’ first building boom, Anna added an entire upper floor of 4 rooms to the house. She also railed the front and back verandas, updated the plumbing and added electricity.
During the even greater building boom of the 1920s, Papa’s house was moved to the back of its lot, to the corner of Lee and Bay Street, and turned sideways to face Lee Street. The city was filling in the river from Bay Street out. Modern folks, it seemed, wanted to be right on the river front, so they just kept making more of it.
Anna Vivas died in 1930 at the age of 78. Her three spinster daughters, Rosa, Nora and Josephine, stayed on the house. Occasionally, at the request of the city, the sisters sold a bit of Vivas property for this or that city building need. In 1936, for instance, they deeded the waterfront portion of Papa’s land to Fort Myers to be used for a city park and yacht basin. How pretty and inviting Papa’s town had become.
Then the world went crazy. Another great war. War planes roaring overhead by day and hot rodders in the streets by night. The old Vivas ladies, accustomed to the quiet sounds of night, winced at the cruelty of the rude, incessant, and meaningless noise. Assailed by the odors of greasy burgers and fried potatoes, they grieved for the lost scent of night blooming jasmine and the passing fragrance of Mother’s lilac-water cologne.
Old eyes dim, first to dimming memories of things that youth never knew: delicate deer prints in the white sand along the river’s edge in the morning; a sister’s laughing face sprinkled with the sunlight filtered through a lacy parasol.
Finally, before the jerking motions and canned laughter of the television sets in unfamiliar houses, even the memories dim and, finally, like candle flames, go out.
Nora Vivas, the last surviving child of Joe and Anna Vivas, died in 1962 at the age of 79. The house that her papa built was gone, but the larger house of Fort Myers, whose foundation he had helped lay nearly a century earlier, was home now to almost 23,000 people.