Estero Island’s connection to the past
As shells crunch crisply beneath their designer sneakers, a group of visitors walk and listen intently to docents Bill and Susan Grace as they weave spellbinding tales about the plants, architecture and archaeology of Mound House. Estero Island’s oldest standing structure, this cultural site that rests on an ancient Calusa Indian mound has become a treasured and well- preserved link to the past.
In 1906 William and Milia Case built the quaint Tudor- style wood structure, starting with just a kitchen and dining room. At the time they were residing on a houseboat and needed a place to cook. Three years later, they added a living room, brick fireplace and a second- story sleeping loft. In 1921, rum runner and casino owner Capt. Jack DeLysle engrafted an entire second story and built an oversize tiled bathroom considered outrageous at the time. He expanded the upstairs bedrooms and wrapped the north and east sides of the upper level with a porch to take full advantage of the bird’s- eye view of Mantanzas Pass. The scope of DeLysle’s renovations is intriguing given that he never actually owned the property.
For more than 1,100 years, Calusa Indians made their home on this section of Estero Island, building an elevated mound out of oyster shells as a place of honor for their chiefs, nobles, military leaders and high priests. In the 1700s, Cuban fisher folk established ranchos on the site, drying and salting drum, pompano, sea trout and turtle for export to Spain. Safe from high tides and storm surge, the mound’s elevation is undoubtedly what first attracted the Cases and induced them to make the location their permanent home.
“Mound House has had this tremendous draw and served as an epicenter during all these different time periods,” notes archaeologist Theresa Schober, who served as Mound House’s initial executive director. “So [ following its acquisition in 2000 by the town of Fort Myers Beach] we looked at the various communities of people who would have an interest in the site and made a
concerted effort to tell Mound House’s story through multiple media.”
Schober and her design team settled on four interlocking disciplines. First was ethno- botanical landscaping. David Sacks, described by Schober as the most phenomenal landscape architect on the planet, and a team of research interns chose 120 species to provide visitors with a walk through time expressed in plantings. “When you go to a typical botanical garden, all you get is the species name and something about the plant’s philological origin,” Schober explains. At Mound House, docents also tell visitors how the plants were used in the past. The Calusa, for example, made needles and thread from the spiny margin and heavy spike of century plant leaves; they made mats and baskets from cabbage palms and traps for songbirds from the sticky sap of gumbo limbo trees.
Second, the Shell Mound Exhibit was created. When removing the house’s swimming pool, which the last owners of the Mound House, William and Florence
Long, built in 1958, a swatch of ancient Calusa shell mound, 65 feet long and 7 feet deep, was exposed. Rather than presenting unexplained strata of oyster shells and earth, the exhibit treats visitors to an audio- visual experience that includes a light- synchronized 12- minute video. The exhibit also features a mural. Artists studied the memoirs written by Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, who lived in captivity among the Calusa for 18 years after being shipwrecked at the age
of 13. The information they gleaned from his memoirs— what the Calusa wore, how they built their structures, how and what they cooked, and how their society was
constructed— is depicted in the mural. Thirdly the team focused on historic preservation. With funds from the Florida Division of Historical Resources, the residence and garage are being restored back to their 1921 configuration and grandeur. When completed in the fall of 2014, the residence will house museum-
FOR MORE THAN 1,100 YEARS, CALUSA INDIANS MADE THEIR HOME ON THIS SECTION OF ESTERO ISLAND, BUILDING AN ELEVATED MOUND OUT OF OYSTER SHELLS
AS A PLACE OF HONOR FOR THEIR CHIEFS, NOBLES, MILITARY LEADERS AND HIGH PRIESTS. Mound House overlooks Mantanzas Pass, where visitors meet at picnic tables for
a one- hour tour of the historic site.
Docent Susan Grace tells stories about life on the mound as she escorts guests through the Subterranean Shell Mound Exhibit. Below: Landscaping plants were carefully selected to match the history of Mound House.
Back in the days before air conditioning, the second- story porch allowed inhabitants of the Mound House to enjoy cooling breezes off the water.
From left: Mound House supporters, Judith Cassidy and Peg Egan, with archaeologist and co- curator Theresa Schober at the recent ArtCalusa Exhibit.