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Imperial River History Mural


City Hall 2AImperial River History is a 12 foot long by 6 foot tall by 18 inch deep mural that resides in the lobby of the Bonita Springs City Hall. Created by local clay sculptor David Kellum, it contains a background consisting of a map of the Imperial River. Across the map’s topography Kellum has embedded plates depicting scenes of local historical significance. Mounted in front of the plates are sculptures of local people of historical note. The piece also includes a fountain feature with bubbling water that shows a lighted underwater scene with fish swimming among mangrove roots.

Included in the iconography of the piece are:


The Imperial River

Imperial RiverThe Imperial River was originally named Surveyors Creek. When J.H. Ragsdale and Dan Farnsworth bought part of Harvie Heitman’s holdings in the area in 1912 for purposes of creating a development, they renamed Surveyors Creek the Imperial River and named the town Bonita Springs after Ragsdale’s daughter Bonita and for the town’s natural spring.


Bonita Beach

Going from left to right, the first plate and 3D sculpture that Kellum provides is for Bonita Beach.


Island Key and Grandma Johnson

Grandma JohnsonThe next plate and 3D sculpture is for Mound Key and Grandma Johnson, who many called the First Lady of Bonita Springs. Mound Key once served as the capital of the Calusa nation, which in its heyday encompassed most of present-day South Florida. By the time Ponce de Leon discovered Florida in 1513, the Calusa nation consisted of 20,000 people living in more than 50 villages extending from Charlotte Harbor to the north, Lake Okeechobee and Cape Canaveral to the east and the Florida Keys to the south. The 125-acre island contained an intricate network of tribal and ceremonial mounds, water courts and canals designed to impress visitors with the power of the Calusa’s supreme chief and the accomplishments of the Calusa people.

GrandmaJohnson2Frank and Mary Johnson appear to be the island’s first white settlers. President Benjamin Harrison issued a patent (certificate 9353) recognizing their homestead on November 9, 1891. But  the Johnsons are believed to have moved onto the island some time in 1875.

“By her deeds of kindness, ‘Grandma Johnson,’ as she was called, became a legendary figure to rich and poor alike,” wrote Allene Smith Murphy in Recollections – Mound Key, Schools & Early Settlers, a series of short stores she wrote as part of a memoirs writing class that have been preserved and published by her great-niece, Marci Townley Burns. “No history is complete without some reference to her. She endured her hardships as a way of life and lived in poverty all her life.”

GrandmaJohnson1The Institute of Archaeology and Paleoenvironmental Studies’ Topographical Mapping and Archaeological Reconnaissance of Mound Key State Archaeological Site Report agrees. Co-authored by Corbett McP. Torrence, Samuel J. Chapman and William H. Marquardt in On Mound Key 01August of 1994, the study states that “Mollie [which is what most folks called Mary] Johnson’s generosity and healing knowledge established her as a living legend. Locally known as ‘Grandma Johnson,’ she was born of a white settler’s daughter and a Cherokee Indian named Bill Whitton, who had escaped when his tribe moved west. It is said that Grandma Johnson’s medicines cured many, including wealthy aristocrats who drove to the docks on the mainland where she would meet them.”

On Mound Key 15Frank and Mollie had five children. According to Fort Myers News-Press Staff Writer Andrea Stetson, Grandma Johnson gave birth to each in her garden “the Indian way” (namely, by simply squatting). “At least two of her children were born unattended,” adds Allene Smith Murphy, “but she said she always took real good care of herself, sometimes staying in the bed two or three hours after the children were born.”

On Mound Key 10Frank and Mollie built their residence on Mound Key’s tallest midden. “The giant Poinciana is all that now marks the spot of her home now,” Smith Murphy records in her Recollections. The residence consisted of a main house and detached kitchen, which kept the main house cooler and protected it from fire as the cooking as the house was made of heart pine and all the cooking was done on wood stoves.

But while the Johnson built their home on the tallest of the key’s seven mounds, Grandma Johnson protected the archaeological deposits on the island “sometimes with a shotgun, it is said, because of her belief that they ought not to be disturbed,” notes the Topographical Mapping and Archaeological Reconnaissance Report.

On Mound Key 24 Return TripBut while Grandma Johnson wouldn’t tolerate desecration of the mounds, she welcomed all new arrivals, even giving them property on which to build homes and help settle the land. According to News-Press Staff Writer Andrea Stetson, Grandma Johnson’s generosity enraged her husband, who got so mad he “temporarily left her.” But Smith Murphy reports that the split became permanent after the turn of the century, with the couple dividing the island between them at that time.

“Frank is said to have traded his part to Louie Boomer (a rep from Koreshan Unity) for Black Rock, now known as Black Island,” writes Smith Murphy. “Frank is what we would call an On Mound Key 20 At the Top of Ceremonial Moundalcoholic today and not a shrewd trader. I’m sure the KU was pleased with the deal, trading a mangrove island for a high land lush for gardening. They immediately placed their gardener there, who was able, with no fertilizer, to raise enough vegetables to feed the unit.”

“I doubt that Grandma and Frank were ever divorced,” Murphy On Mound Key 19 Ascending Ceremonial Moundcontinues. “She still looked out for him over his lifetime, furnishing him with cooked food, eggs, fruit, vegetables, and clean laundry. She would call ‘Co Frank’ from the top of the high mound and he could hear it on Black Rock (so could the neighbors). Grandma befriended all in need and with the title to her half of the island in her hand, she shared with many seeking home sites during the years. Some 20 families lived on the island and at the least 25 children were born there and delivered by Grandma with little or no casualties.” She also taught the newcomers how to fish and build homes that would withstand Florida’s severe climate and destructive tropical storms.

Archaeologist SchoberIn spite of living separately, Frank helped Mollie build a little schoolhouse as more and more of the early settlers began having children. “The children ran barefoot up and down the mounds of Indian shells, fished and hunted,” writes Stetson, who profiled the Johnsons along with nine other “First Families of Estero and Bonita Springs,” vis: the Reahards, Fernandezes, Weekses, Hougues, Hornes, Lileses, Morrows, McKeowns and Pipers.

Frank died in 1925. In her old age, Mollie Johnson moved off Mound Key and sold her remaining land there for $1,000. Grandma Johnson died in 1934 at the age of 87. Many of her descendants still live in the Bonita Springs/Estero area.

Leaving Mound Key 2“Eventually the forces of nature, particularly the hurricanes of the 1920s, convinced people to move off the island,” Torrence, Chapman and Marquardt write. “By 1940, only a single man who raised goats inhabited the island. In 1961, with their numbers dwindling, the last Koreshans, represented by then Koreshan Unity president Hedwig Michel, donated 139 acres of their original settlement grounds on the banks of the Estero River and all of their Mound Key property to the State of Florida for preservation into the future. The settlement grounds are today known as the Koreshan State Historic Site. The former Koreshan Mound Key property is known as the Mound Key State Archaeological Site; it is a detached portion of the Koreshan State Historical Site and is managed by the Historic Site’s personnel.”


The Nutting House and Christian Busk

Nutting House Christian BuskThe next plate and 3D sculptural element appearing against the backdrop of the Imperial River is for the Nutting House and restorationist Christian Busk.

The Nutting House was built by Fort Myers businessman, banker and developer Harvie Heitman in 1913. Heitman built the house for the overseer of his surrounding orange groves. The house and 40 acres were purchased in 1942 by E.P. Nutting of Molina, Illinois. Although Nutting apparently knew little about citrus when he purchased the house and land, he quickly built a thriving business by shipping fruit baskets back to Illinois. Nutting spent his retirement growing fruit and researching the area’s history for his book. Busk restored the house and moved it to its current location on Pennsylvania Avenue in 2003.

Nutting House 2Busk is a landscape architect and contractor whose passion is saving historic homes. “It was just a frame,” says Busk of the Nutting House. It had no windows, doors, or molding. The house was scheduled for destruction, and the owner gave everything of value to his friends.” But the frame was sound, the Georgia brick fireplace and chimney were intact, and the original door and window openings were in place. So Busk moved the E. P. Nutting house from its home on the Imperial River to its current location.

Including the Nutting House, Busk has rescued seven historic homes so far. “Basically, he’s the guy stepping in front of the bulldozer and saying, ‘Let’s save that,'” says Gloria Sajgo, principal planner for historic preservation in Lee County’s community development department. “He’s doing it house by house, at the last minute.”

Busk’s passion for historic homes started 18 years ago with a 1940s house. Friends living there told him the owner planned to tear it down. Busk, who liked old houses even as a child, bought it for $5,000 and moved it next to his own home. Word got around about the guy who saved houses, and people started calling Busk about other old homes in trouble, like the Williams-Packard house, built in 1915 by one of Bonita Springs’ first settlers. Scheduled to be torn down, the owner offered to sell the house for $1 to anyone who would move it. Busk opened his wallet and spent more than $500,000, almost all of it his own money, to move and rehabilitate the two-story structure.

More purchases and relocations followed, including the 1920s Bowers-Briggs house, rumored to be a hideout of gangster Al Capone, and the Haldeman house in Naples, built in 1886 by Confederate Gen. John Stuart Williams. Busk moved the 7,000-square-foot house, named after its former owner, Louisville, Kentucky newspaper publisher and Naples pioneer Walter Newman Haldeman, 15 miles to Bonita Springs after the Naples city council voted to allow luxury beachfront condos to be built on the site, despite the efforts of local preservationists.

Busk rehabilitates the houses and then leases them, which is the only way he can recoup some of his expenses. “I can’t afford to keep them as museums,” he says, pointing out that it’s a use compatible with the buildings’ origins. Although Busk prefers to renovate houses in their original locations, developers want most houses moved. Busk relocates houses to lots he owns on streets on and near Oak Creek, in the oldest part of Bonita Springs. It’s a setting in keeping with Bonita Springs’ origins, when settlers sought property with access to rivers, creeks, or the Gulf of Mexico.

[Much of the foregoing information has been excerpted from an article written by Kathy Babcock is a freelance writer in Fort Myers who writes for the Naples News.]


Everglades Wonder Gardens and Les Piper

Everglades Wonder Gardens Les PiperLes Piper and his brother Wilford arrived in Bonita in 1932. Over the next 20 years, they amassed holdings in Lee and Collier counties totaling more than 23 square miles. Included in their portfolio was five acres on the north bank of the Imperial River. Motivated by their love of nature and wildlife, they created an exhibition first named the Everglades Reptile Gardens. Tourist attractions like these were common throughout Florida in the 1930s and ‘40s, and the two brothers became well-known wildlife authorities, supplying animals to numerous zoos. However, the advent of large theme parks in the 1960s led to a decline in roadside attractions, but by dint of hard work and perseverance, Everglades Wonder Gardens remained in operation until April of 2013.


The Liles Hotel and Artists’ Cottages

Liles Hotel Artists StudiosAs the Big Boom was nearing its end in 1926, Wallace Liles built a two-story hotel and camp site that he named Imperial River Court. Sited on the south bank of the river, the hotel was expanded in the 1940s to include individual cottages. The City of Bonita Springs purchased the 3-acre parcel in 2003, renovated the hotel, and included the hotel and six relocated cottages in Riverside Park. In Liles Hotel 5A2006, the City made space available in the hotel for the Bonita Springs Historical Society, which exhibits historical photos and information in the hotel’s public areas. The Society has also decorated a room on the first floor as a period bedroom representative of the 1930s. Two rooms on the second floor are dedicated to the Society’s resource center, which includes a library and archive that are available to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday (excluding holidays).


Shangri-La Springs Spa & Hot Tub Celebs Babe Ruth and Buddy Hackett

Hot Tub CelebsViewers will next find a clay sculpture of two men and a woman relaxing in a hot tub beneath a framed picture of the Shangri-La Springs Spa. The men are Babe Ruth and Buddy Hackett, notes renowned historical preservationist J. Allison DeFoor, who once served as former Gov. Jeb Bush’s “Everglades Czar,” who regrettably does not identified the raven-haired beauty who reclines between Ruth and Hackett.

This Spanish Mission-style hotel was built in 1921 by the family of Fort Myers merchant, banker and developer Harvie Heitman on 8.1 acres of land in the heart of what is now Old Bonita. The family was developing property to the west and the 25-room Heitman Hotel provided potential buyers a place to stay while their new homes were constructed. The natural spring for which the town is named is located on the grounds and flows into Oak Creek.

Shangri La 1The Depression brought hard times and the hotel was sold to the Haverfields and later to Walter Mach of the Cadillac family, who did elaborate remodeling, expanded the hotel to 50 rooms, and renamed it Villa Bonita. After that, the hotel was acquired by Dr. Charles Gnau, an osteopath interested in the health benefits of the mineral water from the springs. He added a spring-fed pool complete with a statue called the Indian Maiden of the Springs. The spring is reputed to be the first healing spring in North America. (The next closest minerals springs spa is in North Port, north of Punta Gorda in Charlotte County.)

Shangrai Lai 1AIn 1964, R.J. Cheatham purchased the property. Cheatham was also interested in health practice, particularly natural hygiene. He obtained diplomas in Naturopathy, Homeopathic Medicine, Osteopathy Life Science and Metaphysics. He improved the eight acres of ground to provide places for recreation and points of interest conducive to peace of mind and called the health spa, Shangri La.

Shangrai Lai 2AIn 1993, Leo Dahlman bought the property with the goal of developing Shangri La into a first class health resort. With a background in historic restoration and hotel management, he restored much of the property to its original grandeur. When the property fell into foreclosure and became available for purchase in 1998, Shangri La 3conservationists Addison Fischer and Heather Burch acquired the property through the Lama Hana Land Trust, to protect the integrity of this important landmark in Bonita Springs. “In Europe, they have long tradition of spas being developed alongside natural springs,” says current co-owner Heather Burch. “Europeans visited these spas to rest or recuperate.”


The Dome and Regular Patron

The Dome 3Dianne Crant DeBoest was two years old when her parents moved to Bonita in 1938. Her family started the Shell Factory at West Terry Street and 41, where they sold seashells imported from all over the world, including the Philippines, Africa and Japan. Harold Crant, says the Bonita Springs Historical Society, became interested in shells while vacationing on Bonita Beach.

The Dome 6“It was a wonderful business. We roller skated in the store and rode our bikes on U.S. 41. Once the war ended, business picked up with increased tourist traffic,” she said.

Crant purchased more land and soon the family owned all four corners with the Shell Factory on one corner, the Seminole Indian Village on The Dome 2another, the family home where the 7-Eleven stands today and the Dome restaurant of the fourth. “He … built a dome shaped building, painted the roof orange (complimented with big green leaves) and started a stand for selling citrus juice,” the Historical Society goes on to say. “The structure included salvaged WWII materials from the Buckingham airfield and the exterior was later faced with coral rock. The inside of the dome still contained painted stars used to train pilots in night navigation.”

The Dome Regular PatronBut the regular patron featured on the Imperial River History mural is clutching a beer stein, not a glass of orange juice. That’s because the Dome pictured in the background plaque is not the juice stand, but rather the tavern and pool room that Ed and Dottie Yerdon opened in December of 1975. “It was rough back then. You’d see horses out there, and people flying through the windows,” recalls Mayor Ben Nelson, whose family lived across the street on the second floor of Nelson’s Hardware. “The early 70’s Dome was one of the great places to get your ass whipped returning to East Naples fired up from watching the pro wrestling matches at the National Guard Armory in Fort Myers,” embellishes another patron, who The Dome 4notes that many a pool shark hustled “big money” on the Dome’s ratty tables. “[But] no matter how beat and dirty the place got,” qualifies a third patron, “the beer was ALWAYS ice cold and the call brands the real thing in clean heavy cocktail glasses.”

“It really calmed down as the community changed its character,” Nelson adds of the tavern, which was demolished in 1992 to make way for new development.


About Sculptor David Kellum

The mural was created by local artist David Kellum. As a child, the Imperial River was Kellum’s playground. He came to the area in the mid-1970s with his mother and two brothers. The family lived just off the river’s banks. “It was a real Huck Finn existence,” Kellum says. “We’d steal lumber from construction sites and make rafts. Everyday you’d go to the river.”

A clay sculptor, Kellum maintains a studio at Riverside Park behind the old Liles Hotel which he calls the Pinfish Micro-Gallery of Fine Art, a reference to the fish he caught as a kid to earn spending money. Kellum credits his mother, Chris, a photographer and silk screen maker, with encouraging his creative expression. “She worked with clay, off and on,” Kellum says. “There was always clay around the house.”

When he got older, Kellum had a lot of what he calls “menial jobs” before his art allowed him to work with clay full-time. No matter the job, he says, he was always thinking about sculpting.


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