Mys­ter­ies of Pal­metto Is­land

Our back­yard on the wa­ter is full of his­tory and sur­prises

Times of the Islands - - Departments - Capt. Brian Ho­l­away is a Flor­ida mas­ter nat­u­ral­ist and has been a South­west Flor­ida shelling and eco-tour guide since 1995. His char­ters visit the is­lands of Pine Is­land Sound, in­clud­ing Cayo Costa State Park, Cab­bage Key, Pine Is­land and North Cap­tiva.

More than 10 years ago, I had the plea­sure of be­ing a guide on a char­ter boat with the board of di­rec­tors of Sarasota-based Mote Marine Laboratory. We left Cap­tiva to go to a nearby is­land in Pine Is­land Sound, where a Mote Marine field sta­tion was lo­cated. On the re­turn trip, a woman asked—with a sparkle in her eye—“Where is Pal­metto Is­land?”

The group fell silent and her ques­tion made me smile. No one seemed to know where the is­land that she called Pal­metto was lo­cated. Af­ter no one re­sponded, I an­swered, “It is about 7 miles to north of our cur­rent lo­ca­tion.”

The is­land in ques­tion was first known and in­hab­ited by the Calusa. There is ev­i­dence of their pres­ence on it from 100 B.C. to A.D. 1570. Many is­lands in the area were sea­sonal camps for the Span­ish and Cuban fishermen, and it is likely they were also on Pal­metto Is­land.

In 1899, Pal­metto Is­land was owned by a gen­tle­man named Otto Stell­rich for six years—un­til he was delin­quent on his $2 an­nual taxes. Then came a va­ri­ety of squat­ters, who made moon­shine on the is­land.

In June of 1936, Pal­metto Is­land was pur­chased for $14,500 by Alan Rine­hart and his wife, Gra­tia Houghton Rine­hart. Alan’s mother, Mary Roberts Rine­hart, was a best-sell­ing author who is said to have coined the phrase, “The but­ler did it!” She was also a war cor­re­spon­dent for The Satur­day Evening Post and in 1947, spoke about breast can­cer by en­cour­ag­ing women to get breast ex­am­i­na­tions.

The Rine­harts were gra­cious enough to al­low one of the cot­tages on the is­land to be used as a re­search fa­cil­ity for the study of tar­pon. Mary also pur­chased a boat for re­search use. The tar­pon re­search pro­gram was headed by ichthy­ol­o­gist Dr. Charles M. Breder Jr., who worked for the Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory in Man­hat­tan as di­rec­tor and cu­ra­tor of fishes and aquatic bi­ol­ogy. Breder would go on to write the well-known Field Book of

Marine Fishes of the At­lantic Coast, along with more than 160 pa­pers and books. From 1955 to 1965, he was the founder and di­rec­tor of Cape Haze Marine Laboratory, which was later re­named Mote Marine Laboratory.

The is­land changed hands in 1944, when Larry and Jan Stultz pur­chased it. Through 1969, the Stultzes rented out its cot­tages and ran a restau­rant that was open to the public. That year, the is­land was bought by Jimmy Turner, who owned other South­west Flor­ida is­lands, and its op­er­a­tions were man­aged by Bob and JoAnn Beck.

Since 1976, Rob and Phyl­lis Wells have owned and run the his­toric is­land’s op­er­a­tions. And by now you may have fig­ured out that to­day the is­land is known around the world as Cab­bage Key!

To bring things full cir­cle, Pal­metto Is­land’s name was changed to Cab­bage Key in 1944 by the Stultz fam­ily. The woman on the boat who asked, “Where is Pal­metto Is­land?” was none other than world-renowned ichthy­ol­o­gist Dr. Eu­ge­nie Clark, nick­named the “Shark Lady.”

Clark, who passed away in 2015, was fa­mous for her shark re­search and for pro­mot­ing marine con­ser­va­tion. And her men­tor was Breder, who be­gan his stud­ies long ago on what was then called Pal­metto Is­land. Turns out that life in our own back­yard on the wa­ter is full of his­tory and sur­prises ev­ery day!

From left: The Doll­house Cot­tage is one of the choices of ac­com­mo­da­tions on Cab­bage K ey; guests can take skiffs from the is­land’s boathouse and ex­plore the nearby wa­ters.


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