Look­ing Back

Long­time res­i­dent Lotte Gabac­cia rem­i­nisces about her six decades of is­land living

Times of the Islands - - Contents - BY JAN HOLLY

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.

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