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100 Years on the Islands - Historic family to observe centennial; then and now

May 19, 2017 01:28AM ● Published by Kevin

Thankfully, there's Eugene Gavin and his stories on life on the Islands. Photo by Daniele E. Jaeger.

Velma Gavin and Eugene Gavin will host a family reunion on Sanibel in August. Family photos were shared with islanders during Black History Month in February. Photo by Daniela E. Jaeger.

Leaving or entering the modern islands, it’s hard to imagine that Sanibel and Captiva were once nearly as remote as the moon. Live or work here long enough, you hear stories about crusty characters, clouds of insects, and hurricanes blowing through—but see few clues of those dusty times.

Thankfully, there’s Eugene Gavin and his stories of life on the islands before a new kind of paradise arrived. In fact, Gavin’s predecessors arrived on Captiva 100 years ago, moving here from north Florida when most locals farmed or worked at the handful of resorts on the islands in 1917. Gavin family and immediate relations will gather in August to recognize the anniversary, to begin a second century on the islands, explains Eugene Gavin, who is 75. “It was a hard, tough life,” he says of his childhood on Captiva and later on Sanibel. “But as kids, we kind of did what we wanted. Who was going to bother you?”

Eugene Gavin’s parents, Edmund and Elnora, were pioneers in Southwest Florida, first on Captiva, then Sanibel in the 1930s. Eugene Gavin is the fifth of their 21 children—18 surviving infancy, 15 of those alive today. Most will make the Sanibel reunion, he adds.

Actually, two African-American families arrived on the islands in the early 1900s―Gavins and Walkers. The families would produce Edmund Gavin and Elnora Walker, Eugene Gavin’s parents. Eugene Gavin recalls that his father at one point worked at the Island Inn resort, later working as a handyman. Eugene Gavin has said that his father was tough on discipline but was a loving man. Edmund Gavin was honored in the 1980s by Sanibel, selected as grand marshal in a parade celebrating the city’s 10-year anniversary.

Although lacking conveniences, Eugene Gavin says life on Sanibel was much simpler. It was a reflection of rural America—raising livestock, fruit and vegetables, palms and pine to cook and to build; selling beach shells to supplement incomes; purchasing from mail catalogues—mostly relying on themselves for survival. His father, he adds, “was up at daybreak, ready to go to work,” the many little Gavins following after their leader.

Gavin-Walker families arrived in Southwest Florida starting in 1917. Photo courtesy of Eugene Gavin.

Most of us can’t imagine life without chilled air or bug juice. But the pioneers were clever and inventive, Eugene Gavin recalls. To control insects, for example, Edmund Gavin would run a lawnmower and pour fuel on the hot manifold, the acrid smoke dispersing bugs. His father also improvised a belt saw using a car’s drive train, other gadgets to lessen the workload and to feed a small army of kids.

Eugene Gavin after high school enlisted with the Air Force and traveled much of the world. His son, Irving, was born in Germany but spent some of his youth on Sanibel with his grandparents, mostly in landscaping work. “I hated [landscaping] with a passion,” says Irving Gavin, today an owner of Rosie’s Cafe & Grill on Sanibel. Instead, he says, at every opportunity he’d grab his grandfather’s fishing gear, head over to the Sanibel Slough and enjoy the stillness. “Life is always simpler when you’re 12 and someone is watching after you,” Irving Gavin says, smiling at the memory. 

Eugene Gavin and his wife, Velma, are attending Sunday services at the Sanibel Community Church, a fittingly historic place also into its second century. Eugene Gavin mentions that the church first invited African-Americans in the early 1960s, when black children went to the Sanibel Colored School on Tarpon Bay Road. He quickly notes that race relations were much gentler on Sanibel than in Fort Myers, perhaps because of the enduring and common struggle of storms, drought and bugs, he says.

But those distant thoughts vanish as parishioners suddenly line up to visit the Gavins, a sort of “first family” greeting as 100 years in any such situation would affirm. Eugene Gavin is wearing a black cowboy hat, a dark suit and an easy smile; his wife is wearing an elegant dress. The parishioners congratulate the couple on an exhibit shown around Sanibel for Black History Month, featuring Gavin-Walker photos from those early days.

One man with Eugene Gavin remarks that he is Sanibel royalty, a compliment Eugene acknowledges with a modest nod in the warm morning sun.

Photo by Craig Garrett.

Written by Craig Garrett, Group Editor-in-Chief for TOTI Media.

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