Take a His­tory Walk in Bonita

Pre­serv­ing the past and beau­ti­fy­ing with art

RSWLiving - - Contents - BY HOLLY MOR­RIS

It’s all about trans­porta­tion,” de­clares Char­lie Strader of the Bonita Springs His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety (BSHS) at the start of one of its “Places of Won­der­ment” His­tory Walks in down­town Bonita. The BSHS web­site ex­plains that the group “has part­nered with Calusa Ghost Tours to pro­vide a series of ed­u­ca­tional and en­ter­tain­ing his­tory walks … There are sev­eral dif­fer­ent walk itin­er­ar­ies, each fo­cus­ing on a par­tic­u­lar area and with dif­fer­ent ac­tiv­i­ties.”

The de­vel­op­ment of most civ­i­liza­tions be­gan with how peo­ple got there. Bonita is no ex­cep­tion.

It all be­gan with the Im­pe­rial River. Then cat­tle trails, then roads, then rail­roads and then the com­ple­tion of the Tami­ami Trail in 1928. It was a per­fect stop­ping point on the long trek to Mi­ami—a place where cu­rios­ity seek­ers could stop and visit one of the many tourist at­trac­tions such as The Dome, Ever­glades Won­der Gar­dens or the orig­i­nal Shell Fac­tory. Peo­ple came from miles around to stay and go camp­ing, fish­ing and ex­plor­ing.

But if trans­porta­tion is what brought peo­ple to Bonita ini­tially, it’s also what drove peo­ple away. By 1976, the Tami­ami Trail had be­come so heav­ily trav­eled be­tween Naples and Fort My­ers that it had to be widened. The new U.S. High­way 41 was de­signed to by­pass Bonita’s lit­tle down­town area. While the road project was dev­as­tat­ing to many busi­nesses at the time, it also pro­duced the un­in­tended ben­e­fit of pre­serv­ing the his­tory and “small town feel” of Bonita.

BSHS tours en­able vis­i­tors and res­i­dents to ex­pe­ri­ence the city from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. In ad­di­tion to “Places of Won­der­ment” and “Ghost Walk From the Past,” his­tory walk themes in­clude “Down­town Land­marks,” “How Bonita Got Its Name,” “Cruisin’ Down the River” and “Land of the Calusa.”


His­tory is ex­pected on a his­tory walk, but the bonus on BSHS tours is the art. Be­hind Liles Ho­tel His­tory Cen­ter is a row of small bun­ga­lows that were once fish­ing and camp­ing cab­ins. They’re now called the “Artist Cot­tages” be­cause artists have set up stu­dios and pro­duce pot­tery, paint­ings, jew­elry, shell art, wood­crafts and more. Vis­i­tors stroll from cot­tage to cot­tage to watch artists at work, make pur­chases and regis­ter for lessons.

John Paeno, who part­ners with BSHS in plan­ning and op­er­at­ing the walk­ing tours, has his own cot­tage. He proudly dis­plays Calusa ar­ti­facts and repli­cas, in­clud­ing house­hold items such as mats and bowls as well as tools and weaponry—all made from cab­bage palms.

Var­i­ous sculp­tures can be found around River­side Park and De­pot Park, in­clud­ing ones ti­tled Lords of the For­est, Away 12

Foot and Slices of Heaven. Take a walk­ing tour and see if you can spot at least six sculp­tures, and other me­mo­ri­als.

Per­haps the largest pieces of art in plain sight are the mu­rals. You can see them from Old 41, but don’t just do a drive-by. They’re worth stop­ping for. Walk­ing tours of­fer the chance to linger and ad­mire, and each mu­ral tells a story. From the col­or­ful de­pic­tion of the nat­u­ral beauty of Bonita to the six-panel pic­to­rial his­tory painted promi­nently on the sides of lo­cal busi­nesses, the mu­rals are a clear source of pride. At least five ex­ist now and the city isn’t stop­ping there.

When asked why the city com­mis­sions all the art, Paeno an­swers: “For beauty of course! Bonita Springs is com­mit­ted to parks, beau­ti­fi­ca­tion and the arts.”


Along the walk­ing tour are sev­eral his­toric build­ings in var­i­ous stages of preser­va­tion. BSHS has ac­quired the McSwain Home, built in 1915, and the 1930 Cas­ner Home, now a liv­ing his­tory mu­seum. Strader’s vi­sion is to cre­ate a vil­lage where artis­tic at­trac­tions and his­tor­i­cally

pre­served build­ings are clus­tered in one area.

Some sug­gest that be­cause Bonita is so walk­a­ble, that’s the case any­way. But de­vel­op­ment is al­ways threat­en­ing to en­croach, so Strader ded­i­cates him­self to the cause. “It’s the per­fect mar­riage of art and his­tory,” he claims.

Bonita con­tin­ues to grow and change. In­vest­ment in a his­toric down­town, how­ever, sends the clear sig­nal of com­mit­ment to pre­serv­ing his­tory and beau­ti­fy­ing with art at the same time. Take a walk in Bonita Springs and dis­cover it for your­self.

Holly Mor­ris is a travel writer and copy­writer who’s lived, worked and played in South­west Florida her en­tire life. She loves shar­ing her ex­pe­ri­ences of the area through TOTI Me­dia.

From top to bot­tom: Two of Jar­rett St­inch­comb’s mu­ral pan­els de­pict the im­por­tance of the Im­pe­rial River and the rail­road and sawmills to the area; Bo - nita Springs El­e­men­tary School is on the Na­tional Regis­ter of His­toric Places; the McSwain Home’s orig­i­nal pine floor­ing has been well preser ved.

Walks be­gin and end at Liles Ho­tel His­tor y Cen­ter. The "Artist Cot­tages" used to be fish­ing and camp­ing cab­ins. Lords of the For­est graces River­side Park. A col­or­ful mu­ral dec­o­rates Ben­son's Gro­cer y.

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