Longtime resident Lotte Gabaccia reminisces about her six decades of island living
At age 20 and acting on youthful impulse, Lotte Gabaccia made a fateful decision. “On a lark, I joined a girlfriend who wanted to go to America,” she said. Finding jobs as domestic workers for a German family residing in the States, they left Switzerland, where they both lived, and boarded an ocean liner heading out into the Atlantic Ocean.
The year was 1959. At the time, Lotte hardly understood that her impulsive leap to the New World would forever change her life. “I did know I was in for an adventure,” she admitted.
After weeks on the open sea, Lotte and her friend landed in New York City. The night they arrived, they took off with their new employer to Florida—final destination Captiva.
Lotte remembers vividly her first glimpse of the islands. “We took the ferry, of course,” she said. “When we reached Sanibel, we saw virtually nothing between the ferry landing and the Gulf Station—just vacant land.”
The long drive along San-Cap Road to Captiva was, similarly, “barren and desolate, until we reached some cottages at Blind Pass,” she recalled. “It was isolated and spooky. I thought, ‘Oh my God, we are going to the end of the world.’”
Born Lotte Eschbaum in Bad Tölz, Germany, the longtime islander remembers her wanderlust surfacing early in life. “Even as a child, I wanted to see the world,” Lotte said. “When the opportunity came, I grabbed on with both hands, and I have no regrets.”
Lotte began her domestic duties immediately. “My friend and I took care of the household and the family’s two basset hounds,” she recalled. “We met some fascinating people. One of our neighbors was a concert pianist. Another was Harold Bixby, who helped to finance Charles Lindbergh’s (famous transatlantic) flight.” She remained with her employer until 1975.
Lotte met her future husband, Remo (aka Rip), in New York, where her employer periodically resided. “Rip relocated to Sanibel to be with me,” she said. “He opened a business as a plumbing contractor; he never lacked for work.”
Lotte and Rip designed and constructed their home in 1974, just before the city’s incorporation. “We hired no contractors. We built it from the ground up, on weekends, with the help of our friends,” she said.
Their lovely ranch-style home sits on a generous plot of land in a secluded neighborhood just off San-Cap Road. “Ours was the first house in the neighborhood,” she said. Their neighbors at the time all hailed from the animal kingdom— alligators, raccoons, birds, lizards and snakes. “We were accustomed to seeing huge alligators walk across San-Cap Road,” she added.
The Gabaccias even shared their porch with an enormous blue indigo snake. “It was at least 6 feet long and very thick,” she remembered. “That snake was beautiful, especially when the sun glinted on it.”
The snake kept its home on Lotte’s porch for several years. “Then suddenly it disappeared,” she said. “I don’t see wildlife as much anymore,” she added wistfully. “Sanibel has changed since those early days.”
After their house was finished, Lotte and Rip acquired 45 coconuts, which they planted all around their yard. The result was 45 palms. Many still dot the lawn. Lotte continues to enjoy yard work, “but the swamp bunnies eat all my flowers,” she said.
The ’70s were landmark years for Lotte. In addition to building a home, she became an American citizen in 1976, and in 1978, she and Rip married, making their union official. They raised a daughter and lived an idyllic island life together for 19 years, until Rip passed, in 1997.
Lotte has been on the island long enough to remember Hurricane Donna in 1960, Charley in 2004, and of course, Irma, last year. “Donna didn’t do a lot of damage, because the islands were still undeveloped,” she pointed out.
Charley was another story. “It was pretty bad,” she said. “My yard looked horrible. The house was fine, but clearing the debris took many days, and I was without power for weeks.”
Some 59 years have passed since Lotte first set foot on the is-
lands. Many locals know her now as the longest-serving member of the retail staff at The Peach Republic, a specialty clothing boutique in Periwinkle Place. She began working there in 1988.
At first she was reluctant to take the job. “I was friends with the shop’s original owners, Jim and Mary Herman, but when they asked for help, I turned them down,” she said. “I told them, ‘If you want someone to push clothes, you have the wrong person. I don’t like being pushed, so I won’t do it to your customers.’”
The Hermans finally persuaded Lotte, and she has remained with the shop ever since. Now she works three full days each week. “I very much enjoy my job. It’s like working in a beautiful park, with gorgeous trees.”
Many of the shop’s clients are snowbirds, who return to The Peach Republic year after year to expand their wardrobes. One such customer, Carol Manker, has shopped regularly at the boutique for 18 years, so she knows Lotte well. “Lotte is warm and friendly, and she really helps me, because she gives honest opinions,” Carol said. “I rely on her judgment.”
The Peach Republic’s owner, Sue Bobak, describes Lotte as being totally German! “I can say that, because I am German, too,” she says with a grin. “Like me, she is punctual, precise, meticulous—and opinionated! When Lotte is here, clothing is stacked perfectly, and the jewelry case is clean. Everything in the store is neat and in place.”
At age 78, Lotte is a trim 5 feet 2 inches tall and in perfect health. She takes no pharmaceuticals. “Just vitamins, and I am not sure if they help,” she said. As for the key to her longevity, she claims no special secret. “I just eat properly, and I don’t get upset about things,” she said. “Why worry!”
“When we reached Sanibel [in 1959], we saw virtually nothing between the ferry landing and the Gulf Station—just vacant land.” —Lotte Gabaccia
Longtime Sanibel resident Lotte Gabaccia shows off her wild coffee plant. Opposite page, clockwise: Lotte at her island home; with Sue Bobak, owner of The Peach Republic boutique where Lotte works; with customer Carol Manker.