A Treasure Trove of History: The Mound House
Mound House is more than a museum—it’s an adventure
As a guide for kayak trips, Dexter Norris has been around the block—or rather, the bay. An environmental educator for the Mound House, he has led more than 100 kayak excursions on Estero Bay in the past year.
It just never gets old, he says, seeing how delighted kayakers are on his trips.
Held year-round, paddling excursions that launch from the Mound House—on the National Register of Historic Places and arguably the best-kept secret on Fort Myers Beach—regularly yield gifts from the bay.
While writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh famously extolled Gifts from the Sea, the Gulf of Mexico’s stepsister waterway across Estero Boulevard has numerous charms. “About half the people I’ve taken on kayak trips comment on how they never knew this was here, no matter whether they’re from Indiana or Bonita Springs,” Norris says.
The highlight of any visit to this shallow, 15-square-mile inlet of the Gulf of Mexico is the Mound House, which sits on nearly three acres of landscaped grounds atop a 2,000-year-old shell mound, surrounded by Estero Bay. The shell mound yields layers of clues to the lives of the extinct Calusa, or “shell people.” On these grounds 100 native plants grow. Ancient trees yield the wood that talented local carvers turn into replicas of items used by the original people. An underground exhibit shows the layers of shells these first inhabitants used to make nearly everything needed in their daily lives.
The property’s restored 1920s-style mansion—the oldest structure on Fort Myers Beach—is a museum of objects representing the history of not only the Calusa but also early settlers such as the Cuban rancheros.
Out in the bay, manatees, dolphins, sea turtles and rays make regular appearances, as do ospreys, herons, brown pelicans, anhingas and other birds, depending on the time of day, the environmental conditions and, probably above all, chance. “Some days, the wildlife is so abundant you’d swear the Discovery Channel theme music was playing in the background,” Norris says.
While he loves all the wildlife, his favorite aspect of any kayak trip just might be navigating through narrow channels of mangroves in the Estero Bay Preserve. “We’ll be in a group, single file, and when you turn you can’t see anyone else, and you feel like you’re out there in the wild by yourself,” he says.
Mound House kayak trips are scheduled at various times: twilight for a full moon or sunset, afternoon in cooler months and 8 a.m. in summer. Family trips are just right for kids 6 and older; others for those 12 and older. Beginners are welcome, and all trips are limited to 12 paddlers.
Mound House also offers motorized boat trips around Estero Bay that launch from Fish-Tale Marina on Estero Blvd. and dock at the Mound House and Mound Key, an active archaeological dig considered the capital of the Calusa. These trips, generally held from January to April, give participants an immersive Calusa experience by way of the 40-foot Sunseeker tour boat, Estero Bay Express II.
Mound House staff including Norris, plus Katy Beth Culp and Penny Jarrett, are accomplished and knowledgeable naturalists and educators who present other programs on topics ranging from weapons and art of the Calusa to gardens of the property, guided tours of the museum and more.
New pottery painting workshops are open to those ages 5 and up. Painters can use Calusa themes or designs inspired by Mound House plant life for the pots they take home. Like many Mound House workshops, it costs just $5.Other artisans are on the property on the first and third Tuesday of the month fromDecember through April. The Caloosa Carvers regularly demonstrate their woodworking skills by making replicas of Calusa tools. A new project involves turning a huge pine log into a canoe like those the native people would have used to navigate the bay. Participants are making a booklet that will illustrate the project, from start to finish.
“There’s so much here for people to see, and learn, and do,” says Alison Giesen, museum director and an archaeologist. “The history of the land and the people of Southwest Florida all come together here—and in an interactive way.”
The Mound House is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., May through December. From January through April, it’s open the same hours Tuesday through Saturday. Museum admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students with college ID and $5 for ages 6 to 12.
Dayna Harpster is a Southwest Florida writer and contributor to TOTI Media.
Mound House, 451 Connecticut St., Fort Myers Beach; 239-765-0865; moundhouse.org