A Bounty of Local Museums: The Calusa, Railroads, Even the Skunk Ape Get Their DueMay 07, 2021 03:24PM ● By JEFF LYTLE
Southwest Florida is known for its sunshine, sandy beaches, sparkling waters and abundant wildlife. But there is another reason to appreciate the area beyond its beautiful environment: its bounty of unusual museums.
Lee and Collier counties have dozens of facilities dedicated to history, nature, collections and much more.
In fact, some of the museums themselves are historic. Take, for example, the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in downtown Fort Myers, a blended beacon of history and education. It tells the story of friends who were drawn together by the quest for progress and profit. The estates encompass Thomas Edison and Henry Ford's homes, gardens, laboratories and many of their fascinating prototypes.
Nearby the Historic Burroughs Home showcases the lifestyle of a stately era.
The Southwest Florida Museum of History, housed in a former Atlantic Coastline railroad depot, presents the big picture of how the area got where it is today, thanks to visionary transportation and industry—and sports such as big game fishing and baseball.
Lovers Key in Bonita Springs presents a nature museum of its own when its welcome center opens this year. Preliminary plans call for spotlighting ecosystems that converge at this popular state park.
The Koreshan State Park in Estero combines canoe, kayak and hiking trails with many original factory and residential buildings built and used by the cult that came to this spot on the Estero River in the 1890s. A highlight is the concert hall still used to this day.
Estero Community Park includes two historic structures: a 1902 cottage and a 1904 schoolhouse.
Downtown Bonita Springs has two landmarks across the street from each other: the restored 1915 historic McSwain Home and Liles Hotel in Riverside Park. Operated by the Bonita Springs Historical Society, both buildings provide a glimpse of life in early 20th-century Bonita Springs.
The Railroad Museum of Southwest Florida, based at Lakes Park in Fort Myers, is a dream come true for the legions of train buffs who call the area home.
Black history is a timely topic at a museum dedicated to the good, bad and ugly sides locally. The impacts of segregation in Fort Myers are on display at the Williams Academy Black History Museum, a former schoolhouse for black students, now located in the Dunbar area of Fort Myers.
Mound Key Archaeological State Park, accessible only by boat in Estero Bay, tells the story of the Calusa Indians. Nearby on Fort Myers Beach the Mound House Museum, situated atop an actual Calusa shell mound, offers more information on this ancient culture and the history of Fort Myers Beach.
The Museum of the Islands at Pine Island relates the rustic tale of hardy early settlers on Pine Island and Matlacha. Pine Island is also home to the Randell Research Center, part of the Gainesville-based Florida Museum of Natural History. It is dedicated to learning and teaching the history, archaeology and ecology of Southwest Florida. The Calusa Heritage Trail is an interpretive walkway through the mounds and canals on the Randell Research Center site.
The Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium is a long-time landmark of learning in Fort Myers.
There is something special for children at the IMAG - History & Science Center (formerly the Imaginarium) in Fort Myers, where children are welcome to share hands-on experiences with marine life, physics (toys and games), electricity, reading, puppetry and more.
Though it is not a museum per se, the Old Lee County Courthouse, circa 1915, is a historic neoclassical architectural treasure inside and out. Self-guided tours are available.
The Barbara Sumwalt Museum on Useppa Island in Pine Island Sound offers a historic surprise at every turn, including the fascinating role Useppa played during the Bay of Pigs.
In Collier County, the 1920s’ Naples Depot Museum is a history multitasker. It houses a branch of the Collier County Museum network, as well as a working museum of Lionel trains. A train big enough to carry grandparents and kids chugs along tracks looping the depot grounds.
The county museums’ other venues are in East Naples at the county government complex; Immokalee at Roberts Ranch; Marco Island, where the star attraction is the Key Marco Cat, a statue fashioned by Calusa Indians; and Everglades City, based in an original laundry.
The Baker Museum houses priceless art from around the world on the campus of Artis-Naples, newly reopened after extensive repairs and upgrades after Hurricane Irma in 2017.
The Holocaust Museum of Southwest Florida hosts an astonishingly large and high-quality collection that includes a refurbished boxcar—a chilling reminder of the need to never forget.
The Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples, with the catchy acronym C’MON, invites children, who must be accompanied by adults, to dive into hands-on play and learning, which can include as much or as little exercise as they wish.
The Naples Nature Center lives up to its name at the campus of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which includes live animal displays and a wildlife hospital. Next door, the Naples Zoo features a museum-like tribute to the original botanical gardens that started experiments there in the 1890s.
Similarly, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve features a hands-on museum showcasing Southwest Florida flora and fauna against a backdrop of spectacular wildlife art.
East of Naples in Ochopee, there is a mini museum celebrating the skunk ape, an elusive swamp creature that two brothers who run a campground there swear is real. Nearby Chokoloskee has the well-preserved Smallwood’s Store, a frontier waterfront trading post built in 1917 and raised on stilts in 1924.
A museum with deep historic roots occupies a storefront in downtown Naples. Sponsored by John R. Wood Properties, the Real Estate History Museum traces changes and progress throughout the area.
Palm Cottage, a block east of the Naples Pier, invites the public to tour displays housed in a display itself—one of the city’s first houses.
Revs Institute, formerly known as the Collier Car Museum, curates a world-class collection in an industrial park near Naples Airport. It links its vast collection to moments in history, a sort of auto archaeology. The museum, launched by a Collier family member and connected to Stanford University, requires reservations.
The Naples Museum of Military History showcases items donated by veterans and their families. It is located in Naples Airport’s main terminal.
Melinda Horton, executive director of the Florida Museum Association, with 400 members, says Southwest Florida is fortunate to have so many quality showcases, but it is not alone in its devotion to museums. Other parts of the state are equally blessed with private donors who have a passion for history.
Horton notes that the public often regards museums as products of state or local government, but that is not always the case. Private funds and residents’ enthusiasm for local history often lead to the establishment of wonderful museums.
She also believes that venues such as gardens and zoos deserve to share the mantle of museums as places where time-honored collections are on full display, eager to educate.
Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host from the Naples Daily News. He lives in Bonita Springs. Have we left out any of your favorite museums? If so, email the writer at [email protected].
IF YOU GO
Editor’s note: Contact each site for hours, health protocols and admission prices. Enjoy.
1495 Smith Preserve Way, Naples
190 East First Street, Boca Grande
3200 Corkscrew Road, Estero
27300 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs
8700 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach
27451 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs
880 Belcher Road, Boca Grande
13810 Waterfront Drive, Bokeelia
2031 Jackson Street, Fort Myers