Island Tales
Sanibel in the '50s and '60s ©
- Libby Boren McMillan


While much has been written about the hardy families who pioneered the island back in the 1800s and early 1900s, an interesting bit of island history is often overlooked. In the fifties and early sixties, pre-causeway island living was a bizarre mix of beautiful simplicity and survival skills. Although life without air conditioning, mosquito control or telephones at home is beyond our modern comprehension, you'd be hard pressed to find a soul who didn't love island life back then.

Conservation and preservation, however, were not foremost in people's minds.

Islanders often drove their cars from one point to another via the beach. Weren't they aware of the Loggerhead turtles that lay eggs on our beaches? "Absolutely," says Sanibelian Mark McQuade, who moved here in 1956. "Loggerheads were everywhere, and people hunted them. They sold the meat. Quite a few people ate them."

Life was bumpy for Loggerheads and humans. Only one or two roads were paved, and "the dirt roads were all washboards," says Capt. Bob Sabatino, who also arrived in the mid-fifties. "We had old jalopies we drove down the island from one end to the other. You had to drive fast or you'd break your teeth going over them." Sabatino explains what a shock it was to learn what you'd been doing to your car. "You'd have to go to town once in a blue moon," he says, referring to Ft. Myers, "and you'd get on the ferry, and when you drove off, on the mainland, the roads were smooth. All of a sudden," he says, "your car is going like this," as he motions wildly from side to side. "You'd have to get it aligned before you'd go back, when you went in town. And the funny thing was, the paint jobs weren't what they are today, so a nice car would be rusted out in months. There wasn't a car that didn't look like a rust-bucket."

One local vehicle in particular epitomized the dream of 'island life' in the fifties. "My dad brought us here sight unseen," says McQuade, who moved to Sanibel at the age of five. "We lived on the Chesapeake Bay," he explains, "and my dad kept hearing about the island from a group of doctors he knew who used to come here in the winter for conventions at Island Inn."

The elder McQuade fantasized of starting a motel in Florida, and the doctors' tales fueled his imagination. At the age of 40, with a wife and three children, he quit his chemical company job, and told the family they were moving south. Dorothy McQuade came up with a name for their fictional motel; her husband was so determined to live the tropical life that he painted the words on the station wagon door before the family car left its Maryland driveway . . . it read "Sanibel Siesta."

Young Mark McQuade's first impression of the island was hardly the postcard image one gets today. "It was a swamp," he says. "That's what I thought: 'this is just a big swamp.'

McQuade's father Mike bought beachfront property at the end of Donax for $35,000. "It might have had 1,500 feet on the Gulf," says Mark. Mark and his twin Debbie, their older sister Judy, and mom and dad moved into their new island digs. "And we were the only people there," says Mark. "Our closest neighbor to the west was Casa Ybel. When you stepped out our door, you could see down to Casa Ybel through the cabbage grasslands. Toward the lighthouse was Funk's Gulf Breeze," he remembers, (which later became Gulf Breeze Cottages.) There were no other buildings on the McQuade's new property, just the house, but that didn't stop Mark's dad from pursuing the plan on his station wagon door. The younger McQuade laughs and says, "I don't know how we survived!"

"He went to work doing construction on the islands, and within two years, he started to build a motel," says Mark. McQuade began to help his dad build cottages by the time he was seven. "We kids worked all the time," he laments. "I mowed grass, I shoveled dirt; we dug lakes for fill dirt to get ourselves our of the swamps. I helped build cottages," which eventually totaled 14.

Sanibel Siesta became a reality. The elder McQuade made a sign of a Mexican asleep on the beach, "and that was our sign," says Mark. Baltimore folk caught wind of the news and started coming down right away, for the winter months. Mark's sister Judy made up beds for 25 cents apiece.

The summer months were something else entirely. "Everything was so wet back then," says Mark, "before they dug all the mosquito control ditches, that the island didn't drain like it does now. Water was ankle-deep all the time in the summer. Your only shoes were flip-flops, so you walked barefoot in the water. Frogs were deafening at night."

"We weren't allowed to go out of the house after six," he continues. Sunset was a non-event. "The mosquitoes were so thick," says Mark, "the screens would be black."
Think you've heard all the old island mosquito tales before? McQuade details an interesting pastime of island children, when the Mosquito Control truck first started to come on-island. "We heard the foggers that used to come by on Jeeps," he says, "and we used to run around in the fog, all the time. All the kids did it, their parents didn't stop them. The parents thought, 'they can play outside and not get bitten by mosquitoes;' We just thought, 'There's this big cloud, we can't find each other, can't see each other, it was fun'."

Sanibel kids were not lazy, probably due to a lack of entertainment options. "There was only one tv channel, says Debbie Gleason."

"There were so few places to go," says McQuade, "that a friend and I used to peddle our bikes all the way to Andy Rosse's dock (about 26 miles roundtrip to Captiva's "village" area), "because he was the only one who had Wise potato chips. We'd have Wise potato chips on Andy's pier, and drink Pepsi in Andy's bar. As little kids, pedaling our bikes, we had to watch out on San-Cap Road," he remembers, of the days before bike paths, "because the slower cars were going 65."

All six grades of kids, including Mark and his twin sister Debbie (now Debbie Gleason) fit in the one-room schoolhouse comfortably. That building is now the Olde Schoolhouse Theater, and on a recent visit there with McQuade, he quickly spotted a hole in the ceiling through which he and his friends used to shoot spit-wads. The only form of recreation at school, he says, was an hour of softball after lunch, every day. "If you were too little to hit the ball, you just hit a grounder," laughs his sister Judy. "Debbie is a good player to this day," says Mark. "But it was rough on Mark," laughs Judy, "to put on clothes to go to school. We all wore bathing suits every day, all day, when we weren't in school."

The McQuade's island had a grocery named Bailey's and a little post office down at the ferry landing; a dining room at Casa Ybel; a community center on Periwinkle where fish fries and movie nights were held; a plumbing company owned by a fellow named Nave; and the Snack Shack, down by the community church. In gradeschool, the McQuade kids met the Addison kids, who lived on Buck Key without running water or electricity until Mr. Addison hit a big strike of pompano; he then followed his own dream and moved his family to a better life in the Keys.

"And the only doctor here lived in Wulfert," adds McQuade. "He was Dr. Baker." Another doctor finally moved on-island, and ironically shared the same name. "So then," laughs McQuade, "we all went to 'Beach Baker' or 'Jungle Baker'."

By McQuade's later teens, Sanibel and Captiva were still provided few recreational opportunities. Young men had to make their own fun. "There was a group of ten of us, and whenever we passed each other on the road (in cars), we never knew what to expect . . . it could be a carton of milk, rotten fruit, anything could come through the window. One time a friend of mine was sitting out front of the Dairy Queen with some tourist girls," he says with a big smile, "and I was hit with a full banana split."

"Another morning I was driving to work on Captiva and a friend waved at me then hit me with a Cuban sandwich he had been eating; he hit me right in the head while he was passing in the opposite lane. McQuade was not to be outdone, however. The boys often chose their ammunition at home, and then let it ferment for a few days before using it. "That night I went home, looked at this big institutional can of baked beans someone had given me, opened them, and put them into a big plastic bag. I drove around with them for a few days, until I passed him on HIS way to work." McQuade lights up at the memory. "He passes me, and his arm is out the window waving. I was driving with my knees, because it took two hands to lob that bag out my window and through his window. It hit the doorpost and exploded. The bag was sealed but it exploded all over him. He got it so bad, it drenched the inside of the car. He had to go back home, shower, change clothes, and clean the car."

Think about that next time you're driving toward a car you recognize.

Fishing was, (and still often is), the dominant pastime of island kids and adults, when not otherwise engaged. "I fished as soon as I got here," says McQuade. "You kept fish, you didn't throw things back. We fed the family with those fish."

The boy from Baltimore originally learned his tricks from visiting Floridians. "People from the north didn't know what was going on. The only people who knew anything about fishing this place were 'east coasters'," says McQuade, who today is a highly respected catch-and-release angler.

As a kid," says Mark, "I hung out in Tarpon Bay all the time, at Dewey's marina, and fished from wooden rowboats. And at Bill Way's Marina, where Sanibel Marina is now." Another local fishing fanatic was also hanging out at island marinas those same years.

Fish House
Photo courtsey of Lee County Visitor
& Convention Bureau

Visitors and locals alike think fondly of Capt. Bob Sabatino, who has been a charter guide on-island since 1959. "I was in the Coast Guard when I met Dewey Miller's daughter down in the Keys," he says, referring to the same family that owned the marina at Tarpon Bay. When we visited Sanibel and Captiva, I fell in love with the place, married her, moved up here, and got a job with Nave Plumbing. Galvanized pipes were always ruining, breaking, it was always something," he laughs.

Sabatino often worked on Captiva, and the Nave crew used Motorola VHF radios to stay in touch with the office on Sanibel. "Back then, we only had a telephone down at the ferry landing," he says. "It was a pay phone, and you went down there, and fought mosquitoes while you were talking."

Sabatino, who grew up in Manhattan, describes life on old Sanibel: "We used to live off the land. People ate loggerheads. They ate gophers," he says (referring to gopher tortoises). "I used to make extra money when I lived down in Dinkins Bayou by getting into the lime orchard, squeezing the limes, and selling limejuice by the gallon. I used to sell clams right outside my house, sell them by the gallon."

And what did he do for fun? "There wasn't anything to do," laughs Bob. "We'd go to Jack's Place, where the old Harbor House used to be." (and what today is Dolce Vita). "It was just a beer joint. And we'd go to old Casa Ybel, but it wasn't anything like it is now." Sabatino looks back fondly on the pre-causeway years. "It was like Fantasy Island. You were free," he says. "No laws or regulations on the islands. You could do anything you wanted."

"Dewey built a little tackle shop and fish market," Bob says, "and we rented boats, and sold bait. That's where I learned to fish." The young New Yorker had struck upon his lifelong trade. "People would come to the islands," he recalls, "and they'd want someone to run the boat and point out places to fish, so I'd go out with them on the weekends. I almost learned from the people I was taking out. We went out in 14' wooden skiffs with 10-horse motors on them. Charlie Rosse was guiding on Captiva, Belton Johnson on Captiva, Esperanza was here, and she trolled, everybody kind of had their niche." (Side note: The late Esperanza Woodring was Sanibel's first female fishing guide; she and her family lived on Woodring Point with hogs and chickens and grew their own food. She also babysat for a little boy named McQuade, and gave him his first cast net.)

Sabatino and a friend would often go catch fish to load his friend's stone crab traps. "We'd sit down at the lighthouse, and catch tons of big bull red," he says, "then spend all night chopping them and up and freezing them, just to use for stone crab bait." The stone crabs were sold to residents and local restaurants.

Through the years, Sabatino guided at Dewey's Fish Camp, Castaways, Betty's Hawaiian Village (also in Santiva), and Timmy's Nook (where you'll find Captiva's Green Flash restaurant today).

Making fishing pay in the '60s wasn't easy. It wasn't until Sabatino learned how to fish for snook that he built up a summer season in a place that had been strictly a three-months-a-year destination. "The island was desolate except in winter, because there wasn't any air conditioning," he explains. "In the summer, there would be this humming all the time, the screens would be full of mosquitoes. "If we were going fishing along the shore, we'd wear long-sleeve heavy shirts, soak ourselves with citronella oil and cover up as much as we could. It was uncomfortable as hell, but snook fever makes you do anything."

In the early sixties, Sabatino also worked with Charles LeBuff at the Fish & Wildlife office. "We kept Ding Darling (Refuge) cleared with a tractor," says Bob. "They had only allotted enough money for six months a year, so I worked there when I wasn't guiding."

"And every spring," recalls Sabatino, "we used to have pods of manta rays. You'd be driving along the road on Captiva, right along the beach, and you'd see these big black shadows right under the water. Whenever I'd see that on a charter, I'd cast right in front of them and catch cobia. The cobia stayed right in their shadows, and the rays never spooked."

What else did he see then that we don't see now? "Robins in December," he says without hesitation. "And the CIA training operation on Useppa for the Bay of Pigs invasion. One day we went over there, and there were big signs that said No Trespassing, and big dogs, and they had put a beach there, and all these boats were there and all these guys running around in camouflage. I didn't find out about that being a training ground until years and years later."

A young Sabatino made a big impression on an even younger Mary Lloyd McDonald. "I had the biggest crush on him," she says, of herself as an impressionable 8-year-old girl, when she first met the captain. "He was so handsome and dark, and I thought he hung the moon. He's been a part of our life since the very first time we got here."

"Sabby taught us how to fish," says Zeke McDonald, Mary Lloyd's brother. "And so did Jerry Way. Jerry Way was the fishing guide out of Mitchell's."

"And we went shelling with Sabatino, also," says Mary Lloyd. " He had a dredge and he could dredge the grass flats for scallops. We'd go to the mud flats in Roosevelt and dig 3-4 feet down for angel wings."

Mary Lloyd and Zeke McDonald first came to the islands in 1956. That year, their family stayed at Mitchell's Castaways; Zeke was six, Mary Lloyd was two years older. The family kept coming to Sanibel each year in March; another hangout was Betty's Hawaiian Village.

Mary Lloyd still reverts to the fifties each time she drives through Santiva. "I point out to people where we used to stay, and where Bob used to help us cook the shells on the outdoor pit. We would collect live coquinas by the bucketful, and mother would make coquina chowder," she recalls.

"We also had conch chowder," adds Zeke, "because there were a lot of king conchs at that time."

"We'd go fishing every single day," recalls Mary Lloyd of her grade school days on Sanibel each spring. "Every night we'd have fish and hush puppies and baked potatoes and salad; we never went out to eat. Our mother used to like to bake redfish, and sometimes she'd have to but it in half to fit it in the oven."

"Other than that, we'd out and harvest all the oysters we wanted from what Mary Lloyd called our 'Yum Yum Oyster Bar,' laughs Zeke.

Andy Rosse's bar and dock holds great memories for both the McDonalds, (who were surely less tired when they arrived than the potato-chip-bound McQuade). "Our parents didn't like us going in there much," laughs Zeke. "It was a 'bad influence'," Mary Lloyd says laughingly, of the bar. "But just because we weren't supposed to go, we'd go get a soda or a sandwich there."

In 1962, (same year the Causeway opened), the kids' parents partnered with Kentucky neighbor Charlie Jett, and bought a swath of land through Captiva Island, from Gulf to Bay. They built a dock together and "nice little Michigan homes," says Zeke.

"The most remarkable thing is that this really used to be a jungle island," says Zeke, bringing 'Jungle Baker' back to mind. "To go anywhere, you had to cut a path, and then you'd go the same way all the time. Along the path from our house to Belton Johnson's house was Bill Pitchford's place," recalls Zeke. "He was a scurrilous character; he lived in a plywood shack. Pitchford would promise you anything, and sometimes he'd come through."

"About the time the Beach Boys were 'coming in', we were grousing about not having any surfboards," says Zeke. Pitchford made surfboards for the McDonald kids, "and we just nearly killed ourselves with 'em," laughs Zeke. "He never sanded anything," McDonald explains, "and the boards were just old pieces of plywood. Sometimes the nose of the board would go under an get stuck on the bottom of the sand and we'd just get splinters and our stomachs would get all torn up."

The McDonald kids concur that there wasn't much to do on the islands before the causeway. "We'd wave a car down and ask if anybody knew where a party was going on," laughs Mary Lloyd. But they did know of one particularly exhilarating activity that began a few years after they first hit the island.

They chased the mosquito truck, to play in the fog. "It was like the ice cream truck," laughs Mary Lloyd. "We all went running after it," she says.

Perhaps the most interesting viewpoint on Sanibel is that of the McQuade clan. Mark's wife Ellen points out that the island's 'old-timers,' "like my husband, and Francis Bailey," rarely complain about change on the islands. It's more often the newer folks who are upset. Unprompted, Mark's sister Debbie echoes the same sentiment. "Any kid that grows up on Sanibel is one of the luckiest kids in the world," she says. 'Cause it's changed, but it hasn't changed that much."

_____________________________

Mark McQuade became a General Contractor on the islands in 1976. He is married to Ellen Mayeron, whose late father Don co-founded Captiva's Mucky Duck that same year. Ellen humorously points out that Mark absolutely refuses to mow grass as an adult.

Debbie McQuade Gleason is a Realtor with PMR. She and husband Brad are raising two island sons of their own, Nick and Greg. She has played softball on the Bailey's team for years.

Judy McQuade Wu lives in Pensacola with her family.

Mike McQuade sold his beloved 'Sanibel Siesta' about 1973, and the property is now a 62-unit condominium complex.

Capt. Bob Sabatino still guides, from Jensen's Marina on Captiva; he offers fishing and shelling trips. He recently developed a laminated size/limit guide for anglers, which is selling much faster than limejuice ever did.

Both Zeke and Mary Lloyd McDonald live on North Captiva, ferrying themselves about by boat. Zeke is also a pilot, like his father, who used to fly a Bonanza into the airstrip on Casa Ybel Road for those old family vacations.


* Originally published in Times of the Islands - 7/01
© Libby Boren McMillan - Legal Rights Apply

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