Evalina Gonzales, Florida Heitman, Harvie Heitman, Hattie Belle McCoy, Hill House, Jane Hendry, John K. Woolslair, John Woolslair Sheppard, Manuel Gonzalez, Manuel's Branch, Mary Woolslair Sheppard, Mina Edison, Sheppard & Woolslair
Throughout our history, pioneering women have followed their husbands, willingly or not, into the wildernesses of the continent and made them “home.” From their strong bodies, they have populated these frontiers; from their tender hearts and courageous spirits, they have woven the tapestry of our history.
Not a Very Nice Welcome
Hattie was 21 years old when she came to Fort Myers for the first time on a Saturday in January, 1901. She was on her honeymoon. She and her husband, John K. Woolslair, were staying at the Hill House at the corner of Lee and First Streets. After supper that evening, just at dusk, the young couple set out for a stroll about town.
They had crossed Jackson Street to Heitman’s big store when shouts erupted suddenly from across the street. Two men, cursing foully, were shoving each other out the lighted doorway of a smoke-filled saloon. Hattie felt John’s cautionary pressure on her arm and stopped. Instinctively, the couple took a step back into the shadow of the Heitman building’s broad awning. The men in the street wrestled for a moment, then one of them sent the other stumbling backwards, jerked a gun from his hip holster and fired. Hattie and John flinched at the report. In the deepening dusk, they had actually seen the fiery sparks of gunpowder as the gun discharged. “Oh, John,” Hattie whispered as her husband pulled her in tight to his side.
Startled, John and Hattie swung around to find themselves face to face with a young couple standing directly behind them. “Heitman,” John exclaimed, shaking the man’s hand with the full vigor of his relief.
Heitman had shown John the land he purchased out on the Orange River, driving him out in one of his fine buggies, drawn smartly by a blooded thoroughbred from his own livery. Among his many business interests, Mr. Heitman was a property manager for some of the monied, absentee land owners who wintered in Fort Myers. John admired him tremendously.
The men introduced their wives and then turned to observe the commotion of men shouting and running to the scene of the shooting. Hattie, a gently reared young lady with a college degree in English literature, was unnerved by the violence. Now an elegant young woman named Florida? Was it possible? was saying something in her calm, soft, Southern voice about this not being “a very nice welcome to your new home.” Even for a girl as good-natured and fun-loving as Hattie Belle McCoy, it was all a bit much.
She wanted to go home, home to sanity and safety, home to Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.
Mrs. Heitman was speaking with persuasive sympathy. “Please don’t think that incidences of this nature are commonplace here, Mrs. Woolslair. It’s just that sometimes, on a Saturday night, the cow hunters have too much to drink and get quarrelsome and…” She sighed. “Hattie…dear…just keep to this side of the street. The ladies of Fort Myers never set foot on the south side of First Street. As you can see, it’s almost entirely saloons and livery stables. Just keep to this side of the street and you will be perfectly safe.”
“I want to go home,” Hattie told John firmly the minute they returned to the Hill House, turning to confront him with chin lifted before he had even closed the door of their room.
John shut the door gently and turned to her. “Now, Hattie,” he said quietly. She took a step back, her jaw firm, and their quiet argument began.
John: What about our property, our house? (John had already built a 3-story house with the deep, railed veranda on the river.)
Hattie: How can you expect me to live in a place like this? Blushing, she added, …to raise our children in a place like this? It’s dangerous.
John, stiffly: I guess it’s good enough for some. Good enough for Mr. Thomas Edison. Good enough for Mrs. Edison. Don’t hear her complaining, and she came here a bride same as you.
Hattie: You don’t hear her because she isn’t here, John. I was told today by somebody that when they return next month, it will be for the first time in 14 years.
Forty years from this night, at the start of World War II, Hattie will remember her words with a smile as she and Mina Edison, 2 elderly, widowed women, are chauffeured down McGregor Boulevard; seeing her smile, Mina will ask her, “What are you thinking?” for they are old friends and comfortable together and Hattie will tell her about the shooting and Florida Heitman and Mina will nod, her eyes twinkling with understanding amusement.
John: Just give it a chance, Hattie. It’s growing, it’s changing. And besides, we’ll be in our own, safe little world out on the river…
Hattie: Sure. On our alligator-infested river, with, with snakes and, and tarantulas probably crawling across the floors…
John: Tarantulas? Who ever said anything about…what have you been reading?
Hattie was an avid reader, of course. She would have been delighted to know that the woman who brought the first books to this “dangerous place” brought text books, and took upon her own small shoulders the responsibility for educating Fort Myers’ first children; that, while she and John argued quietly but passionately in the Hill House that night, the elderly woman who had been the first woman homesteader of the post-Civil War settlement of Fort Myers slumbered in her house only a few blocks away; that, in fact, it was Evalina Gonzalez’s son, Manny, who had built Hattie’s house out on the Orange River.
Hattie: Do they even have a decent school here for our children?
John: Honey, we don’t have any children. Aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself?
Hattie would also have been delighted to know that the son she would bear in 1908 would marry the great-granddaughter of an old woman who lay awake in her home only a block from the scene of the shooting. Possibly awakened by the clamor and now propped on pillows and reading by the light of a bedside lamp, this old lady, years before Hattie was even born, had told her husband, flat out, that she was moving, not away from but into Fort Myers. With or without him.
Her name was Jane Hendry.
In 1873, Jane’s first-born child had come down with a raging fever and died for lack of medical care in a rangeland shack out near the Big Cypress swamp. The morning the child was buried, Jane swore that she and the 3 children she had left would not spend another day “out here in this godforsaken wilderness.” Her husband, Charles, watched helplessly as she slung their few household goods into a blanket on the bed. When he protested deserting their child’s grave, Jane turned on him like a wild woman. “And lose them all, one by one? Don’t you see…I have to leave her to save them.”
Jaws clenched, clinging white-knuckled to the jerking, swaying wagon seat of an ox cart, Jane did not look back once as they rolled away, her daughter’s grave receding slowly behind them.
Jane, now 62 and a widow, turned down the flame in the lamp beside her bed and groaning, maneuvered her old bones into as comfortable a position as she could while the newlywed couple in the Hill House continued their hushed debate.
Hattie: I’ll tell you one thing right now, John Kneeland Woolslair. I’ll not give birth in this place. I’ll have every one of them at home in Beaver Falls.
And she did.
Our Own, Safe Little World
Her four children came in quick succession. The home Hattie made for them on their citrus and pineapple plantation was playful, filled with laughter and the music she rippled from her mother’s piano. She wrote poetry, and sang her children to sleep with lullabies of her own composition. And she sat guard over them when they swam in the river, keeping a look out for alligators.
When Hattie’s youngest child, John K., Jr., contracted infantile paralysis, Hattie nursed his spirit as well as his body, and he grew up to graduate from law school and to marry Jane Hendry’s great-granddaughter, Jeanne Lawrence, granddaughter of the daughter whose sister Jane had left in a wilderness grave.
When their kids were young, Hattie and John would take them in the family launch down the Caloosahatchee all the way past town to Manuel’s Branch, puttering up the creek to picnic and fish and swim and let the kids climb like chattering monkeys among the branches of the mango trees. Manuel’s Branch was so named because Fort Myers’ first settlers, Manuel and Evalina Gonzalez, had made a home and raised their children there from 1872 to the end of the century.
When the Woolslair’s daughter, Mary, grew up and married, she lived in a neighborhood close to the creek and she would take her kids there to play, pushing the baby in a baby buggy.
When the baby in the buggy grew up, he joined the Sheppard & Woolslair law firm in which his father, W. A. Sheppard and his uncle, John K. Woolslair, Jr., were partners. Sheppard & Woolslair represented Harvie and Florida Heitman’s (both deceased) daughter, Lorraine. Lorraine and Mary were best friends growing up, and now Mary’s husband and brother and son were her attorneys.
John Woolslair Sheppard has lived for over half a century within walking distance of Manuel’s Branch, where Manuel and Evalina Gonzalez’s children played, where his grandparents, John and Hattie Woolslair, brought their children to play, where his mother, Mary, brought him to sit in dappled sunlight and shade, playing with the leaves that drifted into his pram.
The events of history circle back to their origin, to the mother source; they connect like a mother’s hands curled around the handle of a baby buggy.