Mystery of Palmetto Island: Our Backyard on the Water is Full of History and Surprises
More than 10 years ago, I had the pleasure of guiding 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 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 fisherman 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 Roberts Rinehart 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 ever since. 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!
Written by Capt. Brian Holaway, 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.