Island Tales
J.N. "Ding" Darling ©
- Libby Boren McMillan

Thousands of people visit Sanibel Island, Florida each year; for many it is a special home. I am among the legions of happy islanders who relocated here after years of vacations on the local beach. So it was with some embarrassment that I realized, after 24 years of knowing Sanibel, I could only recite sound-bytes about J.N. "Ding" Darling, the man.

Sanibel's National Wildlife Refuge bears his name, and the relationship between the park and this great cartoonist should be known by every island resident and visitor. Ding was a 'conservationist,' decades long before the word was common; even longer before the issue was important to politicians, press or citizens. His story is a story for the ages, about a man so far ahead of his time, it's nearly inconceivable.

JN 'Ding' Darling
Photo courtsey of J.N. "Ding" Darling Foundation

Ding's story begins in Iowa, where he began drawing cartoons in The Sioux City Journal in 1900. ("Ding" is a contraction of Darling's last name; the moniker he chose for his work.) In 1906 he moved to the Des Moines Register and Leader, creating a daily cartoon for that newspaper until he retired in 1949. That half-century of current-events cartooning was so important to readers in the state of Iowa, Jay Darling has been called the most influential man in Iowa's history. Folks in Iowa still talk about having Ding for breakfast.

A classic example of Ding's foresight is related by Kristi Anders, of the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation: "Ding was terribly frustrated," she says, "because he could see things that people were slow to come around to. His vision," she says, "was absolutely timeless. One cartoon he drew, I think about 1920, had a stack of autos in it, and he's saying 'What on earth are we going to do with all these autos when the fossil fuels run out?' He recognized that resources are limited, and for him to have thought of that back in the 1920s when autos were just into production . . ."  Anders is understandably awed.

Darling's cartoons were never buried deep in the newspaper. He held court on the front page of the Register, in what would be considered today the 'headline' spot. On a daily basis he shared his strong viewpoints with readers on the topics of the day - politics, war, inflation, New Years' resolutions, farming subsidies - and other topics which had yet to rear their head in American thinking - overpopulation, the finite nature of natural resources, the long-range negative effects of deforestation. "His work represented a lot of societal reflection," says Anders. "It was far more reaching than conversation." Darling biographer David Lendt says, "Darling's cartoons were profound in their simplicity. They belied his complex makeup."

Many of the cartoons Ding penned decades ago have relevance today; they are timeless. "Ding" also touched on Americans' lack of appreciation for what they had, compared to earlier generations. He seemed to be all-aware of the great good fortune of living in a free country, full of resources and wished that his countrymen not take any of it for granted, but rather, work to protect it.

Ding was close friends with two American presidents: Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover. One memorable cartoon was hurriedly drawn upon the day of friend Teddy's death in 1919. It became instantly popular, and has been reproduced more than any other of his works: on paper, in stone, metal, wood and concrete. The tribute to Teddy, called "The Long, Long Trail," appears in hundreds of public places. It depicts Teddy Roosevelt riding off into the clouds, leaving behind historical wagon trails, as well their result - an American city of the early 1900s.

Another of Ding's cartoons was found among President Hoover's papers at the Presidential Library in 1970. The Darling family had been invited to White House a few months after the 1929 inauguration, and the cartoon shows the "return to earth" of the Darling family from their visit. The D.C. visit must have made quite an impression on the family, and the cartoon made its own impression on Register and Leader readers.

According to Anders, the great cartoonist also had "dialog with Henry Ford and Lindbergh. And I know," she says, "that he drew some cartoons of Edison."

J.N. "Ding" Darling Ding received the second Pulitzer Prize ever given - the highest award given for work in journalism, including cartooning - in the year 1922. The feat was destined to repeat itself. Ding received a second Pulitzer in 1943, but, in fact, wasn't happy about it. He felt that a cartoon depicting the atomic bomb should have received the prize instead.

How did Ding Darling come to be associated with Sanibel Island? "My understanding," says Anders, "is because one of the editors of the Chicago Tribune had more or less begun visiting Sanibel and Captiva, and articles were starting to show up. They caught Ding's curiosity and he came down."

Even in his travels, Ding was ahead of his time. The Cruise of the Bouncing Betsy, a book penned by Darling (and found in the Sanibel library) chronicles Ding pulling a travel trailer to Sanibel on his first trip here. It was a very challenging trip from Iowa to Captiva, as America wasn't really set up yet for travel trailers yet.

"The Darlings began staying at 'Tween Waters Inn on Captiva, and in fact," says Anders, "if you go into the Old Captiva House restaurant, you'll see some of Darling's original cartoons on the wall there.

Andy Rosse was Ding's fishing guide and friend. Ding eventually had the Fish House built. It stands today, an infamous piling home rising spider-like from the waters at Roosevelt Channel's north end, near what is now Andy Rosse Lane. "By the time Ding finished construction," says Anders, "Penny, his wife, had become accustomed to the life at 'Tween Waters Inn, where it was easier to entertain. So they never lived in the Fish House, never took up residence there. It was his studio."

Long-time locals will remember the Fish House being connected to Captiva via drawbridge. "When he got fed up," laughs Kristie, "he'd pull it up." While on Captiva, Ding "had newspapers delivered to him every day by airplane, a bundle of newspapers from around the country for the sake of his work," she continues. "He was actually cartooning while wintering here," although the details are sketchy how he accomplished this, mid-century. One can only guess whether or not he'd be surprised at the ease with which modern telecommuters work. However, a man who predicted World War Two near the end of World War One, might well have imagined the way many of us work today, while sitting in his Captiva studio.

By 1940, the state of Florida was preparing to sell acreage on the bayside of Sanibel for anywhere from 25 cents to $1.00 an acre. (And I thought real estate really appreciated in the last five years!) Darling was outraged. Having served for a few years with the Geological Survey Office, he had connections, which he put to good use. He personally convinced U.S. Fish and Wildlife to lease 2,000 acres from the state of Florida, land which became the Sanibel Wildlife Refuge. Later on, Sanibel's Bailey tract (a preserve parcel with hiking trails, on Tarpon Bay Road) was purchased by Fish and Wildlife with funds from the Duck Stamp program. "It was hunters' money that bought the Bailey Tract," explains Anders.

In 1962, as the Sanibel causeway construction was beginning, Ding Darling died, and islanders lost their legendary leader and conservationist. A committee was formed to carry forth his vision. It was initially called the Ding Darling Memorial Committee; participating were both Presidents Eisenhower and Truman. "On a national scale," says Anders of Darling, "he had incredible influence and friends."

Entrance to JN 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island

The committee evolved within the year to the incorporation of the J.N. "Ding" Darling Foundation. Its goals were threefold:
1. To acquire the lands that had been leased from the state, and expand the boundaries of the refuge;
2. To change the name of the refuge to honor Darling; and, on a larger, national scope,
3. To preserve the lands along the Lewis and Clark trail, for hiking, biking and recreation.

By September of 1967, an outright purchase brought the Refuge up to 5,000 acres, and it was dedicated to the memory of "Ding" Darling. Today it is one of the most prized and most visited refuges in the country.

"With those first two goals accomplished," explains Anders, "the local group decided to stay organized here on Sanibel, and within a month it spawned SCCF, the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation. Our genesis is with the Darling Foundation."

Today, almost two thirds of the island is in conservation hands. Those preserved lands are the very thing which sets Sanibel apart from other islands. They keep the island from being overcrowded, over-developed. They provide habitat for an abundance of wildlife. "And they're constantly changing," beams Anders, "because we're always acquiring land. Since 1967, not a single year has passed that SCCF hasn't acquired more land - every year for the past 30."

The original articles of incorporation for SCCF and the J.N. "Ding" Darling Foundation both state the organizations will be guided by the principles and precepts of Jay Norwood Darling. "His swift action back in the '40s," praises Anders, "stopped a major disaster (the selling of bayfront land)." Anders has an audio tape of Ding's voice from the '30s, referring to beautiful places like Sanibel and the pitfalls of their being discovered: "The danger is that you can get loved to death," he says.

The not-for-profit J.N. "Ding" Darling Foundation is presided over by Darling's grandson Kip Koss. "Kip works tirelessly to make Darling known," says Anders, "and to make his work more useful to people; to inspire them." The Foundation provides scholarships to Iowa students who exhibit academic prowess, as well as an excellent ability to communicate; recipients often are editing newsletters or acting as public speakers.

The Foundation has recently produced a compilation on CD-ROM of thousands of Darling's cartoons. Koss and Anders are looking for an "angel" to facilitate providing the CD at no charge to educators. Any donations, however, are appreciated. This remarkable CD is available for sale on and also through Koss or Anders.

Islanders wanting to delve a little deeper into Ding's world would enjoy a visit to the fabulous Visitors Center at the Refuge. In it is a magical, lifesize re-creation of Ding's studio; peek through the windows and imagine this Sanibel preservationist at work, while local docents tell their favorite anecdotes.

Darling's foresight encompassed his own mortal demise. Displaying a brilliant understanding of his unique place in history, Jay Norwood Darling, the penultimate cartoonist, even drew his own obituary, secretly penning a cartoon to be published at his death. His secretary kept it hidden until he passed away, at which time she immediately gave it to The Des Moines Register. It appeared the day after he passed on, as planned, centered on the front page of the paper which had published 20,000 of his cartoons in decades prior.

Sanibel as we know it would be a very different place today, were it not for the wisdom of Darling. His message has been reverberating through time, loudly and clearly, while his medium will be embraced for generations to come. Long may he live, through conservation, communication, education, foresight, gratitude and good humor.



J.N. "Ding" Darling Foundation
785 Crandon Blvd., Suite 1206
Key Biscayne, FL 33149

Ding Darling Wildlife Society
One Wildlife Drive
Sanibel, FL 33957
Since 1982, this "friends" group has aided the Refuge by increasing visitors' understanding of natural history and the surrounding environment. The Society produces maps, brochures, videos and guides as well as providing volunteers who work at the Visitor Center. The Society has donated more than $250,000 for a wide variety of projects.

J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Mile Marker 2 on Sanibel-Captiva Road
Sanibel Island
Visitors Centers open 7 days, 9 am - 4pm
Wildlife Drive closed on Fridays
(239) 472-1100 for more information

Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation
Po Box 839
Sanibel, FL 33957
(239) 472-2329

* Originally published in Times of the Islands - 11/00
© Libby Boren McMillan - Legal Rights Apply

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