By Mike Miller August 21, 2023
Southwest Florida heritage and history begins with the early native Americans, the Calusa, who lived in the area 12,000 years ago.
Many of the early settlers in this area were cattlemen, ranchers, farmers and fishermen who came here from other parts of Florida.
Thomas Edison put southwest Florida on the map.
Southwest Florida history certainly began before Edison and his cronies took up residence in Fort Myers. And there was a little bit of action down in Naples and Everglades City before Barron Collier came along. But not much.
The history of Southwest Florida is one of transformation because these men came to the area. Thomas Edison loved Southwest Florida, and spent 40 winters at his home in Fort Myers.
His buddies Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone also had places in Fort Myers, and the three of them collaborated on many business ventures. Edison worked on many of his major inventions in Fort Myers.
In the early days of Fort Myers, Edison offered the city free electricity for all of the streetlights if the city would pay for the lights. The city council turned down Edison's offers because they were afraid the streetlights would keep the cows awake at night.
Southwest Florida heritage and history has been impacted simply by the fact that these three famous men chose to winter here. It gave the area tremendous national publicity.
Southwest Florida history covers some pretty diverse ground. You will find old Florida country towns with a cattle heritage, and some fantastically rich towns.
Back in the 1920's Naples was reported to have 26 millionaires and 22 rum runners. Those were the days of Prohibition, and fast boats made the run from Cuban and the Bahamas to Naples.
Barron Collier came along and changed Southwest Florida history and his family is still part of Southwest Florida heritage.
He was not as famous as Edison, Ford and Firestone, but he was a man of action and a self-made advertising millionaire. The State of Florida had been wanting to build a road connecting Naples to Miami, but didn't have the money to pull it off.
Collier became the solution to the problem.
He had purchased huge tracts of land in Southwest Florida. His first major purchase was in 1906, when he bought Useppa Island south of Boca Grande pass. The Collier Inn on Useppa is still an Old Florida masterpiece.
Collier saw the value of connecting Southwest Florida with the east coast of Florida. He worked a deal where he would finance the construction of a road from Naples to Miami.
It wasn't until 1923 that he was able to start construction on the Naples to Miami section. In return for Collier's road building efforts, the State created Collier County out of the southern part of Lee County in 1923.
It was the location of most of his vast land holdings. The descendants of Barron Collier still are the largest private land owners in Collier County.
Collier's road was named Tamiami Trail. It is that segment of US-41 that connects Tampa to Miami. It is the highway that finally opened southwest Florida travel to the rest of the state. It led to the discovery of southwest Florida by the people moving to Florida.
Of the 8 rest areas with lodging and restaurants that Collier built along the Trail, only one survived into modern times. It was a dilapidated old wooden building at Monroe Station, a lonely outpost many miles east of Naples. A fire took it down in 2016.
According to Wikipedia, the Tamiami Trail took 13 years to build.It cost $8 million and used 2.6 million sticks of dynamite in its construction. The Tamiami Trail officially opened on April 25, 1928.
Unlike the east coast of Florida, and even Tampa, Southwest Florida did not participate in a big way in the 1920's real estate boom that finally collapsed in the aftermath of the two killer hurricanes.
The 1926 Miami hurricane, and the one that followed in 1928, put a crashing stop to the frenzied land boom on the east coast.
In the years that followed, Southwest Florida remained one of the quietest and least known areas of the state. Southwest Florida heritage and history - at least in the twentieth century - reflect the American mid-western culture more than any other area of the state.
Although many mid-westerners stopped in Tampa and Sarasota, it seems more of them kept pressing southward to Fort Myers and Naples.
Today, Southwest Florida is a vast region of beaches, high rise condominiums and wealthy golf course communities.
There are more golf courses in Southwest Florida than you can shake a putter at. The area also has great fishing and boating.
Learn more about Southwest Florida towns and cities.
Have fun on some Southwest Florida scenic drives.